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Food Stories from the Cultural Revolution


Kent Wang
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I was born well after the Cultural Revolution but my parents often tell me stories of their travails during that period, usually to demonstrate how privileged my generation is and that I should not take things for granted.

My mother lived in Shanghai with her father, mother, grandmother and four older siblings. Her father, my grandfather, was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution as he was the editor-in-chief of a university newspaper and was persecuted as an intellectual. Times were hard so at the tender age of thirteen, my mother started cooking for her whole family as her older siblings all had to work to make ends meet.

Meat was very expensive; they would only eat it once a week and during the holidays, and it was usually just a small slice of cured ham.

I suppose that was not quite a story, but here's a real story about my aunt:

My aunt, my mother's older sister, was sent to an agricultural commune in Yunnan, which borders Vietnam and has a tropical climate. One day, she and a group of her friends were wandering around the countryside and found a hole on the side of a hill. One of them poked a long stick into and hit something inside. He sat down next to the hole and continued to idly poke the stick into it.

A while later, to his surprise, a snake reared its head out of the hole. And this was no garden snake -- it was a boa! Remember that this in Yunnan where these jungle animals are quite common. The boa must have still been groggy after being awoken from its slumber, so they quickly smashed it on its head and killed it. When they pulled the boa out of its hole it was nine meters long!

They were so excited that they would finally be able to eat meat that they didn't immediately notice that another boa popped its head out from the snake hole. This must have been the other snake's mate and they quickly killed it, too. Each snake required five men to carry. There was much rejoicing when they brought the snakes back to the commune.

Please share your stories and experiences from the Cultural Revolution, whether you lived through it or have stories passed down from your parents.

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Thank Christ my family had all departed China before that insanity started. From my own perspective as a serious amateur historian, there are no stories , however touching, that can mitigate that shameful period of our history.

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Another example of man's inhumanity to man -- ageless and world-wide.

One of my language teachers (from Shanghai) was sent North in the relocation/reeducation program. She tended sheep and lived in a hut with others. They used to sleep with the dogs for warmth and you could see the frostbite spots on her cheeks from those terrible living conditions.

I use to look at little old ladies who had had their feet bound, or little old men who would play chess (when I first went to China in the early 80s) and wonder what they had experienced and seen in their lifetime. Now I look at those who went thru the Cultural Revolution and wonder the same thing.

When I hear or read these stories, the one food that always comes up is the sweet potato. I know it is considered a poverty food, but thank goodness its cultivation was wide-spread.

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I've been informed that those were not boas, but rather pythons.

My mother also mentioned sweet potatoes. She also said they never had fresh squid, only dried. They did have fresh cuttlefish though.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I've heard vague stories when I was young about that time. My mom was already living in Hong Kong for several years during that period but I remember my mom saying that she sent money and food supplies to my grandmother and uncle in Guangzhou to keep them from starving.

She said the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution were pretty grim. All they had to eat was sweet potatoes and a little rice. I also remember my mother cringing when one of my aunts made sweet potatoes and rice. Made her remember when she had to eat it or she would have starved.

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Do stories from our Chinese language teachers count?

Madam Shu, my first Chinese teacher, was persecuted for being an English teacher at Nanjing University and for being an intellecutal. She was sent, along with her infant daughter, to some godforsaken commune north of Harbin. She was forced to harvest potatoes, break up rocks, etc. Her hands are permanently damaged from the cold. She talked about having no food to eat some days, or only a very small bowl of rice. She said that one winter, it was very cold, and very little food, and she along with a few others she worked with stole a dog from a party official and killed it and ate it. Luckly for her, they were never found out. Things were very bad for her.

-Sounds awfully rich!

-It is! That's why I serve it with ice cream to cut the sweetness!

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Uhhh...sweet potatoes are almost the perfect food, full of vitamins, minerals sugars and other good stuff. There have been a few threads about sweet potatoes in this forum, including one started by myself about post revolutionary hardships and how the sweet potato even made my family healthier than our persecutors who had the luxury of having rice to eat. But your relatives, and my family, have villified the lowly sweet potato unjustly.

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It was many years after her escape to Hong Kong before my mother would eat sweet potatoe and taro. We were a family who was persecuted for being landowners. Our land, house, and anything of value were all confiscated except for a small plot half a day's walk away. On that plot, my mom grew as much sweet potatoes and taro as she possibly could.

The stalk and leaves were selectively culled as a green vegetable, leaving enough for tuber development. When the tubers were harvested, they were sliced, diced, dried, then stored in big crocks. A handful of these would stretch the decreasing rice supply. Because of the fibre and nutrition in these tubers, she said they held off hunger longer. I remember my grandfather saying that if she wasn't so diligent in cultivating and hoarding, the family, and some neighbors, would have starved.

Meat? If and when there was a little, the elders ate that. She said they ate a lot of ham ha. It was expensive, but at least you only needed a small amount each time.

She had two dogs. They disappeared during those hard times. Someone was hungrier than she was. :sad:

Dejah

www.hillmanweb.com

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Sounds like my parents had it easy compared to a lot of people, I think the big difference being that they were in a big city like Shanghai. They were never close to starvation and I believe ate more rice than sweet potatoes.

Then there are the ration coupons for everything from sugar, eggs, rice to oil. And everybody would trade certain coupons for other ones with their friends depending on their needs. I believe good workers would be rewarded with extra coupons from their (state) employers. I think there was also often a great deal of waiting in line to cash in your coupons, on the scale of hours.

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  • 2 months later...

The kombucha thread reminds that when my mother was in medical school, towards the end of the Cultural Revolution when they opened up the universities again, tea was rationed. So her and dorm-mates would collect together their sugar -- which was also rationed, though not as strictly -- and make kombucha. My mother had forgotten all about it until I took her to a farmers market in Austin and saw that Americans were now drinking it as a health supplement. She thought it amusing that people in a land of plenty would resort to drinking kombucha.

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My mother had forgotten all about it until I took her to a farmers market in Austin and saw that Americans were now drinking it as a health supplement. She thought it amusing that people in a land of plenty would resort to drinking kombucha.

It is, however, often the case that traditional foods and drinks of the poorer throughout history were often more nutritious than those enjoyed by the rich. Organ meats, for instance, as opposed to "finer" cuts; whole grains vs. processed, refined white flour; "small beers" like kvass, full of nutrients and lacto-fermented vs. alcoholic beers.

And look what happens to modern societies that become more affluent: their economic rise usually features an accompanying spike in obesity, diabetes, etc.

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