The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary Historyby Xun Zhou
Beginning soon after the implementation of the policies of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961, when the drive to collectivize and industrialize undermined the livelihoods of the vast majority of peasant workers, China’s Great Famine was the worst famine in human history. In addition to claiming more than 45 million lives, it also led to the destruction of
Beginning soon after the implementation of the policies of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961, when the drive to collectivize and industrialize undermined the livelihoods of the vast majority of peasant workers, China’s Great Famine was the worst famine in human history. In addition to claiming more than 45 million lives, it also led to the destruction of agriculture, industry, trade, and every aspect of human life, leaving large parts of the Chinese countryside scarred forever by human-created environmental disasters.
Drawing on previously closed archives that have since been made inaccessible again, Zhou Xun offers readers, for the first time in English, access to the most vital archival documentation of the famine. For some time to come this documentary history may be the only publication available that contains the most crucial primary documents concerning the fate of the Chinese peasantry between 1957 and 1962. It covers everything from collectivization and survival strategies, including cannibalism, to selective killing and mass murder.
"Zhou Xun's book sets out detailed primary sources about the great famine in China. The significance of this important book is that the author's sources are no longer accessible and, moreover, they reveal the extent of people's suffering, the complicity of the authorities and the sterling resistance of the citizenry. Zhou Xun's detailed, fascinating book means that these voices and the shocking experiences they describe will never be forgotten."—Gerard Lemos, author of The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese people Fear the Future
“Astonishing…what happened in China during the Great Leap Forward has received little attention from the larger world.”—Didi Kirsten Tatlow, The New York Times
“Present[s] a picture of the famine more detailed than any previously available in English.”—Choice
“A chastening documentary history.”—The Wall Street Journal
“[This] collection allows English-language readers to confront the many features of everyday life during the famine.”—The Nation
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The Great Famine in China, 19581962A Documentary History
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Yale University
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Chapter OneFamine in the Communes (MarchSeptember 1958)
The Great Leap Forward was Mao's campaign to create a Communist utopia in China: a great, powerful, prosperous, and virtuous socialist state, ultimately a Communist society. It was undertaken in the belief that a socialist system of agriculture would vastly improve land productivity, stimulate rural markets for industrial products, and redirect sufficient numbers of workers and funds toward China's accelerating industrialization. In Mao's view, revolutionary zeal and cooperative effort could overcome all obstacles and transform the Chinese landscape into a productive paradise. In fact, the Great Leap Forward led to the Great Famine of 19581962.
Prior to the early 1950s, private land ownership was the basis of agriculture in China, but the growing population contributed to an escalating land-shortage problem, and private land ownership subsequently became directly linked to poverty. In 1943, Mao Zedong, the new supreme head of the Chinese Communist Party, proclaimed that agricultural collectivization was the only way to eliminate rural poverty. After the Party consolidated its power in the early 1950s, it rapidly began enforcing collectivization in the countryside.
Despite the bloodshed that had accompanied the rapid collectivization of 19281932 in the Soviet Union, a program initiated by Joseph Stalin, and despite the catastrophic results, including mass famine in Ukraine (19321933), Mao wanted a fully socialist agricultural system established throughout China, and he wanted it fast. Once the campaign for agricultural collectivization was launched, it swept across the country like a whirlwind. The pace was astonishing. It proceeded even faster than Mao had anticipated. By 1956 virtually all agricultural households in rural China had been organized into collectives. The 19551956 collectivization in the Chinese countryside did not end in bloodshed, but dissatisfaction and unrest spread among the peasant population (document 101).
Faced with these warning signs, Mao showed no hesitation. Although he and the other top leaders were well aware of problems, they simply turned a blind eye. Mao wanted to go further, to begin the Great Leap Forward to move China quickly from socialism to communism and to modernize the economy. On June 8, 1957, he launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign and then the rural Socialist Education Campaign to silence opposing voices within or outside the Party. Anyone who spoke the truth was purged as a rightist.
