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China Focus: Memories of hunger linger as Chinese fill their stomachs
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17:03, September 26, 2009

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In the hands of chef Bai Changji, tofu by itself can be turned into be a banquet of more than 200 types of cuisine. Even the remnants left from making the soy bean curd will be turned into dishes.

"Fried bean leftovers are yummy and healthy full of dietary fiber. Why should we throw them away?" said the 53-year-old chef, famous for his tofu banquets in Beijing.

In a Chinese kitchen, everything from a plant's root, stem, leaf, flower to fruit and seeds, as well as almost any part of an animal, can be an ingredient for a recipe. The fascinating -- sometimes astonishing -- creations of Chinese chefs and housewives reflect in another way a history of the lack of food in this most populous country in the world.

The Chinese people seem to have a fantasy about food as shown in the common Chinese saying: "People regard food as their prime want." As a matter of fact, China has suffered from poverty and hunger for more than 100 years during its modern history. And the famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s left an indelible impression on Chinese people who are now in their 50s or older.

"Many people starved to death in our village during the years," said Yan Hongchang, 61, a farmer from Xiaogang Village, Fengyang County, east China's Anhui Province.

"With not enough food to eat, everyone in my family had to go out to dig for wild vegetables,' Yan said. His mother would make wild vegetable porridge for the whole family. The distribution order was always grandparents first, then children and then the father who had to labor in the farmlands.

"When it was my mother's turn, nothing was left in the pot. Many women in my village died of hunger during the three years," he said. To avoid a tragedy, Yan left his home to beg, exchanging a small bowl of porridge for all his pride.

"It was a torment that I still don't know how to describe," Yansaid.

The situation was not much better in the cities. To meet basic living requirements, governments at various levels began in 1955 to issue food ration coupons.

For Chinese writer Ma Bo, a teenager in Beijing at that time, how to divide a jin (500 grams or 1.1 pounds) of daily rations into three meals was a big issue he and his classmates always discussed with great concern.

"I first tried two liangs (100 grams) for breakfast, and four liangs for both lunch and dinner. Then I tried divisions of 4-3-3,1-5-4, 3-3-4, 0-5-5 and so on. After repeated comparisons, I found the 3-4-3 division was the best way to make me not feel too hungry."

"I was told liquid food would make me feel full more easily. SoI tried three liangs (150 grams) of porridge for breakfast,'' said the writer. "Yes. I felt full at the beginning. But after urinating several times, hunger returned to me without hesitation."

Bai Changji, a TV cooking skills contest winner for six consecutive weeks, has quite a few cooking tips to share as a successful cook -- except the one his mother once practiced.

"My mom would always steam the rice first, and then add more water so the rice would appear more when it was eventually ready to be served," recalled Bai. "It was just a trick to comfort our stomachs in those hungry days."

A large number of literary works were created in the 1980s depicting the years of hunger.

Zhang Xianliang is one of the representative writers.

"The descriptions about hunger in my novels come from real feelings, " said Zhang -- in the eyes of his readers a writer about hunger -- who was labeled an anti-Party "rightist" and jailed several times from 1958 to 1979.

"Every cell of my body was dying for food in the days of hunger. I lived like an animal. What I wanted was the most basic need of a human being," said Zhang, who is now running a movie studio in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

"The famine was a great tragedy for China. I'm a survivor of the tragedy," he said.

The famines in Chinese history were caused not only by natural disasters, but also human factors, according to Wang Kaiyu, a researcher with the Academy of Social Sciences in Anhui Province.

He said China's leaders had misjudged the economy when they implemented the "Great Leap Forward" movement in 1958. Besides, the commune system in villages had weakened farmers' incentive to grow grain, because everything in the commune was shared, and no matter how hard the farmers worked, they would get the same portion as everyone else, said Wang.

Many believe it was the extreme hunger that triggered reform in rural areas.

Yan Hongchang and other villagers in Xiaogang Village secretly signed a contract in December 1978 to distribute the commune's farmland among each household, which was then illegal. Yan didn't expect then their adventurous move -- driven by the desire to eat -- would later lead to the household contract responsibility system in rural China.

Under the household responsibility system, land is contracted to individual households for 15 years. After fulfilling procurement quota obligations, farmers become entitled to sell their surplus on the market or retain it for their own use. By linking reward directly to effort, the contracting system enhanced incentives and promoted efficient production.

It did not take a long time for Yan and his fellow villagers to be rewarded for their boldness. In the next year, 1983, Yan harvested more than 10,000 kilograms of grain from two hectares of land, more than enough to feed his seven-member family.  

It was not until the 1980s the Chinese began to fill their stomachs. The strict food ration coupon system was loosening up and moving toward being phased out in 1993.

When discussing this great change, one person can never be overlooked.

