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China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined

The starvation led to the destruction of human relations. In one case, an official heard about a teenage girl whose parents had died. Near death, she killed her four-year-old brother and ate him. Filled with pity and a sense of helplessness, the official finally arrested the girl, reasoning that at least in jail she might get something to eat.

Local granaries were rarely opened, with officials who dared to do so punished, often with death. Meanwhile, farmers couldn’t leave their villages. A Central Committee “urgent communiqué” declared anyone leaving rural areas to be a vagrant. Local officials enforced the travel ban brutally, beating thousands to death. Police controlled all train stations. Long-distance buses were driven only by Party members. Postal service was so heavily monitored that it essentially shut down. Rural China had become a gulag without food. “The peasants could only stay home and await death,” Yang writes.

When Mao finally heard about the Xinyang Incident in 1960, he acted delusionally, declaring that landlords had retaken control and wrecked his utopian experiment. One main culprit he identified was the daughters of landlords, whom he accused of marrying Communist Party officials and ruining them. An inspection team headed by a senior Party member arrived in Xinyang and concluded that local officials were responsible for failing to follow Beijing’s orders. Of course they had been following Beijing’s orders, which is why the starvation had taken place. No matter, several thousand were arrested and beaten, and hundreds were killed. That meant an even further hardening of local officials against any sort of rational response. The famine continued, spreading nationally and claiming tens of millions.

In subsequent chapters, Yang shows how hastily conceived dams and canals contributed to the famine. In some areas, peasants weren’t allowed to plant crops; instead, they were ordered to dig ditches and haul dirt. That resulted in starvation and useless projects, most of which collapsed or washed away. In one telling example, peasants were told they couldn’t use shoulder poles to carry dirt because this method looked backward. Instead, they were ordered to build carts. For that they needed ball bearings, which they were told to make at home. Naturally, none of the primitive bearings worked.

Despite his personal loss, Yang remains sober and balanced throughout the book. He lays the blame firmly on the top leaders—not just Mao but also supposed moderates like Liu and Zhou. In imperial China, Yang says, power was centered in the Confucian bureaucracy but the truth lay in religion and philosophical texts, such as the Confucian classics. In Maoist China, by contrast, the leader was the sage, meaning there was no ideological alternative to Mao. “China’s government became a secular theocracy that united the center of power with the center of truth” is Yang’s pithy but telling analysis.

Yang doesn’t spare Mao, Liu, or Zhou, but he also blames Chinese society for wanting to believe that leaders had a quick and easy solution to China’s backwardness. Mostly, he blames the Communist political system for allowing such a leader as Mao to take power—a far more damning indictment of today’s China than simply blaming Mao:

The problem lay in arbitrary and dictatorial decision making at the expense of good practice, and coercive implementation that deprived people of their rights and property. Both flaws were rooted in the political system.

At this point, it is impossible not to mention the Dutch historian Frank Dikötter and his 2010 book, Mao’s Great Famine.3 Dikötter is a talented historian at Hong Kong University who has a nose for hot topics; his previous books have discussed race, sex, eugenics, crime, and opium. Most of them have a strongly contrarian streak, sometimes presenting ideas in new, startling ways. Chinese have troubling ideas of race. Opium wasn’t really such a problem. The Republican era that preceded the Communist one was far better than its reputation. All of these are worthwhile ideas and it’s fair to say that Dikötter’s 1992 book, The Discourse of Race in Modern China, is a classic that is as vital today as it was twenty years ago.

His book on famine was rightly hailed as a valuable history and it’s little wonder that it won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize, which is awarded to English-language nonfiction books. It differs from Yang’s book by putting most of the blame on Mao; on the first page we’re told he is comparable to Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. For Dikötter, it is essential that the reader accept Mao’s full culpability, much in the same way that Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Mao aims to put him in the pantheon of twentieth-century monsters.4

This is certainly a defensible position. Still, a confusing preface makes it seem that his book is a pathbreaking work, rather than one whose primary contribution is to have been written in English, and in a conventional, linear narrative. Dikötter hails a new official archival law, which he curiously claims is “fundamentally changing the way one can study the Maoist era,” when in fact it only allowed a brief window of access in the early 2000s that was all but closed for sensitive topics by 2007. The documents he accumulated, he says, form a “massive and detailed dossier [that] transforms our understanding of the Great Leap Forward.”

His main claims, he says, are to offer a higher death toll—45 million—and to show the violence used to enforce Mao’s policies. He also claims to link for the first time the horror in the villages with the decisions made in Beijing. Dikötter’s number of deaths is a guesstimate, but a good one, and he deserves respect and a serious hearing. He and his researchers also made valuable finds in the archives, which solidify what is already known. He is also a gifted narrative writer. But he can’t present his claims as entirely original except by ignoring Tombstone.

