China’s history of food coupons for families

By Zhao Jingman (

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TODAY, CHINESE FAMILIES ARE IMMERSED in happiness. They are so happy and they are always buying things for the babies, whatever they think it’s good for the baby like milk powder, dresses, skirts, baby books, foods, all kinds of toys…no other extra considerations are needed, they just buy.

Thanks to a series of economic reforms called out by the government led by Deng Xiaoping, there is everything, plenty of things; rich in kind you need in the super market, free market, shops, and stores, which makes people forget about their old memories of the hard times.

If you were asked to guess what the items below are, for what these are before illustration was made, you would surely guess wrong. These are not train tickets, bus tickets, receipts or invoices.

These are coupons once used in China for buying grain; flour, rice, food oil, (eggs, cloth, bicycles…) these coupons we have collected for various kinds of food between years 1964 to 1996.

My family happened to have kept some of them. This is part of China’s history and not many people have these in their hands.

Let me show you some pictures, see them below:


Pic. 1
Font cover of grain coupon deposit card with name and address of the depositor, card number, registration date and notes.



Pic. 2
Grain coupon deposit card (inside) displaying year began with transaction dates for grain, flour with amounts.


Pic. 3
National grain coupon (1965), mainly used by troops and could be used nationwide. Displays total coupon value, 5 Chinese Shi Jin (2.5kg) and year issued.


Pic. 4
Similar to picture 3, national grain coupon (1966), 3 Chinese Shi Jin (1.5kg).


Pic. 5

Pic. 6

No. 5, 6 – Beijing municipal local flour coupons from of Beijing Grain Bureau (1986) with value 0.5 Chinese Shi Jin (0.25kg).


Pic. 7
Beijing municipal local rice coupon. Expires at the last day of the year of issue. Displays month coupon is for, year of issue (1993), 7. 500G (1 Shi jin).


Pic. 8
Beijing municipal local food oil coupon. Expired last day of May 1993.


At about 50 years ago, the nation could not produce as much grain and all kinds of foods for her people such as meats, eggs, non-staple food, even cloth and so on. The Chinese government then issued the grain coupon, non-staple food coupon… to deal with the problems trying to meet the needs of the masses that had some certain requirement for grain, food, meat, eggs…

The coupons had no value and couldn’t perform circulation functions.

They were like ration cards though which making the ration system running smoothly to cope with the shortage of material goods at the times.

The coupons represented that the holder had the opportunity or qualified for buying the limited goods.

There were local and state issued coupons, for the locals, coupons could be only used within the local government administrated area, for the state-issued ones usually and mainly allocated to army officers, being used nationwide.

Now, let’s go back to more than thirty years ago. In 1979, when I married to my husband there weren’t much things for residents in the market in China, we knew, you couldn’t get what you want for your family though you have some little money because you know material goods and products faced a serious shortage in the supply.

You must have your coupons and being collected by the shop assistant, of course with the appropriate money, you could then get the things which you wanted to buy.

Some Chinese people would be so privileged. Privilege classes!!

Which were not needed to show credentials or coupons to the sellers, salesclerks and shop assistants.

We were so lucky that we were allocated a cupboard coupon by Beijing municipal and we discussed and agree with each other to buy a wardrobe like some of the couples then not to give the coupon up, no, it’s valuable though the coupon had no price!!

We did so.

In July 1980 we had a new family member I gave birth to my daughter; the matters in the era were totally different comparing with the parents nowadays.

We must arrange, manage and make effort to get baby’s food for most of the time we must ride 3 km to collect 250 ml fresh milk which had been registered a month before. You must then queue on a line and with some qualified coupons for something to eat, to live on for daily life.

I remembered that we needed a bicycle but we don’t have the government coupon for it, so we went to a friend of my husband, who was working in Shanghai, for a bicycle coupon and by air had the bike transported to my home in Beijing airport. So by the bicycle we could carry our daughter to where she wanted to be.

This was so important, bicycles was almost the main tool to rely on when you went out for work or leisure because families had no cars and public transportations were less.

Comparatively speaking, my husband and I could earn a little bit of money each month, not so bad, but I remembered that we didn’t have enough coupons for buying food after I gave birth to my daughter in 1980.

We then came to one of my husband’s colleagues’ wife, for more good food, who was working for a department store at the time being, through this back door, we got more nourishing food such as eggs, chicken and meat to build up my health so as to feed our daughter who said to me a few months ago, “it’s incredible” when I was calling the things to mind and telling her, certainly, life was becoming easier and easier after culture revolution had finished. The reserve supply was becoming well provided after 1995.

In this world now, materials for every field are prosperous; goods consumptions are highly promoted so as to boom the economy development.

About the author
Zhao Jingman lives with her family in Beijing municipality, the capital of China. She writes about a period in China when families had to plan more prudently to put food on the tables. Over the years, she has held numerous responsible roles working for the Beijing bureau of Civil Aviation Administration of CAAC.

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