Feeding on Fancies During China’s Great Famine

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Can recipe books be used as historical material for research? Can they reflect political and social situations? If you believe that recipe books can only teach you how to cook, you may be underestimating some important sources that reflect our history.

Numerous scholars have argued that recipe books can be regarded as a reflection of the history, culture, society and identity of a country or place. Research on recipe books for communal canteens is especially rare in the field of China’s history. Dr FAN Ka-wai, Associate Professor of CityU’s Department of Chinese and History, has conducted research to discuss three recipe books created for communal canteens published in 1959. He used recipe books as the historical material, supplemented with government documents, booklets published by local authorities, newspapers and memoirs, among others, to reveal the diet of the Chinese people during the Great Famine, thus broadening our understanding of the Chinese Communist Party leaders’ thoughts and how they exercised control in the countryside.

In early 1958, China initiated the “Great Leap Forward” campaign. Although previous studies broadened our understanding of this campaign, there is still plenty of room for us to discover more valuable historical sources to provide a more comprehensive picture of this campaign and the ensuing famine. In 1958, the people’s communes were established as an administrative entity in rural China. One of the most important elements of the commune were the communal canteens, which were established to ensure that all the members within the commune obtained a fair share of economic growth while forbidding the preparation of food at home.

By the end of October 1958, over 2.65 million communal canteens were established across the country, and 70-90% of villagers ate in communal dining halls. Since free meals were provided every day, it was difficult for the canteens to design and cook many different dishes…

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