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.

New Statesman
Unrecorded history: a queue forms at a street food tall in Hankou, capital of Hubei Province, in 1959

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).

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