It took twenty-four years for the news of the shocking facts about cannibalism in China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region in southern China to reach the ears of the world. Most of the Chinese people know nothing of the truth even today. Similarly the grim truth about China’s great famine of the early 1960s, which snuffed out more than 30 million lives, has continued to be sealed off from the Chinese people. The remarkable success of the Communist government’s propaganda can be seen in the fact that nearly all Chinese people continue to refer to that huge famine as “the three years of natural disaster” or “the three-year period of difficulty.” These are euphemisms for man-made catastrophe on a scale seldom seen in world history. But what does the ordinary Chinese citizen know of it? At most, only the tiny part that he or she experienced personally.

When the Chinese writer Zheng Yi’s first accounts of the cannibalism in the Guangxi region appeared, many of the Chinese who saw them were reluctant to face the evidence squarely. Frustrated at this reluctance, Zheng Yi eventually decided, after living and writing underground in China for three years, to leave the country. If Chinese people have trouble dealing with these facts, Zheng reasoned, then I’ll have to begin by presenting my evidence abroad. At the end of March 1992, he escaped to Hong Kong in a small wooden boat. He now lives in the US.

He carried with him a documented story of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution at its worst. In Guangxi, as elsewhere in China, the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 when Mao declared that “rebellion is justified” and sought to mobilize student rebels in “Red Guard” organizations to attack Liu Shaoqi, then president of the People’s Republic, and others of Mao’s own political rivals. Young people responded enthusiastically, taking the “right to rebel” as permission to express pentup popular resentment against corrupt and repressive Party bureaucrats at local levels.

The first rebel groups were composed mostly of students and intellectuals. When they began threatening local power, more conservative groups, consisting largely of workers and government officials, emerged to oppose them. In a great many places two or three factions, each claiming to be the most steadfast in its loyalty to Mao, struggled for dominance in an increasingly lawless environment. Mao fanned the flames of the strife by promoting ambiguous slogans that convinced each side more than ever of its own righteousness: Dictatorship means the masses’ dictatorship; If we don’t finish them, they will finish us; and so on. As the factional strife worsened during 1967, garrison troops sometimes became involved. Rifles and other arms—in some places even machine guns and tanks—were employed. By 1968 there were pitched battles, sieges, makeshift prisons, and executions.

In most places, “revolutionary committees” controlled by the dominant faction (usually the one that had repressed the original student rebels) became a de facto local government. These regimes sought to create an atmosphere of terror in order to enforce their rule. One way they did this was to make examples of people who had been, or whose relatives had been, “class enemies” before the revolution—former landlords, rich peasants, “bourgeois” intellectuals, and others. It did not matter if one had been an infant in 1949 and a docile citizen ever since; in 1968 such a person could be forcibly taken from home and subjected to “struggle” (douzheng).

This term, which arose during China’s land reform movement in the late 1940s, refers to collective accusation and taunting of an accused person at a public meeting. During land reform in the later 1940s, peasants would take turns relating their cases of suffering at the hands of a landlord, pressing their accusations until the landlord confessed. After 1949, “struggle” became a standard tactic in other kinds of political campaigns. Party leaders would identify a victim and direct the events. The presumption of guilt hung over the victim as soon as the accusation was made. The victim was not allowed to answer charges, and bystanders, even if inclined to offer a word of defense, could not possibly take such a risk because of the certainty that the taint would spread to themselves. At the end of each struggle session a sentence was pronounced. It was based not on evidence but on a “confession” that the struggle itself had elicited.

During the Cultural Revolution struggle sessions could end in beatings, torture, forced denunciations of family members, and killings. Many people resorted to suicide, divorce, or internal exile in order to avoid being “struggled.” No one has been able to count the number of killings and suicides that took place throughout China. The government says one-tenth of the population “suffered political persecution.”

Nor has anyone been able to describe all the local variations of the violence. (In Dao County, Hunan, for example, activists lured family members of class enemies back to their home villages for traditional holidays, then beheaded them in public using a large grain cleaver.) But there is wide consensus that the brutality was worst in Guangxi, where “unnatural deaths” during the Cultural Revolution are officially estimated at 90,000, but said among the populace to be at least twice that number. The original Red Guard “rebels” in Guangxi were students who called themselves the “April 22 Group” after the day of the group’s founding in 1967. They were opposed by “The United Headquarters of Proletarian Revolutionary Factions,” who had the backing of local Party bureaucrats, who were, in turn, backed by Wei Guoqing, governor of Guangxi. Wei secured from Central Cultural Revolution officials in Beijing an order to suppress the April 22 group, then lent his army in support of this effort. Thus, while “unnatural deaths” elsewhere in China meant primarily suicides or street-side killings, in Guangxi the term included the slaughter of April 22 members both in battle and in mass executions after their surrender or capture.


