Revolution at the Canteen: Food and Labor Politics in Industrial China, 1910s-1950s

Nov 18, 2015 | 12:00 PM

Seung-joon Lee (History, National University of Singapore; HYI Visiting Scholar 2013-2014)
Chair: Philip Thai (
Assistant Professor of History, Northeastern University)

In spite of their relatively small numbers in an overwhelmingly rural country, Chinese urban workers played a significant role in the Chinese revolution. At the heart of Chinese labor politics was a demand for worker life improvement, particularly for adequate meal service, which was to be provided by the management at a decent price, if not free, at the work place. In no country were hunger and malnutrition politicized more than in China. Having set up a number of successful labor disputes before the Communist Party cadres appeared at the scene, Chinese workers themselves made significant political repercussions, namely “rice strikes” (migui bagong), in the 1920s. With a series of industrial welfare programs, the KMT Nationalists, too, made unsparing efforts to garner the growing political potential of the labor force. In the eyes of the KMT technocrats, providing optimal calories to the work force was a quintessential task to fulfill the Party’s cardinal cause: building a strong industrial nation. Accordingly, food provided in the worker’s canteen became a focal point of labor politics.

Supplying food to the worker’s canteen should no longer be an extension of traditional charity practice that had previously blossomed in China’s imperial past, but rather it should be a new revolutionary practice that mobilized new forms of technical expertise ranging from nutrition science and culinary innovation, to statistical calculation and social classification, to public hygiene and racial health. The worker’s canteen, this talk argues, turned into the very institution that provided the workers with learning experience of nutritional knowledge, food entitlement, and political consciousness, which profoundly influenced the CCP’s eventual triumph when the KMT regime failed in the management of the overall food supply.