Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962

Is there any point in putting up yet another post about the Great Leap Forward. Obviously I think there is or I wouldn’t be writing this. But I will keep it brief. There is a beautiful review of the recently released English translation of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, Yang Jisheng’s epic retelling of the history of the Great Leap Forward and the horrors that it wrought. Not that we don’t already know a lot about these horrors, but this book is in a class by itself thanks to the resources that were made available to Yang, a Xinhua journalist and once a loyal member of the CCP.

Reviewer and China scholar Ian Johnson starts by telling us of his trip to the city of Xinyang in Henan province, where he talks with a pastor about what happened there fifty years ago.

“Traditional life [the pastor said] was wiped out around the time I was born, fifty years ago. Since then it has been a difficult area, with no foundation to society. Most people in China haven’t heard of this but here in Xinyang, people all know.

“It was called the Xinyang Incident. It destroyed this area like the wrath of God on Judgment Day.”

The Xinyang Incident is the subject of the first chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng’s epic account of the worst famine in history. Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mostly due to starvation but also government-instigated torture and murder of those who opposed the Communist Party’s maniacal economic plans that caused the catastrophe. Its epicenter was Xinyang County, where one in eight people died from the famine. The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later.

Officials launched campaigns to dig up grain that peasants were allegedly hiding. Of course, the grain didn’t exist, but anyone who said otherwise was tortured and often killed. That October, the famine began in earnest in Xinyang, accompanied by the murder of skeptics of Mao’s policies. Yang describes in graphic detail how Xinyang officials beat one colleague who had opposed the communes. They ripped out his hair and beat him day after day, dragging him out of his bed and standing around him, kicking until he died. One official cited by Yang estimates that 12,000 such “struggle sessions” occurred in the region. Some people were hung up by ropes and set on fire. Others had their heads smashed open. Many were put in the middle of a circle and pushed, punched, and jostled for hours until they collapsed and died.

….Yang interviewed a colleague at the Xinhua news agency who had been stationed in Xinyang. During a long-distance bus ride, he said, “I could see one corpse after another in the ditches along the roadway, but no one on the bus dared to talk about the starvation.” The reporter found out that a third of the population in some areas had died while “the leading cadres continued to stuff themselves.” But “after I personally witnessed how people who spoke the truth were brought to ruin, how could I dare to write an internal reference report?”

Just as appalling is Mao’s irrational reaction to the “Xinyang incident,” which only made things there worse. If the GLF was failing to reap the results Mao expected, it had to be the fault of local officials or rightists, and even stricter order would have to be imposed. And so we have a vicious circle of death and devastation.

Please read the entire review, which makes clear why Tombstone is such an important contribution to the body of works on the GLF, and contrasts it with Dikoetter’s Mao’s Great Famine. The latter puts more blame on Mao than does Tombstone, which, Johnson says, “lays the blame firmly on the top leaders — not just Mao but also supposed moderates like Liu and Zhou.”

So to answer my opening question about why I’d put up another post on the Great Leap Forward: Tombstone is the most important, most exhaustive work ever written about the tragedy. It opens a new window on what happened with research we’ve never had access to, bolstered by first-hand accounts by Chinese memoirists. Its availability in English is big news (I wish the Kindle version were a little less expensive but I’m buying it anyway).

The GLF is a topic I have endless curiosity about. Maybe it’s the pointlessness of the man-made calamity that makes me want to understand it better, and the fact that so many people you’d think would know better followed Mao blindly into the mouth of hell. Based on Johnson’s review, and other articles I’ve read over the past, there’s no doubt this is the most definitive, most groundbreaking exploration of Mao’s doomed utopian experiment. The English version is big news.

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The Great Leap Forward on film

Not sure how long this video has been around, but I’ve never seen anything like it before and want to recommend it to everyone. I’ve read about every aspect of the GLF but never saw so much of the story captured on film. Don’t watch it if you have high blood pressure.

“It is better to let half the people die so the other half can eat their fill.”

Mao Zedong, 1959. Seventy percent good, indeed.

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Dikköter’s Mao’s Great Famine vs. Yang’s Tombstone

I recently started reading Frank Dikköter’s book Mao’s Great Famine, The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 and am about halfway through. Reading it is not a pleasant experience. Nothing about the Great Leap Forward makes for pleasant storytelling. You can feel the author’s rage on every page, even while his style remains calm and restrained. It is clear he sees the GLF not only as a man-made calamity, which it was, but one for which Mao deserves nearly all the blame. It is a crime that Dikkoter believes ranks with the Holocaust, one that Mao supported with full awareness of its consequences, and even with malice.

