My family used to run the “People’s Commune Canteen.”

The People’s Commune’s “big cafeteria” was a new thing in 1958 during the “Great Leap Forward”. After the great leader’s approval and call, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China issued an official document on the matter, and a wave of “big canteens” was set off from the south to the north of China.

Around 1960, the Ninth Production Team of Ding Fan Village, Gao Cun Commune, Wanrong County, Shanxi Province, where I am from, also set up a big canteen, and the address of the canteen was chosen to be my home.

There were several reasons why the large canteen was chosen for my home. The first is its good location. There is a large pond in front of my house, and the main supply and marketing cooperative is located next to it, making it very convenient for transportation, water and purchasing goods. Second, there are many houses. My house is a small courtyard house in the architectural style of rural Jinan, with three large northern rooms, an east-west wing and a veranda in the southern room, which is accessed from the southern doorway of the eastern wing. Third, the population is small. My family of four people, my father is the director of the commune hospital, my mother is a housewife, virtuous and capable, my sister is studying abroad in junior high school, I am five or six years old, the house is well organized, clean and sanitary, is the most ideal choice to run a large cafeteria.

This large canteen took up three of my north and west rooms, but it was not enough, so the west room and my neighbor’s east room, which was separated by a wall with a ridge, were opened up and merged into one, in which several large pots and pans were set up as a kitchen. The north room was used as a storehouse for the dining hall, where food, rice, noodles and vegetables were stored. Our family was crammed into the east wing. A large dining hall was opened for more than 200 people to eat every day.

According to the living habits of our hometown, breakfast is not fired, and the members gnaw a little bit of cold bun bought from the canteen the day before; for lunch and dinner, one member from each family sends a person with a bamboo basket containing bowls and plates and a meal ticket distributed by the production team to my family’s canteen to queue up for food, then take it home and eat it together.

The staple food in the main canteen is mostly steamed bread, soup noodles and porridge. The soup noodles are boiled in a large pot with cabbage and radish, and the noodles are served with water. Since my hometown was a dry waki, I grew few vegetables, so the only food we cooked at the cafeteria was raw leek, shredded radish, cabbage with noodles, and occasionally fried vegetables. For those who lived far away from the canteen, their food would be cold when they brought it home and had to be heated before they could eat it.

There were two or three male members in the production team’s canteen, including the general manager and the purchasing agent, and seven or eight cooks, all of whom were clever women among the female members. My mother was one of them. She was a kind-hearted and decent woman, and was praised by her neighbors for her crop work, needlework and home-cooked meals.

Not long after the canteen opened, members of the community privately told me that they liked to have my mother serve them noodles in soup. My mother held a rolling pin in one hand and kept stirring the noodles in the pot while holding a big spoon in the other hand to scoop the noodles. There are some cooks who don’t want to stir the noodles when they are served, and the noodles are thicker or thinner, or they treat people differently.

We have 12 production teams in our village, teams run large canteens. At one time, the brigade department also ran a large canteen for the reception of higher-ups, brigade cadres and related personnel to eat. Perhaps it was the power that made it so, but the canteen run by the main team department had better quality food than the production team canteen. My father had taken me there to eat, remember the thick paste of boiled millet porridge aromatic spray, I drank a big bowl and drink. And the production team canteen boiled millet porridge, so thin that only a few grains of rice, you can see the shadow of a person. I don’t know whether it was the masses who made comments, or what, the main team’s canteen was closed down after a short time.

At first, the production team ran a large canteen, fresh and fashionable for a while. The food for the patterns to do, steamed bread, flower rolls, buns, members of the community to come back down to the ground, hit the rice home to eat, do not have to move their own fire pot stove, quite hassle, completely liberated the women from the pot, focus on productive work. But for a long time, because of food shortages, staple food white flour less and less, more and more coarse grain, food patterns are also monotonous. The canteen treasurer to learn from field experience, make all the effort, some are the traditional way to save food, with alfalfa, mixed with wild herbs in the surface of the steamed vegetable nests; some with mung bean husk, corn kernels boiled starch. In order to fill the belly, family members with more than one member, no choice but to exchange the fine grain meal ticket for the coarse grain meal ticket, in order to be able to eat a mouthful of food.

There is an old woman in our production team, who fled from the wilderness before liberation, and is a prominent poor farmer. Usually, she liked to take a little advantage of the group and others, and was unreasonable and used to be rude. One rainy day, she went to the canteen to fetch food, because she wanted to exchange the fine grain for a little more coarse grain, and quarreled with the head waiter. In the middle of the quarrel, the head waiter carelessly pushed the old lady, but unexpectedly her arm touched her nose, and her nose was bleeding. The old lady squatted on her buttocks in the muddy water in my yard, crying and screaming, her face full of blood, and scolding the head waiter for not allowing her family to live.

The members of the community who came to fetch food knew that she was making a nuisance of herself, and all of them looked on, ignoring her. When my father saw what was happening, he fetched some white paper from his house and asked me to hand it to the old woman. I treaded on the stagnant water and went over to the old lady, who took the white paper, wiped her bloody nose and cursed and wept. She cried and cursed, but after a while, she got bored, got up and went home, cursing and swearing. This scene is still engraved in my mind today. My mother said that during the cafeteria’s run, it was common for members to quarrel with the head waiter and the cook.

