Forgotten Voices of Mao's Great Famine, 1958-1962: An Oral History


In 1958, China’s revered leader Mao Zedong instituted a program designed to transform his giant nation into a Communist utopia. Called the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s grand scheme—like so many other utopian dreams of the 20th century—proved a monumental disaster, resulting in the mass destruction of China’s agriculture, industry, and trade while leaving large portions of the countryside forever scarred by man-made environmental disasters. The ...

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Forgotten Voices of Mao's Great Famine, 1958-1962: An Oral History

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In 1958, China’s revered leader Mao Zedong instituted a program designed to transform his giant nation into a Communist utopia. Called the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s grand scheme—like so many other utopian dreams of the 20th century—proved a monumental disaster, resulting in the mass destruction of China’s agriculture, industry, and trade while leaving large portions of the countryside forever scarred by man-made environmental disasters. The resulting three-year famine claimed the lives of more than 45 million people in China.
In this remarkable oral history of modern China’s greatest tragedy, survivors of the cataclysm share their memories of the devastation and loss. The range of voices is wide: city dwellers and peasants, scholars and factory workers, parents who lost children and children who were orphaned in the catastrophe all speak out. Powerful and deeply moving, this unique remembrance of an unnecessary and unhindered catastrophe illuminates a dark recent history that remains officially unacknowledged to this day by the Chinese government and opens a window on a society still feeling the impact of the terrible Great Famine.

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Editorial Reviews

Gerard Lemos
“A terrific book. . . . The content is original, authentic and compelling; the first-hand accounts of ‘forgotten voices’ come to life vividly. The author’s personal narrative describing how the interviews were elicited is a fascinating contemporary commentary on the continuing lack of openness in Chinese civil society and the difficulties of getting to the truth, even about events that happened decades ago.”—Gerard Lemos, author of The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future
Jasper Becker
“Anyone who wants to understand what it was like to live through the most horrific man-made famine in history should read this. Zhou Xun has given voice to the kind of people whose views are never heard or reported. It makes you both angry and sad at the same time. It shows how little people even now understood what happened to them or why.”—Jasper Becker, author of Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine
Steve Smith
“The Maoist regime insisted that the great famine of 1958-1962 was a natural disaster, but it actually resulted from the reckless policies and a pitiless disregard for human life of the regime itself. Zhou Xun’s meticulous and sensitive oral history allows survivors of the famine to tell their stories for the first time. She rectifies a great historic injustice by enabling the victims to put their harrowing ordeal into the historic record.”—Steve Smith, All Souls College, Oxford University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300184044
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/30/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,489,204
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Zhou Xun is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Essex. She is the author of The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962: A Documentary History.

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By Zhou Xun


Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18404-4


The Tragedy of Collectivization

People's Communes are big, and they are public: Lots of people, a vast area of land, large scales of production, [and] all activities are [performed] in a big way. [They] integrate government [administration] with commune [management] to establish collective canteens, eliminating private plots. Chickens, ducks, and young trees in front of, and behind, the houses are still private. This, of course, will not exist in the future.... With a surplus of grain we can implement the supply system....

In ten years time commodities will be abundant, the standard of morale will be high. We can start Communism with food, clothing, and housing. With free food in the collective canteen, that's Communism.

—Mao Zedong at Beidaihe Conference, August 19 & 21,1958

Before the early 1950s, private land ownership formed the basis of agriculture in China. However, the growing population contributed to an escalating land shortage problem, and the lack of land subsequently became directly linked to poverty. In 1943, Mao Zedong, the new supreme head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), proclaimed agricultural collectivization as the only way to eliminate rural poverty, and he stipulated that collectivization should be the CCP's long-term goal. In 1949, at the end of the civil war, which had lasted ten years, the CCP finally defeated the Nationalist Party (KMT) and took control of the entire mainland. Despite its initial victory, the new Communist regime was anxious about the risks of descending back into civil war. Although the KMT had been driven off to the island of Taiwan, it continued to present a threat to CCP rule. Though victorious, the CCP was also haunted by the fissiparous warlord years and the risk of internal insurgencies and breakaway movements. To consolidate their grip on power over such a vast country with many divisions and to prevent any backsliding into Nationalist resistance and a further outbreak of civil war, Mao Zedong and the CCP leadership rushed to develop and implement a new Communist economic and social orthodoxy. To enforce agricultural collectivization in the countryside was part of the process that Mao saw as integral to building a new socialist consciousness among China's mass population.