On March 20, 1958, the policy of total collectivization was formally inaugurated at a Party conference in Chengdu. Mao believed that a socialist system of agriculture, with collective units called people's communes as the centerpiece, would provide the necessary economic and social foundation for the country to industrialize. His goal was to overtake the United Kingdom in steel production within fifteen years. By then, Mao would figure not only as the supreme leader of the Chinese Communist Party but also as the leader of the world Communist movement. In May, Mao hailed the slogan "Going all out, aiming high, and achieving more and faster economic results," and the full force of the Great Leap Forward was unleashed. In August, at the Party's Politburo meeting, people's communes were approved as the new form of organization for rural China: not just agriculture but all aspects of economic, political, and social life would be collectivized. By the end of the year, according to an official estimate, nearly 99 percent of the peasants had joined a commune. Approximately 26,000 communes had been set up, each with an average of 5,000 households.
With the establishment of people's communes in 1958, the Party's goal to control all the land in the countryside, as well as all the wealth, was finally accomplished. The people's communes became the newest and highest form of administrative, economic, and political organization in rural China. Each commune was divided into big brigades (most of which contained several small villages); and the big brigades were in turn divided into production brigades. Households were organized into brigades, the units of accounting and farm production in the large farming collectives. The production or small brigades were lowest in the administrative hierarchy, with big brigades the next level up. The rural leadership structure was built into the Party hierarchy.
The general image of the year 1958, projected then and later, is that the entire country was united in rapturous enthusiasm for the Great Leap Forward, and that by the end of the year, steel, coal, and industrial output had been massively boosted and the production of grain and cotton had increased considerably. It looked as though Mao's Communist dream was on the verge of becoming a reality in the Chinese countryside. So the fifteen-year goal was brought forward by ten years: it would be accomplished in five years.
As it turned out, the Great Leap Forward was a calamity for rural China. The conventional view is that the failure of the Great Leap Forward did not begin to appear until 1959, that it was only then that famine broke out. The following documents demonstrate, however, that collectivization was disastrous from the outset: famine had broken out in parts of rural China as early as the spring of 1958. (The Great Leap Forward had already started in 1957; it was officially launched in early 1958.) Chronic crop failure compounded the problem. To meet the ever-increasing government procurement quotas, the last grains of wheat and rice were snatched from the peasants.
A report produced by the Jinan Municipal Investigation Team, one of many government agencies whose members routinely went around the countryside to monitor the local situation, shows that between March and September 1958, while radical collectivization was moving ahead at full speed, Gaoguanzhai, a small township in the west of Shandong province, suffered a devastating famine that claimed more than 600 lives. People were forced to sell everything they had, including their children. Around 700 families, as well as some individuals, fled their homes. The parched earth cracked; once lush fields became wasteland. Birds were nowhere to be heard, leaving the countryside in a ghostly silence. In places, the stench of rotting human flesh filled the air (document 1).
The terrible events that took place in Gaoguanzhai were not unique. On April 25, 1958, the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing produced a report citing outbreaks of famine and food riots in sixteen provinces and autonomous regions (document 2). Just five days earlier, in Henan province's Suiping county, the people of Chayashan had celebrated the birth of China's first-ever people's commune, the second in history after the Paris Commune of 1871. Mao loved the constitution of the Chayashan people's commune and held it up with great excitement: "Treasure! A real treasure!" he exclaimed, marching up and down the room. Chayashan became China's hope and its model for prosperity, the bridge to a Communist paradise. In no time, according to Mao, China would become strong and its people prosperous. On the ground, however, as the following documents show, rural China was a picture of hell.
A report by the Jinan Municipal Investigation Team on the outbreak of famine and deaths in Gaoguanzhai township, Zhangqiu county, [Shandong province,] January 29, 1959
Huanghe people's commune contains four rural townships, of which Gaoguanzhai is one. Within Gaoguanzhai there are thirty-three villages, 5,150 families, and 21,713 people. Before collectivization there were twelve cooperative agricultural units, but they have since been merged into seven big brigades.
For nearly five months in 1958, from the end of the second month to the 20th of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar, the entire population of Gaoguanzhai faced severe food shortages. Although the county government allocated 455,975kg of food rations as emergency relief, this worked out to only 21kg for each villager, or 0.25kg per person per day. Furthermore, at the local level these rations were distributed just sporadically. For instance, on June 3, a local cadre at Lihang production brigade gave just 0.5kg of wheat to each villager to last eleven to twenty days. Many villagers were forced to abandon their homes and became beggars. Some had no other option but to sell their children. A number of people died of starvation. The situation was critical.
