Double happiness rice bowls in the Chinese diaspora


What can a fragment of a rice bowl tell us about constructions of gender and family in the Chinese diaspora? Barbara L. Voss, professor of anthropology at Stanford, poses this question in the second chapter of their forthcoming book The Cosmopolitan Village, which Voss describes as an “archaeological exploration of the materiality of home villages, in China, of 19th century Chinese migrants who went overseas.” Voss presented their work to a recent meeting of the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows.

The research behind this book is a four-year archaeological project, the Cangdong Village Project, conducted by Voss and their research team in Cangdong, China, from 2015 to 2019. Voss’ book takes as its focus a handful of artifacts found at the Cangdong Village archaeological site, and the book’s second chapter focuses on the omnipresent double happiness rice bowl sherds – which were so ubiquitous at the site that, for many of the researchers involved, they became a symbol of the project itself. 

Over the course of the 19th century, an increasing number of men and boys left the Pearl River Delta, where Cangdong Village is located, to pursue economic opportunities overseas that would allow them to send money home. Meanwhile, women, young children, and the elderly typically remained in the Pearl River Delta, leading to what have been termed “split households.” Voss is interested in the differences in the archaeological record between diasporic and home village archaeological sites.

Double happiness rice bowls are small rice bowls decorated with a double happiness character, which denotes love, romantic fulfillment, and marriage. ...The bamboo pattern, which is also heavily symbolic, denotes conventionally “masculine” virtues like perseverance, strength, and integrity.

Fascinatingly, as Voss explains: “abrupt shifts in material culture like this are quite rare, and near total replacements of one object by another in such a short period of time are almost unheard of. When they do occur, it usually signals a macro level phenomenon outside of the scope of individual choice or agency.” Thus, the question: did Chinese import/export firms make the decision to stop exporting double happiness bowls to the predominantly male diaspora communities, because the double happiness motif was seen as unsuitable decoration for items intended for use by single men living and working with other single men? There were certainly multiple factors at play, but the sherds found in Cangdong Village offer a fascinating glimpse of how ideas of gender and family came to be constructed differently in diaspora communities as opposed to Chinese home villages over the course of the 19th century.