Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hungry Ghosts by Jasper Becker

The last chapter of the book I reviewed a few days ago, The Party, is about the Chinese Communist Party and its history. In that chapter, Richard McGregor profiles the journalist, Yang Jisheng.

In 2008, Yang published a phone book-sized tome, Tombstone, about the Great Leap Forward, the most lethal famine in the history of the world that took place in China from 1958 to 1962. Yang, a Party member and reporter for Xinhua News, wrote the book from the inside. He navigated his way through secret archives and records across the country that had been locked away for decades. A snippet of Yang's story can be read here.

Tombstone can be purchased in Hong Kong and abroad, but was banned immediately in mainland China. The history of the Great Leap Forward remains something that Chinese people are not allowed to explore.

China's most horrific famine has, of course, been written about in English. After finishing The Party, I picked up a book I've heard recommended on the history of the Great Leap Forward - Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker.

Hungry Ghosts is not for the faint of heart. A book about the downfall of an entire country and the deaths of 35 million people is not a light read. Becker paints a haunting picture of a nation completely destroyed from the top-down.

The book is split into three parts: the political foundation and lead up to the famine, anecdotal accounts of the famine as it was occurring, and then the aftermath, big-picture recount, of what happened.

I'm going to highlight a few of the things that stood out to me most in the book.

Chairman Mao in the mid-1950s wanted to transform China from a poor agrarian nation into an industrial powerhouse. Mao proposed that China, if it followed his ideas, worked hard, and sacrificed for a couple years, would pass the United States and Great Britain in steel and food production in less than a decade.

Mao used many of Stalin's ideas as the foundation of his plan. I found the part of the book discussing the "science" borrowed from the Soviet Union that Mao employed to be absolutely terrifying. From page 61 of the book:
Marxism claims, above all, to be a "scientific" philosophy, one which applies the principles of science to politics and society. In like manner, Mao believed, modern science could transform the lives of those millions of ignorant peasants sunk in the mire of centuries of feudal superstition. There was no time to wait for them to become convinced, they would have to be forcibly dragged into the twentieth century. Everything connected with traditional beliefs was smashed in the Great Leap Forward (although many observers tend to assume that this happened later, in the Cultural Revolution) but, ironically, what Mao put in place of these beliefs was a pseudo-science, a fantasy that could not be validated by science, or stand up to rational examination, and more than could the peasant superstitions which the Party ridiculed.

Kang Sheng, Mao's loyal henchman, exemplified this casual approach to facts: "We should be like Marx, entitled to talk nonsense," he told everyone, and he toured the country lecturing about the need to add imagination to science. "What is science," he asked teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan province, in 1958. "Science is simply acting daringly. There is nothing mysterious about it."


All over China in 1958, the Party created thousands of new colleges, universities and research institutes, while real scientists were imprisoned or sent to do manual labor. In their place, thousands of untrained peasants carried out "scientific research." Many kind of miracles were announced but the Great Leap Forward was above all about creating huge increases in grain and steel production. There were the "two generals" that Mao said would modernize China.
The results of this new "science" were unbelievable. Things such as "close planting" and "deep plowing" were promoted to revolutionize agriculture. "Close planting" was, literally, throwing more seeds down on the same area of land to have more "dense" crops. "Deep plowing" was plowing the land up to ten feet deep in the attempt to unlock the land's potential. These "agricultural advancements" were, obviously, nonsense. Such techniques were were wasteful and went against how Chinese peasants had toiled the land for millenia. The result of adopting such ideas was a collapse in output.

That's not to say there was no output from the farms though. Crop yields were down, but Chinese farmers were able to grow things during the Great Leap Forward. Instead of allowing the farmers who grew the crops to eat what they'd grown though, Mao, in an effort to show how well his policies were working to leaders in the USSR and other countries, exported large amounts of what had been sown. Millions of Chinese peasants swelled from edema and died in unthinkable numbers because Mao both refused to believe his policies weren't working and labelled anyone who said otherwise an enemy of the state.

The accounts Becker writes about of what was happening "on the ground" during this time are hard to read. Cannibalism was rampant, gulag-style prison camps for "opportunist rightists" were ubiquitous, and masses of people simply dropped down dead in the fields due to the disastrous social experiment being put forth from Beijing.

Becker, decades after the famine, traveled to many of the worst-hit parts of China in the 1980s and 1990s and transcribes several of the interviews he conducted with people who lived though the hell of the Great Leap Forward. He also quotes liberally from memoirs of people who experienced the famine and later wrote about the horrific events.

