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Hunger still lingers in memory as more Chinese get their fill
By Yu Fei , Cai Min (China Features)
2009/09/29

In the hands of chef Bai Changji, tofu (soybean curd) alone can be turned out to be a banquet of more than 200 kinds of cuisine. Even the bean dregs after making tofu will be cooked into dishes.

“Fried bean dregs are yummy and healthy full of dietary fibers. Why should we throw it away?” said the 53-year-old chef, famous for his tofu banquet in Beijing.

In a Chinese kitchen, everything from a plant’s root, stem, leaf, flower to fruit and seeds, as well as almost any part from farm animals can be materials for dishes. The fascinating sometimes astonishing creation of Chinese chefs and housewives reflects in another way a long history lack of food in this most populous country in the world.

Chinese seem to have a fantasy with food as it is seen in a common Chinese saying, which goes like this : people regard food as there prime want. But as a matter of fact, Chinese people had suffered from poverty and hunger for more than 100 years in its modern history. And the famine from 1959 to 1961 left indelible impression on Chinese people who are now in their 50s or over.

“Many people were starved to death in our village during the three years,” said Yan Hongchang, 61, a farmer from Xiaogang Village, Fengyang County, east China’s Anhui Province.

“With no enough food to eat, everyone in my family had to go out to dig for wild vegetables,’’ he recalled. Yan’s mother would make wild vegetable porridge for the whole family. The distribution order would always be his grandparents first, then the kids, and then the father who had to do the labor in the farmland.

“When it was my mother’s turn, nothing was left in the pot. Many women in my village died of hunger in the three years,” he said. To avoid the tragedy, Yan left home for begging, exchanging a small bowl of porridge with all his dignity.

“That’s a torment that I don’t know how to describe,” Yan said.

Things were no much better in the cities. To meet the basic living requirement, governments at various level began to issue food coupons for rationing since 1955.

For Chinese writer Ma Bo who was a teenager in Beijing at that time, how to divide one jin (500 grams or 1.1 pounds) of daily ration into three meals was a big issue that he and his classmates always discussed with great concern.

“I first tried two liangs (100 grams) for breakfast, four liangs for both lunch and dinner. Then I tried divisions of 4-3-3, 1-5-4, 3-3-4, 0-5-5 and so on. After repeated comparison, I found the 3-4-3 division was the best way to make me not feel too hungry.”

“I was told liquid food would make me feel full more easily. So I tried three liangs (150 grams) of porridge for breakfast,’’ said the writer,. “Yes, I felt full at the beginning. But after several pisses, hunger returned to me without hesitation.”

.Bai Changji, a TV cooking skill contest winner for six consecutive weeks, should have quite a few cooking tips to share as a successful cook except the one his mother once practiced.

“My mom would always steam the rice first, and then add more water so that the rice would appear more when it was eventually ready to be served,’’ recalled Bai,. “It’s just a trick to comfort our stomachs in those hungry days.”

A large number of literary works were created in 1980’s featuring the years of hunger. Zhang Xianliang is one of the representative writers.

“The descriptions about hunger in my novels were my real feelings, ” said Zhang, a writer of hunger in the eyes of his readers, Zhang who was labeled as a “rightist” and put into jail for several times from 1958 to 1979.

“Every cell of my body was dying for food in the hungry days. I lived like an animal. What I wanted was the lowest demand of a human being,” said Zhang, who is now running a movie studio in northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and one of the richest among Chinese writers.

“The famine was a great tragedy for China. I’m a survivor of the tragedy,” Zhang said.

“There’s no official casualty figure of the famine nationwide, therefore, causing many non-official guesses. But the history cannot be shunned,” Zhang said.

The three years are usually called “three years of natural disasters” or “three years of difficulties” in Chinese history.

“I think the term ‘three years of difficulties’ is more accurate because the famine was caused not only by natural factors, but human factors,” said Wang Kaiyu, a researcher with the Academy of Social Sciences of Anhui Province.

Chinese leaders made misjudgment about the economy and implemented the “Great Leap Forward” movement in 1958. Besides, the people’s commune system in villages weakened farmers’ incentive to grow grains, because everything in the commune was shared, and no matter how hard the farmers worked, they would get the same, said Wang.

The extreme hunger triggered reform in the rural areas.

Yan Hongchang and other villagers in Xiaogang Village secretly signed a contract in December 1978 to distribute the commune’s farmland to each household, which was illegally at that time. Yan didn’t expect their adventurous move driven by desire for eating fill later led to the household contract responsibility system in rural China.

Under the household responsibility system, land is contracted to individual households for a period of fifteen years. After fulfilling the procurement quota obligations, farmers are entitled to sell their surplus on the market or retain it for their own use. By linking rewards directly to effort, the contracting system enhanced incentives and promoted efficient production.

It did not take a long time when Yan and his fellow villagers were rewarded for their boldness the next year. In 1983, Yan harvested more than 10,000 kilograms of grain from two hectares of land, more than enough to feed his seven-member family.

