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Leaping into Darkness

Cormac Ó Gráda

Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine, 1958-1962, by Zhou Xun, Yale University Press, 288 pp, ISBN: 978-0300184044

The last few years have seen a spate of books on the Chinese Great Leap Forward famine of 1959-61. They include Ralph Thaxton’s Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China (2008), Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine (2010), Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone (2012), Zhou Xun’s The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962: A Documentary History (2012), and Felix Wemheuer’s Famine Politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (2014). Two of these ‑ Dikötter’s and Yang’s ‑ became bestsellers. A famine that was both “hidden” and ignored for several decades is finally getting the scholarly attention that it requires.

After less than a decade of economic recovery and respectable growth in the wake of liberation, in 1958 the Chinese authorities launched the Great Leap Forward, a reckless and misconceived campaign aimed at greatly accelerating economic development. The perceived need to catch up with the capitalist west ‑ Mao hoped that China’s industrial output would match Britain’s within fifteen years ‑ was a primary motivation. The policy shift had much in common with Stalin’s Soviet first Five Year Plan of 1928-32. Both sought to place the burden of faster growth on a backward agricultural sector: where else was the requisite investible surplus to come from? Both relied on collectivisation to generate the food required to sustain helter-skelter industrialisation. And both resulted in massive excess mortality, almost all of it in the countryside. Of course there were differences too: communal dining halls, backyard furnaces and the campaign to eradicate sparrows, were distinctively Chinese. In China the downside risk of failure was even greater than in the Soviet Union, and the cost in lives accordingly much greater, both in relative and absolute terms. The combination of disastrous harvests and excessive requisitioning for urban consumption resulted in a massive, if regionally uneven, famine that lasted between 1959 and 1961. Estimates of excess mortality remain controversial; they range from the implausibly (indeed, ridiculously) low two or three million recently proposed by some neo-Maoist scholars in China to the fifty or sixty million suggested by some of Mao Zedong’s most severe critics. The Great Leap famine was, in terms of numbers of victims, the greatest famine ever.

All the works cited above make important contributions and underline the catastrophic dimensions of the famine, although much about its causes and incidence remains unresolved. Apart from Thaxton’s, all are based largely on the public record. Zhou Xun’s Forgotten Voices is different, being the first book-length oral history of the catastrophe.

Forgotten Voices is based on interviews with “nearly a hundred” famine survivors, organised around eight themes such as “the tragedy of collectivization”, “starvation and death” and “surviving the famine”. Zhou, it would seem, selected her informants in a rather haphazard fashion. She chose a woman selling herbs on a village street in western Sichuan; a chef encountered by accident at a street market near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan; a woman “sitting against a wall and petting rabbits in a basket” just west of Chengdu; another whom she “ran into by accident in a small market town not far from Pengshan”; a shy man encountered at a roadside café in Anhui who became talkative after “a few cups of alcohol and a hot meal”; “an old neighbour of my family”; her father; and so on. An anthropologist friend recommended some of the others. A majority are what Zhou describes as “illiterate peasants” ‑ and keep in mind that in China as recently as 1980 nearly half of adult women were illiterate ‑ but they also include several who were students at the time, as well as a few former teachers and medical practitioners. Some still live[d] in poverty in the 2000s; a few had made it, as emigrants in Hong Kong and London.

A disproportionate number of the narrators ‑ about half of them ‑ live (or were living) in Zhou’s own province of Sichuan in western China. The famine hit Sichuan very hard, though its impact across that vast province was uneven. Very often her informants were in remote, almost inaccessible places: “farther up in the mountains” of northern Sichuan; “a mountainous village in eastern Shandong province”; “deep in the mountains of Liangshan”. Whether people living in such remote areas were more or less likely to suffer during the famine remains a moot point, not broached by Zhou: although they did not escape collectivisation, their very remoteness may have shielded them more than other places against the worst of the grain procurement campaigns (as Anthony Garnaut argues in “The Geography of the Great Leap Famine”, Modern China 40[3] (2014), 315-348). Or, alternatively, those campaigns may have come as a particular shock in hitherto isolated communities.

