• Wed
  • Jul 23, 2014
  • Updated: 4:19am
Focus
NewsChina
SOCIETY

Mao Zedong's Great Famine of 1958-62 still blights rural lives, scholar says

Mao's Great Famine of 1958-62 continues to blight lives in impoverished rural areas, historian says

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 5:40am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 12:10pm

In 2010, historian Dr Zhou Xun travelled to a community dubbed Dwarfs' Village in Jianyang county, Sichuan . She found about 20 villagers suffering from a crippling disorder that they called "big bone disease"; all had been born during the Great Famine, a tragedy that swept the country from 1958 to 1962.

Stunted, and with deformed joints, most were unable to walk.

They were the survivors. About a quarter of the village's 100 inhabitants had died during the government-made disaster.

The Great Famine was sparked by Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, a radical agricultural campaign that was supposed to lead China into a communist utopia through rapid industrialisation and collectivisation.

Instead, it killed more than 40 million people and left a legacy of suffering and rural poverty that persists five decades later, says Zhou, a history lecturer at the University of Essex in Britain.

She is the author of Forgotten Voices of Mao's Great Famine 1958-1962, published last autumn in the US by Yale University Press.

It is one of several books in recent years to have shed new light on the catastrophe.

Publisher Allen Lane released Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng's Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine in 2012 after it came out in Chinese. Bloomsbury Publishing issued Dutch historian Professor Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 in 2010.

The recent proliferation of books on the topic can be attributed to a desire by scholars to examine the communist regime's foundations in the 1950s and present a more systematic critique of it, says Dr Sebastian Veg, director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong. The research also reflects an effort to record the stories of elderly witnesses with memories that are not part of the official narrative.

The researchers have benefited from greater access to archives. However, while some documents have been declassified since the 1990s, Zhou says access to many files that she and other historians once consulted, particularly those held by provincial party committees, has since been withdrawn.

Zhou also tapped into an abundance of oral accounts. To many elderly peasants who have been physically and mentally scarred by the horrific events for five decades, telling their stories to Zhou was "a form of social healing", she says.

From her interviews with more than 200 survivors of the famine, most of them illiterate peasants, Zhou found that poverty, ill health and mental anguish continue to plague survivors.

The Dwarfs' Village is only 55 kilometres southeast of the provincial capital, Chengdu . But Zhou says it feels much more remote, with the impoverished community untouched by the wealth created by three decades of rapid economic growth.

It is not connected to a motorway, and it took Zhou nearly three hours to reach it - first by bus from Chengdu to the nearest township, and then by scooter on a bumpy, dusty country road.

Villagers told Zhou that 70 per cent of children born in the village during the famine suffered from the bone disorder, known in the medical community as Kashin-Beck disease. It affects rural residents in remote areas throughout Asia.

"Before that there were only two or three such cases in the area. But during the period of collectivisation, it became endemic in our village," one resident told Zhou. "Many people born in those years lost the ability to walk. Even now, many of them still cannot walk."

While Kashin-Beck disease is endemic in China, the nutritional deficiency of the Great Famine "is highly likely to have triggered an increase of the prevalence of the disease in this village", says Rodrigo Moreno-Reyes, chief clinical associate professor in the department of nuclear medicine at the Free University of Brussels.

Medicals experts say that while the cause of the disease is not fully understood, it is linked with poor conditions including deficiency in selenium, iodine and other minerals and vitamins linked with bone growth, as well as the intake of toxic substances.

The disorder often disappears when the economic and living conditions improve and may reappear when conditions become harsh again, according to Moreno-Reyes.

Zhou says she has deliberately kept the village's name and villagers' identities anonymous to protect them from retaliation by the local government, which wants to cover up their ordeal.

"They are still suffering now, and nobody cares about them," she says.

As with other villages during collectivisation, officials barred residents from cooking at home and forced them to eat at public canteens that often doled out substandard and inadequate food.

One told Zhou the canteen gave each person just 100 grams of rice and a spoonful of other food, often sweet potatoes.

Many more famine survivors are still plagued by poor health.

Zhou says she met a farmer in northern Hunan who has been suffering from the parasitic disease bilharzia, or schistosomiasis, since the Great Leap Forward. The chronic disease, contracted through poor water and sanitation facilities, can lead to anaemia, polyps and problems with the internal organs.

In a crowded ward in a bilharzia clinic, a bed-ridden patient told Zhou that a large number of people in his village were still suffering from the life-long disease. The man told her that villagers were ordered to pull down their own houses during collectivisation in 1958 so the cement could be turned into fertiliser. The cement was thrown into a pond to make compost and the water became contaminated.

"Since we had no money and there was no food to eat, I went into the lake to pull up some lotus roots, and to try to catch fish and shrimp," Zhou quotes the patient as saying.

Zhou says the environmental destruction of the famine had a calamitous impact on agriculture, industry, trade and other aspects of life that can still be felt in the countryside today.