Despite the bloodshed and catastrophic results that had accompanied the rapid collectivization initiated in the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1927, Mao was not content with the speed of the initial stage of collectivization in China. He wanted a fully socialist agricultural system established throughout the country, and he wanted it fast. In the summer of 1955, he pushed forward the leftist economic policies of the "Socialist High Tide" in the Chinese countryside to speed up the process of incorporating individual peasant families into agricultural cooperatives. Once it was launched, the campaign of agricultural collectivization swept through the country like a whirlwind. A number of provincial and local cadres embraced it with unprecedented enthusiasm. This became known as the "Little Leap Forward." The pace of agricultural collectivization was astonishing, and it proceeded even faster than Mao had anticipated. By 1956, virtually all agricultural households in rural China had been organized into farming collectives.

The initial success, however, did not satisfy Mao. He wanted an even greater Leap Forward to ensure the Communist writ ran across all aspects of life in the country. He subsequently revived the slogan "More, better, faster, and more economically," and it became the rally call in this campaign to modernize China rapidly. His push to go further forward was also a response to the setback of his leftist economic policy or the "Socialist High Tide." In the latter half of 1956, a number of CCP leaders, including the premier Zhou Enlai, were concerned that collectivization was progressing too fast. They opposed a "blind advance" (jizao maojin) and called for a slowdown. This displeased Mao. In June 1957 he launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign and put Deng Xiaoping in charge. The campaign's primary target was the so-called "bourgeois rightists," non-party members who had responded to Mao's call to criticize the Party on all manner of topics but whom he decided had gone too far. More than half a million people were labeled "bourgeois rightists" and were soon disposed of. Thereafter Mao seized the initiative to relaunch the idea of a leap. In January 1958, at a meeting for top Party leaders, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was pressured by Mao into making a public self-criticism for his part in encouraging "right deviationist conservative thinking," for trying to persuade Mao to halt the earlier version of the Great Leap Forward. Alongside Zhou, a few other leaders were also criticized for the same reason. Any voice opposing collectivization was silenced. Until this point, it had seemed that all the top leaders were working together. A few months later, in spring 1958, the full force of the Great Leap Forward was unleashed, with Mao at its helm.

Another motive behind the Great Leap Forward was the rivalry with the Soviet Union. Referred to as the "Big Brother" by the CCP, the Soviet Union served as not only a model for the new Communist China, but also the target of its envy. Like Communist leaders elsewhere during the same period, the CCP leaders had always been in psychological thrall to the events in the Soviet Union. The death of Stalin in 1953 created an opportunity for the CCP but also increased uncertainty over Soviet economic aid. Mao saw rapid collectivization as a means to make China self-reliant. On May 17, 1958, two days after the Soviet Union had successfully launched the third Earth satellite Sputnik 3, in a speech at the second session of the Eighth Communist Party Congress, Mao told the Party that China should emulate the success of the Soviet Union, and shoot a few "sputniks" into orbit. "Ours must be bigger and heavier [than the one launched by the Soviet Union]. They must not look like the satellite made in the United States. It looked like an egg." In the same speech, Mao also criticized the Stalinist interpretation of orthodox Marxist theory of economic development and boasted that China would overtake the Soviet Union and be the first to achieve true Communism.

People's Communes were officially inaugurated in August 1958 as an essential component of the Great Leap Forward. Mao believed that a socialist system of agriculture, or the People's Commune, would bolster agricultural productivity, stimulate rural markets for industrial products, and divert sufficient workers and funds toward the acceleration of China's industrialization. The policy of "walking on two legs" was launched. In Mao's view revolutionary zeal and cooperative effort would transform the Chinese landscape into a productive paradise. His goal was to overtake the United Kingdom in steel output within fifteen years and turn China into an industrial powerhouse. By then Mao would figure as not only the supreme leader of the CCP, but also the leader of the world Communist movement. By the end of 1958, according to an official estimate, nearly 99 percent of the peasant population had joined a commune. Approximately 26,000 communes had been set up, with an average of 5,000 households within each one.

