During the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, Chairman Mao tried to ban many of his countrymen from cooking. Farmers and factory workers were told to eat in communal canteens to increase their productivity. Fewer hours spent making food were supposed to translate into more time in the fields or on factory floors.
Mao’s drive for agricultural collectivisation and rapid industrialisation led to famine, but the influence of the institutional canteen has remained. Even today, in a much more liberal economy, tens of millions of Chinese use them on a daily basis.
Indeed, if recent pictures from the dining halls of leading companies like Huawei, Alibaba and Dalian Wanda are instructive, China’s canteen culture is experiencing something of a renaissance.
Sushi, roast duck and freshly-made noodles are just a few of the things these corporate eateries are offering, with menus so varied that diners don’t have to repeat their choices over the course of a month.
Netizens were salivating as employees posted photos of their daily fare on the internet and former employees admitted that they still craved the food at some of these successful firms.
“It’s been five years since I quit my job at Huawei and I still miss that canteen so much,” wrote one person in response to the many articles that the photos have spawned.
The coverage has even led to the creation of new phrase shai shitang – ‘to bask in the glory of one’s canteen’.
It’s a far cry from the early days of communal eating under Mao when produce was limited and food was doled out on a work points system – the more valuable you were to the collective, the more food you got.
Propaganda posters from the time promised people they could eat “as much as they wish”. In reality food supplies were rationed and women and the elderly were given less.
As Tracy Fallon, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at Nottingham University’s Ningbo Campus points out, even when the Great Leap Forward ended and Mao’s policies were reversed, many organisations maintained the canteen system as way of feeding their employees.
“Though families were allowed to return to cooking in their homes, canteens remained at the heart of the state’s work unit (or danwei). Work pressures, the distance from work to home, and food rationing meant that canteens continued to play an important part in everyday life,” she wrote in a blog last year.
Before the current debate on company canteens became popular, the dining options at some of China’s universities had also come up for discussion.
For instance Peking University has a reputation for its Nong Yuan or “agricultural garden” dining hall which seats 10,000 students and offers up to 350 freshly cooked dishes a day.
Also in Beijing, Tsinghua University is famous for having 22 smaller canteens which offer food choices from all over China.
As with the company fare, the food for students is subsidised and public access to the canteens is limited.
When British caterers went on a tour of Chinese college canteens in January they were amazed at what they saw. “The lowest number of hot meal choices we have come across in China is 100, every day of the week. It is just staggering,” the Times Higher Education supplement quoted Julie Barker, director of accommodation and hospitality services at the University of Brighton, as saying.
The culinary delegation was researching how to meet demand from Chinese students studying in British universities. The Chinese now account for a fifth of international students in the UK and some students have cited culinary nostalgia as one of the reasons for giving up on their overseas education and returning home. With the Chinese providing hundreds of millions of pound in fees to British universities, this is something that college chancellors want to avoid.
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