Public Dining Halls in the Formation of Collective Identity
Today, the largest contributor to China’s food security is the cluster of 104 state farms in Beidahuang (the Great Northern Wilderness) in northeast China, bordering Russian Siberia. However, back in the early 1950s, there were very few farms in the region and the dominating landscape was swamps and marshes. The transformation of Beidahuang from wilderness to a national granary was achieved by the millions of migrants from other parts of China who arrived in the region in the 1950s and 60s under the state’s call to develop the frontier. Moving people to the region by administrative power and revolutionary hyperbole was one thing; keeping them in the wilderness to build state farms and settle down was quite another. This paper will argue that homogenizing people’s taste was one of the most effective mechanisms to keep people to the land and create a new collective identity as socialist farm workers.
Taste as a social marker distinguishes and maintains cultural groups. Migrants from other parts of China, who grew up on rice and a rich variety of vegetables, constantly complained about their unpleasant physiological reactions to Beidahuang sorghum and very limited choices of local vegetable, especially in the long, harsh winter. The complaining strengthened migrants’ nostalgic psychological tie to their native places and reinforced the incompatibility between migrant groups and local environment. However, eating in dining halls in the early years of these newly established state farms significantly homogenized farm workers’ eating experiences regardless of their diverse origins and personal preferences. The institutionalization of food and eating through dining halls significantly facilitated the process of adaptation. The dining halls disciplined migrant bodies and tastes, broke down social boundaries between migrant groups from different origins, and transformed them, who were mostly from rural backgrounds, from farm hands toiling for the survival of their own families into socialist workers reclaiming new cropland from the wilderness to feed the nation. This paper, therefore, seeks to use taste as an analytical tool to unravel the making of a homogenous collective identity of Beidahuang people.