From spring to early summer, when food first became scarce, people supplemented their diet with chaff, tree bark, and weeds. Some locals told us they had eaten at least fifty different types of food substitutes during this time, including leaves from the scholar tree and castor-oil plant, grass for feeding pigs, young stems from the tree of heaven, wheat husks, sorghum flowers, grass seeds, coarse chaff, corn husks, peanut skins, bean leaves, potato sprouts, elm bark, and watermelon rind. After everything there was had been eaten, villagers had to go further afield, sometimes walking for up to 10 kilometers to search for more. Villagers from Zhangjia hamlet had to cross a small river to look for food substitutes near the dock, a return journey of about 20 kilometers. During this time, crowds were seen washing newly picked weeds and leaves from trees around village wells all day long. The sound of chopping [grass and leaves] never ceased.
Out of desperate hunger, some villagers ate newly planted peanuts or young beans. To prevent such incidents, cadres at Zhangjia hamlet confiscated over 100 wicker baskets. Some villagers, such as Wang Yongbing in the Lihang production brigade, also ate corn seeds while sowing. Recalling what happened, a local cadre, Du Gang, said, "When I saw that villagers were eating corn while sowing, I was worried that it might cause a seed shortage. To stop them I mixed the seeds with dog shit." In some cases villagers also ate unripe corn. According to the village cadre Feng Lihe, during one inspection he found that 14,000 corn plants were missing from Zhongmeng hamlet, including most of the husks. That spring, Hongxing production brigade planted 66,700 square meters in corn, while Zhujia hamlet planted 40,020, but by harvest time there was nothing left.
The situation deteriorated further by the summer. Peanut skins were sold at 0.2 yuan per 0.5kg, stale chaff at 0.3 yuan per 0.5kg, bean leaves at 0.8 yuan for 5kg, elm leaves at 0.3 yuan per 0.5kg, and coarse chaff at about 0.1 yuan per 0.5kg. People fought to get sweet melons as soon as they appeared and no one dared to bargain over the price. In general, they cost 0.16 yuan per 0.5kg, but the price doubled if one wanted to select those of better quality. In some cases people gobbled down raw fish the moment they bought them. Worse still, some even ate mud from the nearby bay.
It was also common for people to trade their clothes for food. There were often two lines in front of the town bureau, with people waiting to sell their possessions on the right. This line sometimes stretched almost 50 meters in length, and mainly during this period in 1958, the commune collected 2,752 garments and 7,955kg of used cotton. On the left were people lining up to buy food from the people's restaurant, although they could wait all day without getting anything to eat.
Owing to a long period of starving and eating food substitutes, malnutrition became prevalent, causing such abnormal symptoms as swollen stomachs, legs, and faces. Some of the food substitutes, such as leaves from the scholar tree and the tree of heaven, were poisonous. After eating a large quantity of these, the entire body would become swollen. In more severe cases, the body could no longer retain excess fluid, which then erupted through the skin, oozing out with a yellowish color.
In Weihualin village, about 80 percent of the population suffered from swollen faces, legs, and stomachs. In Mazhuang, 90 percent of villagers suffered from edema. Their faces became sallow and emaciated, their bodies had no strength, and many people could walk only with a stick. Normally people used barrels to carry water, but during this time the majority of villagers could manage only to hold small jars. Those unable even to manage a jar carried a teapot instead. Men in their prime had to stop and rest four or five times on the 1 kilometer journey from Zhujia hamlet to the town center. Work became inefficient; while weeding the villagers would stop to rest or fall asleep after working for short periods. As a result, over 667 hectares became wasteland.
Most women of childbearing age stopped having periods. Mothers had no milk left to breastfeed, and many babies starved to death as a result. Since mothers were organized to work in big groups, they took their children along to the fields, but they then had to leave them unattended in temporary sheds nearby. As spring turned into summer, many children caught a chill. While a few died of illness, the majority of child deaths were due to starvation. According to our investigation, in Zhongmeng hamlet twenty-eight young and middle-aged women workers had stopped having periods. The birthrate dropped dramatically. According to local statistics, ninety babies were born in Zhongmeng in 1957 but only seventeen in 1958.
These figures also show that 896 people died in 1958, twice as many as in 1957. Our incomplete study reveals that food shortages led to 617 abnormal deaths and 53 children being sold. It also caused two divorces and forced 685 people to leave their homes to beg on the streets. By comparison, only 207 people died of natural causes.
