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The China We Don’t Know

In the late 1990s, Chinese peasants in the village of Da Fo, many of whom between 1959 and 1961 had survived the twentieth century’s greatest famine, felt free enough to install shrines to Guangong, the traditional war god of resistance to oppressive rulers. Some were reading The Water Margin, an epic of peasant uprisings a thousand years ago against corrupt officials. They consulted late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) geomancy manuals that predicted a sixty-year cycle of apocalypse and rebellion. The manuals were banned by the local security officials, who understood perfectly what the Da Fo villagers, known for over fifty years as a “headache,” had on their minds.

To summarize their feelings briefly: “Village people…had come to associate socialism with starvation and the agents of the party-state with the specter of death.” Such is the final judgment of Ralph Thaxton, professor of politics at Brandeis and the author of Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China, a horrifying and convincing condemnation of the Maoist programs that during the Great Leap Forward caused starvation among the rural population between 1959 and 1961 and beyond. Over almost twenty years Thaxton interviewed four hundred residents of Da Fo, in Henan province, people who had been traumatized by years of famine, humiliation, torture, and death. He records, too, how the Communist Party proscribed their traditional practices—not only weddings and other celebrations, but funerals; villagers feared that as a result the “famine-corpse ghosts” of the improperly buried dead were bringing misfortune to the surviving members of their families.

As he explored Da Fo between 1989 and 2007, Thaxton uncovered how the elements of Communist rule—autocratic, brutal, corrupt, and mean-spirited—combined with the plunder, forced labor, and starvation of the famine itself to turn the Da Fo villagers against the Party. They had once trusted it, but their grim experiences conditioned them, Thaxton writes, “to think about their relationship with the Communist Party in ways that do not bode well for the continuity of socialist rule.” If there is another book that shows more profoundly how Mao, whose portrait still hangs in Tiananmen Square, inflicted disaster on a particular place, I haven’t read it.

Only two other books I know of dig as deeply over many years into how the disasters of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution were experienced on the local level: Chinese Village, Socialist State and Revolution, Resistance, and Reform in Village China, both by the same authors.1 Magnificent and groundbreaking as those works are, their authors studied a model village, Wugong, that received secret help from the central government. Nonetheless, Wugong’s experience was ghastly enough; indeed, much of its experience was similar to Da Fo’s.

Da Fo is not the actual name of Thaxton’s village, something he makes plain only in a footnote; nor does he give real names to its inhabitants. Despite the willingness of many to talk to foreigners, the fear of the Communist authorities among rural residents remains intense.2 Still, the villagers recount how the Communist Party appeared in Da Fo in 1937 and its members led the local fight against the Japanese and then Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang (KMT). The Party helped the villagers survive the nationwide famine of 1942 and when it came into control in Da Fo it briefly lowered peasants’ taxes. In Da Fo, as throughout China, Mao and the Communist Party were regarded as saviors.

But the victors of those struggles were often brutal young men, and it was they, spurred on by Mao’s dogmas, who enforced the harsh demands of the Great Leap, which resulted in one calamity after another. Because of those calamities, the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 played out in Da Fo in ways not usually associated with what Chinese call “the terrible decade,” for it punished some local bosses who had acted viciously. Thaxton says that many years after the famine, peasants still remember the young men who were village leaders as “poorly endowed, uneducated, quick-tempered, perfidious hustlers and ruffians who more often than not operated in an arbitrary and brutal political manner in the name of the Communist Party.”

The worst of them, Bao Zhilong, an illiterate native of Da Fo (Thaxton asked him to write his name and he failed), was an all too typical low-level Maoist official: he had suffered and dealt out suffering in the wars against the Japanese and the KMT. Deeply corrupt and sadistic, Bao developed a taste for bullying and violence. Very resilient, he bounced back from Party disciplinary procedures, as well as from the revenge taken against him during the Cultural Revolution.

Thaxton doesn’t excuse Bao and his confederates because they had suffered. Their past, he suggests,

was placed in a cultural myth…the myth of the war god Guangong and his heroism. This myth, which emphasized the ability to survive violent extremity…, was somehow connected to the ideas Bao and many of his militia activists held about pride and personal accomplishment.

Such men, Thaxton observes, gave no sign that they had any qualms when they abused, tortured, and killed others. They did it because they could and because Mao, the Great Helmsman and Teacher, wanted them to. Thaxton is right to compare them, as they strove “to tear apart civil society and destroy human purpose,” to the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and the Sudanese Janjaweed.

The Korean War and China’s isolation from most of the rest of the world accelerated Mao’s attacks on his perceived enemies and sped up his plans to develop an economy in which the government would benefit from maximum rural taxation. Before that, Da Fo’s peasants had tilled their own small holdings and observed their traditional practices connected to markets—festivals, banquets, and honoring ancestors. The Party renewed another profitable sideline, forbidden by the KMT, of extracting and selling salt from earth. Beginning in 1954 the peasants were encouraged to form and join collectives, which, they told Thaxton, increased their efficiency without taking away their land or curtailing their livelihoods. By 1958 private ownership, however, had been abolished and households all over China were forced into the state-operated communes. Mao insisted that the communes must produce more grain for the cities and earn foreign exchange from exports.