The other famous book on the GLF, Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone (discussed in an earlier post here) takes a more measured look at the nightmare years, and is not so quick to accuse Mao of intentionally and maliciously wreaking suffering on his people. Or so at least we are told in this superb book review by Xujun Eberlein, one of my favorite bloggers and someone I had the pleasure to meet in Chongqing a few years ago. Everyone who reads this blog will want to see this side-by-side comparison. She clearly sides with Yang Jisheng.

“Understanding the complexity of human behavior in times of catastrophe is one of the aims of the book,” Dikötter states, and he does a good job fulfilling that goal in terms of ordinary people. But when it comes to the behavior of Mao and his colleagues, he has a tendency for simplification and caricature. The Mao under his pen is simply one of history’s most sadistic tyrants; consideration is not given to the complexity of his behavior. The reader gets the impression that Mao knew about the famine all along, but either deliberately let people starve, or was indifferent to their fate. Dikötter’s indignation toward Mao is understandable, but this representation is neither factual nor insightful.

In contrast to Dikötter, Yang Jisheng, despite his sorrow and resentment over the catastrophe, does not let personal sentiment get in the way of factual reporting and serious exploration. Aptly casting Mao as “China’s last emperor,” Yang nonetheless provides a more complete portrait.

Mao’s policies were the main cause of the famine, and nothing can excuse him from that responsibility. But the catastrophe was not a deliberate act of mass murder like the Holocaust, as Dikötter suggests. Rather, it was the result of policy failures from a governance system based on the control of ideology and information. Culminating in the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the utopian policies, enthusiastically shaped and promoted by the entire leadership, were intended to bring about China’s high-speed development. They instead resulted in the collapse of the nation’s economic pillar: agriculture. The central government’s inflated production targets and export quota led to unreasonably high procurements of grain from the peasants, while local governments under political pressure responded with inflated grain production statistics. The two types of inflation fed each other to form a vicious cycle that exhausted agricultural capacity, while the backyard steelmaking that took workers away from the land further worsened the grain shortages. After the famine started, it was prolonged because bad news was blocked from feeding back to top policy makers. Mao, thus, went through a long period of delusion and denial before, in late 1960, making a partial concession: “I myself made mistakes, too; I must correct.”

So perhaps Mao’s saving grace is that when he actually did recognize the tragedy of his policies in 1961 he took steps to reverse them. Either way, epiphany or not, Mao must assume the lion’s share of the blame, especially considering how he purged anyone who dared question his revolutionary plan to modernize China. And he didn’t seem to learn from his mistakes. Only a few years later he would seek to rehabilitate himself by launching a new campaign, one that equaled the GLF in terms of insanity, cult worship and suffering.

Like the Holocaust, the GLF is a subject of endless fascination for me, making me wonder how men can surrender their critical faculties and their humanity. And no, I am not saying the GLF equals the Holocaust.I’m not say Mao has blood on his hands the way Hitler does. But both featured certain key ingredients: blind obedience and blind faith, an ideologically twisted leader who assumed cult status, and an unfathomable lack of compassion for the suffering.

After reading this remarkable review I’m keen to read Tombstone, though the fact that it’s 900 pages in two volumes might be beyond my stamina. It is set to be published later this year. Luckily, Xujun has broken the books down to at least give us a taste of both. Read the review, and tell me how two brilliant researchers/writers could come to such different conclusions.

Update: Please note that Xujun’s excellent blog has moved to this address. You can read the sad story of how she lost her domain name here. Maddening.

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Hu Fayun’s Such Is This World@sars.come

Ruyan@sars.come is the original Chinese title of this novel, a beautifully written book that got wide attention when it was published online in China a couple years ago, and a book that has since been “banned” by the Chinese government, for whatever that’s worth.

Hu Fayun has written the book I’ve dreamed of: historical fiction that truly captures what China was like during the time of SARS, and that in doing so opens a panoramic historiographical window on modern China.

Just as impressive as the book is its translation by A. E. Clark, who has annotated the text with more than 400 footnotes, rather unusual for a novel, and these notes provide nothing less than a primer on modern Chinese history and politics. References to Chinese literature and poetry, slogans from throughout the Mao era, the names of the various purges Mao initiated and their victims, the songs of revolution, euphemisms for the Great Famine and the TSM, hundreds of colloquial expressions and lines with veiled meanings…. These painstaking notes help hold together a book that, to most Western readers (and probably most contemporary Chinese readers), would often be mystifying, or at least incomplete.

