Project (2021-2022)

Coping Mechanisms and Food Insecurity: A Historical Approach to Health In Extremis

For my project on a social history of everyday health and food practices in twentieth-century China, I will use both archival materials and extensive oral history to examine what has been an obvious lacuna in the study of health and illness in modern East Asia: how food customs and food practices intersect with state public health goals, as well as with cultural and religious practices of food preparation and consumption. The wide disparity of food cultures throughout China and the changing emphases on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and allopathic medicine with their very different approaches to food consumption and healing/illness all point to the centrality of this approach in examining basic questions of the culture of health in modern China. My project will shift focus from dry statistics to lived experience, most poignantly for women and children. As a case study, I will examine the Great Leap Forward famine (1958–1962) and the survival strategies of rural populations across different regions of China.

The massive mortality caused by famines during the Great Leap Forward and its aftermath has not gone unnoticed. Yet there is little information from the ground up on how rural populations in China coped with the famine—designated the worst man-made disaster in human history. Intentionally eliciting family knowledge and healing/nutritional practices, I will use the Chinese obsession with food talk, their remedies, and their recipes to explore and record vivid accounts of survival strategies and ordinary peoples, in particularly rural villagers, responses to state policies and political indoctrination during those difficult years—still referred to by those survivors as the years of bitterness. In the late 1950s and 60s, rural villagers in China were forced to sacrifice their homes/possessions to build socialist collectives. Today many of the survivors of the famine have been left without homes, health care, and sometimes food, despite an economic boom in the cities. My question is quite simple: to what extent does the devastation of the famine continue to structure everyday life in the countryside? How does the lived experience of coping with famine structure todays lived experience of social inequality?