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The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962

The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary History

Edited by Zhou Xun
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962
    Book Description:

    Beginning soon after the implementation of the policies of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961, when the drive to collectivize and industrialize undermined the livelihoods of the vast majority of peasant workers, China's Great Famine was the worst famine in human history. In addition to claiming more than 45 million lives, it also led to the destruction of agriculture, industry, trade, and every aspect of human life, leaving large parts of the Chinese countryside scarred forever by human-created environmental disasters.

    Drawing on previously closed archives that have since been made inaccessible again, Zhou Xun offers readers, for the first time in English, access to the most vital archival documentation of the famine. For some time to come this documentary history may be the only publication available that contains the most crucial primary documents concerning the fate of the Chinese peasantry between 1957 and 1962. It covers everything from collectivization and survival strategies, including cannibalism, to selective killing and mass murder.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18358-0
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xv)

    The history of the Great Famine in China has long been obscured by official taboos and restricted access to primary sources. Until 1990 very little essential archival material on the subject was available either to historians or to the general public. In November 1990 the Chinese government published a new archival regulation (revised in May 1999) that theoretically made documents more than thirty years old available. In practice, the documents are not always available even today. A great number of documents are still classified as “unsuitable” for public access and are in “closed” files.

    Access varies from one archive to...

  5. A Note on the Documents
    (pp. xvi-xvii)
  6. Map of China in 1959
    (pp. xviii-xx)
  7. CHAPTER ONE Famine in the Communes (March–September 1958)
    (pp. 1-16)

    The Great Leap Forward was Mao’s campaign to create a Communist utopia in China: a great, powerful, prosperous, and virtuous socialist state, ultimately a Communist society.¹ It was undertaken in the belief that a socialist system of agriculture would vastly improve land productivity, stimulate rural markets for industrial products, and redirect sufficient numbers of workers and funds toward China’s accelerating industrialization. In Mao’s view, revolutionary zeal and cooperative effort could overcome all obstacles and transform the Chinese landscape into a productive paradise. In fact, the Great Leap Forward led to the Great Famine of 1958–1962.

    Prior to the early...

  8. CHAPTER TWO Terror, Repression, and Violence (1958–1961)
    (pp. 17-42)

    Radical collectivization in China was as bloody and violent as it had been in the Soviet Union twenty years earlier. Millions of Chinese peasants were forced to live communally. In pursuit of utopia, private possessions were collectivized: villagers lost their homes, their land, their personal belongings down to pots and pans, tools, bricks, wood, needles, diapers, and quilts to keep warm, and their livelihoods—and many lives were sacrificed (documents 3–4, 30). Yet unlike in the Soviet Union, where collectivization turned into a civil war between state and peasantry, in China Mao pitted everyone against everyone else. He called...

  9. CHAPTER THREE Seasons of Death (1959–1962)
    (pp. 43-58)

    As month followed month, the famine worsened, exacerbated by intense violence in the communes, endless political campaigns, and, after the Lushan plenum in August 1959, a redoubled effort to propel the Great Leap forward. By the winter of that year, chronic scarcity was felt almost everywhere in China. Very few places were spared from devastation. Whole families perished; villages were wiped out; large swaths of countryside fell silent.

    Nineteen fifty-nine was the Year of the Pig in the Chinese calendar. According to tradition, it should have been a happy year for China’s agricultural population. To bear children in the Year...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR Cannibalism (Late 1959–Early 1961)
    (pp. 59-71)

    Survivors are not necessarily heroes, and surviving is rarely an experience worth glorifying. It is more often full of misery, pain, and remembered horrors. During the Great Famine, survival meant enduring extremely cruel and degrading conditions. To survive, people had to resort to every possible means, from eating earth and poisons to stealing and killing and even to eating human flesh. While cannibalism is normally understood to be a savage and taboo practice, for those surrounded by unremitting violence, horror, and death, eating human flesh may not seem so extraordinary. In the beginning, the government tried to dismiss stories of...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE Devastation in the Countryside (1958–1961)
    (pp. 72-90)

    The radical collectivization that began in 1958 robbed the rural populace of all private possessions. The Wind of Communism blew away many differences in status, leaving imposed egalitarianism in its wake. Furniture and household items became communal property (document 30); pots and pans were smelted for steelmaking; building material, including bricks and timber from private houses, was removed to build collective canteens, nurseries, communal halls, pigsties, and dams. Even coffins were collectivized (document 31). Many homes were demolished to clear the ground for various construction projects or to be used as fuel for the collective canteens and backyard furnaces, or,...

  12. CHAPTER SIX The Turn to Religion (1957–1962)
    (pp. 91-113)

    In December 1955, Mao read a report on the progress of collectivization in Qufu county. Qufu, in Shandong province, is the birthplace of Confucius, China’s most renowned sage. Upon reading the report, Mao remarked: “After living in poverty for more than two thousand years, people [in Qufu] have entered collectivization. Their life, both economically and culturally, has improved greatly since collectivization. Their example has proven that socialism surpasses any ancient wisdom. Compared to the Confucian classics, socialism is far superior. I recommend that those who are fascinated by Confucian temples and Confucian monuments visit the agricultural collective in Qufu.”¹


  13. CHAPTER SEVEN Strategies for Survival (1959–1962)
    (pp. 114-141)

    The Communist state built an elaborate hierarchical system to enforce its control. The system was effective: people lived in constant fear of imprisonment, punishment, or death. But it also permitted corruption at all levels. To survive, people developed a wide range of strategies to exploit the system and outwit the Party and the state. In the time of famine, the human will to live superseded stated socialist moral standards and the new order the Communist Party tried to enforce. Skill in cheating took an individual much further than readiness to obey. Cadres and those in charge of foodstuffs feasted while...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT Letters of Complaint (1957–1962)
    (pp. 142-161)

    As people in China struggled to survive catastrophic shortages, more and more became disillusioned and disgruntled by collectivization and the corruption that had infected the cadres. Since authorities consistently obstructed access to the truth about the famine, rumors spread. Many were about death and starvation, and quite a few were apocalyptic in scope. Rumor had become a tool for many peasants to voice their anger, to denounce cadres, and to seek redress. Others took up the tradition of complaint by writing letters and petitions to the Party.

    In a one-party authoritarian state where public debate or protest is not permitted,...

  15. Epilogue (1961–1962)
    (pp. 162-166)

    On April 2, 1961, the president of China, Liu Shaoqi, embarked on a journey to Huaminglou, his home village in Hunan province. While traveling from the provincial capital, Changsha, to Huaminglou, Liu was surprised by what he saw. The hills that used to be covered in fruit trees were completely barren, and nothing except wild grass was growing in the nearby fields. Villages along the road looked deserted, and the majority of the houses had been torn down, leaving only a few cracked walls standing. The huge pig farm—a Great Leap Forward project—had very few pigs in it,...

  16. Organizational Structure of the Government of the People’s Republic of China
    (pp. 167-170)
  17. Chronology
    (pp. 171-176)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 177-184)
  19. Index of Documents
    (pp. 185-196)
  20. Index
    (pp. 197-204)