Before I go on about the book, let me mention that the breakout of SARS in 2003 defined my outlook on China for years to come. It was my first face-to-face encounter with the government’s capacity for deceit and flat-out dishonesty and I wasn’t at all ready for it. If you dig back into my posts in April of 2003, you’ll find it was all I wrote about. I was obsessed — just like everyone else in Beijing. It was SARS that made me take blogging seriously, and it was SARS that turned this into a “real blog,” as opposed to a place for me to jot personal notes. For several months, it was SARS that caused me to look on the CCP with nothing but contempt and loathing.

That explains why this book resonated with me, why I read it with such fascination, though even had I not been in China at the time I’d still find it invaluable.

Set in “City X,” Such Is This World tells the story of a 40-something widow, Ru Yan, whose son gives her a PC and a little dog before he leaves to study in France. Ru Yan discovers the Internet, and new doors open for her everywhere, universes she never knew existed, tools for talking with her son via video, and forums that allow her to express herself, and that allow her creative talents to blossom. Describing a video chat with her son:

In the video frame he waved to Ru Yan, and then the window closed. His voice, too, disappeared in the darkness. Ru Yan thought of fairy tales she had read when she was little, with their mirrors and crystal balls and genies’ lamps haloed in the light, where supernatural beings appeared and disappeared without a trace.

She joins the Empty Nest forum for parents whose children are studying abroad, and her life takes on a whole new dimension. Under the screen name Such Is This World, her essays are picked up and published on other sites, and her life has a new purpose. Through the forum she becomes friends with a brilliant essayist, Damo, and through him Damo’s mentor, Teacher Wei, once a renowned party official and theoretician, a victim of Mao’s purges and later of the Cultural Revolution. By telling Damo’s and Teacher Wei’s past, the author immerses us in the horrors of Mao’s China, an irrational world in which one day you are purging people under you, and the next day they are purging you, where words innocently uttered years ago can put you at terrible risk today,where no one is safe, where guilt by association can instantly ruin the lives of individuals and families whose sole crime was having known the wrong person.Teacher Wei’s family is ripped apart, partly by his association with the disgraced writer Hu Feng, who criticized Mao’s writings, with disastrous consequences for Wei. Later his wife and children’s lives are all but ruined when it’s discovered that decades ago Wei’s brother emigrated to Taiwan.

Tales of guilt by association and never-ending persecutions is a recurring theme in the book. Banishment to the countryside, condemnation during the Cultural Revolution, getting swept up in this purge or that — most of the characters have been traumatized. The most eloquent voice on the sufferings China has gone through is Teacher Wei’s.

In a few decades we lost the ability to express pain and grief. We lost the ability to express love. What we got instead was something paltry and preposterous….When the revolution came full circle and hit me on the head; when I was cast down so low, with almost no hope of ever being rehabilitated, only then did certain questions occur to me. But by then the cataract of revolution was unstoppable, and thousands upon thousands of intellectuals were engulfed in the flood and washed away.

Ru Yan’s Internet essays come back to haunt her when she writes too honestly, especially about a strange new disease that soon creates dread throughout the country. It is with the introduction of SARS about half-way through the book that it takes on a new and page-turning intensity. Her essays destroy a promising romance between Ru Yan and a highly regarded deputy mayor and subject her to hateful abuse in the Empty Nest forum.

Three incidents converge at once. The hysteria over SARS, the US invasion of Iraq, and the murder by the police of the young graduate student Sun Zhigang. Again, this resonated with me because it was SARS and Sun Zhigang that most molded my view of China that same year. Yes, there was much more than that to China, but in 2003 I was there, alone, and these disasters became a big part of my world. Hu Fayun reminds us of the outrage the murder generated, and all that it said about the government and its vile “vagrancy” law, that was soon after eliminated. Hu recreates the terrifying scenes of yellow tape covering houses and buildings that housed SARS victims. It brought back to me the day when SARS was discovered in my own office building. I can still hear the shouts in my office, the panic. The book also brings back the insanity I witnessed every day, the huge snaking lines at the supermarket, the face masks everywhere, the empty streets, the taxis that refused to pick me up — Such Is This World @sars.come brought it all back as if it were yesterday. (If you’re new to this blog you may want to visit my April 2003 archives to understand just how much my life revolved around SARS.)