A famine victim himself, agricultural scientist Yuan Longping decided to dedicate his life to researching hybrid rice.

His efforts of more than a decade led to the first high-yielding hybrid rice variety in 1974, which. yielded 20 percent more per unit than other rice plants.

Today, Yuan's hybrid rice species are planted in as many as half of China's rice fields, yielding 60 percent of the country's total rice production.

In 2000, China granted Yuan Longping the State Preeminent Science and Technology Award, known as "China's Nobel prize", for his outstanding contribution to the Chinese people's fight against hunger.

When Yuan is making efforts to feed all the nation's population, another group of scientists is struggling to treat the illnesses caused by overeating.

Long-time hunger has left a deep mark on the Chinese, so profound it reaches down to the genetic level, according to some researchers. Although Chinese people have been no longer hungry since the 1980's, their bodies have still not adapted to full nourishment.

"A popular medical theory postulates a kind of 'thrifty gene' is formed in the bodies of people living in poor regions. The gene can help human body accumulate calories when food is accessible, and help them survive in famine, " said Xiang Hongding, director of the Diabetes Center of the Peking Union Medical College Hospital. "Most residents in poor areas have this 'thrifty gene'."

"More than a century's poverty before the reform and opening-upin China was long enough to instill the 'thrifty gene' in Chinese people's bodies. The gene was a good thing during days of privation but can turn out to be a bad thing when people are no longer worried about food," Xiang said.

China has witnessed a sharp increase of obesity and diabetes patients since late the 1980s. The ratio of overweight population reached 22 percent a decade ago. And the prevalence rate of diabetes climbed to 5 to 6 percent in 2009 from 1 percent in 1980. More than 50 million Chinese are estimated to suffer from diabetes.

Problems occur when great changes happen to lifestyle and the evolution of genes fails to keep up with them. "We are feasting on fish and meat with genes which are only suitable for the plainest food," said Xiang, "That's the reason diabetes is so prevalent in China."

"I was very thin when I was young, always feeling hungry. I began gaining weight as my family's living conditions improved in recent years. I became the plumpest five years ago. My blood glucose level was very high at that time," said Xiang, a diabetes patient himself.

Chinese scientists have also discovered children born during the famine have a higher risk of suffering from schizophrenia when they grow up.

Researchers from the Bio-X Center of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences studied more than 150,000 samples collected from Wuhu, Anhui Province, where was seriously hit by famine between 1959 to 1961.

They found that the ratio of schizophrenia among those born in the three years was twice that of those born in other years.

But scientists are still unable to explain the relationship between hunger and schizophrenia.

"The impact of hunger on the mind is greater than on the body," said Zhang Xianliang. "To survive in a famine, people try every means to get food, even breaking the bottom line of morality."

"This bad impact can still be seen today among many Chinese who are impatient and impetuous and put money above everything else," said Zhang.

Pan Shiyi, one of China's leading real estate tycoons, has frankly admitted to the media that he values money, and that his view of the world was totally changed by hunger.

Born in a poor village in northwest China's Gansu Province in 1963, Pan said hunger dominates his memories of childhood.

"I could bear anything but hunger. It affected my view of the world and made me go into business. I think as long as you have money, you can solve problems like feeding yourself, schooling and paying medical bills."

In the eyes of sociologist Wang Kaiyu, a positive impact of the famine was now Chinese people do not easily become fanatic about certain issues any longer. "The thought of reform became deeply rooted in peoples' minds. They had the courage to uncover and correct mistakes so wrong tendentiousness of thoughts would again never control China as they did during the 'Great Leap Forward' and the 'Cultural Revolution' period."

Because of the hungry times, China has always regarded the issue of food safety as a matter of prime importance. For six years from 2004 to 2009, the first documents released annually by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which deals with the most pressing issues in the country, were all about agriculture, rural areas and farmers.

China's grain production has now increased for five consecutive years. The total grain output in 2008 reached 528.5 million tons. China insists on a policy of self-sufficiency, 95 percent of the population's food is now home-grown and has been for a decade.

The global financial crisis, however, is challenging China's food safety. The falling grain price dampened farmers' initiative while both quantity and quality of China's farmland are decreasing.

In order to cope with the new challenge, the State Council, or Chinese cabinet, approved a plan earlier this year in an attempt to boost China's annual grain output capacity to more than 550 million tons by 2020. The Government urged efforts to safeguard the minimum arable land of 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares).

To feed Chinese people sounds like a never ending mission. Thus it is not difficult to understand what Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said during an agricultural production inspection agricultural production in north China's Hebei Province in 2008.

"We don't have to worry, as long as we have grains in hand. To feed the 1.3 billion people on its own is China's biggest contribution to the world," said Wen.


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