In the later section of the book recounting how the famine was allowed to happen, Becker has a chapter called "The Western Failure." In that chapter, Becker examines many of the useful idiots and fellow travelers who wrote for their western publications that Mao's "grand social experiment" was working.

One of the most guilty of these foreign correspondents is a writer from Kansas City: Edgar Snow. Snow's most famous work is Red Star Over China. In that book, Snow profiles a young Mao Zedong in the 1930s at the communist base of Yan'an in northern Shaanxi Province. Snow, at that time, introduced the world to the people who would eventually become the leadership of China.

Being a Kansas Citian who's spent a significant amount of time in Shaanxi Province myself, I'm particularly interested in Snow's role in Chinese history.

Becker quotes Snow from his 1960 book, The Other Side of the River: Red China Today, on p. 291 of Hungry Ghosts:
Throughout 1959-62 many Western press editorials and headlines referred to "mass starvation" in China and continued to cite no supporting facts. As far as I know, no report by any non-communist visitor to China provided an authenticated instance of starvation during this period.

I assert that I saw no starving people in China, nothing that looked like old-time famine (and only one beggar, among flood refugees in Shenyang) and that the best Western intelligence on China was well aware of this. Isolated instances of starvation due to neglect or failure of the rationing system were possible. Considerable malnutrition undoubtedly existed. Mass starvation? No.
It's clear in hindsight that Mao had Snow wrapped around his finger. Snow was not shown what was really going on in China on his tour. Unfortunately, Snow didn't have the wherewithal to know he was being duped by Mao. Snow failed miserably in not recognizing the famine and historians, rightly, view Snow in a profoundly negative light.

After finishing Hungry Ghosts, there is no doubt that the Great Leap Forward was an avoidable, man-made fiasco. The initial explanation of the famine - "three years of natural disasters" - has been proven false. Becker's book shows that the blame lies solely with Mao. He refused to believe that his ideas could not be bearing fruit and stuck with his maniacal plan for far too long.

I've been recommending books left and right here on my blog the past few months. Hungry Ghosts is another book that has greatly deepened my understanding of China. I recommend it, but only to people willing to delve into the insanity of the Great Leap Forward. It is not an easy or enjoyable read.


Anonymous said...

Along the lines of those great agricultural developments by uneducated scientists, I am always amazed by pictures of old backyard furnaces littered throughout China. In an effort to become industrial overnight Mao encouraged farmers to lay down their plows and turn their farms into smelting factories. Of course these farmers were good at, well farming, but were unskilled in smelting and produced such poor quality steel that it was unusable.

I had no idea cannibalism was a part of what was going on, and I hope and suspect that the incidents were highly uncommon and isolated. I will certainly have to pick up this book. Its sometimes hard to imagine the scale of how disastrous the Great Leap Forward truly was in the context of global history. I've linked a video done by Swedish economist Hans Rosling which visually represents the world's countries by population size, per capita income, and life expectancy over the past 200 years. At one point he isolates both China and the US and you can really see the impact of the Great Leap.

The following video is an absolute MUST see for anyone who regularly visits here.

Mark said...

Cannibalism wasn't so isolated during this time period. In fact, it isn't that isolated in the history of China. Becker has an entire chapter on cannibalism and specifically distinguishes between "survival" and "learned" cannibalism. Ask your wife if she knows the idiom - 易子而食. Qian didn't know it until I showed her this link. Terrible stuff.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that just sparked one wild conversation.

I decided to show her that link without telling her anything and without any prompting the first thing she said was "most Chinese people have never heard of this and I am only vaguely familiar with these stories". She also mentioned that without the link, she wouldn't have understood the idiom either. Yeah pretty terrible stuff. Tales of families agreeing to trade children so that they would not have to eat their own during great famines in ancient China. She went on to say that these were tales from thousands of years ago and that only historians would be familiar with them and that they have been told and retold through different iterations of the written language. *Disclaimer: she is not a historian, so I do not know how accurate any of that is.

Then it got stranger, she seemed to be completely unaware that cannibalism occured during the Great Leap and repeatedly said that she didn't believe it had occured even after I kept insisting that it had been documented. Well, I guess I am not surprised that it wasn't part of a formal education in China. Heck, I can't be too harsh, I wasn't aware of it either.

I am trying to get more information from the net on how common this was during the Great Leap and I keep running into conflicting accounts. Some say it was widespread and others say that it was limited and in remote areas. I suppose some of that will come down to the fact that judging how "common" something was, is going to be rather subjective. I'll certainly have to see what Becker has to say about it as well.