An Oral History of Mao’s Greatest Crime

In four years, China’s Great Famine killed more than 45 million people. The forgotten survivors of a forgotten genocide tell their story.

Shigeo Ohguma/Kyodo, via AP

Between 1958 and 1962, Mao Zedong embarked on a mad and brutal scheme to transform the Chinese economy through forced collectivization—the so-called Great Leap Forward. Historian Frank Dikötter called the ensuing disaster one of the “most deadly mass killings in human history,” estimating that over 45 million Chinese died as a result. And yet few people outside of China are aware of Mao’s greatest crime.

For his new book Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine (Yale University Press), historian Zhou Xun travelled through the Chinese countryside collecting first-hand accounts from the forgotten victims of a forgotten genocide.

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In a small village in Sichuan province’s Peng county, Pan Zhenghui was an enthusiastic “Great Leap Forward Worker” at the beginning of radical collectivization. Now, in her eighties and enjoying a good life with plenty of Mahjong and cigarettes, she has no feeling of nostalgia for the period.

When the Great Leap Forward started, I was sent away to work in Ya’an. I was recruited by the government to be a “Great Leap Forward Worker.” Why? In those days, factories needed workers, and peasants in the countryside were sent to support the factories. I had a child who was just a few months old at the time, but I left him at home and went to Ya’an by myself. The child subsequently died [Laughing]. I was young. I just let things go. I don’t think I cared very much. In those days, young people like me cared for neither our elders nor our children. We did everything we were told to do. We were full of revolutionary zeal. That’s how it was.

Next to Sichuan is the frontier province Yunnan. At the time Yunnan’s Party secretary was Xie Fuzhi, a man well known for his tough measures to outlaw opium and control bandits in the early 1950s, after the Communists took over the region. Under him villagers were treated no better than opium criminals and bandits. Zhu Daye from Luliang county recalls the harsh military regime in the People’s Commune.

The People’s Commune was run like an army. I was a carpenter at the time. I had to go to work where the cadres told me to go. If anyone dared to disobey orders, he’d be interrogated by the commune at nighttime. We lived and worked like an army with very strict discipline. We had to work day and night without a break. If we wanted to take a rest, we had to ask for permission. If anyone failed to turn up to work, they were deprived of food. On our way to work every day, the cadres stood by with a bamboo cane in their hand. If anyone was slow in walking, they would use the bamboo to beat that person. In our village about 90 percent of the people were beaten.

Lei Huazhen is a handsome woman and unusually tall for an inhabitant of Sichuan. She had nothing good to say about the People’s Commune and collective farming.

In those days, no one dared to challenge the officials. No one dared to resist even when the cadres knocked down our walls to make fertilizer… The cadres were so fearsome. For instance, one day some four or five year olds in our village went and picked some peas in the fields, and they got caught. The local cadres tied them up and threw them down into a dried- up old well in order to frighten them…

The county town in Guangshan looks shabby and soulless, and is surrounded by flat countryside. There are many of these kinds of towns in China. “Poor” and “tacky” are the words to describe them. This unremarkable place was a famous site in the history of the Great Famine, however, because of the high numbers of deaths that occurred here: one-third of its population was wiped out, including many entire families. Among them were thousands of people who were tortured to death. Some were even buried alive. At the time there were 120 people in Wu Yongkang’s village, and 74 were killed by starvation or beating. I had often read about cannibalism being widespread in the area, so I asked a local resident about it. He turned his head and looked into the distance, and said:

Yes, there were cases of people eating human flesh. In our village there was a man named Wu Xiaofan. After his daughter died, he consumed her body because there was nothing else to eat. Over here almost every village had cases like that. You see, in those days there were no dogs or cows left. Even if there were cows, they belonged to the commune and no one was allowed to slaughter them or consume them. People had to fill their stomachs with something.

Wei Dexu is now his mid-eighties. He lives high up in the mountains in Tufangshan village, Langzhong county, in northern Sichuan. In the 1930s this was a “Soviet base” for the Communist Red Army, and one of the first places in China to complete “land reform.” But the Communist Liberation brought little benefit to the locals. Today the village has only one post office, which also serves as a bank. Because it is so high up and so rural, it is badly served by transportation. The general population of the area is extremely poor. A majority of the villagers have barely any spare clothes to change into, and can only just about get enough to eat. Although life is not great for Wei and his fellow villagers, he still thinks it’s a lot better than it was under radical collectivization.

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Those who had good relationships with the cook received more solid food. When it was his or her turn to be served, the cook would use the spoon to give the pot a good stir, whereas the rest of us would only be served a spoonful of watery stuff. It was a kind of greenish liquid, and it was basically undrinkable. The green color came from the wild vegetables it was cooked with. We also ate noodles made out of hemp plants. Normally we used hemp to make rope. To make noodles, we would cut the roots of the plant into long silvers. We also ate the bark of the parasol and loquat trees. That was the situation, and it lasted for several years. People died of edema. I watched them die. In our area there were over twenty people who died of starvation. It was terrible. Their legs completely swelled up. Looking back now, I can safely say that if the canteen had lasted another two years the disaster caused would have been unimaginable.

During the famine, starvation often was not caused by lack of food but resulted instead from political punishment. Zuo Rong is a retired teacher from Shayang county in Jingmen municipality, Hubei province. In 1958 he was denounced as a rightist, and was sent to the Shayang Labor Camp. Shayang Labor Camp is famous in China for the brutal torturing methods used there. This place is sometimes described as “hell on Earth.” Between 1959 and 1962 Zuo Rong toiled at the camp. Besides being constantly tortured and having to engage in hard labor, he and his fellow prisoners also had to endure the terrible hunger. He remembers how they, as well as people from his home village, struggled to survive.

In my home village too a low-ranking cadre named Xu Xianqing literally stuffed himself to death. He was so hungry that he ate too much chaff in one go…For the villagers it was lucky that there were many lakes in our area, so they could always fish things out of the lake to eat. Many of them avoided death by starvation in this way. Complain? In those days ordinary people didn’t dare to say anything even if we were very angry indeed. We just had to find ways to survive. It’s human nature to try to survive.

When I read in a Hong Kong newspaper that Wu Yongkuan, a peasant and famine survivor in Guangshan county in Henan province, had put up two private memorial stones in his village to honor those who had died during the famine, I was very excited. In October 2010, on a bright sunny day, I set out for Guangshan to visit Wu Yongkuan and his memorial stone.

These days very few people give much thought to the tragic events that took place in 1959. I always tried to talk to my children about what happened. One of my sons, who now lives in the United States, was very supportive of what I have done [to memorialize the famine]. In fact he was the one who suggested that I put up a memorial stone. I had no money, so he made a contribution. It cost a few thousand yuan to put up these two stones. It’s important to preserve the memory of the 1959 famine. It’s the only way that we can avoid similar incidents happening again. I did this for the sake of our society and mankind. Future generations must learn how terrible it was…

Excerpted from Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine by Zhou Xun, published by Yale University Press.