Out of China: Mao's cuisine stirs a taste for nostalgia

PEKING - What would Mao Tse-tung have made of it all? Free-enterprise restaurants serving Cultural Revolution cuisine, catering for the generation of Chinese sent down to the countryside for re-education in the late Sixties.

Mao badges, old photographs and Cultural Revolution slogans decorate the walls. The menu at the 'Laosanjie' (re-educated youths) restaurant, in central Peking, even offers re-educated youths 'nostalgia dishes', a gastronomic trip down memory lane. There is bland corn soup, corn flour patties, vegetable-filled corn dumplings and pickled vegetables. Or there is fish, cut and laid out on the platter to look like cob corn.

'Nowadays the living standards have improved. People don't like to eat corn, they prefer fish. So in order not to forget, we cook the fish to resemble the corn,' explained Zhu Qun Nian, one of the founders of the restaurant.

There is also an Educated Youths' Reunion Dish - a fried platter of vegetables, chillis, pineapple, and seafood. 'These are sweet, sour, bitter and hot ingredients,' Mr Zhu said. 'It reflects our feelings. The colours in the food are very bright, they symbolise our past and our future.'

The feelings of this generation are complex. It is now almost exactly 25 years since Chairman Mao dispatched 17 million Red Guards 'to learn from the peasants'. For most of the schoolchildren and students it was a harsh introduction to manual labour and the privations of the countryside. 'Including the fathers, mothers and family members (of the Laosanjie), about 100 million people were affected,' Mr Zhu said. 'Now the people are spread out in different walks of life. But we have common feelings, and we had a special test in life.'

More than half of the restaurant's customers are former Laosanjie, now in their mid-forties, estimated Mr Zhu. Wouldn't it be better to forget such unpleasant memories? 'We went to the countryside with great enthusiasm, without any hesitation, as soon as we heard Chairman Mao's order. But when we arrived, we found things were rather different to what we had imagined. We were given agricultural equipment and sent into the fields. There was no welcoming ceremony. I remember I felt very exhausted because I had never done such heavy labour before. The first meal was all corn but,' pointing to his restaurant's dishes, 'not as good tasting as this.

'It left a deep impression. When we gather together now, the eternal topic is always about the life in the countryside. We are very proud of this special experience which we had. There is an old saying: in a hard environment, the talented people will emerge. We are sure that if we can unite together, we can contribute to ourselves, and to society.'

Deng Xiaoping's push for greater economic reform last year made it possible to open such a restaurant, said Mr Zhu. Indeed, one of Mr Deng's daughters, herself a Laosanjie, once came for a meal.

Under the umbrella of the Xicheng District Sports Committee, Mr Zhu's official work unit, the Laosanjie Economic Development company was set up to run the restaurant. Four other re-educated youths sit on the company's board; a famous actor, a state enterprise chief, a well-known calligrapher and the deputy editor of a state newspaper, all evidence that some Laosanjie are now emerging at the top of their fields. The business plans to expand into everything from electronic products to construction materials and communications, a far cry from Mao's Cultural Revolution.

However, this is the generation whose education was completely disrupted, and many now have to sit back and watch younger people taking the best jobs. 'This younger group, because they grew up after the Cultural Revolution and received a proper education, are qualified to be chosen as leaders. But sometimes we Laosanjie have a feeling of loss. It is not because we are incapable, but because our beautiful youth was wasted . . .

'Sometimes they come here a little emotional and sentimental. So I try to calm them down and make them not only think of past times. No matter what kind of job they have, they just come here to try to help each other.'

In the nearby Black Earth restaurant, namecards of dozens of Laosanjie are pinned to a wall, with notes of their old rural units to help people contact former workmates. A sign on the wall says: 'In the past we sweated in the wasteland of the north-east of China. Now we happily re-gather in this Black Earth restaurant.' One small room is lined with rough-hewn wood to help recreate the atmosphere of a peasant home. On the wall is a letter from the Heilongjiang Provincial Farm unit, thanking the Laosanjie for their hard work, and inviting them back for a visit.

Mr Zhu said he expected more and more Laosanjie restaurants to open around China. 'When I went to apply for the restaurant licence, it took only eight days to get approval. I had to go to 10 different offices, but many of the officials were Laosanjie, that's why all of them gave me the green light.'

What would Chairman Mao think of his restaurant? 'I think there is a relation between Mao's time and Deng's time. Without Mao's mistakes, perhaps Deng would not have made the decision to reform.'

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before