The government’s senior economist, Chen Yun, warned fruitlessly that peasants would not welcome these arrangements and might rebel against them. At the provincial level a similar debate ended with the purging of Henan’s Party secretary, who had urged moderation in the administration of the cooperatives and the communes. This purge, writes Thaxton, convinced men like Bao Zhilong to “fear political exile or worse if they brooked any protest of Mao’s Great Leap plans.”

Thaxton in his meticulous way explains how this ban on private holdings wrecked peasant life at its most basic level, namely the ability to secure enough food to go on living: traditionally, peasants owning their own land could rent or sell it, use it as collateral for loans, or even dismantle and sell parts of their houses. Once the commune was operational Bao and his colleagues swung into manic action, herding villagers into the fields to sleep and to work intolerable hours, and forcing them to walk, starving, to distant additional projects.

Boss Bao and his men beat and occasionally killed those they deemed uncooperative. For all this, the villagers were given increasingly meager supplies of food, to be consumed in public dining halls. As they raced toward famine, Bao linked himself to “Mao’s deadly project using a combination of physical and verbal abuse, deprivation, and terror.” An ex-leader of that project told Thaxton in 2001, “I never questioned it, nor did any of the other party leaders. We had unshakeable confidence in the Communist Party and the leadership of Chairman Mao.”

Simply put, a principal cause of the famine was overreporting of harvest sizes. Wanting these inflated statistics to be true, the government seized what was purported to be a reasonable amount of the harvest, leaving the peasants with less grain than necessary to survive. A local man told Thaxton in 1990 that everyone was afraid of reporting the actual size of the harvest because it was seen as too small. “No one dared to resist [the false reporting] because at that moment there was an atmosphere of madness surrounding the government drive for grain collection.” Early in 1960 almost all of Da Fo’s grain was in commune storage, payments to villagers had been stopped, and “starvation loomed.” Even the blind were forced to stand in the fields, to “receive the energizing warmth of Chairman Mao’s radiant thought.”

One of the main ways the Party secured obedience throughout China, in addition to physical punishment, was public criticism. This was especially effective in a society that fears humiliation. Thaxton describes several varieties of shaming people: ostracizing those who declined to attend the public shaming events, condemning others who denied false accusations, and harshly treating those who had broken even minor regulations. These sessions became “the key instrument of Maoist terror, creating a climate of political hysteria, sycophancy, and aggression.” “I had to lie,” an informant told Thaxton in 1994. “Otherwise, I would be criticized…. We had to exaggerate production, but when we exaggerated the villagers had to suffer hunger.”

Thaxton provides an example of this form of terror and its immense consequences. Those accused of laziness were forced to wear a white ribbon, white being the Chinese color for death. If the head of a household wore one, an informant reported, “the family reputation was ruined.” In one family, from the Bao clan, the family head, accused of shirking and forced to wear the white ribbon, died of shame. Soon his wife, equally ashamed, died, as did their elder son. The younger son fled the village. The Party leaders ordered that the tombs of the three dead Baos be leveled, a “shocking act of cultural violence,” as a warning to the rest of the village. Everyone knew that the family line had been wiped out because it was known that surviving sons of such a family would never find wives: they were “understood as alien, undependable, unmarriageable.” That such a taboo would be effective with villagers who knew that the punishment had been purely political testified to a condition of mass fear that is still inadequately understood.

Da Fo’s population of just under 1,500 in the late 1950s was a speck in the Chinese famine of 1959–1961 in which 35 million to 50 million died, the worst such catastrophe of the twentieth century or perhaps ever. As Thaxton shows, under 10 percent of the village’s inhabitants died, a considerably smaller proportion than many other places where most or even almost all the inhabitants died.

Thaxton wanted to find out by what strategies so many villagers had survived, and he found they were numerous, sometimes age-old. Among them were footdragging, pretending to work hard but finding places to sleep during night labor; remittances of money from better-off relatives elsewhere; migration to other parts of China where there were rumors of more food or less brutal treatment; secret, illegal selling of salt on the black market; begging, either within the village or from relatives elsewhere; stealing crops, especially in late 1960 “when Da Fo’s inhabitants were so hungry that they felt as though each day was their last on earth”; and gleaning—picking up what was left after a harvest—of crops sometimes deliberately left in the fields. Rather than admitting that their subjects were dying of hunger, local Party leaders deemed all such acts sabotage or political opposition.

  1. 1

    Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden, Chinese Village, Socialist State (Yale University Press, 1991), reviewed in these pages March 25, 1993; Revolution, Resistance and Reform in Village China (Yale University Press, 2005), reviewed in these pages May 11, 2006.

  2. 2

    For a detailed description of the plight of contemporary peasant life immediately east of Henan, see Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants, translated by Zhu Hong (Public-Affairs, 2006); Unlike Thaxton’s book, this book does not show how decades of suffering led to the present rural crisis. See also Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State by Yasheng Huang, a professor at MIT (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Huang’s theme, described with great power, is the impoverishment of the countryside by the government after 1990.

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