A person could claim credit for delivering blows against the opposing side. This was true everywhere in China during the Cultural Revolution, but again Guangxi defined an extreme. Zheng Yi documents a case in one town where teen-age girls formed a shock-force that would descend on “class enemies” and beat them to death. A girl who had killed six people was called “Sister Six”; another who had killed nine was “Sister Nine”; and so on. In Bobai County, an activist attempted to rape the daughter of a class enemy, but she resisted. He then killed her and reported to the Party branch with a request that he be made a Party member because of his demonstrated resolve in opposing class enemies. The officials told him that the demonstration must be made not just to them but to the village at large. The man returned to the girl’s corpse, severed its head, carried it to the school basketball court, and used it to shoot baskets as a crowd gathered and watched. Shortly thereafter a big meeting was held to induct the man into the Party.

In Qinzhou District, with a population around 300,000, Zheng Yi found official Party surveys, done in 1983, of the grisly phenomenon of promotion as a reward for murder: 10,420 people were killed in Cultural Revolution violence; 1,153 people were admitted to the Communist Party after demonstrating credit for a killing; 458 officials received promotions; and 637 people were given urban work permits, on the same basis.1

Zheng Yi, now forty-six years old, is a Chinese writer who has become well known for forcing his fellow citizens to face unpleasant facts. His first published story, “Maple” (1979), about a battle between two groups of armed Red Guards, stood for many years as the only piece of post-Mao “scar” literature to describe Cultural Revolution violence without indirection or euphemism. His most famous story, “Old Well” (1984), which was also made into an acclaimed film, shows how poverty-stricken peasants are driven to desperation and viciousness after their drinking water runs out.

Zheng Yi was not the first to expose the violence in Guangxi. In 1968, a few conscience-stricken local Party officials sent off urgent reports about it to the central authorities in Beijing. The only concrete results of these reports were reprisals against those who had issued them. Sixteen years later, shortly before Beijing’s famous “Democracy Wall” was suppressed, I personally read on the Wall about a hundred posters written by petitioners from Guangxi. They called upon the Deng Xiaoping leadership to deal severely with the primary offenders—the military and political strongmen in Guangxi. But the leader of those strongmen, Wei Guoqing, had been one of Deng Xiaoping’s favorite followers during revolutionary struggles decades earlier. Wei was, at least for the time being, untouchable.

But Wei continued to insist on the “correctness” of the Cultural Revolution while Deng Xiaoping, beginning in the late 1970s, sought increasingly to discredit the Cultural Revolution in order to win popular support for his own rule. This difference led to a split between Wei and Deng, and to Wei’s fall from power in 1983. Wei’s dismissal then cleared the way, at long last, for central authorities to send people to Guangxi to investigate the shocking reports. By the time Zheng Yi and his bride-to-be, Bei Ming, went to Guangxi to do their own investigation, in 1986, all of the most flagrant offenders among the officials had already been transferred elsewhere. Yet many who had been part of the murderous “United Headquarters” group were still in power. The families of the victims, as well as everyone who had been active in the ill-fated “April 22” group, continued to live under the threat of repression.

Zheng Yi was particularly concerned to investigate reports that victims of the Cultural Revolution had actually been eaten. The people who had been involved in such acts of cannibalism put him under tight surveillance and tried however they could to prevent him from gathering hard evidence. They tried to block access to Party archives. They tried to prevent him from traveling to outlying villages to interview accused murderers and the families of victims. An atmosphere reminiscent of the White Terror2 intimidated many from telling him what they knew. Those who sympathized with Zheng Yi were obliged to take elaborate precautions when helping him, as if doing underground work. In the end, thanks to assistance from a few Party officials and from the families of victims, Zheng Yi was able to get the evidence he needed.


