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

By Seung-Joon Lee | Go to book overview

5 Taste in Numbers

SCIENCE AND THE CHINESE FOOD PROBLEM

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, China was immersed in two compelling currents: an irresistible aspiration to construct a modern Chinese nation and an overwhelming sense of urgency. At the confluence of these two currents lay the problem of food supply. Although Chiang Kai-shek’s military victories over regional warlords and the Communists allowed him to seize power, a huge portion of the infrastructure necessary for grain trade remained to be constructed. Bandits and guerrillas as well as natural disasters constantly devastated the rural social order, further diminishing grain production. Above all, the effect of the Great Depression soon hit the Chinese economy as well.1 The most remarkable feature of China’s food problem, after the Nationalist Government was established in Nanjing in 1928, was that great portions of foreign-rice imports were being consumed in coastal cities, mostly varieties of white rice, whereas the countryside was suffering from a plunge in the prices of domestic crops. Needless to say, Canton’s massive consumption of foreign rice drew nationwide attention.

Moreover, when local crops failed, even Shanghai and other coastal cities came to import significant amounts of foreign rice. Given disruptions in transportation and communication with inland agricultural districts, nothing was cheaper and easier than to import foreign rice to make up for rice shortages in the cities.2 The popularity of foreign rice increased in the coastal cities, since both qualities and prices were competitive. In addition to its cheap price, the quality of the Saigon rice popularly consumed in Shanghai, for example, was by no means worse than such domestic varieties as Wuhu rice.3 The popularity of foreign-rice consumption was no longer a particular feature of the provisioning of Canton, but it became perceived as the heart of China’s food problem as a whole. One observer noted: “Foreign rice was imported by the authorities in many places and

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