Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why Didn't Peasants Riot During China's Three-Year Famine? (1)

Yesterday, Sam of The Useless Tree commented on my post What Kept China from Total Collapse during the Cultural Revolution: "I think you're right about the CR, but the key point about the maintenance of agricultural production raises another question: how is it that the Great Leap Forward did not produce a massive anti-government backlash?"

A great question, and I'm glad it has finally come up, though it would be nice to have someone Chinese ask it. For years I have wondered why I never heard anyone raise the issue, as if nothing were unusual about 30 million peasants passively starving to death without putting up so much as a fight.

From 1959 to 1961, ten million of the starvation deaths occurred in my home province, Sichuan. Today it is common knowledge that the severe famine was caused by the fanatic Great Leap Forward movement, the ludicrous practice of "backyard steel making," the wasteful all-you-can-eat communal dining rooms, and the fictitious reports of high agricultural production.

Puzzlingly, there were no riots during that period. Not even small revolts. There were individual complaints and "guai hua" (怪话), but that was pretty much it. Why didn't the peasants, the largest social group whose numerous uprisings were the primary forces pushing feudal China's history forward, put up fierce fights for their lives then? In light of frequent mass protests in recent years, the "peaceful" mass starvation then is utterly unimaginable.

This was the primary question I had in mind when I interviewed Mr. Chen three years ago. I was writing a memoir about my parents' past, and it turned out the famine years were a key period in their life together. At the time, my mother was a grassroots government cadre sent down to the countryside as punishment for her "rightist thoughts." Mr. Chen had been her colleague and friend in the local government. They both closely witnessed the famine.

The following is an excerpt of the interview in translation, which I hope will shed some light on China's rural situation then. 

Time: August 2006
Location: Mr. Chen's home in Chongqing, China
Me: Uncle Chen, when did the famine become apparent?
Chen: 1959.
Me: About the peasants' situation, what did you see in your own eyes then?
Chen: One thing stood out in 1960…I went to a production team. A family in the village steamed and ate, ah, a baby.
Me: (in shock) What? They killed the baby?
Chen: It seems the baby was sick or something.…it was bloated up by the steam...
Me: They steamed the baby whole?
Chen: Umm.
Me: Was the child killed or dead of sickness?
Chen: No no, wasn't killed. The child was very sick, dead or nearly dead, it seemed. I told Secretary Zhang after I returned to the district office…
Me: [still in disbelief] You really saw it?
Chen: Yes…Secretary Zhang said, [in rapid voice] "Never never tell this to anyone!"
Me: Secretary Zhang?
Chen: He was the party secretary of our district, my immediate superior.
Me: He prohibited you from talking about it.
Chen: Right, he said I couldn’t talk about it. The city's party secretary was Xin Yizhi at the time. Xin openly told us, "Ours is the people's country, no one is allowed to die by Liberation Monument! If someone's dying, go inside to die!"
Me: Can't die on the streets.
Chen: [bitter titters] Not on the streets around the Liberation Monument.
Me: One can only die inside.
Chen: Eh, if one is dying, get him inside to die, not outside.
Me: The peasant family you saw who steamed the baby, how many household members did they have?
Chen: I wasn't clear about those details…
Me: Which township was it?
Chen: Xiema.
Me: Oh, my mother was sent down there too! How come she didn't know this?
Chen: Of course she didn't know. Those things, you see it, you don't [talk]…
Me: Why were you there?
Chen: That place was Xin Yizhi's selected point. I was assigned to follow him down and do policy research, but he wasn't there that day.
Me: How did you find out about the baby?
Chen: I just bumped into it.
Me: How did the peasant family react after you saw it?
Chen: They were like, okay, now you've seen it, let it pass. These things, they were already enormously miserable. (sigh)
Me: Did you tell Xin Yizhi?
Chen: No, I only told Secretary Zhang.
Me: Did Xin Yizhi take any measure about the famine?
Chen: What measure could he have? (pause) We were given a 21-jin* monthly grain ration.
Chen's wife: That was in the city. Who could have that in the countryside?
Chen: Right, only in the city.
My mother: You guys in the district office had 21 jin. We who were sent down had 2 jin less. We had only 19 jin.
Chen's wife: I had 19 jin as well.
Me: Is it true that people died mostly in the countryside, but not many in the city?
Chen: It's true. Thousands and thousands died in the countryside, few in the city. The guideline at the time was that rural deaths were not a big deal, but we can’t let urban people die.
Me: So peasants' lives were not attached importance. How come they didn't run away to other places?
Chen: Where could they run to? (pause) Hmm, a few peasants did escape to Xinjiang, I heard.
Me: So they just sat at home waiting to die?
Chen: They didn't just sit; they still labored, even though they were all swollen from malnutrition. They died of exhaustion.
Me: My mother said the government distributed medicine for curing swelling?
My mother: It was chaff powder in boxes, chaff powder mixed with a little bit soybean powder.
Chen: Oh, the dross from the Daxi medicine factory became a big deal treasure!
My mother: Also, every commune opened a hospital to treat swelling.
Me: How did they treat it?
Chen: The hospital got a slightly higher grain ration.
My mother: Cadres and active elements with serious conditions were sent to the swelling hospital.
Me: They didn't treat common peasants?
Chen: Mmm.
My mother: They just couldn't. Too many of them.
Me: In ancient times, if the emperor and his local officials didn't care about the disaster-stricken people, people rebelled. Why for three years in this famine no one revolted?
Chen: Chinese peasants were too nice.
Me: Nice? There is no shortage of peasant uprisings in history.
Chen: But they didn't see bad officials [during the famine].
Me: Why couldn't they see? They surely knew cadres lied about their production.
Chen: (voice rose emotionally) How could they see? Everyone was equal. The provincial leaders ate the same, no special treatment. When cadres like us went down, we ate and lived exactly like the peasants.
Me: But in fact there was a difference. You guys had a 21-jin monthly ration; the peasants didn't.
Chen: This….
Chen's wife: [The peasants didn't need the ration] because they were the producer of the grains.
Chen: The peasants advocated the Communist Party. They believed in the Party. They didn't have antagonistic feeling toward the government.
My mother: Where I was sent down, every day I saw people die. They simply buried the bodies. They said nothing. They didn't know the disaster was man-made. How could they see it? The man-made factor would be corruption, but corruption meant embezzlement. There wasn't embezzlement then.
Chen: The Party's reputation was really high.
Me: So the peasants basically didn't complain.
Chen: Who could they complain about? The cadres were generally good.
* 1 jin = 1.1 lbs
More discussion will follow tomorrow. (to be continued)


