Logo der Universität Wien

Austrian Science Foundation (FWF) “Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship Abroad” http://www.fwf.ac.at/en/index.asp


The Politicization of Hunger: Discourses of Food and State-Peasant Relationships in Socialist China and the Soviet Union


Despite the fact that the communist movement promised to abolish hunger; famines managed to occur several times under state socialism. Russia experienced a famine from 1919 to 1920, as did the Soviet Union from 1931 to 1933 and again in 1947. Famines also occurred in the People’s Republic of China (1959-1961), in Cambodia in 1979, and in North Korea in the nineties. The Chinese famine during the Great Leap Forward is even considered as the most devastating  in world history, as it took 15 to 45 million lives. My research on the Great Leap Famine in on for my PhD thesis (see Wemheuer 2007a) has led me to the broader question of state-society relations and peasant resistance especially in the context of food politics. This project aims to understand the interactions between the socialist state and the peasantry which resulted in serious famines. It will focus on the discourses food of hunger in China (1949-1958) and the Soviet Union (1928-1940). In this context, the project will explore how questions such as ‘what kind of food should be eaten’, and the definition of ‘how much food is enough to make a living’ became highly political issues. I will carry out research on the impact that these discourses of food and hunger had on the capability of the socialist regimes to deal with malnutrition and famine. 


The current research and the lack of a comparative approach

At the conference for the AAS (Association for Asian Studies) in Boston in 2007, I presented a paper on the politicization of hunger pertaining to the Socialist Education Campaign in 1957 (see Wemheuer 2007b). My thesis, a new topic in the international discussion, argued that the Chinese government considered hunger an ideological problem, because they believed that peasants were pretending to be hungry in order to sabotage the state grain purchase. When the famine really broke out in 1959, the party leadership assumed in the beginning that the reports about a nationwide famine were fakes. This narrative of fake hunger prevented an active famine aid at the right time. 

To date, research has been done on these particular questions in the context of a comparative approach. Current research includes important works on peasant resistance in the Soviet Union (for example see Figes 1991, Fitzpatrick 1994, Viola 1999 and Tauger 2005) and in China (Zweig 1989, Li Huaiyin 2006 and Gao Wangling 2006). Studies on the distribution systems of both countries have been done as well (Walker 1984, Osokina 2001 and Xin Yi 2005). Furthermore, various studies have demonstrated the importance of food in the context of state-society relation in Chinese and Russian history (see Chang 1977, Smith 1984 and Glats 1997). Over the past few years, Food Studies has become a popular academic field which could be used as a background for this project. Food Studies emphasizes the extreme importance of food and its symbolism for the social and national identity of people (for example see Counihan 1997 and Pichler 2006).

Until now the research on the different socialist countries and fields of studies is unlinked and a comparative approach is lacking. One reason might be the paradigm of the “Chinese way” which became popular during the seventies. During the Cultural Revolution, the propaganda of the CCP presented the Maoist way of socialist construction as an alternative to the exploitation of the peasants in the USSR. Many western scholars and observers indeed agreed with this view. As a result, comparative studies were considered as unnecessary. Reference to the Soviet case had only been made in order to proof that the Chinese leadership did it in another or better way than Moscow. The research of Li Hua-Yu (2006), Meliksetov and Pantsov (2004) have challenged the paradigm of “Chinese way”. They promote the thesis of the Stalinization of the early PRC. The conference at Columbia University “The Soviet Impact on China: Politics, Economy, Society and Culture, 1949-1991” in 2007 debated the particular influence of the Soviet model in different areas of Chinese politics. This is just the beginning to overcome the obsolete paradigm of the “Chinese way”. Without the deconstruction of the “Chinese way” a better understanding of the political and economic system of the PRC, the state-peasant relationship and the international context of the Socialist world is impossible. The debates on the Soviet and Chinese model will be helpful as background information to compare the politicization of food in China and the Soviet Union.


The relevance of the topic and aims

The research of this project will focus on Communist China before the famine (1949-1958) and the  under Stalin between 1928 and 1940. In both countries, revolutions that were based on rural support established socialist regimes. The early and mid fifties are considered to be the period with the strongest Soviet influence on on. According to Li Yu-hua (2006), the system of the early PRC resembled much more the Soviet system of the thirties than the late Stalinism after the Second World War.

