Chinese Peasants Reflect On Mao's Turbulent Rule

Rural voices expose the tragedy of life on the commune

Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine

By Jasper Becker

Free Press

352 pp., $25

The Temple of memories: History, Power, and Morality in a Chinese Village

By Jun Jing

Stanford U. Press

217 pp., $29.95

Spider Eaters: A Memoir

By Rae Yang

U. of California Press

285 pp., $27.50

While many chilling accounts of China under Mao Zedong focus on urban intellectuals, far fewer relate the tremendous toll of his commune movement and mass campaigns on the country's vast rural majority.

In contrast, these refreshing volumes delve deeply into Chinese rural life. From distinct perspectives, each one exposes the wrenching hardships inflicted by Mao on the peasants who fought his 1949 revolution. These well-documented books go beyond presenting interesting new facts.

Drawing upon provincial politics, village memories, and private encounters, they provide interpretations of a period of seemingly insane human suffering.

In his sweeping and scrupulously researched book, Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine, British journalist Jasper Becker documents how between 1958 and 1962 Mao's communization policy and industrial "great leap forward" caused a nationwide shortage of food. Becker concludes that at least 30 million Chinese - and possibly as many as 80 million - perished during the man-made famine, which was historically unprecedented.

The resourceful author benefits from a growing body of published information on the famine from within China, much of it from obscure provincial publishing houses that quietly defy Beijing's censors. He also tapped the recollections of overseas Chinese, gathered official documents from exiled Chinese intellectuals, and traveled through rural areas to talk with older peasants who survived the disaster. One of the major accomplishments of the book is to piece together detailed, firsthand accounts of the famine in hard-hit regions such as Anhui and Henan provinces.

For example, the book describes how local officials in Henan exaggerated grain output in a fanatical effort to impress Mao. When supplies fell short, they launched a witch hunt against starving peasants whom they accused of hiding grain.

Militiamen blocked roads to hold back refugees, and as the death toll rose, cannibalism spread. All the while, officials refused to distribute the stocks of state graineries. Becker places ultimate blame for the famine on Mao's quixotic faith in communal labor and pseudo scientific farming techniques such as deep plowing. Also responsible, he says, are high-ranking Chinese leaders who refused to challenge Mao and greedy local officials whose political ambitions outweighed peasant lives.

So serious was the catastrophe, Becker argues, that for the rest of Mao's life it defined the battle lines of political power struggles, including the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Yet at the same time, the party has vigorously suppressed discussion of the famine, which Becker calls "the greatest trauma experienced by the Chinese people since 1949."

By giving voice to this anguished, collective memory, Becker hopes Chinese and Westerners alike will learn from the famine and the devastating silence that allowed it to happen.

Profound memories lie at the heart of another fascinating new book on China, The Temple of Memories: History, Power, and Morality in a Chinese Village, by Chinese anthropologist Jun Jing. The book is an intimate account of how one remote village survived years of dehumanizing persecution under Mao and later began healing its wounds, aided by memories of an illustrious past and the rebuilding of an ancient ancestral temple.

This eloquent book unfolds in Dachuan, a dusty, 500-year-old village in the Yellow River valley. Most of Dachuan's 3,310 residents are surnamed Kong, and proudly claim to be descendants of the Chinese sage Confucius. Tens of thousands more Kongs in nearby areas pay homage to the village as the local center of their clan.

In 1950, Maoist officials launched what would be decades of political purges and campaigns aimed at undermining the Dachuan clan's power and moral authority. That year, Communist troops sealed off the village, confiscated weapons, and beheaded villagers accused as leaders of a religious "secret society." In the decade that followed, more than 100 other villagers were arrested, executed, or given derogatory labels such as "bad element."

Meanwhile, Dachuan's ancestral temple, the stronghold of the villagers' identity, was shut down, left to rot, and eventually dismantled. In a further, devastating blow, the entire village was flooded by a huge socialist reservoir project in 1961. Already weakened by famine, villagers were forced to flee ancestral lands to a more destitute life on barren high ground. As they went, they scrambled unceremoniously to take along the bones of honored descendants in sacks.

Jing writes compellingly of how the Kongs coped with this humiliating loss - by meticulously holding on to memories of their ancient past despite the rigorous attempts of Mao's social engineers to impose mass amnesia.

With thoughtfulness and insight based on more than a year of fieldwork, Jing describes the Kongs' vivid remembrance and its power to heal in passages such as this one, in which a nostalgic young man is guiding a boat over the old, submerged village of Dachuan:

"Though nothing could be seen through the deep, murky water, he directed the boatman to sail along this invisible street. He singled out a spot in the reservoir and said that was the site of his father's homestead," Jing writes. Other villagers, too, reminisced about "the familiar scenes in the old streets, the threshing grounds where they played games as children, or where the sweetest dates were grown."

After Mao's death, Dachuan's residents eventually triumphed by rebuilding the village temple in the 1980s while overturning the party establishment responsible for their persecution. Yet the Kong's did much more than revive a sacred landmark. Indeed, Jing concludes, the temple today stands as a monument to the villagers' past suffering, a public memorial to the forced resettlement, and a symbol of clan unity after decades of political strife.

In Spider Eaters: A Memoir, Chinese-born Rae Yang offers a very different, personal reflection on China's countryside through the eyes of a young, urban Maoist radical. As a teenager, Yang heeded Mao's call to live on a commune to "learn from the peasants." Yet like many of her generation, Yang's faith in Maoism was shattered by her years laboring on a farm in Manchuria.

With a style that switches abruptly from surreal stream of consciousness to the cold recitation of facts, "Spider Eaters" effectively conveys how, ironically, the solidity of Chinese peasants helped quell in many ways the political hysteria among city dwellers. Unfortunately, Yang concludes, many urban Chinese today continue to exploit the rural population, just as they did under Mao.

* Ann Scott Tyson is a Monitor staff writer formerly based in Beijing.

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