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China’s worship of the new potato god

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

Just one block away from Beijing’s Foreign Ministry, devout Chinese light incense sticks day by day in front of hundreds of holy figures in the Dongyue temple, asking their respective patron saint to watch over life, death and fate, wealth, happiness or health. Founded in 1319, the once most important Daoist monastery complex in northern China was destroyed several times but had always been rebuilt. Twenty years ago, atheist Beijing reopened it as a “people’s art museum” and provided replicas of the 1,316 deity figures counted in 1928. Nevertheless, the temple has not lost its spiritual attraction.

Folk saints are booming. The socialist People’s Republic even allowed the creation of new spirits as a mixture of marketing and devotion, such as the God of the Potato (土豆神). The population makes offerings to his larger-than-life figure in the Beijing agricultural suburb of Yanqing, where refined potatoes are grown on a large scale.

Chef Zhang Aiguo, wearing patriotically spiced-up professional attire, presents his Shao Mai ravioli, prepared with potato flour, as an offering to the “God of Potatoes” in Yanqing.

The potato god became an emblem of the 2015 “World Potato Conference” held in Yanqing. Food expert and celebrity chef Zhang Aiguo dedicated his first bowl of Chinese shao mai ravioli to the deity after he was able to make it from 25 percent potato flour. By then, Zhang had spent ten years experimenting to add 30 percent potato flour to 200 typical Chinese pasta products, ranging from rice cakes, mantou and huaquan to noodles, without consumers tasting the difference.

Nutrition as a patriotic task

For the sacrificial ceremony, Zhang wore a sewn-on Chinese flag and the state emblem on his chef uniform. He said it’s not just about the tastiest recipe and for how to better integrate potatoes into the Chinese diet, but also about the state-bearing question: “Who feeds China?” But this, he says, is a patriotic task.

Until now, the potato – which according to the National Potato Museum in Yanqing was imported 400 years ago – had spent its existence as a shade plant in China’s diet. Shredded, steamed, stir-fried, cooked in strips or in a stew, it was never more than a mundane vegetable side dish for the Chinese. Since 2015, Beijing has wanted to upgrade the vitamin-rich tuber to staple food and put it on an equal footing with rice, wheat and corn. China’s citizens, meanwhile, don’t want to get used to them as a “strategic” filling side dish. They bring up the rear in terms of global per capita consumption, even though China is the world’s largest potato producer.

Beijing’s potato lobby is keeping its eye on the ball. It just anchored a forced cultivation in Inner Mongolia and in three northeast provinces in the 2025 five-year plan, the Ministry of Agriculture announced. The 300 potato dishes developed in the meantime, “which correspond to Chinese taste,” would also ensure a breakthrough.

A repurposed propaganda poster from the Cultural Revolution meant to whet citizens’ appetites for potatoes. A group of Red Guards storm off with a new slogan: “Let’s ignite the revolution for the potato as the main course.”

To the outside world, China does not appear to have a food problem. Its farmers doubled their grain yields to 607 million tons annually between 1978 and 2014, and now produce 650 million tons. The Ministry of Agriculture announced that China’s grain stores were filled with a year’s worth of wheat and rice.

But on the downside, groundwater levels in the granaries of central and northern China have dropped to historic lows, and soils are depleted, overfertilized, and contaminated with pesticides. The country is also dependent on the global market for 100 million tons of soybean imports annually. Chinese agronomists call the low-water and fertilizer-consuming, cold-resistant potato an alternative solution for feeding the nation.

Xi’s warning on food supply

The propagandist of China’s superior social system, Xi Jinping, of all people, warned at a Central Committee agricultural conference on Dec. 23, 2013, just a year after his ascension to party leader, not to consider the grain problem solved just because China brought in several years of good harvests: “We must not be too naive on this issue. In our history, there have been so many famines, even gruesome cannibalism. “咱们不要太天真!我国历史上发生了多少次大饥荒,饿殍遍野,甚至人相食,惨绝人寰!

Extensive self-sufficiency is also a political question. In the event of an agricultural crisis, all commercial grain on the global market – where only 300 million tonnes are available – would not suffice. “Even if we bought up all of it in the event of a crisis, we would only have enough to last for half a year.” Moreover, China would throw world supply, trade and prices into chaos.

The 30-pages long text was published in a Chinese “selection of important speeches after the 18th Party Congress” (十八大以来重要文献选编). Xi speaks straight: He belongs to a generation “for whom hearing the word ‘ration stamps’ feels like yesterday. We still remember what hunger is.” During the hardships of 1959 to 1961, he went to a school where supper consisted of a watery soup, but it did not satiate him. During the Cultural Revolution, he worked in a peasant brigade (as reported by China.Table). For three months, there was not a drop of cooking oil in his food. When he received money from his family and used it to buy frozen pork in winter, as did several of his friends, they snipped off the meat on the way home and ate it raw. “It tasted heavenly.”

The condemnation of food waste

In his speech, he excoriated the horrendous waste of food by the splurging of his compatriots: More than 200 million Chinese could be fed for a year on grain and food thrown away in restaurants every year. Xi is having all of China’s eateries inspected to see if their “plates are being emptied”. In August 2020, he ordered a relaunch of his campaign due to an increase in food waste after the introduction of an online food ordering and delivery service, first hailed as a reform. The catering industry would throw away some 18 billion kilograms of food waste each year. In May 2021, the People’s Republic became the first country in the world to enact a law against food waste, punishing waste by catering services and consumers with heavy fines.

Whether by the help of a potato god, or by strict laws: The old question. “Who will feed the Chinese?” still remains on Beijing’s agenda. It is the Achilles’ heel of China’s rising model and the dream of rebirth as a world nation.

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