Archeology professor turns to vlogs to raise young people’s interest in history of food
Published: Nov 20, 2023 08:56 PM

Zhang Liangren on a field trip Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Liangren

Zhang Liangren on a field trip Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Liangren

The Chinese started eating lamb kebab about 2,000 years ago. The invention of instant noodle was a fluke by a calligrapher in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Deep-fried dough sticks have something to do with a treacherous chancellor from the Song Dynasty (960-1279)."

These are some of the inspiring remarks from a Chinese professor who endeavors to impart historical and archaeological knowledge to the public through food vlogs. 

His short videos have taken China's social media by storm as netizens applaud the professor's distinctive approach to sharing the seemingly mundane information in a transformative way that allows viewers to experience various cuisines as inroads into history. 

Zhang Liangren, a professor at the department of archaeology and cultural relics at the School of History in Nanjing University, told the Global Times that the motivation behind his food vlogs is to raise funds for his overseas archaeological projects while sharing culinary history knowledge with the public in the hopes of arousing young people's interests in archaeology.

"Giving a lecture about archaeology on social media is boring. But combing archaeology with cuisine makes it accessible to the public. I'm not only a professor who 'produces' knowledge. I have the obligation to share knowledge with the public and I can also learn from the public," said the 54-year-old professor. 

Global contribution

Zhang started shooting videos in July and began to combine food tasting with relevant history, transforming complex knowledge into interesting topics allowing  his informative vlogs to resonate with a large number of netizens.

He has since shared his video clips on China's major short video platforms including Douyin to his 470,000 followers.

From selecting restaurants and writing scripts, to shooting and editing, it takes about three days for Zhang and his team to produce an episode. Zhang has posted 48 episodes, covering a diverse range of foods mostly found in Nanjing, such as crispy duck, steamed buns stuffed with juicy pork, and boiled fish with Sichuan pickles. 

Zhang, whose expertise is prehistoric archeology in Northwest China and Eurasia, told the Global Times that posting the food vlogs helped him clear up public misconceptions about archaeologists and expressed his wish to bring China's advanced archaeological technology to the world. 

"Archaeologists are neither cultural relic appraisers nor tomb diggers. Excavating ancient burial grounds is only part of the job and the most important thing is to share scientific information with the public," noted Zhang who has worked on overseas archaeology projects in Iran and Russia.

"One of the projects I have been involved in, in Iran, for example, is to discover and study relics for evidence of cultural exchanges between Northwestern China and Central Asia, providing concrete proof about the history of the Silk Road," he said.  

China is at the forefront of archaeological research with a strong capacity in cross-discipline research. "We are happy to share our technology with foreign counterparts and contribute to archaeology at the international level," he said. 

Being involved in overseas archaeological projects is much like foreigners studying the Chinese culture and language. "We also need professionals to study the history of foreign countries and it is part of our mission to promote cultural exchanges with foreign counterparts," said Zhang who has considered adding overseas archaeological highlights to his vlogs. 

Not alone

Zhang, who has over 30 years of experience in archaeology, said his foray into food vlogging has made him a more interesting individual and he looks forward to extending his culinary exploration to other cities. 

"I was pedantic and not used to speaking in front of camera. But my family members were pleasantly surprised to see a humorous and talkative professor in my videos," he said.

In preparation for filming, the professor received training from a professional broadcaster about how to present himself and neutralize his accent. 

"The new adventure has made me more outgoing and energetic. I'm happy to see more students develop an interest in archaeology," he said.

Archaeology has enjoyed rapid development in recent years thanks to China's enhanced efforts in preservation of cultural relics. The number of colleges with archaeology majors has increased from 10 to 38 so far.

"Archaeology is highly compatible with other subjects like architecture and chemistry. We welcome students from other majors to pursue their studies in archaeology and enrich this subject," Zhang said. 

Zhang is not alone in making elusive knowledge accessible to the public. Su Dechao, another professor at the School of Philosophy in Wuhan University, also made the headlines with his soul-searching questions to students in class. 

Some of Su's questions include, "Would you swap the entirety of your seemingly ordinary life for 100 days of a spectacular life? On what does the happiness and joy of our lives depend? Why do we feel tired even though we haven't done anything? What is long-lasting happiness?"

Su has been using accessible language and vibrant metaphors since May 2022, to elucidate philosophy on life topics for netizens. His pragmatic approach to philosophy has attracted over 360,000 followers on his social media accounts with many netizens sharing their reflections on life with him.