Food, Dark Years in China, the Power of Story

Mengchen Gong


I was born in China in the late 20th century in a standard middle class family. According to what my grandparents said, living conditions for my generation are significantly better, especially when it comes to food.  We don’t need to worry about whether there is enough food at all compared to the period they lived through. I wondered why they said this and wondered whether that is the truth or simply something old people say to make my generation treasure what we have. Through my Chinese education, I learned a little about the difficulties my grandparents’ generation faced.  However, what I learned was only part of the truth.

The History

There were approximately 16.5 – 45 million people that died because of China’s Great Famine during the dark years of 1959 to 1961. Approximately 1 in every 8 people died during this time! As I was taught in the history class and most of the people are told in China, the Great Famine was the result of a series of unfortunate circumstances. First there was the “Three Years of Natural Disasters,” followed by” the Great Leap Forward,” followed by a few poor policy choices by the Chinese government. What I have learned through recent conversations with my grandparents is that this is only part of the story.

The “Three Years of Natural Disaster,” which is the name for China’s Great Famine in textbooks, is what are taught is the main contributor to this crisis. The land flooded at first. Waves stripped the land of its food for a season. Then a drought came, making recovery from the floods even more difficult. People could not produce enough to sustain the population. This is the story we are told in our history classes, though there is very little evidence to back up these claims as the main contributor.  

Aside from the natural disasters, we are educated on Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”. This was a series of policies and goals put in place in an attempt to burst production to mitigate the lack of supplies. The Commune System (or People’s Commune) was an idea that developed a national team of farmers and workers, rather than individuals working for themselves. The government seized and owned all the land, and the people were paid in supplies and food that people had to eat in large, communal halls. Based on the facts provided by historical research outside of the government-controlled internet of china, the government shrank a 12-year-plan for progress into 3 years. By encouraging impossibly high food production rates, a vicious competition among different provinces was created. The goal did nothing more than waste seeds and land. The government bragged about how there was more food than needed. The truth is that there was a dramatically decreasing in the food production. In addition, more than 70% of the food was kept as the property of the “Commune System” and never given back, which means that the government kept it. Millions more people died that the government said. Many farmers hated the commune system, but their voices were never heard. Fake reports, fake progress, and the fake hope that was given to the people created a deep resentment. In Chinese, we have a word called “天灾人祸”, which means the natural calamities (“天灾”), and man-made misfortunes (“人祸”). As what the government said, natural calamities were the main reason for the huge number of deaths in China, which is all I learned in my history class. However, all the man-made misfortunes brought on by the government’s (Mao’s) decisions are some of the main reasons for the famine. More information related to man-made misfortunes during China’s Great Famine is still banned, and as a result, is very difficult to find. Fortunately, the memories of the people are not gone, and the truth will live on in their stories.

The Stories

My grandparents’ generation suffered during this period. They have told me multiple times that it is our generation’s fortune to not live in those dark years. During this dark period, food stamps were used like currency. There were not only food stamps, but also different kinds of stamps for oil, fertilizer, cloth, soap, and all kinds of industrial purducts. The usage of stamps for daily necessities reflects the extreme lack of supplies. Even though each family got food stamps monthly, it was far less than enough, especially if there were children to raise. Per person per month a stamp for about 2 kg of meat, 1 kg of sugar, and 2 kg of eggs was given. However, people were not guaranteed to receive these amounts of supplies. My grandparents said, it was normal to get less or none of any one thing, which all depended on the supply for that month. Life was hard, and often there was no extra money for food. As for the standard nutrition requirement, it was more like a dream than a reachable goal.

During the years of the Great Famine, all three of my grandparents suffered. It was still a hierarchal society. The rich people had more access to necessities compared to poor people. Within the dozen million people who died during China’s Great Famine, approximately 65 percent of them lived in rural areas. Three of my grandparents originally came from rural areas, then, starting with my grandpa from my father’s side, they moved to the city.


My grandparents from my father’s side were relatively rich. My grandpa Gong was born in a big family with a lot of privilege though he lived in a rural area. Grandma Zhou was born in a business family, which helped them have more accessibility to materials. Gong lived a relatively wealthy life, that the big family owned lands, houses, and servants. His family was able to provide 3 meals a day and 2 of them had decent amounts of good-quality meat. Based on the wealth his family had, during dark period he suffered less. During the Great Famine and the Great Leap Forward, the hard time started. There was not enough rice to eat every day. Additionally, meat was even harder to access. When he worked as a journalist, there was only porridge as a staple food for lunch, because using the same amount of rice, porridge can feed more people. Then for dinner, there was a limited amount of rice, which was not even enough to feed half of the journalism staff. For my grandma, because her dad (my great grandfather) owned a traditional Chinese medicine store, he traveled around to get herbs and gathered herbs from outside people who traveled there in their hometown. My grandma was able to try different kinds of foods compare to normal people who did not have access. Due to my great grandpa’s business, she was raised in a good environment. She left home at the age of 13 for school in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, during the dark period. School food was bad, and there are tickets with limited amount of food you can get for every meal. My great grandfather sent money to her monthly and told her to make sure she ate enough. The truth was that for my great grandfather, it had been a hard period for the traditional Chinese medicine business because of policy changes. The financial situation was so bad that the whole family could only eat rice and vegetables, and even that was scarce. My great grandmother developed edema because of a lack of nutrition. According to the data, in my home town Yunnan, there were more than 388,000 people who developed edema, and about 40,000 people died because of it. My province holds the record for most deaths due to edema disease.


I grew up with my grandma Pan from my mother’s side. I am close to her, and I have heard a lot of her stories from this period. Compared to the grandparents from my father’s side, my grandma has lived a harder life. As a result, she appreciates her life now. She still has the habit of keeping any and all food for later usage. My grandma was given to another family when she was very young. She does not know her real name, her actual date of birth, or any information of her real parents. In this new family, she had a very limited set of food options. She said she never thought about eating anything fancy. When there was food to eat, it was the happiest thing for her. At age 14, she finally got the chance to go to elementary school, but because she was the oldest child in the class, the embarrassment pushed her to drop out. She started to work at age 14 by lying about her age, because the minimum legal working age was 16. She got married and started to cook for her family. It was a hard time because everything was limited, and there was no extra money to buy more. And even when you had money, there were a lot of things you wanted to buy but there was no place to find them. It was a frustrating time for all of them. To make sure kids had enough food to eat, Pan and her husband, my grandpa starved all the time. They tried to get livestock, such as chickens and goats, to raise so at least sometimes there was meat for the kids. Her memories about having enough food can be counted using one hand. Both of my grandmas and my grandpa were unhealthily thin because of lack of nutrition.


When I was young, I was told not to waste food because children in the rural areas were starving. I have also heard from my professor that when she was young, she was told not to waste food because there were starving people in China. Here is the historical proof of this hard period Chinese people lived in. By hearing my grandparents’ stories, I think I get closer to them. Knowing and understanding the experiences they had been through give me some insights of where they can from, where my parents came from, and where I came from.