Many villages, including those in Luliang county in Yunnan province where the first major instances of Great Famine mass deaths were recorded, remain impoverished today. During trips to villages, Zhou says she would often see modern highways abruptly end in dust.

"Fifty years after the famine, the lives of those who survived have improved very little."

The ecological consequences of the construction of gigantic dams also continues to affect people's lives today, she says. The alkalisation of farmland and waterlogging caused by massive water-conservation works destroyed crops. The destruction of the farmland has in turn deepened poverty, she adds.

In Henan , the Banqiao reservoir dam - which was built against the advice of hydrology experts during the Great Leap Forward - collapsed in 1975, killing more than 85,000 people and flooding 29 counties.

The massive destruction of forests during the period led to soil erosion and sandstorms, and turned paddy fields into sandy beaches and farmland into swamps. One-third of the forests in China's northwest were destroyed. Even now, sandstorms still plague the once-fertile region.

Zhou believes the Great Famine has also affected the behaviour of Chinese people today. Many remain mentally scarred by their experiences, and Zhou sees the legacy of the years of turmoil in the way they interact with others.

"They might be lovely people as individuals, but in public they can be pushy and rude. This is something left over from the famine," Zhou says.

"Then, even families could fall out fighting over food. When it's a matter of life and death, selfishness becomes the norm," she says. "You survive or die."

Today, the Great Famine and other calamities that occurred under communist rule, such as the Cultural Revolution, remain taboo subjects.

Zhou urged the Communist Party to reflect on its past and let go of its monopoly on history.

"The party should openly acknowledge what happened over 50 years ago during the famine, to publicly acknowledge the value of human lives."

An elderly survivor of the famine once told Zhou that it was his lasting wish the government would one day acknowledge the pain they suffered.

"If that happens," he told Zhou, "maybe there will be justice for us."

