China's Great Leap Forward: One man's quiet crusade to remember the disaster
Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward campaign aimed to launch China into a Communist utopia. It ended in famine that killed tens of millions – a disaster that Beijing is still reluctant to acknowledge.
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A couple of months ago, a provincial director of the Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, posted a comment on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, questioning whether the Great Famine had really happened. He suggested that “lies” had been spread “to destroy Chairman Mao.”Skip to next paragraph
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That post prompted a torrent of criticism and vigorous online debate that one of China’s more daring publications, the Southern People’s Weekly, decided to join. The magazine published an interview with Yang that it had conducted three years ago but never published; when that did not attract official retribution, the editors went ahead with an 18-page cover story on the famine.
Two kinds of history
That proved a step too far, according to a journalist familiar with the incident. The magazine’s local Propaganda Department came down hard on its editors, the journalist said, though chief editor Xu Lie refused to discuss the affair, saying it was “not convenient” to do so.
“When too many media start writing about the famine, the censors start imposing controls,” says Yang.
“There are two kinds of history” in China, Southern People’s Weekly wrote in an editorial accompanying its cover story: “history itself and ‘history that can be admitted.’”
It was that disconnect that prompted independent filmmaker Wu Wenguang to launch his “Memory Project,” which he calls “a door through which we can enter history.”
Mr. Wu organized 17 of his students to go back to their home villages with video cameras and record elders sharing reminiscences of travails during the famine.
While many victims of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, mostly urbanites, have written memoirs of their suffering, says Wu, the Great Famine killed peasant farmers, who have largely remained voiceless. “There is a massive number of common people who have been silent, without the opportunity to speak,” he explains. “What we call history in China is only about people who have the right to speak.”
‘I’ve been waiting for you’
Wu’s videographers, who have compiled an archive of 698 interviews, found that “ordinary farmers did not want to take their memories with them to the grave,” he says. “They want to share them, because they cannot forget their memories of hunger.”
One elder who survived the Cultural Revolution, he recalled, told a filmmaker, “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
Wu’s team has turned its footage into 12 films so far, which they have shown at independent film festivals in China and abroad. They have had no trouble from the authorities, Wu says, perhaps because audiences are small, but he is reining in his ambitions for the films’ impact.
“We cannot change society,” he says, “but we can change ourselves” through the process of gathering and disseminating memories of the famine. “If we look at history like a mirror, we can understand the present and the future.”