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

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

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

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

Synopsis

A study of the politics of rice in Canton, this book sheds new light on the local history of the city and illuminates how China's struggles with food shortages in the early twentieth century unfolded and the ways in which they were affected by the rise of nationalism and the fluctuation of global commerce.

Author Seung-joon Lee profiles Canton as an exemplary site of provisioning, a critical gateway for foreign rice importation and distribution through the Pearl River Delta, which found its prized import, and thus its food security, threatened by the rise of Chinese nationalism. Lee argues that the modern Chinese state's attempts to promote domestically-produced "national rice" and to tax rice imported through the transnational trade networks were doomed to failure, as a focus on rice production ignored the influential factor of rice quality. Indeed, China's domestic rice promotion program resulted in an unprecedented famine in Canton in 1936. This book contends that the ways in which the Guomindang government dealt with the issue of food security, and rice in particular, is best understood in the context of its preoccupation with science, technology, and progressivism, a departure from the conventional explanations that cite governmental incompetence.

Excerpt

Shortly after the Nationalist government was established in Nanjing in 1928, the Guomindang launched a nationwide statistical survey of food supply and consumption. Zhang Xinyi, a Cornell-trained agricultural economist and professor at Nanjing University, was hired as director of the Bureau of Statistics in the Legislative Yuan (Lifayuan) to conduct this grand-scale survey project. With the full support of the bureau, Zhang immediately started his research, and three years later he published his results in a report titled China’s Food Problem. Zhang concluded that six of the fourteen provinces he had examined were “definitely deficient in their food production.” Among the food-deficient provinces, he noted, “Guangdong stood at the top. [Guangdong’s] production can support only two-thirds of her population; the other one-third must be fed with imported foodstuffs.” This was the main conclusion of China’s first statistical study of national food production and consumption.

Zhang’s research project claimed significance in modern Chinese history for several reasons. First, his research was conducted exclusively by Chinese experts who had mostly been trained in foreign universities, but without Westerners’ direct involvement. Second, it was the first thoroughgoing research to use modern methodology to address China’s worst social problem, which the country had confronted but could not yet remedy. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the food problem (liangshi wenti; shiliang wenti) had become more urgent than anything else. No other words more compellingly described China’s food problem than the “land of famine.” Many foreign observers long identified famine and malnutrition as the most remarkable characteristic of China and attributed them to China’s lack of scientific mind. It was widely lamented that scientific famine prevention was hindered by the incompetence of the Chinese state, because . . .

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