The Teacher of the Future

The Chinese have a saying: “The past that is not forgotten becomes the teacher of the future.”

By Xujun EberleinJanuary 31, 2012

    The Teacher of the Future

    Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikotter. Walker & Company. 448 pages.Tombstone by Yang Jisheng. 0


    IN JULY 2011, Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine won the BBC's Samuel Johnson Prize, one of Europe's best known and most lucrative awards for a work of nonfiction. One of the judges, Brenda Maddox, explained to the Guardian why the book impressed her so much: "Why didn't I know about this? We feel we know who the villains of the 20th century are: Stalin and Hitler. But here, fully 50 years after the event, is something we did not know about."

    That reaction highlights both the main contribution and main limitation of Dikötter's book. Though there have been many books and articles published on the same subject — in English, Chinese, and I'm sure other languages — apparently Dikötter's is the one that brought awareness to at least one more Westerner ignorant of the catastrophe. On the other hand, Dikötter's attempt to draw parallels between the Mao-era famine that swept over the entirety of mainland China from 1959 to 1961 and killed tens of millions and the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag is, at best, an oversimplification that hinders understanding. To borrow what the discerning Asia scholar Ian Buruma once said on a different subject: "To distinguish between atrocities does not diminish the horror, but without clarity on these matters history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda."

    The most authoritative study on the famine is Yang Jisheng's Tombstone, which has a broader and deeper perspective. The Chinese language edition of the book was published in Hong Kong two years before Dikötter's, and an English version is due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in fall 2012. Educated at Tsinghua University, Yang Jisheng came from a peasant family in Hubei Province, where his father starved to death during the famine. Yang worked for 35 years as a respected reporter at the Party-run Xinhua news agency. After retiring in 1996, he began a ten-year journey of investigation into the famine that had burdened his heart for decades. Traveling all over the country, and helped by his many contacts in journalism and the government, he managed to access a wealth of material closed to the public, making copies of over 3,600 folders of information from provincial archives as well as those of the central government in Beijing. He often had to be stealthy about his research subject: instead of saying he was writing about the famine, he claimed, as he told Ian Johnson, that he wanted to understand "the history of China's rural economic policies and grain policy." He got away with it most of the time, even in Henan, a province tightly guarding its archives where, years later, Dikötter's research efforts were stymied. The only time Yang failed to get access was in the remote backward province of Guizhou. There, when he handed a carefully researched list of document titles to the archivist, the woman was frightened, and said she'd need instructions from above. When the provincial officials subsequently told Yang they needed approval from Beijing, he had to give up.

    To gain a human perspective on the great tragedy, Yang interviewed a wide array of witnesses, from ordinary survivors to officials of various ranks who had handled policy at the time. As a Xinhua veteran, Yang's capacity to access to these officials is unmatched, as is his cultural perspective from within. The resulting two-volume book of 950 pages offers a systematic examination of the famine with distinctive precision, thoroughness, and insight. (Oddly, it is a book that Dikötter is somewhat dismissive of.) Conducted about a decade later than Yang's research, Dikötter's study draws from the same combination of sources: official archives and witness interviews. His book, too, presents useful research on several — though not as many — aspects of the famine. Together, these two books cover 26 of Mainland China's then 29 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions. The studies clearly establish the facts on the horror and extensiveness of the famine. While a few wide-eyed young Chinese nationalists, and a bunch of older Maoists writing on the Chinese website Utopia, still refute that a massive famine occurred, they do so by ignoring the evidence.

    The Chinese have a saying: "The past that is not forgotten becomes the teacher of the future." If the famine was the deliberate act of an individual villain (Mao Zedong) as demonic as Hitler or Stalin, then, the villain long dead, the matter is settled. On the other hand, if it was the result of failings in the social and political systems that, at least in part, still persist, then there are important lessons for today's leaders.

