The people’s vegetable that helped northerners get through winter

On December 1, 1949, shortly before Mao Zedong was to depart for Moscow on his first state visit since the PRC’s founding, the Communist Party’s Shandong branch received “extra urgent” summons by telegraph to help the chairman prepare for the momentous journey—by buying him groceries.

It appeared that Mao’s visit was going to coincide with Joseph Stalin’s 70th birthday celebrations, and he had been agonizing over what gifts to give the leader who was then his most valued ally. Eventually, Mao wrote in the telegram, “The central leadership has decided to present big yellow-sprout cabbages, turnips, green onions, and pears from Shandong province as birthday gifts…Please purchase 2,500 kilograms of each within three days…Select the best.”

Known as “baicai” (白菜, literally “white vegetable”) or “big baicai” (大白菜), the Chinese cabbage may seem like an unlikely memento for a foreign state leader. Originated in China at least 6,000 years ago, baicai has long been regarded as the most common and affordable vegetable in the country, as indicated by its nickname, the homophonic “folk vegetable (百姓菜).”

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King Cabbage is a story from our issue, “Alpine Ambitions.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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