Dreams of feasts

A 1955 New Year's poster with the slogan: "Vegetables are green, melons are plump, harvest is beautiful." Painted by Jin Meisheng.
A 1955 Communist Propaganda poster for New Year’s with the slogan: “Vegetables are green, melons are plump, harvest is beautiful.” Painted by Jin Meisheng.

“Those who dream of a banquet may wake to lamentation and sorrow. Those who dream of lamentation and sorrow may wake to join a hunt.”

—Zhuang Zhou, 4th century, BCE

I’ve written about food in novels before— but I recently finished two books that drove home how integral food is, in both a cultural and a survival sense. Both books— one historical fiction set in China when Mao was in power, the other, a biography of a man who escaped from a prison camp in North Korea— have a theme of food representing more than just sustenance running through them.

First is Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy, which takes place during Chairman Mao’s so-called the Great Leap Forward and disastrous communist policies. However, since the book is set in China in the late 1950s, I was acutely aware of the lovely descriptions of food in the beginning of the story, as well as the historical events the characters are about to suffer through. The rose-petal cakes from Russian bakeries, rice dumplings stuffed with spicy greens, and banquets with eight treasures vegetables gradually become a memory.

The mouth watering meals give way to counting out rice portions, to counting grains of rice, to scavenging grains of rice and corn from the fields— and the descent into famine is brutal and complete, ending with boiling leaves to eat, to ward off starvation just a few days longer. There is no exact figure for how many people starved to death during what became the Great Chinese Famine, but the number is somewhere between 10 and 45 million.

Warning: plot spoilers ahead.

In the end, food is a thread that pulls the characters back together: after the family escapes the countryside back to Shanghai, food is essential to their recovery— and dinners together help them heal completely. Even when food rations hit the city, they know they’ve escaped the worst of it.

Even more stark is Escape From Camp 14, which narrates the wrenching story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who escapes from a prison camp in North Korea— a camp which he is born into. The matter-of-fact way which he describes the brutal competitions for food, and eating roasted rats, grasshoppers, and corn found in cow dung, is difficult to read.

Shin’s description of what drove him to escape a prison camp is striking: the loving descriptions of food by a man who has lived outside the prison walls, and who helps Shin plot an escape together. Dreams of roasted meat, of pork and chicken, the freedom to eat when hungry, are given as his motivation to finally flee. In later interviews, like this one with Anderson Cooper, he tries to brush off this desire as selfish, as not as noble as a flight to freedom.

Honestly, I found the dreams of food something I could so easily relate to— and a simple, understandable desire in a life story that was at times morally troubling and always harrowing.

The above quote comes from Zhuang Zhou, a Daoist Chinese philosopher. I half-remembered the quote from Ursula Le Guin’s book Lathe of Heaven, and when I Googled it, I was pleasantly surprised to see the second half of the quote. While Zen calm is useful in some situations, there are others— like the realities in these books—that demand not just a peaceful Zen detachment, but the drive to change one’s situation.

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