Dikötter doesn’t exactly ignore Tombstone. Instead, in a self-serving essay on sources at the end of his book, he spends half a page criticizing the Chinese version of Yang’s work (which came out two years before his own). Dikötter credits Yang with being one of the first to use provincial archives, and especially for his work in the Henan provincial archives. But he then goes on to say the book has “serious shortcomings,” at times looking “like a hotchpotch which simply strings together large chunks of text, some lifted from the Web.” The material is so uneven, Dikötter says, that it’s hard for the reader “to see the wood for the trees.” Dikötter goes further in a Chinese-language interview in Asia Weekly, in which he claims that Yang’s province-by-province analysis is “boring” and, incredibly, that Yang only blames Mao and not the system.5

Without specific citations from Dikötter it’s hard to know exactly what he means when he accuses Yang of lifting information from the Internet. It is true that in the Chinese edition Yang cited survivor memoirs published online, a common practice in China, where the publishing industry is in state hands. (Some of these memoirs were later published in Hong Kong and the English version cites these published versions.)

As for Yang’s prose, a more generous view would be that he simply was trying to get on paper everything he could because so little is known. It’s clear that Yang wouldn’t have been awarded a doctorate from a Western university for the Chinese version of Tombstone. He wrote the book under trying circumstances, not from the perch of a university, aided by editors, graduate students, and associates to do some of his research. But it’s Dikötter who misses the forest for the trees in not seeing the historic value of this work.

Tombstone is not perfect. It lacks an adequate discussion of Mao’s rural industrialization and foreign policy. It could also have used more forward-looking conclusions about how the famine led to the Cultural Revolution and, ultimately, today’s reform period. Even the slimmed-down English version lacks, as Dikötter notes of the Chinese version, a clear historical line. A chronology at the start helps, but it’s not as easily digestible as a traditional historical narrative starting in the 1950s and ending in the 1960s. Still, the English version solves most of this by leading with Yang’s best account—the Xinyang episode—and following that with a chapter on the historic roots of the crisis. That’s followed by another provincial chapter with vivid description followed by the next step in the narrative, and so on.

A more interesting companion to Tombstone is the work of Dikötter’s research collaborator at Hong Kong University, the mainland Chinese archival and oral historian Zhou Xun. As we learn from her acknowledgements, she and Dikötter shared two research grants to seek material on the famine and they also shared their findings. Her book, The Great Famine in China, is a selected compilation of these documents, mostly from archives in her native Sichuan and neighboring Guizhou provinces. As Zhou makes clear in her introduction, most of these documents would be unobtainable today because of the newly restrictive policies.

Her book is an invaluable resource, providing a look at the disaster in the Party’s own words. The documents are ordered roughly chronologically, and take the reader through the Great Leap Forward from beginning to end, and then tackle various effects of the famine. One section has reports on cannibalism with a series of horrifyingly matter-of-fact accounts:

Date: February 1960. Location: Zhangzigou backside village in Hanji commune. Culprit’s name: Yi Wucheng. Culprit’s status: Poor peasant. Number of victims: 4. Manner of crime: Exhumed the victims’ corpses and consumed the flesh. Reason: To survive.

Zhou also has an intriguing section on religion, with reports on the desperate turn to faith by people whose secular God—Mao—had failed them. In one, the Sichuan Province Public Security Bureau worriedly notes a saying going around a village: “The heavenly army is coming soon, and Chairman Mao will not last long.”

This lack of belief is something that Yang discusses in his analysis of the famine’s legacy:

Repeated self-abasement led people continuously to trample upon those things they most cherished and flatter those things they had always most despised. In this way the totalitarian system caused the degeneration of the national character of the Chinese people.

But just as China is undergoing a spiritual revival today, its people are also beginning to revive history. Xinyang is now home to two tiny memorials to the famine.6 More striking, earlier this year a national newspaper ran a multipage supplement on the famine—an unprecedented recognition of this disaster.7 When I asked an editor at a leading Party newspaper why this was, he had a one-word answer: “Tombstone.”

It would be simplistic to say Tombstone alone has set off this rethinking of Chinese history. Instead, like any great book it is part of something bigger, in this case a desire by many Chinese people to reconsider their society’s future by clarifying its past.


In China’s Dark Corners December 20, 2012

  1. 3

    Reviewed in these pages by Roderick MacFarquhar, February 10, 2011. 

  2. 4

    Mao: The Unknown Story (Knopf, 2005). 

  3. 5

    Jiang Xun, “Questioning the Systemic Causes of the Holocaust,” Asia Weekly, October 30, 2011. Yang issued a reply on the Independent Chinese PEN Center site, www.chinesepen.org/Article/srsh/201111/Article_20111116040440.shtml. 

  4. 6

    See Zhang Zhilong. “Starved of Memories,” Global Times, September 6, 2012. 

  5. 7

    See Liu Yang Shuo, “A Farmer’s Memorial to the ‘Grain Stoppage,’” Southern People Weekly, May 18, 2012. 

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