Mao’s Communist experiments, the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62) and the so-called “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1972) created a disaster of unprecedented proportions in China. In Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, Frank Dikotter documents that between 30-32 million people starved to death as a result of the Great Leap Forward. (New York: Walker and Company, 2011)
In an ill-hatched attempt to catch up quickly with the economy of the Soviet Union and the West in industrial production (particularly in the manufacture of steel), Mao Zedong launched China into a series of agricultural experiments with no basis in science that devastated the country. He mandated forced collectivization of private farms. At the same time, he encouraged the peasants to plant significantly less, allowing about a third of the farms to remain uncultivated. Despite the imposition of internal passports branding Chinese citizens as “farmers” or “city dwellers,” millions of peasants migrated to the cities, hoping to escape working for the Communist farm collectives and their often abusive and corrupt officials.
These disastrous measures, Dikotter elaborates, were compounded by the fact the grains were poorly stored and often diluted with water, to increase their weight and give the appearance of meeting the quotas. Out of a severely diminished agricultural supply, tons of grains rotted, were infested by vermin or caught on fire as a result of poor storage. To give the impression of prosperity, Mao earmarked for export most of China’s meager agricultural production. Domestically, the only stores that were well-stocked–the so-called “Friendship Stores”–were reserved for government officials and foreign visitors. Tens of millions of Chinese people suffered as a result of being deprived of adequate food, clothes and consumer goods.
The situation became so dire, Dikotter documents, that some desperate individuals sold their children to have fewer mouths to feed. Others went so far as to eat corpses or even kill the living to survive a few more weeks, or days. Some became so unscrupulous that they disinterred the corpses of family members or neighbors and used them as fertilizer: “Inside the house were four large cauldrons in which corpses were being simmered into fertilizer, the extract to be evenly distributed over the fields” (173).
Obsessed with silencing any opposition, however feeble and adulatory, Mao penalized any individual who reported even glimmers of the truth about the massive disaster consuming his country. Dikotter makes it clear that Mao became aware of the truth, but couldn’t accept any critique, much less the massive failure of his grand designs for setting China on an industrial fast track:
“Mao received numerous reports about hunger, disease and abuse from every corner of the country, whether personal letters mailed by courageous individuals, unsolicited complaints from local cadres or investigations undertaken on his behalf by security personnel or private secretaries” (69).
When the extent of destruction could no longer be hidden from view even by the heaviest oppression and propaganda, Mao, much like Stalin had before him, deflected any responsibility for the program’s failure on his underlings and colleagues. (84) At the same time, he purged from the government precisely the officials who had been critical of the Great Leap Forward and warned him about its disastrous effects. Only once the famine had already claimed tens of millions of victims, in November 1960, did Mao finally begin to reverse the fatal course of forced collectivization by restoring some local markets and allowing the starving peasants to cultivate some private plots. It took two more years for the country to emerge from the crisis.
While Dikotter’s book paints the big picture of the Maoist disaster, Ji-li Jiang’s memoir, Red Scarf Girl, (New York, HarperCollins, 2004), gives readers a glimpse of the same period through a personalized optic. A good student living in a normal, loving family, Ji-li Jiang’s life turns upside down with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Most of the values she had been previously taught become subverted by the new Communist indoctrination sessions: the value of education; respect for parents, grandparents and teachers; even feelings of loyalty and friendship. Private ownership, academic achievement, family love become discarded values: “Four Olds,” a highly pejorative term indicating something outdated, anti-Communist and old-fashioned, according to the Orwellian “Newspeak”.
Not surprisingly, the most mendacious and power-hungry students thrive in the new system, victimizing and bullying the rest. Jiang’s father, whose Communist dossier is suspect because he’s the son of a landlord, is sent to slave labor in the fields. Her mother falls victim to harrowing interrogation sessions, where she’s asked to turn against husband. With tremendous courage, she refuses. Her grandmother is humiliated by being forced to sweep the streets. Setting children against parents and grandparents, the Communist officials pressure the young girl to denounce her family.
Wavering between feelings of compassion for her downtrodden family members and a sense of shame for being associated with them, at one point Jiang decides to change her name. But she’s not ready to abandon her loved ones, as the Communist official suggests. For her, loyalty and empathy prove stronger than the ideological indoctrination. Long before her family immigrates to the United States, this important choice signifies Ji-li Jiang’s first step towards freedom.