History of Soybean Production and Trade in China (1949-1980s) - Part 1


by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and Soyfoods: 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

Copyright 2007 Soyinfo Center, Lafayette, California


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In mid-1983 I was invited to go to the People's Republic of China for 3 weeks to give four seminars in various provinces for government officials and technical professionals interested in modern soymilk production. I realized that this was a rare opportunity, for not since William Morse studied soybeans and soyfoods extensively in China during his trip to East Asia in 1929-31 and A.K. Smith studied them in 1949, almost 35 years ago, had a Westerner gone there for this express purpose. And, in this interim after the founding of the PRC in 1949, virtually nothing has been published in English about soyfoods in China, although since 1982 a number of good articles on soybean production have appeared. To understand the present situation in China, it is especially important to understand the country's recent history, especially the political and economic history.

Pre 1949 . China is the home of the soybean. Soybeans were first domesticated in the eastern half of north China in about the 11th century BC (Ho 1969; Hymowitz 1970). From ancient times, China was by far the world's leading soybean producing country. In 1910 China proper (not including Manchuria, which was then an independent nation) produced an estimated 71% of the world's soybeans, and Manchuria produced another 16%. As late as 1933 the two nations produced 87% of the world's soybeans, and in that year their combined production reached an all-time peak of 11.89 million tonnes (metric tons). The soybean was Manchuria's most important agricultural and export crop, and during the 1920s and 1930s huge amounts of soybeans, soy oil, and soybean meal were shipped from Manchurian ports to countries around the world. After 1933, however, soybean production began a long decline, caused largely by stiff competition from soybean producers in the USA and by revolution and civil war within China. The Japanese invasion of China proper in July 1937 and the 8-year war that followed caused soybean production to plummet to a low of 7,381 tonnes in 1943. Yet in that year China and Manchuria were still producing more than 53% of the world's soybeans. After the end of World War II, production slowly picked up, despite the resumption of civil war in China between Mao Tsedong's Communists and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces. Virtually nothing is known of the status of soyfoods (other than soy oil) during the late 1930s and early 1940s, except that, with the extensive fighting nationwide, they were probably rather scarce.

In the summer of l948 Dr. A.K. Smith of the USDA Northern Regional Research Center at Peoria, Illinois, visited China to study soyfoods, visiting Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou (Canton). His fine monograph, Oriental Methods of Using Soybeans as Food (1949), contained 36 pages of information on farming conditions in China, the Chinese diet, oilseed production, and traditional Chinese methods for making soy sauce, soy sprouts, sweet wheat-flour miso ( tian mian jiang ), soymilk, tofu, fermented tofu, and soy nuggets. He noted that 90% of the people were farmers, 25% of the land was arable, and farms averaged 2-3 ha (5-7 acres) in size. The high population density virtually dictated a largely vegetarian diet. The peasants ate meat only three times a year, on their three great holidays: Dragon Festival, Autumn Festival, and New Years. Roughly 95% of the protein in the diet came from plant sources (vs. 45% then in the USA) and 88% of all Chinese food consisted of cereal grains and legumes, with only 3% meat and eggs and less than 0.1% milk. The basic diet of north China consisted of 40% each corn and millet and 20% soybeans. Smith concluded: "China gives a wonderful illustration of the effects on the human race of a vegetarian diet over a long period of time . . . and could no doubt serve as a source of valuable nutritional data." He also discussed Chinese institutions he had visited that were working with soyfoods; Henry Lester Institute in Shanghai (Dr. Bernard Read, director), Academia Sinica (a research organization with headquarters in Nanjing and many branches), Chinese Vegetable Oil Corporation (the largest and most progressive oil processing company in China, with many branches), China Oils and Fats Industries Ltd. (Shanghai), National Bureau for Industrial Research, Yen Ching University (Beijing), and various Agricultural Experiment Stations. Smith reported that the leading soybean producing provinces in China proper were Shandong (it grew a remarkable 70% of the country's soybeans), followed by Henan (20%), then Shanxi (Shansi).

Founding of the People's Republic (1949) and the First Five Year Plan (1953-58) . On 1 October 1949 Mao Tsedong formally proclaimed the founding of the PRC in Beijing. The Communists' 20-year war of liberation had been successful. Between 1947 and 1954 Manchuria was gradually acquired by China, although Chinese soybean production statistics show Manchuria as being part of China since 1950. From 1949-1952 an extensive land reform program was undertaken. The oppressive feudal land tenure system and the landlord class were both quickly eliminated. The vast holdings of landlords and rich peasants were broken up and 47 million hectares (116 million acres) of land were distributed among some 300 million landless or land-poor peasants. According to various estimates, the number of landlords, Kuomintang officials, and Nationalist army or police officers executed from 1949 to 1954 ranged from 800,000 (Mao's estimate) to 3,000,000 (Mao's Chinese critics and some Western sinologists).