Share

Related topics

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

32

This article is now closed to comments

whymak
andrew.kuiper:
I am talking about fundamentalist dogmas as absolute truth, not fundamentalists. If you are not one, you need not be so defensive.
Yes, Books of Genesis and Deuteronomy, King James Bible all contain myths and nonsense. Monotheism existed long before the God of Abraham, Zarathustra for one. Diogenes and Plutarch dated HIM back as far as 6000 BCE.
Many stories in the Old Testament and Biblical Jesus were fabricated. I am stating facts but not taking away others' opiates for the mind.
This is a tragic human condition. Many need self brainwash to make sense of a world where Man's life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
If you believe in Virgin Birth, that's okay by me too. Having been to Egypt, it sounds like the conception of Horus by Isis.
So Mary was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Who must be male because we need a sperm to make a zygote. God the Mother was mislabeled the Father. We all know sexism in religion. You can’t have it both ways -- Blessed Trinity without totipotent zygote. Jesus the Man was made the same way as we all are -- in God’s likeness.
For those refused to be duped by charlatans, shamans and witch doctors, they find other meanings to life in this wonderful human civilization.
I opt for a 17.2 billion or 17.3 billion year old universe, whose exact age depends on the shifting empirical evidence. So feel free to attack the scientific method. It is not for everyone, but at least we all believe in this kind of freedom.
andrew.j.kuiper
Much better.
I'm not attacking the scientific method at all. I'm attacking your historical method--or at least your sources. You dating of Zoroaster, for example, drawing on Classic authors, is not accepted by modern scholarship. Your reference to Horus having been conceived by "virgin birth" is likewise not accepted by any serious Egyptologist. Osiris and Isis were married, therefore she wasn't a virgin. In some versions of the story, she made love with his reanimated corpse. Again, not exactly a "virgin birth."
Yes of course there were monotheistic religions before Judaism (Zoroastrianism, incidentally, is dualistic, not truly monotheistic). So what? Even if links could be proven, all of which are speculative, you're committing a genetic fallacy. Your expression of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the virgin birth is just abysmally bad, or just lacks a point.
Furthermore, I don't know what the "King James Bible" has to do with anything, being a early modern English translation of Greek and Hebrew texts. You mention "sexism," but the very concept of "sexism" itself involves certain assumptions of reality that you cannot prove.
There's a lot of junk history out there, just like there is junk science, and it sounds like you've bought into it; primarily because it helps you prove your point that Chinese civilization is "special" (I read "superior").
In conclusion, you say you're stating "facts" but I haven't seen anything beyond bald assertions.
whymak
Andrew.kuiper:
It seems that you insist the refutation of Immaculate Conception and Blessed Trinity as junk science. This effectively terminates an attempted rational conversation, in which my touch of humor here and there has also been your bone of contention. The purpose of my "entertaining" tidbits is to classify religious superstitions and dogmas apart from the brilliant achievements of Western and Chinese civilizations.
You used the word "genetic" inappropriately. You also distorted my use of the word "special" in an anthropological sense to vent perhaps a hidden religious agenda. If this is not your intent, I owe you an apology. I wish to be decent more than correct in intellectual exchanges.
However, if you're up to a conversation on the molecular biology of genetics and epigenetics, better yet, cosmology and the inflationary universe, or anything that has to do with science, math, economics, music, reason and logic, I shall gladly oblige.
andrew.j.kuiper
Whymak,
Yes, I'm afraid we simply don't understand each other at all. I'm not really being irritable or defensive; I quite enjoy these kind of discussions. If I came on a bit strong, it was due to an interpretation of your "touch of humor" as condescension, which if I misunderstood, I apologize.
Regarding your refutation of certain components of Christian doctrine, I do not feel you understand what you are critiquing. A "miracle" inherently does not fit into a reductionist, materialistic understanding of the universe, so materialist refutations cannot even begin to grapple with one.
I was referring to the "genetic fallacy" with the term, a logical fallacy, and I did not use it inappropriately.
I don't think you understood what I meant by "special" either, but we'll let that lie.
Again, my main contention in this whole discussion is that your historical claims are simply incorrect. They are wrong.They are not true. And I think a bit of research will demonstrate that.
Finally, I fear my scientific/mathematical knowledge is quite deficient, I willingly acknowledge. But if you're up to a conversation on literature, philosophy, history, or theology, I shall gladly oblige.
whymak
Andrewkuiper,
Good. I have enjoyed thoroughly this conversation. I was schooled in Catholicism during formative years but abandoned the faith while studying Kant and other thinkers -- would you believe Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine? Anyway, theology is not my bag. My strong sense in symbolic logic and empiricism simply leaves little room for it.
In case we cross paths again in this publication, I won't forget your kindness in overlooking my flippant intolerance.
Don't take me wrong. I remember my teachers, Brothers of Christian Schools most fondly -- more than one could imagine.
whymak
ZHOU SUN FRANK DIKOETTER CHARLATANISM
Featured infomercials in US TV are typically used by outfits peddling dubious food supplements outside the purview of FDA.
A program starts off with some established facts or protocols in health and medicine. Somewhere into the presentation the speaker veers subtly away from the subject by introducing a totally irrelevant concern or fear for a nonexistent nutritional deficiency. This sublimation is then followed by the charlatan’s spiel.
The state-of-the-art medical knowledge says Kashin-Beck is an idiopathic disease. It’s prevalent in China’s southwest and most prominently in Tibet. In a Tibetan village, it’s reported that almost 100% of the population are afflicted.
Zhou Sun bait-and-switch fits infomercial to a tee. She acknowledges the disease unknown origin. Like an infomercial, she twisted an airhead’s opinion – Moreno-Reyes – and others less dubious but nevertheless old wife tales into the picture. By selecting preferred anecdotes, she insinuates GLF as the culprit of the disease.
Effects of famine have known causes in the molecular biology of epigenetics. The results of malnutrition, deaths and cross generational phenotypes are well documented by Dutch Hunger Winter.
We admit Mao’s tyranny and economic management. But must we also accept their insult to scholarship?
The true picture of famine deaths emerges not by anecdotes, but by the discovery of discontinuities in demographics. Do they know statistics?
shuike
The US/West are so convinced of their superiority/control that do not even bother to hide behind the charade of punishing any country that is stupid enough to annoy or confront the reigning hegemon the US. Right now China must have angered the US on something & right away, there is an increased barrage of anti-China bias in the Western media as well the intentional reminder that the US can provoke much trouble for China with an Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama. You can look forward to a deluge of China bashing in SCMP for some time to come until Uncle Sam decides it's enough.
whymak
XYZ:
It seems that you don't understand a word of my account below -- errors with census, etc. It's okay. Facts are inconvenient for you. Either you can't read or are unwilling to read facts offensive to your ideology.
China was almost as poor and backward as Africa after the revolution. In terms of transportation and industrial base, we were behind India for many years after the Cultural Revolution. In the Penn Tables on economic development, we didn't even overtake India until the late 80s.
How a great civilization had descended to such an abyss is a tragedy for those of us who still call ourselves Chinese.
Sad thing for self-hate Chinese is that they don't realize there is only one Chinese civilization, regardless of which government is in power. Other nations without a similar depth in culture of a civilization state can morph from one state into another without missing a beat.
Is Jesus Jewish, Christian or Islam? It hardly matters because stories about Abraham and other myths are all plagiarized from older Egyptian and Persian civilizations. Our history is special even if our documented dynastic accounts are at times conflicting. But isn't this what the study of history is all about?
What is democracy? You must admit practitioners of this cult have invented plagiarized accounts to suit their own faith. Every moron talks about it but none could give a set of consistent and meaning definitions.
Ask Anson Chan what her TRUE DEMOCRACY means.
XYZ
Yes, I do not understand you.
whymak
XYZ:
Like those two clowns, Zhou Xun and Dikoetter, you won't be able to pass the course I taught in freshman physics, in which students took only open book tests.

Pages

 
 
 
 
 

Login

SCMP.com Account

or