Unrecorded history: a queue forms at a street food tall in Hankou, capital of Hubei Province, in 1959
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The road to perdition

When Yang Jisheng’s father died from starvation in 1959, he thought it was an isolated tragedy. Years later, he learned the truth about the Great Famine.

At the end of April 1959, I was assembling a wall newspaper for my boarding school’s Communist Youth League when a childhood friend suddenly arrived from our home village of Wanli. He told me, “Your father is starving to death! Hurry back and take some rice if you can.” He said, “Your father doesn’t even have the strength to strip bark from the trees – he’s starved beyond helping himself.”

I collected a three-day meal ration of 1.5 kilos of rice from the school canteen and rushed home. When I got there, I found utter destitution. My father was half-reclined on his bed, his eyes sunken and lifeless, his face gaunt, the skin creased and flaccid. He tried to extend his hand to greet me but couldn’t lift it, just moving it a little. A murmur escaped from his lips, his voice faint as he told me to go quickly, go quickly back to school.

I kneaded my father’s hand, then hurried off with buckets on a shoulder pole to fill the water vat. Then I grabbed a hoe and went to dig up sprouts. I dug and dug some more, my heart full of remorse and guilt. Why had I not come back earlier and harvested some wild herbs? Why hadn’t I come back earlier with some rice? But all my self-blame was useless. I boiled congee from the rice I’d brought and took it to my father’s bed but he was no longer able to swallow. Three days later he departed this world. With the help of other villagers, I hastily buried him.

I grieved deeply over my father’s death, but never thought to blame the government. I believed that what was happening in my home village was isolated and that my father’s death was merely one family’s tragedy. Compared to the advent of the great communist society, what was my family’s petty misfortune? The party had taught me to sacrifice the self for the greater good when encountering difficulty and I was completely obedient. I maintained this frame of mind right up until the Cultural Revolution.

My sadness at my father’s death did not weaken my confidence in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Like me, many young people who enthusiastically participated in the Great Leap Forward were suffering from hunger along with their family members, but they never complained.

My support for the Great Leap Forward was due not only to the inspiration of communist ideals but also to ignorance. I came from a remote village whose residents knew virtually nothing about matters beyond the hills. The vast majority of us never circulated beyond a 50-kilometre radius of our village. Although we were situated only a little more than 100 kilometres from Hankou, that great city seemed impossibly remote to us. The county seat, Xishui, was much closer but even going there took one full day, with half of the roadway consisting of rugged mountain paths.

After the CCP gained power, it sealed China off from information beyond its borders and imposed a wholesale negation of the country’s traditional moral standards. The government’s monopoly on information gave it a monopoly on truth. As the centre of power, the party was also the heart of truth and information.

The government used its monopoly apparatus to instil communist values while eradicating all others. In this way, young people developed a violent longing to realise communist ideals. I sincerely believed that a weak and impoverished China that had been bullied by imperialism for nearly 100 years could go on to implement the highest ideal of mankind: communism. Compared to this sublime ideal, what were the petty problems I faced?

In 1960, I passed the entrance exam for Tsinghua University in Beijing. As soon as I entered the campus, I toured the university’s anti-rightist exhibition, embarking on an education in loyalty. While at university, I served as the Youth League’s branch secretary and joined the Communist Party in May 1964. At that time young people like me were considered very naive and simple, and it was true: our minds contained only the beliefs instilled by the public opinion apparatus and nothing else. In this way the party moulded the generation growing up under the new regime into loyal disciples.

My thinking began to change when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. I was astonished by the appearance of thousands of “big character posters” at the university, which exposed the corrupt lives and debased mentalities of old revolutionaries whom I had long revered. I began to lose my faith in authority and officialdom, and I no longer believed everything I read. I began to doubt the myths the party had inculcated in me, and it was opposition to official privilege that led me, like most ordinary people, to take part in the Cultural Revolution. It was also during this period that the governor of Hubei Province, Zhang Tixue, said something that shocked me: during the three years of hardship in that province, some 300,000 people had starved to death. Only then did I realise that my family’s tragedy was not unique.

