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Canteens and the Politics of Working Class Diets in Industrial China, 1920s - 1950s

When May 02, 2018
from 05:00 PM to 06:00 PM
Where Rooms 8 & 9
Contact Name
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China Research Seminar given by Prof. Seung-joon Lee, University of Singapore 


In no country were hunger and malnutrition politicized more than they were in twentieth-century China. This paper explores how workers’ diets and meal services at factory canteens became the nucleus of labor politics in China. At the heart of Chinese labor politics was a demand for worker’s life improvement, particularly for an adequate meal service, which was to be provided by the management at a decent price, if not free, at the work place. Having set up a number of successful labor disputes before the Communist Party cadres appeared at the scene, Chinese workers themselves made significant political repercussions, namely “rice strikes” (migui bagong), in the 1920s. With a series of industrial welfare programs, the KMT Nationalists, too, made unsparing efforts to garner the growing political potential of the labor force. In the eyes of the KMT technocrats, providing optimal calories to the work force was a quintessential task to fulfill the Party’s cardinal cause: building a strong industrial nation. When the CCP seized power in 1949, food calories arguably remained the prime source of energy in China’s national economy, which was predominantly agricultural. To build 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. At the workplace canteens, once a political battleground upon which workers seeking their food entitlement and the KMT-style labor management frequently collided, the Communists embarked on a new politics of working-class diet.

Professor Lee is the author of Gourmets in the Land of Famine, a celebrated book on the politics and culture of rice in Canton in the Republican period.

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