Some of Zhou’s narrators were mere toddlers or young children in 1959-61, some were already in their forties. Zhou does not dwell on the traps laid by autobiographical memory, nor on the evasions and silences and chronological confusions associated with oral history as a source. Dropping her original plan to have all her informants answer the same set of questions, she simply invited them to talk. This turned out to have been a wise decision, and Zhou’s sorting of their reflections by theme is effectively done.

It all sounds rather random and unscientific. And still, serendipitously, it works. On nearly every page, the obscenity of the famine is brought home in the depictions of its deaths, its cruelties, its insanities and its horrors. True, many of these cameos, especially those describing survival strategies, could apply to any major famine. Stories of how famines turned children against parents and the strong against the weak, and made liars and thieves and (in extremis) even cannibals of decent people have been told about other famines, in China and elsewhere. But there is much that resonates of China in the 1950s too. And the anecdotal, autobiographical character of the narratives lends these accounts a compelling potency and immediacy.

After brief introductions, Zhou lets her informants speak for themselves. She has the knack of getting complete strangers to reveal very personal stories of hardship and loss. Her sources trusted her ‑ often breaking down in her presence ‑ and her decision in turn to conceal their identities is a measure of her respect for them. The overall impact is of convincing and sincere accounts.

Nearly one-third of the book is taken up with collectivisation and the propaganda and pressures associated with the Great Leap Forward. This focus on context matters, since the consequent diversion of labour and grain from the countryside was a key factor behind the famine. The tragic accounts of communal dining halls without adequate food, of slaving long hours, of the expropriation of cooking utensils and domestic furniture, and of incessant pressure from party cadres are compelling. Sections on unnatural disasters and on death follow. The rest of the book is concerned with the impact of the famine on the cities, survival strategies, and memories of the famine.

The quest for survival was reflected in the search for substitute foods (insects, earth, chaff, tree bark, poisonous plants etc), in anti-social behaviour and in migration. The oral record, significantly, is silent on organised resistance and food riots, though individual actions of defiance were common. The role of migration as a path to survival is a recurring theme. Some were fortunate enough to be able to escape to Macau and Hong Kong, but Zhou also mentions migration from Gansu to Henan, from Shandong and Henan to the northeast and from Hunan in central China to Yunnan in the far southwest. One narrator fled with his brother from Fushun county in southern Sichuan to Liangshan Yi autonomous region in 1959, exaggeratedly claiming to have covered “more than one thousand kilometres” on foot in a week. Cities were also magnets for those seeking food and work. Those who managed to leave survived; “they were all very capable people, but there were very few of them”; “if I had not run away, I’d have starved to death too”. Some deserted dependents in fleeing. That so many found it possible to escape despite the efforts of the authorities to stop them is in itself telling.

Most of the evidence on party cadres is very negative. They were “real tyrants”; they were “fearsome” and “brutal”; they stole food; they were “like slave owners”; “they only cared about themselves”. Some narratives, to muddy the water, spin a more positive tale: “cadres were under a lot of pressure in those days”; they “had to be fierce, or else no one would follow their orders”; they risked being purged for underperforming; “my father [a cadre] was an honest man”; cadres saved a camp labourer’s life by having his stomach pumped out. As local agents, cadres were caught between a rock and a hard place; either to bow to the “Wind of Exaggeration” fanned by the Great Leap or to risk getting beaten up for telling the truth. Here are some examples:

I remember during those years no family produced any new babies except for the families of cadres, because there was no food to eat ...
My parents were cadres, so they received extra meat coupons. That’s how we got to buy canned ribs … My mother was a cadre at the Beijing municipal government … Even there a lot of cadres suffered from edema. I remember that my mother’s legs were all puffed …
[Cadres] took away all our pots and pans to make iron and steel … and they even destroyed our stove. They went as far as pulling down the four walls of our house in order to make fertiliser.

