Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton

Volume 09, Issue 2

In April 1936, the final section of the Canton-Hankow railway was completed, and with it a new age of national rice (guomi) and the end of China's food problem (shiliang wenti or liangshi wenti) was proclaimed. For Guomindang technocrats and engineers, the Canton-Hankow railway represented not only a triumph over space and time—a passage that had previously required ten to twenty days by boat could now be undertaken within thirty-two hours—but also an essential component of their plan to reduce China's dependency upon foreign rice. Statistical surveys under. taken by government bureaus like the Central Bureau of Statistics in Nanjing, its provincial offices, and social scientists in universities and research institutes like Zhongshan University in Canton produced voluminous evidence throughout the 1930s that consumption of foreign rice in China had dramatically increased since the 1920s. Such increases, especially in coastal cities, were linked to rural impoverishment, such that political campaigning for increased domestic rice consumption became intertwined with calls for rural reconstruction and national security. That the city of Canton's share of foreign rice purchases was among the highest in the country only served to highlight the importance and necessity of Guomindang efforts. With the new railroad, Canton would be extricated from its dependency upon foreign rice and, in effect, tamed of its luxurious ways. National rice, specifically rice from Hunan, would become the foundation of the national diet and the solution to China's food problem.

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