Among the 617 abnormal deaths, 434 were of males and 255 were of females. They comprised 250 children under the age of five, 19 children aged between six and seventeen, 263 adults of eighteen to sixty, and 157 people over sixty. Of those who died, 72 had previously suffered minor illnesses, but it was starvation that caused their deaths. There were also 23 suicides. The whole famine lasted for several months. The first period, between March and May, saw 117 deaths; subsequently, from June to September, 557 people died. Even after [the situation improved in] October there were 15 further deaths. The majority of the 617 deaths were caused by starvation, although the famine also drove a number of people to commit suicide by hanging, jumping into wells, or taking poison. Most families lost at least two family members, some even four.
One example was the family of Bai Daolun from Qianjin production brigade. At the age of thirty-two Bai had been a physically strong man. There were eight people in his family, and they used to make a relatively good living. The food shortages began after the Chinese New Year in 1958. On April 27, Bai's four-year-old daughter died of starvation, and a fortnight later his one-year-old daughter also died. Then on May 30 the famine killed his father, followed by Bai himself, who died on June 29. The day before Bai's death, he worked all day in the fields without anything to eat. In the evening he consumed a bowl of elm leaves before rushing to a meeting. On the way home, he collapsed on the road and was carried home. He died that same night.
Even on their deathbeds, many people still howled for something to eat. Forty-six-year-old Li Mengnian from Zhujia hamlet came from a family of five. His mother used to spend all day looking for food to eat. She counted the days until the promised wheat distribution: "I will die with no regrets if only I could manage to drink half a bowl of wheat porridge." On May 11 the family finally received their wheat ration, but she died the following day. At the time, Li Mengnian was bed-bound, for his legs were completely swollen. Two people held him up and helped him to get to his mother's funeral. After kneeling to kowtow to his dead mother, Li failed to stand up again. He was carried home and eventually died on June 7. The night before his death, he was so hungry that he cried out, "If only I could have two sweet melons to eat, my life would be saved." It was already dark outside. His oldest daughter went out and managed to borrow 0.5 yuan, but she could not find any sweet melons. In the end she boiled some water for him to drink. When dawn came, she went to the town center and bought some lotus-root flour, but Li passed away just as she finished cooking it. By the time Li died, his wife was also crippled by edema from eating food substitutes.
In one case in the Lihang production brigade, Li Shushan's grandfather's body swelled up after eating elm leaves and he died. Soon afterward, Li's grandmother expired. At the time Li was himself confined to his bed, so exhausted by hunger that he could not move. About three or four people carried him to the funeral ceremony, but he lived only until the following day.
Li Haiquan from Zhujia hamlet collapsed while planting potatoes in the fields. Afterward, he tried to make it back home, but died before reaching his family courtyard. Mai Xiansheng went to plant potatoes without having eaten and eventually lay down in the field because hunger had robbed him of his stamina. He was carried home and died that same night. In Mazhu hamlet Mrs. Song's legs were swollen from eating food substitutes, but she still dragged herself along, hoping to find some more weeds to consume. Eventually she collapsed on the hill. She was still breathing as she was carried home. Her family fed her two bowls of vegetable soup but did not manage to save her life.
Quite a number of people dropped dead simply because they had not eaten for so long. For example, Song Shuzhen from Mazhu hamlet, locally known as Old Warrior, used to be a strong worker. He stopped eating altogether after consuming wheat chaff, which gave him serious pain and constipation. He went to the people's restaurant hoping to get some proper food to eat, but could not get into the queue. In the end, he went to the local bar and drank about 200 ml of grain spirits. Soon after he finished the spirits he collapsed on his seat. At the time he was still breathing and was carried home, but he did not last long and died shortly afterward. Zhang Qingzhu from the same village planned to steal some corn to relieve his extreme hunger, but seeing someone else in the field, he hesitated. Right there he collapsed and could not get up. He died soon after being carried home. Elderly people without means of support could not even find food substitutes, and many of them were driven to eat mud from the nearby bay. Mrs. Zhang from Zhangjia hamlet was one such person, and she also died during the famine.
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Meet the Author
Zhou Xun is research assistant professor of history at the University of Hong Kong. She lives in Hong Kong and in the United Kingdom.
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