Zheng’s book Red Memorial begins with detailed accounts of some selected cases of cannibalism. One tells of Deng Jifang, reportedly murdered by a man named Yi Wansheng. Deng’s father had been a landlord in the 1940s. In the early 1950s, when the Land Reform Campaign arrived, the father and his three sons fled into the nearby hills. When they were captured, the father and the two older sons were executed, but the youngest son, Deng Jifang, was let off with a two-year sentence at a labor reform camp because he was a minor. After his release he went back to his village to find that his mother had hanged herself and that no one in the village welcomed him. He then made his way to a neighboring village where a childless peasant family was willing to adopt him and later arrange a marriage for him so that they might continue their family line. The official file on Deng Jifang’s murder states that “after his marriage he always stayed at home honestly and straightforwardly growing rice and planting crops.” 3

On June 5, 1986, Zheng Yi went to Sixiao village in Qingtang township, Zhongshan County, accompanied by two local officials. Sixiao was Deng Jifang’s native village and the place where Yi Wansheng, the man accused of murdering Deng, still lived. In Red Memorial Zheng Yi writes:

During the Cultural Revolution leaders in Sixiao village, duty-bound to uncover “class enemies,” found themselves with no convenient scapegoats. Suddenly remembering that the youngest son of a former landlord of theirs was now living in the neighboring village, Sixiao Party Secretary Huang Paoci ordered his armed militia to go make the arrest. When Deng Jifang saw the approach of the militia from the window of his home, he knew that his time had come and decided to hang himself immediately rather than to endure the torture that inevitably would follow. But the militia leaders stormed inside, cut Deng down before he died, and despatched him under escort back to Sixiao village.

At one point on the way, Deng abruptly refused to take another step. He was then packed into a bamboo cage used for carrying pigs and marched forcibly back to Sixiao village. There the villagers tied him to an electric pole and beat him into semi-consciousness, but apparently still were not satisfied. The official file on the case says they then “seared his chest and back with a red-hot stir-frying spatula.”4 As the torture continued the zest of the crowd escalated, until some in the group—including senior Party members, officials, labor-reform activists, and “poor peasants”5—raised the demand that Deng be killed and, moreover, that this be done by disembowelment. While Deng was still barely alive, they dragged him onto the stones of a river bed where five or six people “used pine branches to hold down his arms and legs while the poor peasant Yi Wansheng sliced open Deng Jifang’s abdomen with a vegetable cleaver…”6

We found Yi Wansheng, who in the meantime had become famous in the area as a “murderer,” inside his shabby, cramped hut. He freely admitted every detail of his case, and indeed seemed almost cocky about it. “Right! I admit everything! Anyway I’m eighty-five years old, haven’t long to live anyway. You think I’m afraid of jail?.” The old man glared at me defiantly, I averted his challenge, and instead invited him to discuss his reasons for killing.7

“Why did I kill him? They ran into the hills to be bandits…upset the whole village. I was in the militia back then, spent all day on sentry duty. In a few weeks the rifle butt wore holes right through my clothes!… What was so evil about his father? We had a famine one spring, and he wouldn’t lend grain to us villagers; he up and lent it to other villages! When he ran to the mountains to be a bandit, he led the other bandits back to attack the village…. He had them burn up a huge pile of straw that we were going to use for fuel in our limekilns. They burned it! No lime!

…Yes, I killed him. I give the same answer no matter who asks. …Why should I be afraid? So many of the masses were behind me, and the man I killed was a bad man, so what am I afraid of? …Am I supposed to be afraid his ghost will get me? Ha, ha! I’m a revolutionary, my heart is red! Didn’t Chairman Mao teach us, ‘If we don’t kill them, they’ll kill us!’? It’s life and death! It’s class struggle!…Yeah, I was wrong. The government shoulda killed him, shouldn’t have left it to us. …I just did the handiwork. The first knife didn’t work, so I threw it away. I got him open with the second knife. But I wasn’t the one who pulled out the heart and liver.”

On this last crucial detail, the official document on the case does not square with Yi Wansheng’s account. It says: “After opening Deng Jifang’s abdominal cavity, Yi Wansheng proceeded to remove the internal organs. Because the abdominal cavity was uncomfortably hot in comparison to the river water, Yi Wansheng splashed water inside to bring the temperature down. Then Yi Wansheng reached his hands inside Deng Jifang’s abdomen and pulled out the heart, liver, gall bladder, and kidneys. After slicing them up with his cleaver, he laid them out on a wooden plank.”8

Yi Wansheng continued: “When the heart and liver were out, and sliced into strips about the size of your fingers, the masses rushed up to grab them. There was such a crowd that I didn’t even get any.” But the official document says: “Huang Paoqiu [apparently a mistake for the aforementioned Huang Paoci—ZY] stepped forward to take away more than half the pieces for himself. He went home and [two characters are unclear here—seem to be youzha, “fried in oil”—ZY] on a wok lid outside his door, then ate them, sharing some with the masses…. Yi Wansheng took three strips of finger-sized liver, each about three inches long, home to eat.9