The first Five Year Plan (1953-58), adopted by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), basically followed the Soviet model of intensive industrialization, with much less emphasis on and investment in agriculture than would be expected, given the Party's references to "putting the countryside first" and "agriculture as the foundation of China's economic development." Nevertheless, great progress in agriculture was made. In 1955, after the land reform program had been tried for only a few years, the first small-scale agricultural cooperatives were introduced, in which the peasants were given shares of ownership in proportion to their initial contribution of assets. This collectivization, which checked the revival of a "rich peasant" class, radically altered the relationship between individual peasants and what they produced. Quickly the cooperatives were expanded in size. By the end of 1956 practically all capitalist enterprises had been turned into state-capitalist ones; 96.3% of all peasant households had joined agricultural producers' cooperatives (typically two co-ops of 50 families in each of a million or so villages, and 87.8% were in advanced cooperatives (Foreign Language Press 1983a). The masses of peasants were quickly being transformed into politically-active citizens.

After collectivization in the winter of 1955-56, Chinese rural management cadres were encouraged to concentrate on grain and cotton production. Area planted to soybeans (considered a grain) expanded dramatically, as did production, reaching l2.75 million ha and 10.05 million tonnes in 1957, figures which have not since been attained. In 1957 China's leading soybean producing provinces were Shandong (2.07 million ha), Henan (1.785 million), Heilongjiang (1.517), Anhui (1.037), Jiangsu (0.937), Jilin (0.907), and Liaoning (0.729) (Perkins 1969). Note that all these provinces are in north and northeast China (see map). The highest yields were found in Liaoning (1,748 kg/ha; 25.9 bu/a) and Heilongjiang (1,118 kg/ha). The national average was 787 kg/ha (11.6 bu/a), a remarkably low figure.

During the 1950s most Chinese had a genuine enthusiasm for the revolution and for the Communist Party's program. Agricultural output and yields grew steadily. Poverty and hunger, so long a grim and seemingly inevitable part of rural life in China, seemed to have been banished. Most people had better living conditions, food, employment, eduction, and medical care. There was less corruption and injustice than there had been before the Revolution, although the political zigzags from the Campaign Against Counterrevolutionaries (1955-56), through the Hundred Flowers period (several months in 1957) that invited more open expression and criticism of the Party, to the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-58) sent several million of China's intellectuals, including many students, to work in the countryside or to labor reform camps.

The Great Leap Forward and Aftermath . In 1958 the Party inaugurated its second Five Year Plan, starting with the "Great Leap Forward." A mere 2 years after the establishment of the radically new agricultural cooperatives, the government ordered their complete reorganization and expansion into fully collectivized, large communes, in which the peasants were asked to give up their former co-op ownership shares. On the commune, where there was abolition of private property but guaranteed food and clothing, the Party hoped to use ideological incentives to get economic results, harnessing the great energy of the masses to transform China into a purer form of Communism and a major world power. There was mass mobilization of labor for irrigation projects, flood control, land reclamation, and the development of small-scale rural industries (such as backyard iron smelters). Within each commune (similar to a large town) a number of production brigades were formed, and each brigade was further divided into various production teams, consisting of 30-50 households. Assets of the commune units, brigades, and teams were collectively owned by the farm families working there. To provide added incentives and to smooth the transition from private to collective ownership of farmland, three "capitalist elements" were incorporated into the communes and collective farms: small private plots (often surrounding the home), rural markets, and production contracts to households. During the "Great Leap Forward," added emphasis was placed on cereal grain production (primarily wheat and rice) as the key measure of farm success, with a consequent deemphasis on soybeans and oilseeds (peanuts, rapeseeds, etc.).

Although the frenzied Great Leap transformed the landscape of China with many major construction projects, economically it was a disaster. Following a fairly good year in 1958, production of all crops plummeted for 3 years. The initial collapse was caused by shifting too many farm workers into industrial jobs, poor planning and management, lack of incentives, peasant resistance, and general overwork. It was compounded in 1959 and 1960 by floods and drought, and severely hurt in 1960 by the final rupture of Sino-Soviet relations, which had been deteriorating since 1957. In July 1960 Moscow recalled all Soviet advisers from China, canceled more than 300 contracts, and withdrew all technical assistance. Khruschev accused Mao of seeking "world holocaust," and Mao in turn called Khruschev a "revisionist." The agricultural and industrial crisis of 1959-61 was a period of severe hardship for all the Chinese. According to figures released by Beijing in 1980, during these 3 years of near famine, 16.5 million more people than usual died, mostly of malnutrition and its effects. In 1960-61 the Chinese Gross National Product was at about 70% of its 1958 level (USDA/Economic Research Service 1982) (Fig. ??.?).