The general image projected of 1958 is of the entire country united in rapturous enthusiasm for the Great Leap Forward and that by the end of the year steel, coal, and industrial output had seen a huge boost, even as the production of grain and cotton had also increased considerably. It looked as if the Communist dream was on the verge of becoming a reality in the Chinese countryside. The original goal of fifteen years was cut to five. The reality was very different. For the majority of China's rural population, this was a terrible time. Private possessions were collectivized; household furniture became the property of the communes; pots and pans were smelted to make more steel; individual houses were burned down to make fertilizer. In some areas family graveyards were destroyed to make way for communal farmland, and the bricks from private graveyards were removed to build collective canteens or nurseries. In a frenzy of collectivization, even mothers' sewing needles and children's diapers were confiscated and turned over to the communes.

The radical collectivization in China turned out to be as bloody and violent as it had been in the Soviet Union. Unlike in the Soviet Union, however, where collectivization led to a civil war between the state and the peasants, in China Mao pitted all individuals against one another. He called this "mass struggle," or a "bottom-up" approach, in contrast to the "top-down" approach of the Soviet Union. During the Land Reform and the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries in the early 1950s, the CCP leadership urged local cadres to "not fear executing people" and to punish those who were too lenient and practiced peaceful land reform. From the latter half of 1950 the mass class struggle against "feudal" landlords and counterrevolutionaries was rapidly implemented throughout China. The Korean War (1950–53) and the imagined threat presented by "counterrevolutionaries," such as landlords, was incorporated into the official nationalist discourse. Its deceptive power inspired millions in China to turn extremely violent against these real or imagined foes. As Hannah Arendt famously argued, "The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil." In Communist China during the Land Reform, encouraged by the state, countless individuals became engaged in violence against their next-door neighbors or strangers on the street.

For some, the practice of violence became a habit and they needed no intellectual rationale for their behavior. In Yunnan province's Zhanyi county, seventy people were tortured to death within twenty days during the Land Reform in 1951. One landlord was beaten to death simply because a villager wanted his trousers. In China's southwest, 13,590 people committed suicide by July 1952 in fear of the torture, humiliation, and executions. In Zhejiang province's Zhuangqiao township, one percent of the total population was tortured to death during the Land Reform. In northwest Guizhou province's Wuchuan county, with a predominantly Miao and Gelao population, a seventy-year-old local landlord, Zhang Baoshan, was tortured to death during the Land Reform in 1951. His son Zhang Ren'an was later hanged after his unsuccessful attempt to seek revenge for his father's death. Afterward, some villagers chopped off Zhang Ren'an's tongue and penis, and burned his body. The rest of the family was also arrested and brutally tortured by local cadres and villagers. An estimated 1 to 4 million people were killed during the first years of the regime, and an additional 4 to 6 million were sent to forced labor camps where a huge number eventually died.

A few years later, between 1955 and 1956, during the initial stage of collectivization, poor peasants were once again urged to struggle against "middle" and "rich" peasants, as well as "counterrevolutionaries" who opposed collectivization. Although this phase of collectivization seemingly was relatively easy, it did encounter a huge amount of opposition. Violence was used to whip those unwilling individuals into joining collectives. Many also became victims merely because they happened to be born into the "wrong class." From 1958, during the period of radical collectivization, terror and repression were extended to a much wider population, and the level of violence intensified. Mao conceived of the People's Commune as an environment without legal safeguards, which operated strictly as a military organization. His view was that "We should be a bit rough—it shows we are being truthful." In some parts of the country, this meant that violence could be practiced with little or no restraint. Endless "struggle" meetings also provided opportunities for venting personal revenge and for other selfish pursuits. Local cadres used their positions of power to extract as much benefit for themselves as they could, while punishing anyone they disliked or with whom they disagreed. To survive, peasants fought against peasants under the People's Commune, and in some cases even family members fought one another.

In the pursuit of Mao's utopia, unleashed by totalitarianism, families and homes were destroyed and many lives were sacrificed. Those who survived these tragic years still remember the period with horror, great pain, and a "bitter taste in their mouths."