Zheng Yi describes a number of such incidents. After investigations in several counties, he was able to make some general conclusions about the cannibalism in Guangxi. It was, first, unprecedented since it was cannibalism based on hatred. At earlier times in China, because of the folk belief in some places that human blood has medicinal powers, small amounts of blood were sometimes gathered from the bodies of executed criminals. During the great famine of the early 1960s, there were also instances of the consumption of human flesh, but these were the result of life-or-death hunger and regarded as horrifying aberrations. But in Guangxi in 1968, hunger was not the issue. What happened was that “revolutionary masses”—meaning supporters of the dominant United Headquarters—killed “class enemies,” who were either family members of landlords and others with inherited bad backgrounds, or members of “rebel groups” such as April 22. After killing the enemy grew fairly common, eating the enemy became the way to demonstrate an even higher level of “class awakening.”

Zheng found that many people, while afraid to resist the cannibalism openly, privately found it abhorrent. He tells of one village where political fervor and human conscience arrived at a subtle balance. Village leaders cut human flesh and pork into equal-sized pieces and boiled them together in a large pot in the village square. They suspended the pot above eye-level while villagers passed by to receive one piece of meat each. All villagers could then say, “I have shown a firm class standpoint,” but also say, perhaps only to themselves, “It is possible I have not eaten human flesh.”

Zheng Yi concludes that the cannibalism took place in three stages: In the “beginning stage,” the flesh-eaters were motivated by personal hatred but still felt strong inhibitions. They would steal away, usually in the still of night, to the execution ground where a class enemy had been shot some hours earlier. There they would slit the abdomen and remove the heart and liver. Because they trembled, and moreover lacked experience, they sometimes punctured a bowel, or cut out the lungs by mistake, obliging them to go back for a second try. After boiling the organs, they would gather around a stove and hurriedly consume them. No one would say a word.

In the “mature stage,” the victims were disemboweled right after they were executed, in broad daylight, in village squares or marketplaces with red flags flying and political slogans pasted on walls. Inhibitions were weaker now, because “eating class enemies” had become recognized as a revolutionary act and a sign of personal mettle. After the killings, the leaders would begin by taking away the best parts—heart, liver, and genitals, The rest was left for “the masses” to slice off at will.

In the “hysterical stage,” the eating of human flesh turned into unpredictable street-side terror. At any time, putative “class enemies” could be dragged out to undergo “criticism and struggle.” Struggle led inevitably to death, and death to cannibalism. As soon as a victim fell to the ground, and even if he were still breathing, a crowd would rush forward, drawing the knives and cleavers they had come equipped with, and slice off parts in a free-for-all fashion. At worst, collective banquets of human flesh would follow.

How many people had their flesh eaten, in all, and how many participated in the eating? The numbers can only be estimated, because government records on the matter remain tightly guarded secrets to the present day. Zheng Yi was able to get full access to the records of only one county in Guangxi, Wuxuan County. There he copied lists that gave the full names of sixty-four people who were eaten in 1968, together with the locations of the murders and a compilation of grisly details: heart and liver eaten, fifty-six people; genitals, thirteen people; entire body, including soles of the feet, eighteen people; disemboweled while living, seven people.10 Zheng Yi estimates that if sixty-four victims could be fully identified in Wuxuan, the total number for that county, including undocumented or undiscovered cases, may be near one hundred. Since Wuxuan has only 5 percent of Guangxi’s population, and since Zheng Yi found cannibalism in all five of the five counties he personally visited, the total number of people eaten, he reasons, must be at least several hundred.

Another document from Wuxuan County shows that 130 people there were punished after 1983 for having taken leading roles in the cannibalism. 11 From this fact, and considering that victims in the later stages of the movement were cut into small pieces and shared among many, Zheng Yi estimates the number of people who participated in eating human flesh to be in the high thousands for Wuxuan County, and many times that for Guangxi as a whole.

With cold irony, Zheng notes the “punishments” for cannibalism levied after 1983: dismissal from the Communist Party; political demerit noted on the records; reduction in salary. No one faced criminal charges. Some were made to apologize to the victim’s surviving family members. Zheng tells of a mother whose preschool son was killed, because his father had been a “class enemy,” by three men who tied the boy by a rope to the tailgate of a truck and dragged him until he was dead. Fifteen years later the three entered the mother’s house, accompanied by a Communist Party official. They sat down to “sincerely apologize.” The mother was obliged to pour tea for the four men.