There was another incident that I remember very well. One day, I was playing with a girl who was a cook’s aunt, and unknowingly ran into the production team’s wheat threshing floor. The threshing floor was piled with freshly harvested jade sticks from the ground, and our two little ones were so greedy that each of us quietly took a small ear of jade sticks and stuffed them inside our shirts. When I walked out of the gate of the threshing floor, I was wearing a cotton blouse with the buttons off to one side, and the wild rice shoots were hidden so tightly that the boss of the nursery didn’t notice. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a problem with it, but I’m not sure if I have. The actual reason for this is because of the fact that it’s a good idea for you to be able to get a good deal more than just a few of the things you need to do. I told my mother and the girl’s mother what had happened and pulled out the tassels of jade shoots hidden in my clothes. My mother, while criticizing us for not being allowed to take anything from the group again, conveniently threw the ears of jade shoots into the roaring stove, and in a moment they were roasted. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a problem with it, but I’m sure it’s a good idea. The two of us nibbled on the fragrant jade shoots, and the girl broke into a smile.

The production team’s canteen is getting worse and worse, and the members’ rations are being withheld from the collective warehouse, so they want to make some food at home, but there’s no food. The actual actuality is that you’ll be able to get a lot more than just a few of these as well as you’ll be able to get a lot more than just a few of these as well as you’ll be able to get a lot more than just a few of these as well as you’ll be able to get a lot more than just a few of these as well as you’ll be able to get a lot more than just a few of these as well. Whenever the night was heavy, the community members slipped out of the village in groups of three or five to steal. The production team sent a few members to protect the youth, but they drove away the group on this side and another one came on the other side. The hungry people could not care less about their face, morals, shame or the law. Youth protection members are also very difficult, are a lane, who do not want to offend, had to symbolically shout a few voices, to scare, to make a show, to allow the bold members of the theft. The heart is flesh and blood, and the families of the members are also starving.

The starving people first suffer from swelling, and they can’t get up when they press a crater in their leg muscles. Sick members of the community die from lack of nutrition. The old people who had many children also starved to death in order to save food for their children. I was told by my mother that when I went to the town for the fair in those years, I looked around and saw a crowd of white people, all of whom had died at home and were wearing white clothes and white hats in mourning. It’s hard to quantify how many people died of starvation in our village.

At that time, the stock of food for the collective and members’ families was already quite tight. Each member was given half a kilogram of rations per day, which people called “eating five taels”. Since then, “five taels” has become a synonym for “three years of hardship”, a fearful term in people’s lives, and a fearful word to talk about. If a child dropped a grain of rice at the table, or leftover rice was not eaten, the adult would immediately reprimand him, saying, “If you have a taste of “eat five taels”, you will know how to treasure food!

My family is slightly better off than others. My father works as the director of the commune hospital, earning a salary and being able to buy some food and other foodstuffs. My sister went to school abroad, and the school food was not too good, so I brought some steamed buns from home on Sundays to subsidize the food, which was barely enough to eat. When I was young, my parents preferred to eat more coarse grains and often gave me the saved white flour to eat.

However, my own uncle, who lived in the same village, had much more difficulty at home. My uncle and aunt are both farmers, raising four teenage girls. He was honest and quiet, and would never do anything illegal such as “stealing” from the fields, which made family life particularly stressful. The actual time of the day, you’ll be able to find a lot of people who’ll be able to get the most out of your home. He said he had already eaten dinner at home, but he kept staring at our dinner plate with both eyes. When my mother gave in, he picked up the bowl of rice and ate it rudely. My uncle’s mouth saved food for his daughters, and over time, he really did suffer from puffiness, and was hospitalized for a period of time, nearly killing himself.

During the period when my family ran the cafeteria, a funny thing happened. One night in the middle of the night, my sleeping parents were awakened by the sound of a child crying. After careful identification, the sound was coming from the storage room in my north room. The parents got up in a hurry and asked through the door crack, it turned out to be a neighbor’s little girl, playing with the adults in the warehouse during the day, fell asleep in the corner of the house, adults locked the warehouse door did not pay attention, and then locked her inside. In order to prevent theft, there were three locks on the door of the warehouse, and the keys were held by the custodian of the production team and two other representatives of the community. The father went out and called the custodian and other three people one by one to open the door of the warehouse and took the little girl out. The father sent the little girl to the neighbor’s house, the little girl’s parents were sleeping soundly, did not even know that he had a child did not come home at night. No wonder, the neighbor gave birth to seven children, night sleep children lying on a bed, can not be counted.

The production team’s large canteen was run for more than a year, but it was disbanded after a short-lived event. At the time of the big canteens, the top concluded that there were many advantages, such as saving labor, time and fuel, and so on. In fact, the harm of collective canteens is very obvious. The first is a waste of food and fuel; the second is a single meal, the crowd is difficult to adjust, the members can not eat delicious hot food, especially the elderly, children and the sick; the third is a severe shortage of food, not enough to eat; the fourth is to individual cadres to create the opportunity to eat more and occupy more. Members of the community generally reflected that running a large cafeteria was a blind affair.

After the canteen was disbanded, the production team made some changes to our house, removing the cooking stove in the west wing and rewalling the wall that had been opened with the neighbor’s house. Only the north room, continued to be occupied by the production team to store grain, until more than a decade later, only to be vacated. The courtyard house, which was noisy from morning to night, was restored to peace and quiet.

In the past, propaganda always attributed the “three years of difficulties” to natural disasters and Soviet debt bondage. According to the peasants back home, the year 1958 was a good one, with rainy nights and sunny days, and the crops were oily. In 1959, the anti-Rightist movement was followed by the starvation of the entire country. President Liu Shaoqi hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that this was “a natural disaster and a man-made disaster”.

The heavy page of history of the People’s Commune’s big cafeteria has long been gently revealed by the palm of time. However, the extensive scope of the problem, the seriousness of the harm and the great pain it caused to society and the people will also be removed by the stain-removing powder of time, will it fade away?

September 2, 2016 drafted at Overland Books
Revised September 8, 2016, and again in Spring 2018