“Reform and opening” in the late 1970s brought considerable relaxation of intellectual strictures and the historical truth began to come out. In the past, the party had taught us that natural calamity had caused famine in limited areas of the country. Now we knew that it was a man-made disaster that had caused tens of millions of people to starve to death. My family tragedy was repeated in some ten million families throughout China.

Agricultural collectivisation had deprived peasants and cadres of the power to decide what would be planted, over how large an area and by what means. The labour and lives of peasants were tightly restricted. And if an error in policy prevented a collective farm from supplying daily necessities, peasants had no other recourse. Communal kitchens were a major reason why so many people starved to death. Home stoves were dismantled and cooking implements, tables and chairs, foodstuffs and firewood were handed over to the communal kitchen. Believing the state would come up with more food when current supplies were exhausted, some communes consumed all their grain by the end of 1958 and were left to wait for government replenishment that never arrived.

Multiple sources indicate around 36 million starvation deaths in China from 1958 to 1962. In some regions, nearly every family experienced at least one death from starvation and some families were completely wiped out. Entire villages were left without a single living inhabitant. It was, as Mao Zedong wrote in one of his poems: “A thousand villages overgrown with weeds, men wasted away;/Ten thousand homes where only ghosts sing.”

The Great Famine makes all of China’s other famines pale in comparison. The most severe famine previously recorded occurred in 1928- 30 and affected 22 provinces. That famine broke all previous records, but still killed only ten million people. The number of people who starved to death between 1958 and 1962 was many times greater than the number who died in any previous disaster in China.

Yet there were no anguished appeals to heaven, no hemp-robed funerals, no fire crackers and hell money to see the departed to their final destination. Tens of millions departed this world in an atmosphere of mute apathy. Some villages transported corpses by the truckload for burial in common graves. In villages where survivors lacked the strength for proper interment, the limbs of the dead protruded from the ground. In some places, the dead remained along the roadsides where they had dropped in their futile search for food. More than a few were simply left in their homes, where rats gnawed at their noses and eyes.

Refugees who escaped to Hong Kong and family members of Chinese living overseas managed to spread news of the calamity, and based on this information, some western media published reports on the famine. The Chinese government labelled these reports as “vicious attacks” and “slanderous rumours”.

To shape international public opinion, the Chinese government invited “friends of China” to visit and see for themselves, in the hope that they would write reports that “clarified the facts and truth”. The government meticulously planned every step of visitors’ itineraries, including which places they would visit and the people with whom they could come into contact. Foreign guests were kept segregated from ordinary people, and well-fed and well-clothed individuals were sometimes put on display.

Confronted by the severe consequences of the Great Famine, President Liu Shaoqi once said to Mao Zedong: “History will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people . . .” In the spring of 1962, Liu noted that “deaths by starvation will be recorded in the history books”. Yet, after more than 40 years, no full account of the Great Famine has been published in mainland China.

Liu Shaoqi also once said that this disaster should be engraved on a memorial tablet as a record “to be passed down to our children and grandchildren so that such an error will never be committed again”. China should erect memorials to the victims of the Great Famine in the places where the deaths were most concentrated, such as Xinyang, Tongwei, Luoding, Bozhou, Fengyang, Zunyi, Jinsha, Pi County, Yingjing, Rong County, Fengdu, Dayi, Guantao and Jining. These memorials would not only commemorate the dead but also serve as a permanent reminder of the importance of preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again.

Later generations will know that there was once a system established at a certain juncture of history in the name of “liberating mankind” that in reality enslaved humanity. This system promoted itself as the “Road to Paradise,” but in fact it was the road to perdition.

Extracted from “Tombstone: the Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine” by Yang Jisheng, published by Allen Lane on 1 November (£30) © Yang Jisheng, 2012 (penguin.co.uk).

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle