A Great Leap Into the Abyss

The disastrous famine that hit China during the Great Leap Forward is still being covered up by the authorities, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Zhou Xun, who rattles the skeleton in the state archives with her new book, “The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962”. From Didi Kirsten Tatlow at The New York Times:

In Qiaotou district, in Sichuan Province, “An old lady named Luo Wenxiu was the first to start consuming human flesh,” investigators wrote. “After an entire family of seven had died, Luo dug up the body of the 3-year-old girl, Ma Fahui. She sliced up the girl’s flesh and spiced it with chili peppers before steaming and eating it.” The report, dated Feb. 9 of that year, is one of more than 100 astonishing documents collected by the historian Zhou Xun in a new book about Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, published by Yale University Press.

[…] Ms. Zhou and a growing number of Chinese — and some Western — scholars believe the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s campaign of breakneck industrialization and agricultural collectivization, resulted in the deaths of perhaps 45 million people, mostly in the countryside. People died from a combination of starvation, overwork and violence in the quest for a perfect Communist society.

[…] To document that, Ms. Zhou spent four years, starting in 2006, visiting dozens of county and provincial archives, some under military guard. Access was easier during the first two years of her research, a legacy, she believes, of the rule of former President Jiang Zemin. Still, she often gained access only through informal contacts, she said, declining to be more specific. In all, she photocopied, photographed or transcribed about 1,000 documents. (Ms. Zhou also conducted more than 100 interviews with survivors, to be published by Yale in a separate book.)

Besides the appalling scale of deaths, Ms. Zhou believes that another legacy of the famine is the long-lasting impact it had on the spirit of Chinese society. Also from Didi Kirsten Tatlow at The New York Times:

“I do believe it created a kind of long-lasting impact in the sense that, O.K., human beings are selfish, you can say that in general. But the use of violence, it really reached its height during the famine period and I believe that was the background behind the Cultural Revolution” that began just four years later, in 1966, killing many more.

Hopelessness and selfishness inform Chinese society to this day, she said.

“I very much feel that coming from this, what people have in China is a sense of hopelessness,” she said. “That to survive, the only way is to do it yourself.”

Unable to look to the state to provide a safe environment, “you take things for yourself. It’s the only possible means to survive,” she said.

For more coverage of the Great Famine, see The Great Leap From Myth to History, via CDT.