My father does not even tell half of the story. He makes it sound not so bad. He only had rice to eat, so they mixed it with water to make porridge. The porridge feels like more food than just plain rice.
But when all you have is rice, you get very little nutrition, and you are susceptible to disease. You're weak. You can't run away from the Japanese military as quickly. You can't swim to shore when your refugee boat capsizes. You can't survive malaria.
Through a number of different means, several of my parents' siblings died in childhood. Lack of food and nutrition was a contributing factor in all of those childhood deaths.
Four years after the second world war, the Communist Party came to power in China. In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong implemented the Great Leap Forward, a mad scheme to industrialize China very quickly. The nationwide economic overhaul resulted in a shortage of food.
My father's aunt, an aunt who once saved his life in some fashion, and her husband, they both starved to death. In the end, they were crawling on the road, trying to get to food before they collapsed and died.
According to Wei, now my wife, the famine was caused by a number of factors, including too much food being sent to urban elites rather than rural peasants and China refusing to solicit or accept foreign food aid.
After the Great Leap Forward, China never suffered another major famine. How? Simple. They made sure that each individual was rationed enough food to survive. As Wei said, even medical doctors received rations, in fact less rations than laborers.
Wei knows of the Great Leap Forward famine because her parents survived it, and she knows of how the guaranteed food provisions worked because she lived through it in her childhood. Few got fat, many fewer people than before suffered undernourishment.
The United States guarantees its citizens plenty of food through its multi-pronged anti-hunger policy. Food stamps, school lunches, food banks, soup kitchens, emergency relief, Meals on Wheels, etc.
The U.S. food stamp program costs about 70 billion dollars a year, more than twice the amount it would cost to abolish hunger in the rest of the world. Why? Our food is more expensive, more processed, and we are guaranteeing more than just survival amounts of food.
A recent example from the Third World is Brazil's Zero Hunger program, initiated in 2003. Just three years after its inception, the number of undernourished people in Brazil plummeted from 17 million to 11.9 million, according to the FAO.
The program was very similar to what is done in the United Stamps: food stamps in the form of a food card, conditioned on going to school and seeing the doctor; food purchases from family farms (like the U.S. agricultural subsidy program); and nutrition programs for children, elderly and pregnant women (like WIC and Medicare).
Unlike the United States, Brazil is a poor nation, and they accomplished this with outlays of about 600 million dollars per year.
Two things prevent hunger and starvation: giving food to the hungry and economic growth that increases the wealth of the poor.
If you guarantee each person enough food to survive, those people can then concentrate on working, improving their farms, educating their children and growing the economy.
China's economy has grown tremendously since 1978, and they do not need to ration food anymore. In fact, China may soon completely eliminate undernourishment within its borders.