The China We Don’t Know

Kadir van Lohuizen/Noor
A dormitory for migrant workers on the grounds of a factory producing shirts for export to the West, Foshan, Guangdong province, China, 2005

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,…

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