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.

Peter Ford
Yang Jisheng worked for 20 years as a reporter for a state-run news agency before publishing a book about China’s Great Famine.
David Gray/Reuters
An honor guard unfurls the Chinese national flag as it is raised in front of the giant portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong on Beijing's Tiananmen Square June 4.

Yang Jisheng did not see his father die.

He was away at boarding school in April 1959 when his father, a peasant farmer, succumbed to starvation – one of the early victims of the three-year Great Famine that killed tens of millions of Chinese country folk.

But Mr. Yang has never forgotten how his neighbors resorted to eating grass, roots, and bark before many of them, too, died. And for 20 years, since he retired from his job as a reporter for the state-run news agency Xinhua, he has dedicated himself to exploring the full dimensions and real causes of the catastrophe that claimed his father’s life.

His quiet crusade has found a few echoes in mainland China, where the government still seeks to stamp out any evocation of the largely manmade famine. Yang’s meticulously researched history of the event, “Tombstone,” was published in Chinese in Hong Kong three years ago, and an English translation of the book is due out in America next October.

But Yang fears that “it will be 10 years before we can publish it here officially, and more likely 20 years,” though a number of pirate editions have circulated under the censors’ noses.

The famine resulted from a disastrous political campaign by Mao Zedong called the Great Leap Forward, which had been designed to launch China into a Communist utopia. It forced farmers into communes, which reduced food production, and at the same time local officials over-reported grain harvests and more food than the country could afford was channeled to city dwellers.

The ruling Communist Party has acknowledged that something terrible happened in China between 1959 and 1961. The official History of the Party mentions that the population dropped by 10 million people in 1960.

Estimates of the death toll by independent Chinese and foreign scholars are at least three times that, but differences regarding how many people died are not the reason for the government’s reluctance to allow open discussion of the famine, says Yang.

The key problem, he explains, is that while the authorities have stuck with the party’s version that the famine was 30 percent due to a natural climatic disaster and 70 percent to human error (in other words, Mao Zedong’s error), they will not accept that it was an institutional failure of totalitarian economics and politics.

“The government is reluctant to take responsibility for this tragedy as the ruling party,” Yang says. “They want to avoid any challenge to the system.”


Despite the government clampdown on the subject – it merits less than a page in most Chinese history books – memories bubble to the surface every now and then, as they have done in recent weeks.

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.”

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.”

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