But SARS is really a small part of this book. The book is about freedom, about artistic liberty, about integrity, and of how even the most ardent of reformers can be bought and paid for by a government dangling goodies and perqs. It’s also all about Mao and the fear he incited. It’s about the intellectual vacuum that Mao ushered in. One of the most poignant moments comes when Teacher Wei cries out that no great author or artist captured first-hand the horrors of Mao’s China. Russia in WWII had the great Vassily Grossman, who chronicled both Stalingrad and Treblinka, and Victor Klemperer who documented the day-to-day sufferings of Germany’s Jews as the noose tightened. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon chronicling the miseries of the Western Front of WWI. And on and on. But no one, Teacher Wei despairs, was there to capture the pain and misery of post-revolutionary China. Terror. The book is really all about terror, for terror was what life under Mao was all about, terror of being informed on, of being attacked by Red Guards, terror of saying just about anything that might be perceived as critical of Mao or the party. Terror, and cynicism, too, as sincere believers in reform become disillusioned and powerless.

According to pieces I’ve read, Ru Yan has become something of a hero to many Chinese, which makes sense. She expresses herself freely and, though by nature unpolitical, she stands up to authority, especially in one of the most grueling scenes of the book, when security guards butcher pet dogs on the streets, literally pulling them apart, another idiotic government decree to fight SARS. But this leads me to my one issue with the book, namely a stretching of one’s credibility. Ru Yan’s essays on both the massacres of pet dogs and the spread of SARS to her northern Chinese city get picked up by bloggers and news sites around the world. This leads to companies canceling their plans to hold conventions in China, and makes the entire world afraid of the country. This is a bit much, as China-based foreign correspondents were pumping these stories out on a daily basis, and the idea that one Chinese woman posting essays in an obscure chat room ignited the international attention that isolated China is hard to swallow.

Doesn’t matter. This is a great novel and an unequaled look into contemporary China and how/why it is what it is today. I don’t know if it’s for sale yet in the West, but when it is, buy a copy. It has everything — suspense, intrigue, history, pathos, romance, sex (briefly), philosophy and politics. A great novel with a great translation.

A note on the somewhat awkward title, Such Is This World @sars.come. From the translator’s footnotes:

The Chinese title ruyan@sars.come involved an untranslatable pun on a phrase and a name, both pronounced Ru Yan… The spelling “.come,” though emended by many a journalist, is not a typographical error but rather a punning experience to the coming of the SARS epidemic which shapes Ru Yan’s experience both on the Internet and off.

For excerpts of the book, go here. For a biography of Hu Fayun go here.

Update: You can order the book here. Your order will help ensure that great Chinese books like this will continue to be translated and distributed.

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Mao’s famine

I can’t add much more to this devastating article on the horrors of the Great Leap forward. I’ve never read anything about it that was quite this brutal, and suggest you read the whole thing.

For those who argue it was a natural famine the government couldn’t control, it will be particularly enlightening.

In the summer of 1962, for instance, the head of the Public Security Bureau in Sichuan sent a long handwritten list of casualties to the local boss, Li Jingquan, informing him that 10.6 million people had died in his province from 1958 to 1961. In many other cases, local party committees investigated the scale of death in the immediate aftermath of the famine, leaving detailed computations of the scale of the horror.

In all, the records I studied suggest that the Great Leap Forward was responsible for at least 45 million deaths.

Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction. People accused of not working hard enough were hung and beaten; sometimes they were bound and thrown into ponds. Punishments for the least violations included mutilation and forcing people to eat excrement.

One report dated Nov. 30, 1960, and circulated to the top leadership — most likely including Mao — tells how a man named Wang Ziyou had one of his ears chopped off, his legs tied up with iron wire and a 10-kilo stone dropped on his back before he was branded with a sizzling tool. His crime: digging up a potato.

When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, the local boss, Xiong Dechang, forced his father to bury his son alive on the spot.

And it gets worse. Really. And please don’t say Mao didn’t know.

Mao was sent many reports about what was happening in the countryside, some of them scribbled in longhand. He knew about the horror, but pushed for even greater extractions of food.

At a secret meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959, he ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the available grain — much more than ever before. The minutes of the meeting reveal a chairman insensitive to human loss: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”

I applaud China’s post-Mao leaders for ending most aspects of Maoism and seeing that starvation in China came to an end. Thank God Deng won the day. But isn’t it time to let the Chinese people know the truth? As the column says, the government has unclassified huge vaults of documents on the period and many Chinese scholars and researchers know the truth. But alas, their books and reports can only be published in Hong Kong.

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