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Forgotten Voices of Mao's Great Famine, 1958-1962

Forgotten Voices of Mao's Great Famine, 1958-1962: An Oral History

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Forgotten Voices of Mao's Great Famine, 1958-1962
    Book Description:

    In 1958, China's revered leader Mao Zedong instituted a program designed to transform his giant nation into a Communist utopia. Called the Great Leap Forward, Mao's grand scheme-like so many other utopian dreams of the 20th century-proved a monumental disaster, resulting in the mass destruction of China's agriculture, industry, and trade while leaving large portions of the countryside forever scarred by man-made environmental disasters. The resulting three-year famine claimed the lives of more than 45 million people in China.

    In this remarkable oral history of modern China's greatest tragedy, survivors of the cataclysm share their memories of the devastation and loss. The range of voices is wide: city dwellers and peasants, scholars and factory workers, parents who lost children and children who were orphaned in the catastrophe all speak out. Powerful and deeply moving, this unique remembrance of an unnecessary and unhindered catastrophe illuminates a dark recent history that remains officially unacknowledged to this day by the Chinese government and opens a window on a society still feeling the impact of the terrible Great Famine.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19924-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiii)
  4. Map of China in 1959
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    I was born at the height of the Cultural Revolution, one of the most violent periods in modern Chinese history. My mother gave birth to me while bullets were flying around outside the hospital window. At night my family slept under the bed to avoid being shot by machine guns.

    My mother told me that during her pregnancy she craved some green chilies, but the shops were empty and no street vendors were allowed. After I was born, my grandmother paid an extremely high price on the black market to secure some eggs for my mother so that she would...

  6. 1 The Tragedy of Collectivization
    (pp. 13-65)

    Before the early 1950s, private land ownership formed the basis of agriculture in China. However, the growing population contributed to an escalating land shortage problem, and the lack of land subsequently became directly linked to poverty. In 1943, Mao Zedong, the new supreme head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), proclaimed agricultural collectivization as the only way to eliminate rural poverty, and he stipulated that collectivization should be the CCP’s long-term goal. In 1949, at the end of the civil war, which had lasted ten years, the CCP finally defeated the Nationalist Party (KMT) and took control of the entire...

  7. 2 Endless Campaigns and Political Pressures
    (pp. 66-103)

    Mass political campaigns were the predominant feature of Mao’s reign. During the Great Leap Forward, endless campaigns were part of everyday life for China’s rural, as well as urban, population.

    In the autumn of 1957, following the Socialist Education Campaign for China’s rural population and the Anti-Rightist Campaign in government work units, state-owned factories, the army, as well as cultural and educational institutions, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward. This brought further collectivization initiatives to the countryside and resulted in existing farming collectives merging into gigantic People’s Communes, with an average of five thousand households per commune. Peasant farmers were...

  8. 3 Unnatural Disasters
    (pp. 104-137)

    From 1958 onward the entire rural population in China was mobilized to transform the country into an industrial powerhouse. An industrial superpower needed a lot of steel. In August 1958, at the same Politburo meeting at which the People’s Commune was inaugurated, it was also decided that the country’s steel production would double within the year. The Chinese countryside was transformed overnight and became packed with backyard furnaces. Pots, pans, and tools were confiscated from people’s homes and turned into useless slag. Meanwhile, agricultural fields were abandoned and turned to wasteland. Animals were left untended. Crops failed, and a food...

  9. 4 Starvation and Death
    (pp. 138-170)

    As the year 1959 continued, so the famine worsened. It was exacerbated by intense violence in the communes, endless political campaigns, and a redoubled effort to push the Great Leap Forward after the August 1959 Lushan plenum. By the time winter arrived, famine had taken hold in most parts of China.

    The government failed to provide adequate health care or famine relief strategies. Illnesses such as edema, caused by malnutrition or eating poisonous food substitutes or rotten food, became endemic. Amenorrhea, the cessation of menstrual periods, was widespread among women, and birth rates dropped dramatically.

    At the forefront of the...

  10. 5 Orphans of the Famine
    (pp. 171-197)

    Of the millions who died in the famine, about 20 percent were children. While too many parents watched their children vanish overnight, the famine also deprived several million Chinese children of parental love and care. Some children were abandoned simply because their parents had no food to feed them. Barely keeping alive themselves, many desperate mothers and fathers abandoned their children by the roadside or in outlying villages in the hope that some kind-hearted soul might take them in. For a bowl of grain, some mothers left their husbands and children to find a new husband elsewhere.¹ These “lost” children...

  11. 6 Famine in the Cities
    (pp. 198-226)

    By the winter of 1959, the famine that had killed millions in the Chinese countryside was beginning to extend to the cities. Food queues grew. The mass exodus from the countryside brought millions of hungry peasants into the cities. They could be seen everywhere: on streets, at railway stations, in restaurants and candy stores. Food ran out quickly, but the queues did not ease. In an attempt to contain the problem, the government introduced tough measures to force rural migrants back to the countryside. The migrants were arrested and sent to detention centers. Physical abuse was a regular occurrence in...

  12. 7 Surviving the Famine
    (pp. 227-268)

    A history of famine is as much a history of survival as it is of starvation, destruction, and death. Humans are able to endure extreme conditions, and our ingenuity in coping with terrible crises is a great reflection of human strength.

    The world over, most human beings would do anything in order to survive, and this includes stealing and killing. During China’s Great Famine, to scrape together the currency to barter for food, people sold everything they had, from furniture to clothing, children and sex. The ability to cheat and steal became essential tools of survival. Anything edible was swallowed,...

  13. 8 Memories of the Famine
    (pp. 269-288)

    On January 25, 2005, two days before the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Zuzana Ruzickova, one of Europe’s most respected harpsichordists and a Holocaust survivor, spoke about the importance of remembering such human tragedies.

    The most important thing is that these events are held up as a warning against dictators or terrorists repeating these mistakes.

    The second thing is of course to warn against things such as the Auschwitz lie. As more of us survivors die out, so the Auschwitz lie will spread, because it’s such a terrible thing for humanity to remember. So these memorial days are...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 289-296)
  15. Index
    (pp. 297-315)