Canteens and the Politics of Working-class Diets in Industrial China, 1920–37

Research paper by SEUNG-JOON LEE

Indexed on: 20 Jul '21Published on: 01 Jan '20Published in: Modern Asian studies


This article explores how workers’ diets and meal services at factory canteens became the nucleus of labour politics in Republican Shanghai, China's industrial heartland. At the heart of Chinese labour politics was a demand for the improvement of workers’ diets, particularly for adequate meal service, which was to be provided by management at a reasonable price—if not for free—at the workplace. The purpose of this article is not only to draw attention to a lacuna in Chinese labour history, but also to shed new light on the agency of workers in their labour disputes from the perspective of food history. No other issue provided a better opportunity to unite workers, labour activists, and so-called scabs than the issue of food. In the wake of labour disputes, industrialists changed their perception of the relation between industrial health and work efficiency. With the promotion of factory canteens, the Guomidang Nationalists also began to exert unsparing efforts to garner the growing political potential of the labour force. Therefore, factory canteens evolved into a contested space in which workers, management, and the state offered different visions of workers’ diets and industrial productivity.