The Fight for the History of China’s Great Famine

The Guardian’s Tania Branigan interviews former Xinhua journalist Yang Jisheng, author of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine. The book, researched in secret and still unpublished in mainland China, has nevertheless been credited with breathing new life into discussion of the Great Leap Forward and the mass starvation that followed.

A decade after the Communist party took power in 1949, promising to serve the people, the greatest manmade disaster in history stalks an already impoverished land. In an unremarkable city in central Henan province, more than a million people – one in eight – are wiped out by starvation and brutality over three short years. In one area, officials commandeer more grain than the farmers have actually grown. In barely nine months, more than 12,000 people – a third of the inhabitants – die in a single commune; a tenth of its households are wiped out. Thirteen children beg officials for food and are dragged deep into the mountains, where they die from exposure and starvation. A teenage orphan kills and eats her four-year-old brother. Forty-four of a village’s 45 inhabitants die; the last remaining resident, a woman in her 60s, goes insane. Others are tortured, beaten or buried alive for declaring realistic harvests, refusing to hand over what little food they have, stealing scraps or simply angering officials.

[…] Page after page – even in the drastically edited English translation, there are 500 of them – his book, Tombstone, piles improbability upon terrible improbability. But Yang did not imagine these scenes. Perhaps no one could. Instead, he devoted 15 years to painstakingly documenting the catastrophe that claimed at least 36 million lives across the country, including that of his father.

[…] The death toll is staggering. “The most officials have admitted is 20 million,” he says, but he puts the total at 36 million. It is “equivalent to 450 times the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki … and greater than the number of people killed in the first world war,” he writes. Many think even this is a conservative figure: in his acclaimed book Mao’s Great Famine, Frank Dikotter estimates that the toll reached at least 45 million.

At Foreign Policy, Dikötter describes the almost total absence from available archives of any photographic record of the famine:

I read through thousands of documents: secret reports from the Public Security Bureaus, detailed minutes of top party meetings, investigations into cases of mass murder, inquiries compiled by special teams tasked with determining the extent of the catastrophe, secret opinion surveys, and letters of complaint written by ordinary citizens. Some were neatly written in longhand, others typed out on flimsy, yellowing paper. Some were excruciating to read, for instance, a report written by an investigation team noting the case of a boy in a Hunan village who had been caught stealing a handful of grain. A local Communist Party cadre forced his father to bury the boy alive. The father died of grief a few days later.

[…] For four years, I studied Mao’s famine, and only once have I seen a visual illustration of its awfulness. In 2009, I visited a historian in a drab concrete building in the suburbs of Beijing. He, too, had been working on the history of the Great Leap Forward, burrowing in archives for more than a decade and obsessively documenting the starvation that had decimated the region of his birth, a county barely 100 miles north of Mao’s hometown in Hunan. Stacks of photocopied archival material bulged out of filing cabinets in his sparse office. I asked him whether he had ever seen a photograph of the famine. He frowned and reluctantly pulled out a folder with a reproduction of the only picture he had discovered. It came from the files of the party committee in his home county and was from a police investigation into a case of cannibalism. The small, fading picture showed a young man standing against a brick wall, peering straight into the camera, seemingly emotionless. By his feet stood a large pot containing the parts of a young boy, his head and limbs severed from his body.

Another visual record of the period has survived, however. A slideshow of Great Leap Forward-era propaganda posters at Foreign Policy shows smiling farmers and bumper harvests. These images helped preserve the illusion that Yang Jisheng himself laboured under for many years: that starvation was local, and deaths were isolated tragedies, rather than part of a wider catastrophe of the government’s making.

Foreign Policy also hosts an article, translated by Martin Merz, in which Murong Xuecun angrily discusses present day arguments over the causes, extent and reality of the famine, and the government’s continued efforts to control the narrative. He writes scathingly about Chinese youth’s supposedly unquestioning acceptance of official information, and blames the Party’s stifling influence for this, the polarised recent debate over the famine, and other evils (“in which case he’s in for a nasty shock if he ever leaves China“, as Jamie K commented at Blood and Treasure).

For some 40 years, official publications in China have called the Great Famine of 1959-1962 “the three years of natural disasters.” But no one seems to know exactly what these disasters were: Floods? Drought? Earthquakes? Landslides? Hail storms or locust plagues? No one has the answer, and no one is brave enough to stand up and demand an answer from the government — because the official pronouncement of “natural disaster” is sufficiently intimidating to close all mouths.

Motivated by the desire to be “responsible to history and the truth,” a phrase churned out ad nauseam in China’s mass media, official accounts over the last 10 years have become more circumspect, employing the more neutral term “the three years of difficulties,” which seems to cover both the natural and manmade. This approach obviates the need to examine contributing factors and that Mao and other leaders caused the famine.

[…] The memories of those who experienced the famine are fading away. The current generation, like their parents, were force-fed state CCTV newscasts and party mouthpiece People’s Daily reports, but also fattened to the point of obesity with Coca-Cola and hamburgers. Of course they now find it difficult to imagine that people once starved to death. And so they ask: If they didn’t have rice, why didn’t they eat meat?

While stories of the disaster may seem far-fetched to the young, older generations’ memories of the famine might actually be fuelling China’s ballooning childhood obesity problem. From Debra Bruno at The Washington Post:

Although the era of famine is long past, many grandparents and parents still push their children to eat a lot.

Setsuko Hosoda, a family doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, says the parents and grandparents she sees are “always worried that their child is not eating enough.” A 2012 Penn State study of 176 Chinese children ages 6 to 18 found that 72 percent of mothers of overweight children thought their children were normal or underweight.

Sissi Zhong, a 26-year-old Beijing secretary, recalls that her grandparents got angry if she left food on her plate when she was a child. “They said, ‘Do you know, in my time of food shortages, people didn’t have food, so how can you waste your food?’ ” Zhong says. So she cleaned her plate even if she was very full.