In China and Soviet Union, the party established the narrative in the time before the famines that the peasants were pretending to be hungry in order to sabotage the state grain purchase. For example, Lenin argued in his letter to the hungry workers of Petrograd in 1918 that Russia would produce enough grain to feed the population, but the urban and rural rich would hide it in order to speculate and make profit (Lenin 1918). Furthermore, Stalin justified the “destruction of the kulaks as a class” in 1929 with the necessity to break the “grain strike” of the villages against the cities. During the famine, he blamed the peasants for waging a quiet war against the Soviet power (Fitzpatrick 1994: 75). In China, the CCP launched a press campaign in 1957 that hunger would be an ideological problem, because peasants would just be pretend to be hungry (for example see Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) 5.8.1957).

Peasants could exaggerate the damages of natural disasters in order to get food aid. Especially in China, such demands could create pressure in the central government; because the state had traditionally a responsibility to nourish the people in the times of famine (see Will / Wong 1991). In contrast, the imperial Russian government never felt a high responsibility to establish a nationwide grain store system such as the Qing Dynasty. Furthermore, the Soviet government failed to built up an effective grain store system in the twenties (see Davis / Tauger / Wheatcroft 2005). When the famines broke out in the Soviet Union in 1932 and in China in 1959, the governments did not initially believe that starvation was widespread, because the narrative of fake hunger and grain strike. The discourse of hunger as an ideological problem had deadly consequences in both countries.

This project will help to explain the prehistory of the famines and the role which the discourses on food and hunger played in this context.


The Politicization of Food and Hunger

Adorno reminded us that food is a political and social issue (Adorno, 2003: 392). The question of what people accepted as food, and how many calories are required to survive, is answered differently in different societies and cultures. This is also true for the definition of differences between malnutrition and famine.

Gan Yue (1999) and Judith Farquhar (2002) have shown that food metaphors played an important role in both communist propaganda and literature since the thirties in China. Social inequality was often expressed in the terms of eating and drinking. In these narratives, the Communist Party of China (CCP) represented the desire for food and justice of the hungry peasantry. In Russia, the Bolsheviks used also the powerful metaphors of fat capitalists and kulaks which the populists already developed in the late nineteen century (Frierson in: Glants 1997). For example, “The Battleship Potemkin” (1925) of Sergei Eisenstein shows that the rebellion on the battleship broke out, because the crew refused to eat meat found to contain maggots. Both Communist parties played with food metaphors to explain abstract Marxist concepts of class to the masses. They also linked the desire for food to communism. “Communism is eating for free” (chifan bu yao qian, jiu shi gongchanzhuyi) became an important slogan to promote the public dining halls in China in 1958 (see Luo Pinghan 2001: 55).

After the establishment of the new socialist regimes in China and the Soviet Union, the question “who feeds whom” was used by villagers to criticize the new social injustice between the urban and rural society. Peasants claimed that they were feeding the cadres and urban workers, but were treated as second class citizens (see Wemheuer 2007b). Peasants and workers used the moral food metaphors of the official propaganda against the regime. Furthermore, the party state tried to change the rural nutrition habits in order to avoid “wasting” and to undermine the rural family structures. However, the peasants had their own views of rational food consumption and resisted the experiments of the state to replace the family cooking by collective institutions. While in the Soviet Union the government promoted public dinning mostly in the cities, the Chinese Communist also established public dinning halls in every village during the Great Leap Forward in 1958. The People’s Commune took over the food management. Such as the so called “food futurist” in the Soviet Union who developed plan for robot restaurants (see Rothstein / Rothstein: in Glants 1997), Chinese hand books for the public dinning halls presented fantastic machines which would produce new kinds of foods (see Li Weimin 1960).

Russian and Chinese peasants traditionally worked less in times of shortage or only ate two meals per day in the periods between the harvests. Reducing the extent of work became very difficult during the production campaigns forced by the socialist state. The working days during the year increased, but not the level of energy which the nutrition provided. To conclude, the local knowledge of rationing in the family was challenged by concepts of “scientific nutrition” which were promoted by the state (see also Wen / Chang 1997 and Yang 1996). All of these contractions between the state and the rural society led to the politicization of the topics of food and hunger.

