January 11, 2013

A Great Leap Backward

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40 million: even by conservative estimates, the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1961 was one of the worst disasters in history. It clobbers the Spanish flu. It trounces 200 years of Mongol conquests. It matches all WWII deaths — including the Holocaust — in less than half the time.

Yet the Famine swept the countryside in fearful silence, as Tombstone author Yang Jisheng discovers. Called back  from school in the city by the sudden news that his father was starving to death, Yang returned to his village, only to discover that it had become a ghost town, “There was no sound of dogs barking, no chickens running about; even the children who used to scamper through the lanes remained at home.” The rural silence was punctured by pointed, pent-up acts of depravity: children gnawing on dog bones, adults exhuming corpses and the elderly clawing at full granaries, moaning “Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us.”

The events that led up to the famine are well established. The Great Leap Forward, Mao’s utopian plan for rapid Chinese industrialization, collectivized agriculture and set targets for grain and steel output. Families that were given plots through land reform were forced off their lands and into communes. To make steel, Mao pushed for backyard furnaces that would melt scrap metal for export. In practice, people melted their farming tools, meaning the communes had nothing to farm with.

Through his CCP connections and a curious 2001 archival loophole, Yang has created the instantly definitive metaphorical counterpart for all those that died in this little-discussed era of modern Chinese history. There is a certain literary irony to the fact that he wrote the 1,800 page Chinese work as an actual paternal memorial because Yang couldn’t give his father an actual tombstone: it would have been melted down for steel. Tombstone is not a light read: it nonchalantly and effortlessly pulls out gruesome details because there are so many of them. The image of the orphaned girl who took care of her younger brother only to eat him after he died will haunt me — and that’s just the lighter stuff. I couldn’t sleep for days.

A local official pitied the orphaned girl and jailed her because she would “at least be fed” there. But Yang makes no qualms about the CCP as the imposers of an environment that made cannibalism the norm; ruthless in its efforts to work peasants without food, the CCP ignored the piling corpses on the sides of roads. Commune halls served corn stalks, bird droppings, rats and clam shells. “Right-deviationist” dissenters that tried to escape were dragged to “struggle sessions,” where they were publicly humiliated and beaten until they admitted to crimes. If not executed, they were split open at the skull, buried alive, raped, suspended from ceilings in commune mess halls, set on fire, or made to part with finger, ear, or limb. Communes that didn’t meet quotas were accused of hiding grain, and local officials triumphantly reported seizing non-existent concealed grain. No one ever dared to mention how workers had no food. “The insanity and ruthlessness of the Great Leap Forward,” Yang writes, was “the great ‘achievement’ of the totalitarian system.” Yang jokingly described his book as his own tombstone too, but besides a book ban in Mainland China the CCP hasn’t bothered him.

Even after an entire team of translators had axed the original 1,800 work into a more digestible 700 page English work, the book still feels more like an encyclopedic atrocity exhibition than a coherent narrative. It is fitting under the looming shadow of censorship: after the archival loophole rapidly narrowed and disappeared in 2007, there was no chance original research would surface on the CCP’s role in the Famine. Tombstone is the definitive research tome for future scholars to advance the little mentioned but widely suspected idea that the Famine was the CCP’s doing, and not the official position of unprecedented climate. Yang’s tepid desperation to list as many details as possible before the censors realized they didn’t wipe out all records of the Famine suffuses the whole book.

But the biggest fight Tombstone picks is with China’s growing apologetic apathy. The China of Mao Zedong is not the same as that of the 2008 Summer Olympics, but that is the China of the cities. The China of the countryside has hardly changed, even though it bore the burden of collectivization and the Great Famine (95% of all deaths), because of the apartheid-like hukou system that forbade migrating or engaging in non-agricultural labor. Today, while the CCP is no longer as physically brutal, it is just as ruthless in other ways. Hukou has loosened so migrant workers can make iPhones, but a lack of legal residency pushes them to live in half-demolished slums that don’t officially exist (part of the reason why factories have on-site dorms). The new middle class despises the rural destitute, but continues to depend disproportionately on their suffering: the countryside “brought the Famine upon themselves” by gorging on food and not working hard enough.

Tombstone, thus, is not a lifeless memorial to the dead; it is a totem of anguish and pain to a countryside that silently screamed 50 years ago. Today, the book vocalizes those screams against apathetic revisionism, so that silence would not be in vain.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng

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