Appreciation for life’s many blessings

Enjoyment of food is very important to the Chinese people. One of the reasons is that Chinese people have experienced periods of famine during the course of their history.

How does one feel when living under starvation? The North Koreans are said to be starved, though I am still quite sceptical about such news. In the 40s, during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, I have heard stories of people eating tapioca as meal everyday, due to shortage of rice. Is that a famine?  I think not, because Malaya is abundant in vegetation, people can visit the bushes or jungle, to eat any eadible plants the can get hold of. However, in places like China, famine threat can be real. There is hardly any vegetation during the famine period, and cold winter would then add to their miseries.

The people of China are not rich yet (with average per capita income of around US$5000), but they have already enjoyed the fruits of opening and reform policies of the new China, started under Deng Xiao Ping. I have heard stories of desperately poor people in China from overseas Chinese visiting their relatives during the 70s. The economy was bleak and  food was inadequate. In fact every item had to be rationed. It was hard to find any overweight person then. And morality took a back seat in such a situation, where extreme form of selfishness and law of jungle governed the general behaviours.

Today, there is ample and wide range of foods available in every corner of China. Ziying’s article is a reminder about the shortage of food in the 60s and 70s. It was the period after the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Many reasons contributed to the failure, though many in the West blamed the problems sorely due to Mao’s disastrous policy. Mao is partly responsible, together with the other leaders, no doubt. Like most Chinese intellectuals, thinkers and politicians in those days, they  firmly and naïve believe in the power of ‘ism’ from the West, thinking that by adopting the brand of ‘ism’ (Marxism in this case) with strong dose of revolutionary fervour,  China would  soon leap into the rank of strong industrialized countries.  

The main reason for the shortage of food then is the series of extremely poor weathers. These were prolonged droughts that took place all over China. Nothing could grow without water. But aids were never forthcoming from other better-off areas, due to transportation difficulties and the magnitude of the problem back then. The government was not prepared for the worst scenario, as they focussed on achieving proleteriat industrialization. Meanwhile the population has increased by leaps and bounds, and thus there were just too many people, hamlets and towns to feed, with the limited food available. I have read Han Suyin accounts during the period where she mentioned that even in the cities, there were severe rations and people ate once a day only. Even Chairman Mao was not exempted from this rule. During the cultural revoluion, food situation was somewhat better. But collective farming or the iron rice bowl policy for some reasons kept the farm productivity low, while the population increased tremendously. 

The problems could have been alleviated if China was not under severe sanction or isolated from the West. China could have received some food aid or buy food from large grain surplus countries like Australia, Argentina or Canada. Instead attempt from China to buy grain from Australian was blocked due to US objection.

Many died prematurely due to malnourishment. I suspect the elderly and the sickly are the most vulnerable in situations.  Western propaganda sources and media often claimed that Mao killed between 20 to 70 million people during this period.  They are being economic with truth, as usual when it comes to China.  If this is really the case, the Chinese would have revolted against Mao. His large portrait could never have been displayed in Tian An Men.

Wednesday February 9, 2011


Tales of past privations bring a new appreciation of life’s many blessings in the lunar new year.

A FEW weeks ago, I was in Fujian to pay a pre-Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) visit to my grandfather’s village. There was, unsurprisingly, a palpable sense of expectation in the air as people prepared for the most important festival of the year.

Shops and markets overflowed with seasonal goods, particularly foodstuff like Fujian’s muaji (glutinous rice sweets) – plain, flavoured or filled with sesame, red bean, tea, yam or lotus paste, and a seemingly endless variety of dried marine products and traditional pastries. Fruit stands were stacked with sugar-sweet local strawberries, oranges, kumquats and fragrant guava, and I counted at least 10 kinds of the province’s large olives preserved variously in salt, sugar, soya, licorice, cloves and other spices.

 The village getting ready for a birthday feast.

Strangely, in the midst of such abundance, a conversation with the village leaders turned to the lean times of 40 or 50 years ago. Then, people had nothing to eat but sweet potatoes they said. Rice was an unaffordable luxury that had to be purchased from elsewhere because there was insufficient water for irrigation. In fact, the village secretary recounted, many people lived their lives without ever tasting this precious cereal. “I still remember a dying villager,” she sombrely recalled “who, when asked if he had any last request, conveyed that he just wanted to know the taste of rice.” Since he was unable to eat, the family bought a few grains of rice, soaked them in water till soft, and fed him the mixture.

The day I returned to Xiamen for the flight home was the first day of China’s great annual Spring Festival migration – the “Cunyun” which this year is projected to reach over 2.6 billion trips. After an hour and fifteen minutes on the Fuxia high-speed rail, we exited Xiamen station into a taxi free-for-all until finally a cabbie noticed my elderly father and asked us to get in.

Every other taxi driver in Xiamen seems to be from Henan province and on hearing that we had been there before, our cabbie started to talk about his life in rural Henan.

Though Jiangwangcun is economically depressed compared to China’s coastal villages, earnings from migrant workers are helping to ease living conditions.

When he was young, he related, there were times when they literally had nothing to eat, not even sweet potatoes. “The ground was bare as every bit of grass had been dug up for their roots and we were reduced to eating tree bark and leaves.” “Now,” he said with great satisfaction “we can eat whatever we want.”

These conversations reminded me of the village I briefly visited one late Autumn day last year on our way to the Unesco World Heritage site of Dazu in the westernmost outskirts of Chongqing, when we made an unscheduled stop at one of the hamlets along the way for a glimpse of rural life deep in China’s interior.

After obtaining permission from the villagers of Jiangwangcun, we walked along a paved path across a field covered with undergrowth straight into the village commons where a young buffalo was tethered to a hunk of granite.

 A lone buffalo standing in Jiangwangcun’s village commons; the small shack in the back is home to an octogenarian widow.

At the far end stood a small, dilapidated shack partially covered by tarp and torn plastic sheets whose sole resident, an octogenarian widow, ambled out when she heard there were visitors. Her tiny one-room shelter was utterly dark and her worldly possessions comprised an old plank bed, a dusty table, and a small fridge – a gift from someone. A small battered basket that serves as a brazier in winter sat on the cold earthen floor; on the wall hung a black and white photo of her deceased husband. So many questions crossed my mind but while she seemed unembarrassed by her grinding poverty, it left me at a loss for words. Despite her still-straight back and look of stubborn determination, I doubt she could have survived had the other villagers not continued to feed and watch over her.

Recalling this octogenarian helped me visualise the life that our Xiamen taxi driver and the people in my ancestral village left behind. She serves as a reminder that away from China’s bright lights and bustling cities, there are still those who are merely clinging onto the edge of existence.

Fortunately, with some villagers finding work in the cities, life in Jiangwangcun seems to be improving. Neat double-storey houses with cream walls are crowding out tired-looking stone and brick farmhouses, many in poor condition.

That day, a migrant worker had returned to celebrate his 60th birthday and the community was busy preparing the midday feast. In a kitchen women and children filled dozens of neatly stacked bowls with salad, pickles and fried peanuts. A couple deep-fried rounds of flat wheat bread near a tall multi-layered bamboo steamer, while a large basin stacked with mutton skewers stood ready for grilling.

The village is obviously in transition and one can only hope that in the near future, the life led by its matriarch will become a distant memory.

> Ziying can be reached at


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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