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People's vital minimum: canteens and nutrition science in industrial China

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At the moment when Mao Zedong was triumphantly standing atop the Heavenly Peace Gate in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to declare the founding of a new socialist regime on 1 October 1949, China was facing an existential crisis: food shortages. The Communists now had to face the same dilemma that had long haunted their political arch-enemy, because food scarcity and rampant malnutrition could not be solved overnight, even after the downfall of the KMT rule. The malnourished population, once a strategic target for mobilization against their political opponent, could turn into a potential political threat to the new regime’s stability. Furthermore, food calories arguably remained the prime source of energy in China’s national economy, which was predominantly agricultural. To build a strong socialist economy — industrially mighty and yet egalitarian — the Chinese working population would need to eat better and consume more food than it ever had before.

Against this backdrop, the Communist authorities undertook unsparing efforts to promote nutrition science in order to optimize the working population’s food consumption. Rather than starting from ground zero, however, the Communists emulated the state-led nutrition movement that the previous regime had once practised. Industrial canteens — once a political battleground upon which workers seeking their food entitlement and the KMT -style labour management frequently collided — transformed into a new space that embraced various culinary innovations, nutritional experiments, and the politicization of nutrition science.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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