Anonymous said...

This is eye opening. Thank you for sharing this part of China's history that had always been in the dark. China still has a long way to go in becoming one of the world's leading powers. Have you read Asia Chronicle News? The website provides good news analyses on politics affecting China. Worth a read I think. www.asiachroniclenews.com

Anonymous said...

Shocking and fascinating. I've spoken with my in-laws about some of their experiences and it was rough but I've heard nothing like this (I suppose since they were city people, and in relatively properous areas like Zhejiang, they did not get it so bad).

Anonymous said...

Me: They steamed the baby whole?
Chen: Mmm.

Looks extremely wrong if you don't realize that "Mmm" means "嗯"...

Xujun said...

You have a good point. I'd thought the meaning was clear in the context. Perhaps a better translation for "嗯" in this contest is "umm." What do you think?

Anonymous said...

I usually translate it as "Uh huh" or "yeah" or *grunts in agreement* or something. The (Chinese) kids these days seem to use "en," but I don't know whether a non-Chinese-speaker would know what to make of that. I just feel like "mmm" can be read in too many ways: as "yes," "I'm not so sure," or, in this case, "Mmm~ steamed baby~ *drool*"

Anonymous said...

“Me: (in shock) What? They killed the baby?
Chen: It seems the baby was sick or something.…it was bloated up by the steam...”

This story is highly dubious unless it is only a single incidence.


In Chinese history, records of eating infant appear. For instance, in later Ming Dynasty, it was reported that a devastating famine caused families to “exchange infants to eat.” (易子而食)Peasant rebellion eventually overthrew Ming Dynasty.

The important key word is “exchanging”. Why to exchange? Because Chinese tradition pays particular attention to family member relationship. Parents-offspring relationship is sacred. It is the moral ground for doing anything, including emperor-subject relationship, nature- human relationship, etc. In ancient China (Ming and before), people even didn’t cut their hair because it is given by parents.

Thus, if this phenomenon was widespread during early 60s, parents might kill their infants, but would only exchange for other’s infant to eat, because there would be other family with little ones under similar situation.

Anonymous said...

This is really eye-opening. Thank you for sharing. I have visited China and studied there and have never understood the extent of the suffering some of my older Chinese friends endured.

Your commentary about Chinese tradition and eating babies is also interesting, but the above story serves to highlight the desperation of the time -- so maybe the tradition of exchanging babies to eat didn't hold here.

Anonymous said...

I don't if the story is true or not, but my mother told me her father was starved to death during that period.