Nourishing the People: Nutrition Science, Dietary Practices, and Food Resilience in Modern China
2: Survival Manuals: Knowledge of Nutrition and Toxicity in the Great Chinese Famine
Friday, March 25, 2022
9:30am – 11:00am EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
From 1960 to 1962, a campaign of “alternative foods” was launched nationwide in China to fight the Great Chinese Famine, culminating in the publication of at least 30 titles of foraging manuals in 18 provinces and regions. These manuals were often fully illustrated, covering a wide range of edible wild plants collected from local flora surveys, with references to other contemporary botanical scholarship, folk practices, and traditional materia medica. Intellectually, they crystallized the collective efforts from institutions of botany, biology, public health and medicine, even with the contribution from the art academy for drawings. Printed by provincial as well as municipal units, these manuals were aimed at a distribution on the commune level to guide the commoners' consumption of edible wild plants.
My paper argues that, more than just a quick fix to an emergency of food shortage, these famine survival manuals tried to popularize new perceptions of foodstuff and new approaches of knowledge-making. Chemical analysis of nutrition and toxicity in wild plants was advocated, on one hand expanding the boundary of edibility and utility, on the other hand warding off the danger of poisons. People were encouraged to conduct biochemical experiments, taste novel plants, and discover new sources of food in a moment of extreme hardship. The campaign finds its root in the tradition of famine food treatises in late Imperial China, also was inspired by the modern concepts of food security and frontier exploration.