It would be tempting to infer a narrator’s experience from mention of the loss of family members in the famine. Thus in mountainous Langzhong county in northern Sichuan, Wei Dexu watched people die, though not members of his own family. Another distanced reference to deaths comes from an informant in Sichuan’s Renshou county, who says that “you could see people drop dead while walking”. However, moving and vivid reports of deaths of siblings and parents and near relatives are all too frequent:

My father starved to death in 1961. It’s really hard for me to talk about that time. [Crying] In those days there weren’t even any coffins for those who died. The bodies were just covered up with some earth, and their feet were often exposed outside ...
I had nine children, and two starved to death during the time of the famine. In those days even adults couldn’t get enough to eat, and it was even worse for children … Cry? I am a man, I could bear it. But it’s different for women. My wife wept. How did I feel? What could I do? They were my own children … Their little bodies were thrown away. The best we could do was to ask some people to cover up their bodies with earth ...
In those days there were no roosters crowing any more. In the end, the head of the militia went to the canteen and got a handful of rice from the staff there. He put it in my hand. I ran home … My father died while I was feeding him. It was in 1959. He was only in his forties. [She wept at this point.]

Zhou provides plenty of evidence straight out of the “grey zone” inhabited by those living through famines (on which see Breandán Mac Suibhne’s masterful “A jig in the poorhouse”, Dublin Review of Books, No. 32). Discord over food within families is a recurrent theme. An in-law of one of Zhou’s informants in Sichuan refused to feed a weak grandson. When remonstrated with about this refusal, her reply was “Why don’t you feed him yourself?” The little boy died shortly afterwards. Stealing communal food was also endemic. In Sichuan’s Pengshan county “thieves constantly came across other thieves”. When there was nothing left to steal, some engaged in cannibalism: with no dogs or cows left, “people had to fill their stomachs with something”.

The evidence is not always consistent. So at the construction site of the Xichong reservoir in Yunnan’s Luliang county “many people died”, whereas at the site of the Banqiao dam in Henan’s Suiping county “no one died”, that is, the dying were moved elsewhere lest a government inspection team discover the truth about conditions on the ground. On the whole the role of the weather is discounted, but in Huang county, Shandong “it rained savagely” in 1960 and 1961 while in Gansu “there were sandstorms all the time”. But in Renshou county food was scarce, not because of the weather, but because “all the young and strong labourers were sent to make iron and steel” and “the crops were left to rot in the fields”. Zhou makes much of the environmental damage caused by the Great Leap Forward. Certainly, some of it was immediately obvious; what is less clear is whether the losses resulting from dust storms and alkalisation of water were widely predicted at the time or would have been already a problem by 1960-61. Today, the warnings of hydrologist Huang Wanli against the construction of gigantic dams during the Great Leap are universally acknowledged as brave and prescient, but Huang’s warnings were more about silt and sedimentation than salinisation and alkalinisation (see Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature, Cambridge, 2001, pp 48-64). On this, Zhou’s narrators may have the advantage of hindsight over the madcap enthusiasts for big dams and small backyard furnaces during the Great Leap.

While Mao’s personal, genocidal culpability is central to accounts such as Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine and Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts (1996), he is quite a remote ‑ though hardly sinister ‑ figure in Zhou’s narratives. One informant notes that “militarization was Mao’s idea”, another that he stressed the need for “self-reliance”; one remembered Mao’s visit in 1958 to the village of Xushui, iconic for its communistic feats, but he “couldn’t see him”; another, Barber Feng of northern Sichuan, referred to the head of his brigade as a crook, “the type of person that Mao once warned us about”. But that is about it. Moreover, to Zhou’s evident surprise, Mao’s memory was revered almost everywhere she went. In Henan’s Suiping county, devastated by the famine, “in almost every home there was a portrait of Chairman Mao”, while an old neighbour of Zhou’s in Chengdu claimed that “if it wasn’t for Chairman Mao, who liberated us, we would not be able to enjoy today’s good life”. An old villager, wondering why Zhou was dwelling on the past, explained that while under Mao people learned to appreciate life by eating bitter food, “these days life is not too bad for many people”. Zhou does not attempt to resolve the “disconnect” between the follies of the Great Leap Forward, the violence, and the deaths, on the one hand, and Mao’s role, on the other.

