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From Bodhisattva Earth to Man-Made Meat Essence: Famine Foods in Late Qing, Nationalist and Maoist China

Kathryn Jean Edgerton-Tarpley

Environment and History 26 (2020): 105-130. doi: 10.3197/096734019X15755402985587

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This article examines change and continuity in the selection, conceptualisation and state-sponsorship of 'famine foods' in late Qing, Nationalist and Maoist China. It employs as case studies the following severe famines that struck North China under three markedly different regimes: the North China Famine of 1876-79, the Henan Famine of 1942/43 and the Great Leap Famine of 1958-62. Continuities that cut across the three periods include the particular non-grain foods - beginning with tree bark and wild plants and extending to Bodhisattva earth (Guanyin tu) - consumed at the local level, and a tradition of elite involvement in identifying and endorsing items that could relieve starvation. The terms used to describe survival foods changed significantly, however, as did the rationale for promoting such foods. Moreover, as twentieth-century Chinese modernisers joined their Western counterparts in championing the use of science and technology to address food crises and other disasters, state-run health and scientific agencies played an increasingly active role in testing and promoting recipes for non-grain foods. This trend reached its zenith during the Great Leap Famine, when the government launched a 'food substitute' (daishipin) campaign that aimed to address food shortages without reducing grain quotas by encouraging the mass-production of food substitutes such as chlorella and artificial meat. This campaign can be understood as a sharp departure from Qing China's grain-centred famine relief policies, a radical extension of rhetoric and priorities laid out during the Nationalist period and a case of high modernism gone badly awry.

KEYWORDS: Famine, famine relief, food substitutes, Henan, China, Great Leap Famine, famine relief, Guanyin tu, chlorella


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