I went through a weird sequence of emotions when I spotted a new history book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng. First, I felt a flash of excitement: this will be the book that will help me to understand this unimaginable episode in history.
But, I quickly realized, I’ve already read (and blogged about) two thick books that told the horrific story of Mao’s manufactured famine: Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikotter and Mao: the Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I already know the facts. What am I expecting a third book about the same subject to tell me that I don’t already know? Did I think I would find new answers to my questions? Was I hoping for Yang Jisheng to come up with a happy ending?
Well … some truths are so hard to comprehend that it takes three heavy books to pound them into our heads. The truth of what happened in the Chinese countryside between 1958 and 1962 probably falls into this category. The tragedy began as “The Great Leap Forward”, an optimistic and progressive experiment in farm collectivization, invented by Mao and eagerly championed by countless government leaders and regional cadres. The ambitious government program quickly descended into a sadistic holocaust, destroying between thirty and thirty-six million lives, before a few sane politicians managed to break through Mao’s grip and force an end to the madness. The level of cruelty, illogic and wastefulness that fed this debacle for four painful years is difficult to grasp, and the results are hard to picture. Here’s a typical description from Frank Dikotter’s Mao’s Great Famine:
When nothing else was left, people turned to a soft mud called Guanyin soil — named after the Goddess of Mercy. A work team sent by Li Jingquan was taken aback by what they saw in Liangxian county, Sichuan. It was a vision of hell, as serried ranks of ghostly villagers queued up in front of deep pits, their shriveled bodies pouring with sweat under the glare of the sun, waiting for their turn to scramble down the hole and carve out a few handfuls of the porcelain-white mud. Children, their ribs starting through the skin, fainted from exhaustion, their grimy bodies looking like mud sculptures shadowing the earth. Old women in ragged clothes burned paper charms and bowed, hands folded, mumbling strange incantations. A quarter of a million tonnes were dug out by more than 10,000 people. In one village alone 214 families out of a total of 262 had eaten mud, several kilos per person. Some of the villagers filled their mouths with mud as they were digging in the pit. But most of them added water and kneaded the soil after mixing it with chaff, flower and weeds, baking mud cakes that were filling, even if they provided little sustenance. Once eaten the soil acted like cement, drying out the stomach and absorbing all the moisture inside the intestinal tract. Defecation became impossible. In every village people died a painful death, their colons blocked up with soil.
The farm collectivization program was the most ruinous aspect of the Great Leap Forward, but not the most surreal. There was a patriotic national call to build village furnaces to create iron for steel to build up China’s military might, so homes and essential buildings were torn apart to provide fuel for the furnaces, while necessary farm implements were disassembled to provide new sources of metal. There was a craze for killing sparrows, because they ate grain, which succeeded so well that the entire balance of nature became upset, creating more destruction. Through it all, the misery the people felt was mirrored by government pronouncements of great success and national pride.
Tombstone is an important book because Yang Jisheng was a closer eyewitness than either Chang or Dikotter, and the personal story he tells in the introductory pages is particularly gripping. As an idealistic young Communist, he watched his father starve to death during the period of the Great Leap Forward. It reveals something about the psychological power of the program’s massive publicity campaign that young Yang Jisheng did not even turn against the Great Leap after watching his father transform into a living skeleton. The process of comprehending what he saw then is only now complete with the publication of his book, half a century later.
But what about my comprehension, and yours? As I begin to read this book, I feel a haunting sense of imbalance, because somehow the story of Mao’s failed four-year experiment has slipped past the boundaries of public awareness. It remains even today on the fringes of history.
Nobody denies that the famine occurred — but, it turns out, denial of a holocaust is only one of many forms of historical blindness. The world seems to have no interest in learning the full story of the most murderous holocaust of the last century, and the publication of a third book that lays out the whole story — strangely, Tombstone even looks and feels like Mao and The Great Famine, with a lurid red cover — is unlikely to change this fact.
Whenever I read any fascinating book of history, I feel a sense that I am communing with others who read the book, that I am interacting with the shared public mind. But as I begin to read Tombstone, I feel surrounded by a public vacuum of incomprehension and disinterest. Nobody talks about this holocaust. There are no statues or sculptures or museums, there’s no Anne Frank or Elie Weisel or Primo Levi, no Schindler’s List or Inglorious Basterds. Are we in denial? Is it possible that we simply don’t care?
The widespread public indifference is probably an unintended consequence of two things: the Western world’s cultural distance from China, and the Chinese government’s desire — or is it the Chinese people’s desire? — to sugarcoat its history. But, whether it’s the Chinese government or the Chinese people — it’s probably both — who don’t wish to dwell on past miseries and mistakes, I think they should join the club. The Western world has had plenty of manufactured famines to hang its head in shame about too.
Starvation by siege is one of the oldest forms of war, dating back beyond biblical times. Mao’s manufactured famine was the second gigantic famine in a Communist country in the 20th century, following Stalin’s program to suppress Ukraine’s national spirit in 1932-33 (this tragedy at least is now known by a name: the Holodomor). As Eamon Loingsigh points out in a recent Bookslut article, the Irish Potato famine of 1845-1852 may have been manufactured as well. The starvation deaths in the Biafran War were the result of a strategic or politically-motivated famine, and another strategic famine is raging in Darfur today.
There is no substantive difference between the great China famine and any of these other foolish or vicious historical adventures, in terms of the type of loss and suffering afflicted, though there is a difference in the numbing numbers. 36 million? 6 million? 15 million? How high can you count?
But there is a difference in comprehension, in the degree of public ignorance about the famine. This difference seems to have been originally amplified by the aggressively optimistic propaganda that surrounded the Great Leap Forward, and I can’t help think that we’re still succumbing to this propaganda when we as a public mind fail to register the spectacular dimensions of these manufactured delusions. Again, from Frank Dikotter’s book:
This was the case, for instance, with Fuling, a relatively prosperous county with terraced fields along the Yangzi River in the hinterland outside Chongquin. Baosi, a commune of 15,000 people known as ‘Fuling’s grain storage’, produced such abundant harvests that it usually sent half of its produce as tribute to the state. Along the main road up to 400 poeple could be found on any one day, busy bringing grain, vegetables and pigs to market. But by 1961 grain output had plummeted by some 87 per cent. The fields were overgrown with weeds, and half of the population had vanished. A ‘wind of communism’ had blown over the commune, as bricks, wood, pots, tools and even needles and nappies for babies had been confiscated in a mad scramble for collectivization in which the very notion of individual property was seen as ‘rightist conservativism’. ‘We can eat our fill even without agriculture for four years’ was the slogan of the day, as 70 per cent of the workforce was diverted away from agriculture towards the building of large canteens, piggeries and markets. People still working in the fields had to follow commands from the commune, for instance tearing out acres of maize because a deputy party secretary thought that the leaves were turned in the wrong direction. Close planting, on the other hand, killed the rice crop on some of the most fertile plots. In parts of the commune 80 per cent of the rice terraces were converted to dry land for vegetables, with disastrous results. Then, as an order came from Li Jingquan that advanced units should help turn the mountains into a rich green, with slopes covered with wheat, farmers were made to abandon the fertile terraces to scrape the rocky earth up in the highlands many miles away.
Mountain slopes covered with wheat! But human beings cannot nourish themselves on imagination, and neither can we imagine the past century’s terrible human crimes away. More people have even heard of Biafra, I bet, than know about the Chinese holocaust that killed thirty to thirty-six million people between 1958 and 1962. The public mind is drawing a blank here. The incomprehension is deadening. And I don’t think a third book is going to make a lot of difference.