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

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, 25 January, 2015, 9:09am

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that she and other historians once consulted, particularly those held by provincial party committees, has since been withdrawn.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."