Equality may have been a pillar of communist ideology, but all communist states built elaborate hierarchical orders on the ground. One reason for this was that most of these regimes lived in constant fear of real or imagined enemies, justifying the regimentation of society along military lines in which each subordinate unit was expected to carry out orders without questioning: ‘each official is the anvil of his superiors and the hammer of his subordinates’.1 Another reason was that the command economy distributed goods and services according to need rather than demand. And the needs of different groups were assigned different priorities by the party, whether the country was defending the realm against imperialist powers or busy building a communist future. In the People’s Republic access to food, goods and services was largely determined by a household registration system – the rough equivalent of the internal passport instituted in December 1932 in the Soviet Union. Introduced to the cities in 1951, it was extended to the countryside in 1955 and became law in 1958, just when farmers were being pitchforked into communes. It divided people into two separate worlds by classing them either as ‘city dwellers’ (jumin) or as ‘peasants’ (nongmin).2 The status conferred by the registration system was inherited through the mother, meaning that even if a village girl married a city dweller she and her children remained farmers.
The household registration system was a linchpin of the planned economy. As the state was in charge of the distribution of goods, it had to have a rough idea of the needs of different sectors of the economy. If large flows of people moved about the country in complete freedom it would upset the production quotas and distribution charts so meticulously mapped by central planners. But another function of the system was to tie the cultivators to the land, making sure that cheap labour was available in the collective farms from which a surplus was taken to pay for industrialisation. Farmers were treated as an hereditary caste deprived of the privileges given to city dwellers, which included subsidised housing, food rations and access to health, education and disability benefits. In the midst of famine the state left farmers to fend for themselves.
A wall was created between cities and the countryside, but an equally important fault line ran between ordinary people and party members. And within the party – as in the army – an elaborate internal hierarchy further determined the privileges to which one was entitled, from the amount of grain, sugar, cooking oil, meat, fowl, fish and fruit to the quality of durable goods, housing, health care and access to information. Even the quality of cigarettes varied according to rank. In Guangzhou in 1962 cadres of ranks 8 and 9 received two cartons of ordinary cigarettes a month, cadres of ranks 4 to 7 two better-quality cartons, while the highest three ranks, reserved for top intellectuals, artists, scientists and party leaders, received three cartons of the finest quality.3
At the apex of the party stood the leadership, who had special residences ensconced behind high walls, security guards round the clock and chauffeured cars. Special shops with scarce goods at discounted prices were reserved for them and their families. Dedicated farms produced high-quality vegetables, meat, chicken and eggs, which were analysed for freshness and tested for poison before being sampled by tasters. Only then was the food served to leaders in the capital and the provinces.4 Above them was Mao, living in opulence near the Forbidden City where emperors had once dwelled, his bedroom the size of a ballroom. Sumptuous villas, staffed with chefs and attendants all year round, were at his beck and call in every province or major city.5 At the bottom of the scale were the millions locked away in labour camps located in the harshest parts of the countryside, from the bitterly cold plains of Manchuria to the arid deserts of Gansu. They were made to break stones, dig for coal, carry bricks or plough the desert for years on end without any recourse to the law.
As the famine developed, the ranks of the privileged swelled. Despite continuous purges, the party membership increased by almost half, from 12.45 million in 1958 to 17.38 million in 1961.6 Party members knew how to take good care of themselves. One way to feast through famine was to attend frequent meetings, where everything was provided for by the state. Some 50,000 officials came to Shanghai in 1958, a number which had doubled to 100,000 by 1960. They stayed in state-run hotels and dined at state-sponsored banquets. A favourite haunt was the Donghu Hotel, former residence of the famous gangster Du Yuesheng: it was one of the few venues not to charge for anything at all, whether elaborate menus or a range of perfumes on offer in the toilets. Some of these conferences lasted for over a month. In 1960 roughly one high-level conference was held every day of the year, at great cost to the city.7
Lower-ranking cadres feasted at local meetings. In Nayong county, in famine-ravaged Guizhou province, 260 cadres spent four days working through 210 kilos of beef, 500 kilos of pork, 680 chickens, 40 kilos of ham, 130 litres of wine and 79 cartons of cigarettes as well as mountains of sugar and pastries. To that had to be added fine blankets, luxury pillows, perfumed soap and other goods specifically purchased for the conference. In Beijing an automobile factory spent more than 6,000 yuan on eight visits to top-class hotels to entertain visitors towards the end of 1960.8 Another ploy was to organise ‘product testing’ sessions. In Yingkou, Liaoning, over twenty cadres convened one morning in March 1960, systematically working their way through a range of local produce, starting with cigarettes and moving on to tinned meat, fruit and biscuits, all the while helping themselves to copious portions of rice wine. By the end of the day, satiated and drunk, three of the testers had vomited.9