Marching into Radical Collectivization

Qiu Wenhua lives in a small village in southern Henan's Pingdingshan region, central China. On the eve of radical collectivization Qiu was only nine years old. Henan province, today home to the highest number of serial killers in China, is often said to have been the cradle of Chinese civilization. It had had a predominantly agrarian economy and it found itself at the forefront of radical collectivization in 1958. Qiu recalls:

In 1959 I was still at school. Every day we had to listen to things like mass production of iron and steel, the Great Leap Forward, and to uphold the "Three Red Flags" [the Party's general line, the Great Leap Forward, and People's Communes]. I had no idea what they meant. Men and women, all the agricultural laborers, were told to go into the river to dig sand because someone said the sand in the river had a high iron content. Only old people and children did not go. There was no one at home to harvest the crops that year. They were left to rot in the field....

At the time we were told that we had entered into Communism, and there would be no more private housing. The day before that happened we were still living in our own house, but the day afterward our house was turned into a granary for the collective. After that we had to move from one place to another on a regular basis. There was no peace in those days.

In our village, there were no other activities except for denunciation meetings.... All "rich" and "middle" peasants were denounced.... We ate in the collective canteen at the time. Every day before sunset we had to attend denunciation meetings. Only after the meeting were we allowed to have something to eat. People were regularly beaten at those meetings. Sometimes they were forced to kneel on a stool or on coal dregs. No one dared to disobey. In those days even if you did nothing wrong, the cadres would still find something to trouble you with. Many people were denounced for nothing.

Life was very bitter for us and for most of the villagers. Only cadres had a better life. They had good food to eat. Ordinary villagers were desperate for something to eat. Even tree leaves were hard to find....

No one dared to oppose it when we were merged into the People's Commune. I remember someone said something like: "The People's Commune is good but the fields are full of weeds." That person was denounced as a "bad element." Afterward no one dared to say anything anymore. We had to follow everyone else and join the commune.

In China's far southwest, Mao Xiansheng lives in a hilly village in Renshou county, south-central Sichuan. Sichuan is another one of China's biggest agrarian economies. During the Great Leap Forward, Sichuan was one of the last places in China to become fully collectivized, but once collectivization took hold, there was no turning back. "Renshou" means "benevolence and longevity," and today the county is known as Sichuan's granary and the home of the sought-after loquat fruits. Yet while interviewing for this book, I visited Renshou several times to speak with survivors, and I found it a rather backward place. Halfway to Mao Xiansheng's village, I had to step out of the bus and walk because there was no bridge over the river. I set out early in the morning, but by the time I reached Mao's village it was after midday, and Mao was having his lunch. When he heard that I had arrived, he put down his bowl of noodles and came out to greet me. His house was rather shabby and dark, but he told me things were a lot worse fifty years ago:

It was on October 1, 1958, when our area merged into one People's Commune. We were forced to move out from our home and to live communally. Our house was burned down because the commune needed more land to grow crops. Suddenly we had nowhere to live. In the end we moved in with other families, several families crowded into one room. ... Furthermore, our pans and pots were taken away since we were not allowed to cook at home. At the People's Commune we could only eat at the collective canteen. Everything was collectivized and we had nothing left in the end....

Most collective canteens had over one hundred people. We had food to eat in the very beginning, but soon thereafter the food ran out.... In our canteen there were more than three hundred people and there was never enough food to feed all of us.... As the food ran out many people were sent away to help develop industry. Only a few less capable persons or those who obeyed the cadres were allowed to stay to do agricultural work. All the rest were sent away because the cadres found them difficult to manage. So in i958 most crops died. We watched the rice plants die in the field when they were still young, but there was nothing we could do.

Excerpted from FORGOTTEN VOICES OF MAO'S GREAT FAMINE, 1958â?"1962 by Zhou Xun. Copyright © 2013 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     ix     

Map of China in 1959....................     xiv     

Introduction....................     1     

1 The Tragedy of Collectivization....................     13     

2 Endless Campaigns and Political Pressures....................     66     

3 Unnatural Disasters....................     104     

4 Starvation and Death....................     138     

5 Orphans of the Famine....................     171     

6 Famine in the Cities....................     198     

7 Surviving the Famine....................     227     

8 Memories of the Famine....................     269     

Notes....................     289     

Index....................     297     

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