    For those who are interested, Pankaj Mishra's excellent review essay of several recent books on China in The New Yorker provides a succinct and insightful summary of the wide-ranging forces that set up the famine. Here, we focus not on the larger historical background, but a number of specific issues of concern and how Yang and Dikötter treat them differently.


    "Understanding the complexity of human behavior in times of catastrophe is one of the aims of the book," Dikötter states, and he does a good job fulfilling that goal in terms of ordinary people. But when it comes to the behavior of Mao and his colleagues, he has a tendency for simplification and caricature. The Mao under his pen is simply one of history's most sadistic tyrants; consideration is not given to the complexity of his behavior. The reader gets the impression that Mao knew about the famine all along, but either deliberately let people starve, or was indifferent to their fate. Dikötter's indignation toward Mao is understandable, but this representation is neither factual nor insightful.

    In contrast to Dikötter, Yang Jisheng, despite his sorrow and resentment over the catastrophe, does not let personal sentiment get in the way of factual reporting and serious exploration. Aptly casting Mao as "China's last emperor," Yang nonetheless provides a more complete portrait. Mao's policies were the main cause of the famine, and nothing can excuse him from that responsibility. But the catastrophe was not a deliberate act of mass murder like the Holocaust, as Dikötter suggests. Rather, it was the result of policy failures from a governance system based on the control of ideology and information. Culminating in the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the utopian policies, enthusiastically shaped and promoted by the entire leadership, were intended to bring about China's high-speed development. They instead resulted in the collapse of the nation's economic pillar: agriculture. The central government's inflated production targets and export quota led to unreasonably high procurements of grain from the peasants, while local governments under political pressure responded with inflated grain production statistics. The two types of inflation fed each other to form a vicious cycle that exhausted agricultural capacity, while the backyard steelmaking that took workers away from the land further worsened the grain shortages. After the famine started, it was prolonged because bad news was blocked from feeding back to top policy makers. Mao, thus, went through a long period of delusion and denial before, in late 1960, making a partial concession: "I myself made mistakes, too; I must correct."

    People's Communes were one of Mao's ill-conceived, ideology-driven 1958 policies that became what Yang calls "the organizational basis of the famine." Those organizations collectivized the entire rural population into very large communes, taking away land, tools, grain, and ultimately even cooking utensils, from the control of individual households. Everything became public property, and everyone was supposed to rely not on themselves, but on the commune to meet their needs. Communal kitchens prepared the food for all to eat. In September 1958, when he heard about a communal kitchen that offered free meals to peasants, Mao fancied, "If meals can be free, in the future clothing can be free, too." He was so excited about this prospect that he would repeatedly mention the "free meal" example. The wasteful free meals resulted in greater food shortages and lasted for only a few months, but communal kitchens continued for two more years. They eliminated functioning households as the basic unit of the economy, causing each family to lose the means and ability to fend for itself in a time of need.

    Tombstone traces Mao's deep love for the concept of such communization back to the "new village ideal" of his youth, which Mao wrote about in 1919. This was long before collective farms came into being in the Soviet Union. Mao was influenced by the 19th century political thinker Kang Youwei (1858-1927), author of The Book of Great Commonality, and the New Village movement from Japan. In his twenties Mao had, with several comrades, planned to create a communized "new village" in the Yuelu Mountains of his home province, Hunan, but not until four decades later did he get the opportunity and power to realize such an ideal. The fact that Mao was thus deeply invested in these People's Communes helps to explain his delusional and defensive mindset when the large social experiment proved such a devastating failure.

    Mao's state of denial was evident in his June 1959 poem titled "Shaoshan Revisited," which ends with the following lines:

    Happy, I see wave upon wave of paddy and beans,
    And all around heroes home-bound in the evening mist.