Zheng Yi’s original intention had been to write a novel based on what he could learn about Guangxi during the Cultural Revolution. But the appalling facts that he and Bei Ming discovered caused him to change his mind in favor of writing a factual account. Then, just as he was setting pen to paper, the Tiananmen movement of 1989 erupted.

Zheng Yi and Bei Ming were drawn into the movement at the outset and stayed involved until the very end. After the June 4 massacre they began a life of internal exile. Zheng Yi was on the government’s nationwide most-wanted list and the object of a search by police forces who were mobilized to highest alert in every province and city. Nevertheless he was able, somehow, to travel across half of China. How he could remain undiscovered for three years, and even be able to write during that time, might seem impossible to imagine. It might seem equally impossible that Bei Ming, who was jailed for ten months and then released, but who remained under the close scrutiny of secret police afterward, could find her way far to the south of China to rejoin her husband, with whom she had lost contact for many months, and even deliver safely to him the entire collection of his forbidden research materials.

The basic explanation for these apparent mysteries is fairly simple. A Chinese proverb says, “a just cause attracts abundant support.” Among those who helped Zheng Yi and Bei Ming were not only scholars, writers, teachers, students, and editors, perhaps as one might expect, but also a large number of government officials, office workers, private entrepreneurs, militiamen, policemen, and unemployed “floating” peasants.12 They were also helped by a monk, a sing-song girl, and an ex-convict. Not one of these people betrayed the fugitives, and not one refused to help. They provided food, shelter, transportation, and secure communications. Before seeing them off to their destinations, they often gave them money as well.

During the three years Zheng Yi lived underground, he seldom had to go without funds. He relied almost entirely on the support of strangers who not only helped him but were willing to take personal risks to do so. Those who today are so effusive in their praise of Deng Xiaoping’s economic policies and of social stability in China somehow overlook the important fact that there are people all across China—including many officials, military police, and even state security police—who have shielded hundreds of dissidents and have helped them make their ways safely out of the country. All these people are among the regime’s latent opponents.

Zheng Yi’s two books, A Part of History and Red Memorial, were both written during his three years as fugitive after June 1989. Red Memorial which is not yet published, begin with an unflinching look at the evidence of the Guangxi cannibalism have briefly summarized. It then put these events into the larger setting of the Cultural Revolution and attempt to explain—historically, psychologically, and politically—how such acts could possibly occur. When Zheng Yi finished writing Red Memorial, he said to have heaved a sigh, tossed down his pen, and said, “All right, now they can come for me.” The book had become, for both Bei Ming and Zheng Yi, the whole reason for their struggle to carry on. They looked for ways to hide photocopies of the text and supporting documents in several different locations inside China. Still not feeling secure, they eventually took miniature photographs of the pages and passed them to an Australian couple, who were in China as tourists, to carry out of the country.

Zheng Yi wrote A Part of History during the last half of 1989. Its form is a series of long letters addressed to his wife, even though he knew he could not send them to her at the time, since he was in hiding and she in prison. One of the letters discusses the Guangxi cannibalism, but read together the letters are much broader, adding up to an intellectual autobiography.

Zheng Yi belongs to the generation of Chinese who became adults during the Cultural Revolution. Although his family had a rough time under the Communists, his natural idealism led him to become a loyal follower of Mao Zedong. During the Cultural Revolution he expected that a Paris Commune style of democracy which Mao was advocating would take root in China. Then, in 1968, when he and millions of other young people answered Mao’s call to “settle and work in the countryside,” they learned that the “socialist” countryside was usually nothing but a place of miserable destitution in which peasants had no rights whatever. Feeling that they had been deceived and manipulated, these former Red Guards began to have fundamental doubts about the Maoist line. They sought desperately for any books they could find on Western philosophy and politics, hoping to find a better formula for China. When Zheng Yi could find such books he read them compulsively. Because they were precious contraband, the books were rationed on a tight schedule among young people stationed in several villages. Zheng Yi would skip sleep to read all night.

When he began writing his own criticisms of Mao-style socialism, he inadvertently allowed one of his letters to a friend to be intercepted by the authorities. This event forced him to flee, and he spent some time living in the forests and plains in China’s northeast, where he gained an even deeper appreciation of the true nature and scale of China’s suffering. Next he went to work as a laborer in a coal mine, and at the same time began writing underground literature aimed at exposing the despotic rule of Chinese communism. By this route a young man who began with a sincere faith in Marxism-Leninism turned finally into an all-out rebel, and now into one of China’s most powerful writers, whose works deserve to be translated and widely read.

translated by Perry Link

This Issue

April 8, 1993