Pleasure trips were organised. In February 1960, some 250 cadres boarded a luxury ship to cruise the Yangzi, sampling culinary delights on board while admiring limestone cliffs, karst landscapes and small gorges, occasionally leaving the comfort of their cabins to visit cultural highlights along the way. A hundred rolls of film were shot. The scent of perfumed oils and incense sticks, thoughtfully positioned throughout the vessel, wafted through the air. A steady stream of high-heeled waitresses in new uniforms served dish after dish of delicacies. A band played in the background. No expense was spared. For fuel and staff alone the twenty-five-day cruise cost some 36,000 yuan, to which had to be added 5 tonnes of meat and fish, not counting endless supplies of cigarettes and alcohol. It must have been a mesmerising sight, as the cruiser was illuminated like a rainbow with lights of every colour, dazzling in the darkness of a moonlit night. The sound of laughter, chatter and clinking of glasses travelled over the waters of the Yangzi, surrounded by a stunningly beautiful landscape blighted by mass starvation.10
During the famine the feasting and drinking (dachi dahe) that took place in party meetings in the cities and the countryside was a common source of complaint. Rapacious officials were often known as ‘Pigsy Cadres’, after the character in the famous Ming-dynasty novelJourney to the West who was part human, part pig, and legendary for his laziness, gluttony and lust.11 But outside the party some ordinary people too had opportunities to feast. In the collective canteens staff frequently abused their positions to pilfer the provisions. In one cotton factory in Zhengzhou, capital of famished Henan, those in charge regularly raided the storage room, using it as their personal larder. On one occasion a cook gobbled down twenty salt eggs in a single day, and others ate their way through kilos of tinned meat. Noodles and fried dough cakes were eaten at night, while meat, fish and vegetables earmarked for the canteen were divided up among the team in daytime. Ordinary workers had to survive on three bowls of rice gruel a day, occasionally supplemented by some dry rice or a steamed bun. Many were too weak to work.12
In the countryside villagers did not always stand idly by watching the pillaging. In one commune in Guangdong, where two-thirds of all pigs had been eaten by local cadres in banquets and feasts held to celebrate the advent of plenty, farmers warned: ‘You cadres openly steal, we commune members secretly rob.’13 An orgy of slaughter marked the countryside in 1958, when farmers killed off their poultry and livestock as a form of resistance against the people’s communes. Spurred on by fear, rumour and example, they opted to eat the fruits of their labour, or store up a supply of meat, or sell their assets on the black market and save some cash, rather than hand over their belongings. Hu Yongming, as we have seen, systematically ate his way through his livestock in a village up in the hilly north-east of Guangdong province, slaughtering in close succession four chickens, three ducks, dogs and puppies as well as a cat. His family gorged themselves on the meat.14
But even after the heady days of 1958, villagers continued to find ways to have a treat occasionally – sometimes with the connivance of their local leaders. In Luoding, a county bloodied by a thuggish leadership, one brigade still managed to ‘celebrate the birthday of the Communist Party’, an excuse for each family to gulp down four ducks on 1 July 1959.15 At Chinese New Year in 1961 thousands of farm cattle were slaughtered by disgruntled farmers in the Zhanjiang region, a form of protest also observed in other parts of Guangdong province, as no pork was available for the all-important dumplings traditionally used to celebrate the new lunar year.16
Another reason for the occasional feast was that few people saw any reason to save, as expropriation and inflation rapidly eroded any personal reserves. Chen Liugu, a thrifty old lady living in Panyu, had managed to save 300 yuan but now splurged in the early summer of 1959, treating ten people at a restaurant where bowls of fish soup were avidly consumed. ‘There is no use in saving money right now and I only have a hundred yuan left to buy a coffin.’17 In Beijing, foreign residents noticed that some of the usually quiet restaurants did a roaring trade in 1959, as rumours about the advent of urban communes sent residents scrambling to sell their furniture in state-owned shops. The proceeds were spent on a rare meal in the restaurants.18
Sometimes ordinary people could eat copiously because they were lucky enough to be looked after by their cadres, who used every political skill to turn their unit into a bastion of abundance in the midst of starvation. In Xuhui, Shanghai, some canteens had the comparative luxuries of glass doors and fluorescent lamps fitted throughout. Others installed radios, while one canteen in Putuo built a basin with goldfish.19 On the other hand poor supervision of the food-supply chain in some urban units occasionally meant that workers had plenty to eat. In Hebei an investigation showed that workers sometimes moved from one canteen to the next, eating their way through a series of meals. In one dining hall the tables were routinely laden with produce, which spilled over on to the floor. When the leftovers were swept up at the end of each session three to four washbasins, weighing five kilos each, were filled. In a further case of an embarrassment of riches, some workers took food back to their dormitories, although much of this was never eaten. The floor was covered in a layer of yellow mush, as people trod on the discarded buns.20 In Shijingshan, just outside Beijing, the offerings were rich enough for workers to pick out the filling in jujube buns, discarding the dough.21 In the canteens of the mighty Shanghai Machine Tool Factory, rice was given such a cursory wash that several kilos were dug out of the sewers on any one day of the week. This was used to feed the pigs. Slack supervision during the night shift allowed workers to eat their fill, and some even engaged in eating contests: a true champion could manage about two kilos of rice in one sitting.22