    Mao was visiting his home village in Shaoshan, Hunan. At that point, the famine was already well on its way to swallowing millions of rural lives, but all Mao could see were flourishing crops and enthusiastic — the "heroes" referred to in the poem — happily returning home from a day's work in the rice paddies. For Mao at the time, if there were problems in carrying out his ideal, they were minor and local, and would be quickly solved. In addition, anyone challenging his vision would not be tolerated. The poem was written right before the notorious Lushan Plenum that opened in early July, during which Mao denounced General Peng Dehuai, because the Defense Minister painted a completely different, and more truthful, picture after visiting his own hometown in the same province. Any dissenting voices in Mao's court were silenced after that.

    As Yang makes clear, it was not until October 1960, when the famine had gotten far worse, that Mao's two countryside cousins finally made him see the dire reality. They traveled from Hunan to Beijing for the sole purpose of speaking "true words" of the disastrous communal kitchens, and were kept waiting for weeks before being seen by the busy Mao. Apparently those cousins were unable to tell Mao the truth during his 1959 visit home, but in 1960 they described essentially the same dejected picture of the countryside as Peng Dehuai did. This time Mao believed his relatives.

    Mao followed up with more investigations and, soon after, took notable measures, belated as they were. In November 1960, the Party's Central Committee issued "twelve urgent instructions" emphasizing that the basic accounting unit be changed from the Commune back to the production team (village). Dikötter dismisses this move and uses it as evidence that Mao was worse than Stalin, while Yang views it as a significant retreat from radical policies. The outcome supports Yang's view. Encouraged by the instructions, the leadership of Yunnan province went further, returning its economic policies completely to those in place before the Great Leap Forward. Its new Party secretary Yan Hongyan wrote to Mao for approval and received his praise. Yunnan was benefiting from its status as a minority region, which enjoys certain special concessions; still this thorough policy reversal would not have been possible months earlier. The result was that, in the year 1961, when other provinces continued to suffer, Yunnan no longer had starvation deaths. Begrudgingly or not, Mao partially reversed his radical policies in response to the rampant suffering of his countrymen. This is simply not consistent with Dikötter's suggestion that Mao knowingly and intentionally caused mass starvation.

    But even then, Mao displayed a "try-one's-luck" mentality: what if his idea would still work after the crisis? In Tombstone, Yang records a telling detail. In March 1961, as the nationwide famine remained in a deep abyss, Anhui Province's Party chief Zeng Xisheng reported to Mao on a relief measure he took: contracting land to households. This was effectively a reversal of the communization movement, yet Mao urged Zeng to experiment. "If it goes wrong, you just do self-criticism. If it goes well, and can increase 10 billion jin of grain, that will be a great thing!" With Mao's approval, land was contracted to families, which peasants called their "savior fields." This became the starting point of Anhui's recovery. A month later, in April 1961, Mao approved the disbanding of all communal kitchens about which he had been so enthusiastic. In the fall of that year, nationwide recovery finally began. As soon as the peasants in Anhui were getting enough to eat, however, Mao pleaded with Zeng to consider changing Anhui's land policy back. Zeng tactfully declined, and Mao stopped there. (Years later Mao would make those who advocated land-contracting pay dearly, but that is another story.)

    Looking at Mao's denial and the failure of his government to correct its disastrous policies in a timely fashion, I find more parallels to the financial crisis of 2008, the sovereign debt mess in Greece, and the Iraq war than to the Holocaust. Denial is commonplace among politicians and other leading players, especially those ideologically driven, and this is what a good governance system should guard against. Dikötter would have gotten closer to his goal of "understanding the complexity of human behavior" if he gave Mao less special treatment.


    I come from Sichuan, and my home province is featured in one of Tombstone's chapters. With a population of 70 million at the time, Sichuan's estimated starvation deaths from 1959 to 1961 exceeded ten million; that's one in every seven people, the highest rate among all provinces. The vast majority of the deaths occurred in rural areas.

