Eating from the Same Pot: Rural Public Canteens during China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961)

Jing Zhai, University of Texas at Austin

The Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961), which killed tens of millions of peasants, was one of the worst famines in human history. The mandatory public canteen system has been cited as an immediate cause of the massive death toll and suffering. Former scholarships have conceptualized public canteens mostly as political and economic institutions and have disagreed about the exact death toll caused by their mismanagement. These studies, while contributing greatly to the evaluation of the losses and failures of the GLF, overlook the contingencies and variety of experiences of each commune and undervalues the long-lasting influence of public canteens after the GLF. To redress this gap, my research delves into the scientific, psychological and cultural aspects of food distribution, eating habits, and peasant experiences in public canteens. I maintain that, in addition to the disastrous great famine, public canteens transformed rural society and the peasant mentality by introducing a new culinary culture, transforming family and social relations, promoting modernization, and reinforcing a communist future. The short-term abundant era in each commune introduced innovative cuisines from other regions, which changed local eating habits. Transforming cooking from a household chore to a social obligation instilled basic nutritional knowledge and habits of hygiene in peasants. The individual-based food ratio favored conjugal families, becoming the final blow to large extended families. Food distribution generated a new political culture, reinforcing the authority of rural cadres and the recently built class structure. Centering on what to eat, where to eat, and how to eat, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and peasants negotiated work ethics, living strategies, and starvation expression. Ultimately, eating in the public canteen trained peasants to align their daily meals with the governance of the CCP, forming a recurrent politicalized discourse, which still functions at the dinner table of each household in today’s China.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 227. Asian Enviromental History