A special exhibition is currently being held in Beijing. On display are a variety of commodity ration coupons used in China during the time of the planned economy, which ran from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s.
The exhibition will remind many people who are over 30 years old of the days when nearly all commodities were rationed. Coupons were allocated by the government for daily necessities, ranging from grain to soap, bicycles to shoes.
Of all the rationed commodities, the liangpiao (grain coupon) is the most striking in people's memory, as it was the most important thing for everybody at that time. The average ration was 15 kilograms for a man and 13 kilograms for a woman each month, though it varied somewhat with age, profession and location.
When people planned to dine out or travel to other places, they had to make sure that their wallet contained at least one thing: the grain coupon. Failing to bring money with them would not pose a problem because they could borrow from a friend who might well have some spare cash. But borrowing a grain coupon would be very embarrassing because the ration was the same fixed amount for anybody no matter how wealthy they were.
Meat was even scarcer. When I was writing this article yesterday, I couldn't remember how much the pork ration was. I asked my 85-year-old mother, and she answered without hesitation: "Ban jin per person per month." ("Ban jin" means a quarter kilo.) She told me: "I remember when you got married, each of our neighbours donated a ban jin pork coupon so that your father and I could manage to prepare a decent wedding banquet."
The meat ration varied in different places. Hubei, my home province, was notorious for scant supply of meat. Once at a dinner during a national conference held in Beijing in the 1960s, the late Premier Zhou Enlai joked with the governor of my home province, asking him to show a coupon. He told the embarrassed local official to work harder to improve food supply.
The market-oriented reform China has conducted in the past two and a half decades has dramatically changed the situation. Allowing farmers a free hand in farming and encouraging private investment in light and service industries greatly emancipated the productive forces. Supply of food and other daily necessities became abundant and coupons gradually became worthless in the mid- and late-1980s, although it was not until 1993 that the liangpiao, the last of all coupons, was officially scrapped.
After another decade, the obsolete vouchers have become object d'art sought by collectors. The aforementioned exhibition is an assembly of all the coupons issued by the governments at different places and levels. They bear witness to the time when everything was planned, and controlled, by the government. Besides catering to the avarice of collectors of curiosities, it also plays an educational role. It will impart to today's young people some knowledge about the planned economy, as well as reminding middle-aged and senior citizens of the hard times they experienced.
The present time has its own problems: wealth-poverty disparity, corrupt officials, market deception, absurdly soaring prices of housing, education and medical care, and more. They have to be addressed with efforts as hard as were made during the market-oriented reform. However, they should not become an excuse to negate the reform drive. We resent the contemporary problems. And we also resent the time when a mother got up in the early hours of the morning to queue in front of the butcher's shop to buy a ban jin of pork for her children.
(China Daily 03/01/2006 page4)