    My mother was in her early thirties at the time. She, like Yang and most others, had no inkling of the incredible scope or true causes of the famine, so it is eerie for me to see that "one in seven" figure in her diary. Until early 1958 my mother had been a grassroots government cadre working in an urban district of Chongqing, but was punished for her "rightist thoughts" in the "anti-rightist" campaign that preceded the Great Leap Forward. She was demoted and consequently sent down to work in a rural area, where she experienced the onset of the People's Commune movement. During the famine she suffered edema like so many others, and saw numerous peasants die. On November 8, 1961, my mother wrote in her diary (in translation):

    This really is a difficult time! This year our Commune has had 779 people die of hunger. Among Guangming's population of six hundred, 42 died; that's one seventh. The masses have a severe pessimistic mood.

    "They simply buried the bodies. They said nothing," my mother told me in a conversation several years ago. She was talking about the peasants in her Commune. In Tombstone, Yang also repeatedly refers to the rural public's attitude of resignation and silent acceptance. "So many people starved to death, but nobody cried." "No tears, no shock, no fright, tens of millions were just voicelessly, numbly gone like that." Facing their deaths, those peasants did not even put up much of a fight, as if overwhelmed by an unfathomable force.

    In despair, some resorted to cannibalism. In August 2006, working on a memoir that involves my mother's youth, I interviewed an old colleague of my mother's, Mr. Chen, in Chongqing, China. Chen told me that, one day in 1960, he bumped into a peasant house and saw the family eating a dead baby bloated up in a steamer. Working at a local government, Chen reported the incident to his Party boss, but was warned not to tell anyone. His conversation with me was the first time in 46 years he had talked about it again. What Chen witnessed was shocking, as were similar accounts described in both Tombstone ("Ancient books recorded incidents of 'exchanging children to eat,' but in the Great Famine there were many cases of parents eating their own kids") and in Mao's Great Famine ("[V]ery few people were actually cannibals who killed to eat. Most were scavengers, extending their survival techniques to the eating of cadavers"), yet, in a sense, the cannibalism is easier to explain than the passivity of the masses. Both books cite a number of small-scale local riots, but concluded that there was no widespread social unrest. Without a whimper, one in seven died in front of my mother's eyes. This is a more chilling picture than occasional cannibalism.

    Any reader of Chinese history knows that, in the thousand years of feudal time, peasant uprisings caused by famine were often the decisive force that ended one dynasty and gave rise to another. Why, then, in the Mao era, did an unprecedented large-scale famine result in no significant social unrest? Dikötter gives few words to this topic in Mao's Great Famine, only briefly mentioning "hope" as "something more tenacious than mere geopolitics" that "prevented the appearance of a credible threat to the rule of the party." This line of reasoning would have been more meaningful if carefully analyzed, but Dikötter stops after a few sentences. With the lack of exposition on that point, his book instead leaves the impression that violent suppression, not hope, was the real reason everywhere. "Violence became a routine tool of control," he writes, citing places where those seen to "dawdle, obstruct or protest, let alone pilfer or steal" were cruelly beaten, sometimes to death. Most of his citations in the chapter titled "Violence" come from a few counties in three provinces. Nationwide, how widespread such routine violence was remains unclear. While saying "it is hard to come up with reliable figures," Dikötter nonetheless confidently "infers" for the entire country that at "a rough approximation 6 to 8 percent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed." (He generally favors higher fatality numbers than most researchers.)

    Yet there were places not ruled by routine violence, such as the Commune in which my mother lived. I point this out not to diminish the horror of the violence where it prevailed (especially in those "model" areas with extremely fanatic leaders, as detailed in Tombstone), but to suggest that violent suppression was not the sole, perhaps not even the main, factor that prevented peasants from revolting. My parents and their friends, for example, believe the lack of mass resistance from the peasants was due to the good reputation of Mao; after all, it was Mao who gave them the land. But somehow, when their land was again taken away in the guise of the People's Communes, they did not see it that way. In conversations with those of my parents' generation, I frequently heard them cite how enthusiastic people were, in the fifties, about the New China under Mao and the Communist Party's leadership. "The Party's reputation was really high then," Chen said to me. In my mother's diary of those years I saw the same enthusiasm. Numerous memoirs on that period testify to the same general mood. Even in the late eighties, a decade after Mao's death, my American husband cycled across rural China and was surprised and baffled by the peasants' apparent veneration for Mao. This observation is consistent with that of Yang, who writes, "After half a century's war turmoil and the Kuomintang's corrupt rule, the new regime gained people's trust." Casting the Communist regime as the coda of China's imperial monarchy, Yang also points out that thousands of years of traditional worship for imperial power provided rich soil for the peasants' blind belief in Mao.

