Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton

By Seung-Joon Lee | Go to book overview
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1 South of the Mountains

THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF THE PEARL RIVER DELTA

By the turn of the twentieth century, the urban residents of Canton did not rely on getting their daily rice supplies from the rural hinterlands of Guangdong province. Rice shortages were prevalent in the surrounding rural districts of the Pearl River Delta. Since rice production in the delta was insufficient to meet local demand, Canton had come to rely largely upon imports from external provinces and the overseas market in order to maintain an adequate rice supply for the local population. The acting commissioner of China Customs at Canton, R. De Luca, remarked: “Even in ordinary years the local production of rice in the province is never equal to local requirements, and large imports are always necessary to supplement the deficiency. The greater part of the rice thus imported comes from abroad—principally Saigon—whilst the balance is brought from the Yangzi.”1 These supplementary rice imports had to come first to the port of Canton, after which they were redistributed at market towns in the rural districts. Instead of relying on its rural hinterlands for its food supply, Canton acted as a gateway and redistribution center for external rice supplies and provisioning the surrounding rural districts.

Despite its chronic rice shortages, however, Canton never met with any disastrous food crisis in the turbulent decades of the late Qing and early Republican transition. Many contemporary observers were struck by the local rice insufficiency. At the same time, they were equally fascinated with the commercial prosperity in the city of Canton because in spite of chronic rice shortages Canton maintained its reputation for wealth and flamboyant urban commercial culture. As early as 1902, one foreign observer summarized the stereotypical image of Canton: “Even the wealthiest of inland Chinese cannot match Cantonese. In the variety of cultural and customary experience, there is a huge gap between coastal Chinese and inland

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