In the aftermath, the Party had to retreat from the ideal of extensive communes established in 1958. The communes were reorganized in 196l and again in 1962. In late 1958 the center of decision-making was transferred from the commune down to the brigade, and in 1960 further down to the production team of 40-50 households, which thereafter became the basic unit of production and accounting. Beijing's policy of food self-sufficiency, established in 1949, had to be reversed after 1960 in response to severe food shortages. The government was forced to buy grain from the West. The regime acknowledged that agriculture, shortchanged for a decade, must now receive top priority. The policy of concentrating investment on heavy industry was abandoned in the early 1960s. Emphasis was shifted to the promotion of a modern revolution in agricultural investment and technology through the development of a large chemical fertilizer industry, rural electrification, and modern farm machinery, motors, and pumps.

In December 1958, smarting from the economic debacle of the Great Leap, Mao "voluntarily" gave up his position as chief of state to Liu Shaoqi. In mid-1959 members of the Party's Central Committee denounced Mao's romantic and extremist policies. Mao's infallibility was gone and he had to remove himself from the day-to-day administration of affairs (Perkins 1969; Fairbank et al. 1973; Butterfield 1982).

During the Great Leap, reporting of agricultural statistics also changed. As the 1958 campaign developed, the State Statistical Bureau (SSB), which had provided fairly reliable figures up to that time, was broken up and localized. Reporting by untrained local enthusiasts led to greatly inflated figures during the next few years. Again during the Cultural Revolution (1966-69) the SSB was reduced from 200 to 14 workers, as many were sent to labor in the countryside. Only after 1970 did fairly good agricultural statistics become available, based largely on estimates by foreign agricultural attaches and counselors. The SSB was not recentralized until 1977 and it did not regain its pre-Cultural Revolution size until 1980 (USDA/Economic Research Service 1982; Butterfield 1982).

Soybean area fell from its peak of 12.75 million ha in 1957 to 9.55 million ha in 1958, a drop of 25%. It fell even further by 1965, to 8.59 million ha. Yields also fell, so that in 1965 soybean production, a mere 6.14 million tonnes, was at about the same level it had been in 1900 when China's population was roughly half (400 million) what it was in 1965 (775 million). In 1965 soybean production was also 39% less than it had been in 1957, the year before the Great Leap. Throughout this period vegetable oil for cooking was in very short supply. Presumably, so were most basic soyfoods, especially tofu.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-69) and Years Following to 1976 . In 1966 Mao, in a bid to return to power, launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which was also aimed at preventing the rise of a new ruling class, opposing pragmatism and bureaucratic power, and imparting to a new generation revolutionary principles and fervor. Mao used the Cultural Revolution to purge the Party from without; he did it publicly, using mass organizations such as the Red Guard youth. In the fall of 1966, with help from the army, some 11 million Red Guards came to Beijing for mass rallies, then became active at Beijing University and dispersed across the country, linking up with others. Attacks on "bourgeois and revisionist elements" in the Party became heated, while intellectuals and experts were publicly villified. Profoundly suspicious of intellectuals, Mao called them the "stinking ninth category." In particular Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, two top party and government figures, were attacked and purged as "capitalist roaders." Universities and schools were closed. Eventually the frenzy of activity got completely out of hand. In the fall of 1968 Lin Biao, who had compiled the famous Little Red Book of the sayings of Chairman Mao and was largely responsible for promoting the Cult of Mao during the Cultural Revolution, had to disperse troops throughout China to save the country from the destruction caused by roving bands of Red Guard youth and factional fighting. A "rustication program" was initiated in which as many as 17 million city youngsters and Red Guards (nearly one in ten) were "sent down" to the villages. Mao also hoped that this would narrow the development gap between the cities and villages, further revive the younger generation's revolutionary zeal, and relieve some of the excess population pressure on urban areas. But the hardships, boredom, and frustrations of village life often sapped revolutionary zeal instead (Butterfield 1982).

Needless to say, the Cultural Revolution, which ran roughly from May 1966 to April 1969, caused a decline in total agricultural production; it picked up thereafter however. Soybean hectarage fell steadily from 1967 to 1976, but because yields were increasing, production actually rose slightly, except in 1976, when drought lowered yields.

Following a Sino-Soviet border war in 1969, China and the West began a rapprochement. "Ping pong diplomacy" began in April 1971, when China invited a US table tennis team to play in Beijing. In October 1971 China was admitted to the United Nations and Taiwan expelled. Following President Nixon's breakthrough trip to China in 1972, the country began to open its doors to Americans. Also in 1972, China and Japan restored diplomatic relations. The tumultuous era ended in 1976, when Zhou Enlai died of cancer in January and Mao died of natural causes in September.


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