    Yang devotes more than one chapter in Tombstone to analyze why the famine caused no large-scale unrest, something he calls "a historical puzzle that requires serious exploration." In addition to citing the state's powerful dictatorship tools and the tight control of ideology, information, mobility, and the food supply, Yang raises an interesting point that, historically, peasant uprisings had been made possible by a leadership of educated rural elites who came from wealthier families. After the establishment of the People's Republic, the class of rich peasants and landowners was destroyed. No more elites in the traditional sense were left; replacing them were the Party cadres. Yang also points out that by eliminating local despots and elites, the Maoist system was able to maintain a certain deceptive form of social justice and equality outside officialdom, while information on corruption and error was tightly concealed. This effectively eased the rural public's rebellious spirit.

    Among the factors Yang identifies, one with the most present significance may be the ability of the government to successfully block the flow of information. Kept from knowing the wide scope of the disaster, let alone its true causes, peasants believed that local conditions — or fate — were to blame. Thus, the resignation and lack of a fight. "News blockage makes people benighted," writes Yang. Such blockage became a two-edged sword: it benighted not only the public, but also the national leadership. The deceptive quietness of the masses further deepened Mao's inability to assess the situation. 

    Ironically, it took another catastrophe for the public to gain access to information about the famine. In my home province Sichuan, during the Cultural Revolution, the rebelling Red Guards dug up the dark history of the provincial Party boss (equivalent of Governor), Li Jingquan, and made it known to everyone. In the famine, Li prevented bad news from either reaching the central government or spreading among local communities. Meanwhile, he inflated Sichuan's grain production statistics to please Mao and cover up the disaster. Unaware of Sichuan's true situation, Beijing ordered Li to transport large quantities of grain to major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, while Sichuan's starvation deaths escalated.

    Even after the nationwide famine finally came to an end in late 1961, Sichuan continued to have starvation deaths in 1962. People were so outraged to learn Li's role that when Li was violently "struggled" by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, few had sympathy for him. His family suffered even more: his wife committed suicide, and a son was beaten to death. (Li himself, though, returned to power in the eighties and died of old age, with a glorious obituary on the lid of his coffin.)

    Did the successful control of information prevent uprisings during the famine or simply delay them half a decade? At least in Sichuan, the unreleased emotions about the famine played a big part in the violence of the Cultural Revolution, as in the case of Li and his family. The large-scale social unrest that failed to occur during the famine was merely delayed. Once the dam that blocked the information broke, the resulting flood was more damaging. Here, history is making a prescient warning to today's government of China, which spares no pain to enforce the Great Fire Wall and Internet policing, to intercept petitioners, and to suppress political dissidents, all in the name of maintaining "stability" and "harmony." History should teach them that blocking information for the sake of temporary stability can result in much greater, if delayed, instability. 

    The extent and nature of the connection between the systemic causes of the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution requires further research. Beyond that, other questions remain. For example, Tombstone shows that, from April 1959 to April 1960, during the one-year period with the highest starvation deaths, state granaries in the provinces held a total of 15-40 billion kilograms of grain. "If half of the storage had been released for famine relief, people wouldn't have starved to death," Yang laments. Was this inaction due to outright tyranny, policy mistakes, bureaucracy, or even more bizarre reasons? This is one of the intriguing famine questions that these two books, as comprehensive as they are, leave unanswered.

    LARB Contributor

    Xujun Eberlein is the author of an award-winning story collection, Apologies Forthcoming, and a cultural blog, Inside-Out China.


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