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The Cultural Revolution Cookbook and the Politics of Nostalgia

"The East Wind State Farm" (dir. Hu Jie)

By Maya E. Rudolph

The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, a recent title that draws on the legacy of communal agricultural during the Cultural Revolution, researched and written by Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman, was recently released by Earnshaw Books.

The book incorporates some realities of Cultural Revolution-era cooking and eating with a definite bend towards popular American culinary trends, asserting of the young people who cultivated these recipes in the 1960s and 70s:

They learned to prepare remarkably tasty and healthy dishes with the fresh, wholesome foods in season, to conserve scarce fuel and to improvise when ingredients were unavailable. They used locally grown produce because there wasn’t anything else. And they mastered the art of getting peak flavors and maximum nourishment out of unprocessed, low-calorie foods, devoid of artificial preservatives, fresh from the fields, ponds and streams. These are their recipes – entirely authentic, and easy to prepare in an American kitchen.

While it’s unusual for representations–or even reproductions–of life during the Cultural Revolution to smack of such pragmatic optimism, a certain nostalgia for elements of quotidian life during this era are certainly apparent in some areas of Cultural Revolution literature and even in popular culture. From army fatigues to red scarves worn over blue-and-white-striped t-shirts (or haihun shan), People’s Liberation Army-style apparel has been widely appropriated by Chinese college students and “artistic youth.” Cultural Revolution-era propaganda aesthetics in posters and other artistic renderings can be widely observed in trendier areas of major Chinese cities, appealing to tourists and youth alike.

Courtesy of Maopost

Akin in some ways to the German phenomenon of Ostalgie, or nostalgia for life under the erstwhile Soviet system in East Germany, which has been widely documented in academia and pop culture, this trend-heavy Cultural Revolution throwback is an often contradictory sensation. The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, marketed towards Americans seeking to cook simple, “authentic” Chinese food, may represent a new attitude in Cultural Revolution sentimentality.

Hu Jie‘s 2009 documentary The East Wind State Farm tells the story of a group of “Rightists” sent to this eponymous farm in southwest China for “rehabilitation” during the Cultural Revolution. While the film traces the undeniable struggle of these maligned citizens and the often disastrous results of their agricultural and infrastructural projects during the “Great Leap Forward,” some attention is paid to the fragments of daily life remembered from this period. In recalling history, even as it is shaped by politics and broad social movements, it is impossible to fully ignore the details of human life–food, clothing, transportation, even entertainment. In Hu’s film, these seemingly immaterial aspects of life, even under the most unimaginable of political circumstances, are what may persist in memory to create a sense of history that is personal, a sense of survival.


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