Had Zhou interviewed her subjects a generation ago, would their verdict on the part played by Mao in the famine have been the same? Oral history, like all history, often tells us as much about the present as the past. Its strength lies in the searing anecdote and the local detail, not in sophisticated analysis of political decision-making at the top. The Chinese poor were as remote from Mao and Beijing in the 1950s as the Irish poor were from Lord John Russell and London in the 1840s. The willingness of Zhou’s witnesses to let Mao off the hook in the 2000s, though important, hardly resolves the extent of Mao’s culpability in the 1950s. That issue remains controversial. For some (like, say, Frank Dikötter or Jasper Becker) it is enough to declare the famine “Mao’s Famine” ‑ and Zhou’s subtitle also echoes this sentiment. For others (like, say, Tom Bernstein or Stephen Wheatcroft or Felix Wemheuer) the famine was the result of an ill-conceived and reckless attempt at forcing a desperately backward economy to catch up. To compound the disaster, when the Great Leap imploded China lacked what Yang in Tombstone dubs “negative feedback”: thanks to the form of “closed” governance they had created, Mao and his circle seem to have discovered “destruction on a scale few could have imagined” rather late in the day ‑ although this issue is controversial and one on which Yang and Dikötter, for instance, disagree.

Forgotten Voices closely complements Zhou’s earlier and shorter The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962 (2012), a collection of famine-related documents surreptitiously copied in provincial Communist Party archives. Acknowledgements in the two books overlap, and both cover much common ground from different perspectives. Indeed, Zhou seems to have conducted her interviews between visits to the archives in connection with the earlier book.

Readers of the Dublin Review of Books may wonder how the material in Forgotten Voices compares with oral evidence on the Great Irish Famine. Like the material collected by the Irish Folklore Commission between the 1930s and the 1950s, the Chinese evidence also focuses on the local and the anecdotal. Just as the Irish material is silent on the likes of treasury undersecretary Charles Trevelyan, the Chinese material is silent on provincial party secretaries such as Wu Zhipu of Henan or Li Jingquan of Sichuan, who feature prominently in written histories of the famine. However, the Chinese oral record is more explicit and more immediate in its accounts of violence and death. The Irish evidence is doubly vicarious in that the narrators related second-hand information from people who very often described the sufferings of third parties who fared worse during the famine than themselves. Indeed, hardly anywhere in the IFC archive do we encounter an informant who admits that somebody in the immediate family of their own forebears suffered a famine-related death or that one of their own people entered the workhouse as an inmate. And whereas in Ireland there is much on workhouses and soup kitchens and evictions and shopkeepers, in China the emphasis is on cadres and state violence and propaganda and communal dining. This is not the place for a systematic comparison between themes in Zhou’s narratives and Cathal Póirtéir’s excellent compendia (Famine Echoes, Dublin, 1995; Glórtha ón Ghorta, Dublin, 1996), but such a comparison would be a worthwhile exercise.

Forgotten Voices comes at a time when debate about the 1950s is heating up in China itself, with President Xi Jinping sounding more positive notes about Mao’s legacy than his immediate predecessors, and Chinese mathematician Sun Jingxian claiming that the Great Leap Forward famine claimed only 2.5 million lives, against estimates of specialist demographers who reckoned that it was eight or even ten times that. Sun’s claims are also music to the ears of some younger left-wing activists in China, nostalgic for an era when the party ‑ in their view ‑ was pursuing a Marxist path. At the same time, critical voices such as those of Yang Jisheng, author of Tombstone, and Shanghai-based demographer Cao Shuji (whose advice is acknowledged by Zhou) have not been silenced: both they and Sun Jingxian gave as good as they got at a conference on the famine in Wuhan in early July 2014. It is to be hoped that the debate and the research continue, and that voices like those recorded by Zhou are an important part of the story.


Cormac Ó Gráda is the author of Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce (Princeton, 2006), Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009) and Eating People is Wrong and Other Essays on the History and Future of Famine (Princeton, forthcoming).