A filmmaker peers into the dark past of China's Great Famine

'Spark' documents a group of students who tried to expose the truth of Mao's 'Great Leap Forward,' which led to tens of millions of deaths from starvation in 1959-62.

By , Staff writer

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    At a Oct 1, 2009 rally in Hong Kong, pro-democracy protesters urge China to improve its human rights record. The sign in front reads "The Great Leap Forward: 30 million people starved to death". The 1959-62 famine is known in China as "the three years of difficulties."
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For filmmaker Hu Jie, telling the truth about China's Great Famine is a sacred duty, however much it flies in the face of government censorship and public indifference. 

Mr. Hu’s latest film "Spark," which has so far shown publicly only in Hong Kong, chronicles four students in the Chinese heartland of Lanzhou who start a short-lived underground magazine in 1960 at the height of the famine. The magazine, also called Spark, dares to blame the mass starvation on the Communist Party, which promptly arrests the students. 

“These kind of people are the spiritual support for the nation to survive in a noble and elegant way,” Hu told The Christian Science Monitor in a recent telephone interview from his home in Nanjing. “They show there is light and life in the darkness of their time and ours.”

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Even more than a half century later in China, discussing the famine is taboo, though many older Chinese know about it because they lived through it. 

Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" pushed impossible harvest quotas and experimented with failed Soviet farming techniques. When output failed to keep pace with the quotas, Communist officials persecuted peasants that Mao accused of holding back food. In parallel, peasants who tried to forage for food were persecuted or killed – and all as state granaries had supplies and the nation exported foodstuffs.

At the time, to admit openly there was a famine, even though bodies were strewn along railway lines, was to be labeled a “counterrevolutionary” or a “rightist” and subject to punishment.

The exact death toll is still unknown. In recent years, some researchers have cited a number of 38.7 million fatalities based on state archives, and not encountered any official denial, sources say. For many years, the party referred to the period as "Three years of natural disasters." Lately this has been amended in party and government texts to "Three years of difficulties." 

Whether that revision is due to the work of scholars like Yang Jisheng, author of "Tombstone," an exhaustive study of the famine first published in Hong Kong in 2008, or filmmakers like Hu who buck the official narrative, is unknown. 

"Tombstone" appeared in an English translation in 2012. In an op-ed published that year in The New York Times, Mr. Yang wrote that a full accounting of the famine could “…undermine the legitimacy of a ruling party that clings to the political legacy of Mao, even though that legacy, a totalitarian Communist system, was the root cause of the famine.”

'Hellish and murderous'

With no truthful depictions or teaching on the famine, the scale of the tragedy is “nearly unimaginable” to modern Chinese weaned on skyscrapers, fast trains, and iPhones, Hu says.

“There was no humane attitude or care being shown in the famine…the struggles between people were hellish and murderous. And this happened when China was not at war, was at peace. There was no imposed violence. The hell was caused by the pushing of bad ideas.”

Hu is known in Chinese artistic circles for films that aren’t merely morality tales but tell of people acting out of conscience when the stakes and the risks are high. His film “Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul,” an examination of a young writer and critics of Mao, became an underground hit in China in 2006, and got passed around from friend to friend in private showings. 

"Spark" depicts a local party boss, Du Ying Hua, who is sympathetic with the students behind the magazine, and hides and feeds them at great risk to himself. “At the time, this was rare,” Hu says.

Much of the film takes an oral history approach with interviews of ordinary people who survived the famine, interspersed with interviews of those who knew the magazine's editors and writers. One former Spark editor, Xiang Cheng Jian, still living, was ready to do anything to cry out against the famine, says Hu. “He made himself the egg against the rock, as we say. Very brave.”

Hu says he comes from a generation with “extremely rich experience,” from the Cultural Revolution to "reform and opening" under Deng Xiaoping that paved the way for the current tide of prosperity. 

Army propagandist

Born in Nanjing, where he still lives, Hu served in the Army in 1977 and later serviced jet planes, worked for Army propaganda, then for the state news agency Xinhua. He says it wasn’t until 1995 that he began to “calm his mind” and started to look at the world in a more realistic way with his camera, not through the official lens he was taught to look through.

His first independent film was a short on police kicking out painters from the Beijing Summer Palace. He filmed in coal mines where “miners were treated like cattle." Hu then discovered the story of Lin Zhao who as a Beijing University student was one of the most incisive critics of Mao in China, one of many historical subjects that were off-limits to filmmakers. 

Hu’s boss at the state-run Xinhua told him to stop working on the Zhao film. When he refused he was fired. In recent years he has focused on making documentaries about the chaos and fear of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s as Mao attempted to purge his enemies. 

There is little chance Spark will be seen on state TV or discussed in private media, knowledgeable Chinese say. 

Li Datong, an intellectual and retired newspaper editor who lost his job for pushing against an official history of the Boxer Rebellion, says “the private media and the state media are all becoming the same thing. They are all controlled. I see little chance that Hu Jie’s film can be broadcast.” 

Hu is also pessimistic about free expression in China today. Ten years ago he says it felt like “things were still loosening a little. We felt we were leaving tight control. When we spoke the truth, we had hope. Now you speak the truth but with less hope. You feel like the future itself is more controlled by those in power.”

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