It’s until 1980’s Chinese began to feel full in their stomach. The strict food coupon system was becoming looser, and phasing out by 1993.

When talking about this great change, one person can never be skipped.

A famine victim himself, agricultural scientist Yuan Longping decided to dedicate his life to the research of hybrid rice.

His efforts of more than a decade led to the first high-yielding hybrid rice variety in 1974, which. yielded 20 percent more per unit than other rice plants.

Today, Yuan’s hybrid rice species are planted in as many as half of China's rice fields, yielding 60 percent of the country’s total rice production.

In 2000, China granted State Preeminent Science and Technology Award, known as “China’s Nobel prize”, to Yuan Longping for his outstanding contribution to Chinese people’s fight against hunger.

When Yuan is making efforts to feed all Chinese, another group of scientists are struggling to treat the illnesses caused by eating too much. The long-time hunger has left a deep mark on Chinese, which is so deep that it reaches the gene level. Although Chinese people are no longer hungry since 1980’s, their bodies are still not ready for the change.

“A popular medical theory believes that a kind of ’thrifty gene’ is formed in the body of people living in poor regions. The gene can help human body accumulate calories when food is accessible, and help them survive in the famine, ” said Xiang Hongding, director of the Diabetes Center of the Peking Union Medical College Hospital. “Most residents in poor areas have this ‘thrifty gene’ in their bodies.”

“More than one century’s poverty before the reform and opening-up in China was long enough to get the ‘thrifty gene’ formed in Chinese people’s body. The gene was a good thing during the days of pinch but can turn out to be a bad thing when people are no longer worried about food,” Xiang said.

China has witnessed a sharp increase of obesity and diabetes patients since late 1980’s. The ratio of overweight population reached 22 percent a decade ago. And the prevalence rate of diabetes climbed to 5-6% at present from 1% in 1980. More than 50 million Chinese are estimated to have been suffering from diabetes.

Problems occur when great changes happen to our lifestyle and the evolution of genes fails to keep up with them. “We are feasting on fish and meat with our genes which are only suitable for the plainest food,” said Xiang, “That’s the reason why diabetes is so prevalent in China.”

“I was very thin when I was young, always feeling hungry. I began gaining weight as my family’s condition getting better in recent years. I became the plumpest five years ago. My blood glucose level was very high at that time,” said Xiang, a patient of diabetes himself.

Chinese scientists also found that children born during the famine have higher risks of suffering from schizophrenia when they grow up.

Researchers from the Bio-X Center of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences under the Chinese Academy of Sciences studied more than 150,000 samples collected from Wuhu, Anhui Province, where was seriously hit by the famine from 1959 to 1961. And they found that the ratio of schizophrenia among those born in the three years is twice of those born in other years.

But scientists are still unable to explain the relationship between hunger and schizophrenia.

“The impact of hunger on mind is greater than that on body,” said Zhang Xianliang, “to survive in the famine, people would try every means to get food, even breaking the bottom line of morality.”

“This bad impact can still be seen today among many Chinese who are impatient and impetuous and put money above everything else,” said Zhang.

Pan Shiyi, one of China’s leading real estate tycoons, frankly admitted to the media that he values money, and his view of the world was all changed by hunger.

Born in a poor village in northwest China’s Gansu Province in 1963, Pan said hunger dominates his memory about childhood.

“I could bear anything but hunger, which affected my view of the world and made me go into business. I think as long as you have money, you can solve problems like eating, schooling and medical billing.”

In the eyes of sociologist Wang Kaiyu, the good impact of the famine was that Chinese people would not get fanatic easily anymore. “The thought of reform was deeply rooted in people’s mind. They have the courage to uncover and correct mistakes so that wrong trend of thoughts would never control China like they did during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ period.”

Resulted from hunger, China has always regarded the issue of food safety as a matter of prime importance. For six years from 2004 to 2009, the first document released annually by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which deals with the most pressing issues in the country, were all about agriculture, rural areas and farmers.

China’s grain production has kept increasing for five consecutive years. The total grain output in 2008 reached 528.5 million tons. China insists on self-sufficiency policy, having fed its people with more than 95 percent of home-grown food for a decade.

The global financial crisis, however, is challenging China’s food safety. The falling grain price dampened farmers’ initiative while both quantity and quality of China’s farmland are decreasing.

In order to cope with the new challenge, the State Council, or Chinese cabinet, approved a plan earlier this year in an attempt to boost China’s annual grain output capacity to more than 550 million tons by 2020. The Government urged efforts to safeguard the minimum arable land of 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares).

To feed Chinese people sounds like a never ending mission. Thus it is not difficult to understand what Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said during an agricultural production inspection agricultural production in north China’s Hebei Province in 2008.

“We don’t have to worry, as long as we have grains in hand. To feed the 1.3 billion people on its own is China’s biggest contribution to the world,”said Wen.

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