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.'

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