Chinese Terminology: Food in the past 70 years
By Wang Qiwei

Have you heard of the phrase "chi guo le ma" or "have you eaten yet"? Well, it's what Chinese people often say to each other as an ordinary, everyday greeting. And this seems quite logical, as in the past, Chinese people didn't have an abundant choice of food.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, they say. But in 1958 China, there WAS such a thing! To boost productivity in fields and factories, workers were encouraged to come to special communal canteens where they received a complimentary meal. The logic here was that they wouldn't be wasting time preparing the food at home. Everyone had the same food from a huge pot, known as "da guo fan" in Chinese.

The facilities found real favor with the locals when they were first commissioned. You can get a real sense of it from the poster, which reads: "The commune's canteen is powerful, and the dishes are deliciously made. You eat as you wish, and the production ambitions will rise.” 

Disaster hit China a year later, as supplies of grain and other foods were severely hit. It soon became apparent that there wouldn't be enough to feed everyone. And the days of eating happily out of "da guo fan" became a thing of the past. People were forced to scavenge for nutrition to stay alive, with many searching in the wild for what became known as "melon and vegetable substitutes." These included anything ranging from plant roots to tree bark. Communal dining was discontinued in 1961. 

And as a product of China's planned economy at the time, people got a fixed amount of "food stamps" for their work each month. And they could be exchanged for the likes of grain, flour and cooking oil. It wasn't much use having real money back then, because the state-owned stores required food stamps as well. This began to change in the early '80s, as China's reform and opening-up program gave the people more freedom to buy and sell as they liked. The food stamps concept would eventually fade out.

Meanwhile, as more and more restaurants sprouted up in the cities, people sometimes decided to give themselves a treat and eat out, also known as "going down to the restaurants." At that time, eating in a restaurant was a posh thing to do as not everyone had the luxury. Fast forward to today, and it's a totally different world in China. Choices are abundant, with both domestic and international cuisines.

And they are available quite literally at the push of a button. From the comfort of your own living room, you can order your favorite dish on your mobile device and have it delivered to your door in a matter of minutes. But this can't be achieved without the group of people who are nicknamed "wai mai xiao ge," or the food delivery brother. That's because nearly all the delivery persons are young men, and it's their hard work that makes the food delivery possible.

And Chinese people not only learn to satisfy their appetite, but also pay more attention to a healthier diet. Just as the old Chinese saying goes "min yi shi wei tian" – food is as important as the heavens above.