The question to be answered is whether or not the use the food metaphors in the official propaganda harmed the legitimacy of the regime against the fact of widespread hunger. Furthermore, research will carried out on the questions of how and why hunger became a taboo topic and the impact of the discourse on the capability of the regimes to deal with famine.


Methods of research and sources

This project is aimed to develop the methods of comparative research and overcome the exiting boundaries between Chinese and Soviet Studies. As a result, the project is designed to combine different theories and methodical approaches:

Theories of peasant studies and food ways: My research will be based on theories of James C. Scott (1985), and the Chinese scholar Gao Wanling (2006), who consider peasants not just as passive victims of the governments or landlords. The peasants are active actors who are using “the weapons of the weak” to promote their own interests and ensure their survival. James Scott (1998) has shown the importance of the confrontation between “scientific” social engineering of the high modernist states and the local knowledge at the grass root level in the 20th century. This approach is also fruitful in the context of food policies. This project will raise the question of how two socialist countries with different food ways and different traditions of responsibility to feed the population could be compared. It will focus on discourses of food and hunger. Therefore, the project will carry out research on discourse theory.

Theories of analysing discourses: The meaning of the word “discourse” will be defined in a state socialist context. According to the discourse theory of Foucault (2003), a discourse produces rules and discipline to control what can be said. A statement will be only considered as true if its fits into the rules of the discourse. Consequently, the discourse produces power, because it defines the truth such as “the Communist Party will let nobody starve”. Even for a one party dictatorship it is not enough to only define the truth. Furthermore, the statements and policies have to be explained and justified. Establishing prohibitions, taboos, exclusions and borderlines that differentiate between inside and outside the discourse is a very complicated process. Furthermore, internal magazines presented surveys to inform the leadership about the public opinion. Analysing these sources could be an indirect way to learn something about the official views on the rural food ways and opinions of peasants about the official food policies. I hope to contribute new findings to discourses theories.

Comparative approach to models of socialism: The research will be linked to the comparative food studies and new comparative approaches to the models of socialism in the Soviet Union and China. It will rethink the usefulness of terms such as “Chinese Way”, “State Socialism” or “Stalinization” regarding the state-peasant relationship. The project will contribute to the deconstruction of the “Chinese way”. Against the background that both states were multinational states with various food ways, the project will focus on the Han Chinese, Russian and Ukrainian peasants.

Combination of written and visual sources: Regarding the Chinese case; official newspapers, publications of the All-China Women’s Federation (Quanguo funü lianhe hui), handbooks for the public dining halls and magazines with a focus on the countryside and nutrition will be analysed. The publication of the Women’s federation could be especially useful in order to do research on the conflicts between the traditional food ways and the “scientific nutrition” promoted by the state. In order to understand the Soviet influence on the Chinese discourses, textbooks and study materials for cadres such as “Documents of the theory and policy of the Soviet grain problem” (1955) which were translated from Russian into Chinese in the fifties will be evaluated.

In regards to the Soviet case, I will focus on English secondary sources and translated documents such as the collected works of Lenin, Stalin and documents of the central government. As mentioned above, propaganda films and posters should be considered as a part of the discourses on food and hunger. They established true and false statements and taboos. In the past, posters and pictures have often been used just as illustrations in historical research. Since the last years, approaches which read posters as texts and part of discourses have become more and more popular.

It would be challenging to compare the use of food metaphors in propaganda films in China (1949-1958) and the Soviet Union (1928-1940) more systemically. The use of visual sources of the official propaganda is very useful, because they produced images of hunger and food which influenced the popular memory of the ordinary people in Russia and China even until today. Both socialist regimes considered visual propaganda as very important to reach the hearts and minds of the rural population which were mostly illiterate in the aftermath of the revolution. These visual images of the hunger of the past and the futuristic socialist food of the future conflicted with the everyday experience of the peasants and produced dissatisfaction.

The combination of these methods and sources could help to understand the discourse of food and hunger in China and the Soviet Union in a new way.


Hunger and Socialism
Department of East Asian Studies
University of Vienna

Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring 1
1010 Vienna
University of Vienna | Universitätsring 1 | 1010 Vienna | T +43-1-4277-0