Tyranny of the Ladle

James C. Scott

  • Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine by Yang Jisheng, translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian
    Allen Lane, 629 pp, £30.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84614 518 6
  • Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 by Frank Dikötter
    Bloomsbury, 420 pp, £9.99, May 2011, ISBN 978 1 4088 1003 3
  • The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past by Gail Hershatter
    California, 455 pp, £37.95, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 520 26770 1

There is no doubt that the Great Leap Famine in China more than half a century ago was the worst man-made calamity of modern times. Between early 1958 and the spring of 1961, somewhere between 30 and 45 million people died. The more cautious figure is five million more than the population of Scandinavia, the higher one the current population of Spain. The famine was compressed geographically and temporally. Henan, Gansu, Anhui, Guizhou, Qinghai and Sichuan were the worst hit provinces. Most of the victims died between January and April 1960, when all the grain was gone and before the new crops were up. They had tried everything they could to save themselves. They stripped the bark from trees, and ate the roots, runners and leaves of crop plants, as well as insects, bran, cornstalks and rotten sweet potatoes. The rural population of North China had age-old ways of coping with food shortages. They were no strangers to drought, famine and flood; millions had died in an earlier man-made famine in 1938, when Chiang Kaishek decided to slow the Japanese advance by opening the dikes and changing the course of the Yellow River. In the Great Leap Famine, the Entomological Research Institute of China’s Academy of Sciences helpfully supplied lists of the protein and fat content of many insects: dried larva of the corn borer, dried fly maggot, dried dung beetle, termites, locusts and silkworm pupae, together with recipes for their preparation. Before reaching this point, people had eaten the green crops in the fields (chi qing), thereby reducing the harvest that the authorities could seize to negligible proportions. Quite apart from scouring the environment for everything and anything that could be eaten, they did what any starving people would do. They tried to flee, first to the cities, where the food supply was better. For the most part they were stopped on the roads and at transportation hubs by militiamen, who arrested and beat them. If they couldn’t escape, they raided public granaries and storerooms; they stole; they rustled livestock and fodder; they torched the homes of hated cadres; and they rioted.

Finally, they died along the roads, in the fields and at home, the oldest and youngest first and then many of the rest. In October 1960, at last, Mao Zedong was handed a frank report on mass starvation in Xinyang, and within a month investigative teams fanned out to the provinces to document the death toll. By the beginning of 1961, the policies of the Great Leap Forward had been rolled back and grain was being imported from the West.

In local oral memory the hunger was associated more with enforced communal dining in huge militarised communes than with national slogans such as ‘The Great Leap’, and thus ‘peasant time’ was divided into two epochs: ‘when we ate out of the big pot’ and ‘after eating out of the big pot’. In the middle of 1961, when the worst was over, Gansu Province’s first secretary wrote:

The masses deeply detest and loathe the communal kitchens. The masses say: ‘Make friends with a canteen manager and you’ll never want for buns and soup … A knife hangs over the rice ladle.’ The masses say: ‘The communal canteen is a dining hall (a place for getting food), a tribunal (a place where kitchen staff beat and scold people) and a bordello (where team leaders and managers hire the prettiest girls as kitchen staff and mess around with them).’

What he doesn’t mention, surely because it was by now all too well understood, was that after the first two or three months, the communal canteen was no longer a dining hall because there was virtually no food left.

How do we take the measure of such a disaster? Who was responsible? Ralph Thaxton’s Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China, Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory and Chen Yixin’s essay ‘When Food Became Scarce’ all begin with individual experience.[*] Thaxton shows in meticulous detail how the crisis fractured the village of Da Fo in Henan Province, the desperate struggle to survive, and the abiding resentment among villagers that the cadres most culpable for their suffering were never punished. Hershatter’s volume is devoted to bringing to life women’s experience as it diverged from both men’s history and the national story. Her portraits, based on the lives of 72 women from four villages in Shaanxi Province, are a landmark in women’s history and the history of China; no future account of the famine can ignore them. Chen studies three villages in Anhui, another devastated province, seeking carefully to understand how some villages were effectively extinguished while others managed to limit the death toll.

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter and Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone have more ambitious goals. Each aims to understand how the post-liberation party-state created the structures of power and information that made such a massive famine possible. Each describes the stages of the famine as it unfolded and its effects, province by province, based on newly available provincial and national documentary sources and on interviews. Inevitably, each arrives at an overall total of deaths. Dikötter’s estimate, and it is no more than that, of 45 million is larger by 10 million than the estimates of most experts, but it is not preposterous. Finally, and also inevitably, Dikötter and Yang are preoccupied with judging the degree to which all this blood is on Mao’s hands. What did he know and when did he know it? Who set the murderous machinery of grain requisition in motion? When its consequences became apparent, who tried to stop the machine and who simply ignored the toll and pushed ahead?

Dikötter’s answer to this question is implicit in the possessive case of his book’s title. When it comes to a more precise accounting of Mao’s role at each stage of the disaster, Dikötter is considerably more cagey, however, since the available archives leave many questions unanswered. But Mao’s Great Famine is surely the best and most comprehensive general history of the famine published to date. Dikötter is a reliable guide to the utopian origins of the Great Leap, to the export of agricultural commodities to pay for industrial investment at the height of the famine, to the competitive frenzy among provincial cadres to promise unattainable bumper harvests, to the mobilisation of untold millions of people in ill-advised drainage, dam, irrigation and iron foundry projects, to the agro-fantasy that close planting and deep (one-metre) ploughing would raise yields astronomically, to the evolving elite debates on the consequences for the rural population of gigantic communes, collective dining and grain requisitions.

The human costs are not scanted. Dikötter has amassed stories of sadistic cadres beating, humiliating and raping a desperate and exhausted peasantry, of parents abandoning children, and of instances of the last extremity of all great famines, cannibalism. The hundreds of horror stories he piles up have a numbing effect. One has the impression of a mass of disconnected, if horrific detail extracted from his trawl through the archives with very little in the way of historical or cultural context. There are no voices here, as there are in Chen, Hershatter and Thaxton, explaining, in their own words, what happened to them. Here, and quite inadvertently, Dikötter falls into the same sort of error as Mao, who declared in 1956 that China’s two advantages in development were ‘emptiness’ and ‘blankness’. Such flatness is possible only when looking down on the world from a great height. This attitude might explain Dikötter’s scolding tone towards the starving peasants who stole grain: ‘Even when it seemed that petty theft took place against a faceless state, somebody down the chain of distribution paid the price.’

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[*] Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village by Ralph Thaxton (Cambridge, 383 pp., £24.99, May 2008, 978 0 521 72230 8). Chen Yixin’s essay appeared in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Historical Studies.