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New Book Offers Gruesome, Detailed Account of Chinese Famine

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The current issue of the New York Review of Books includes a review of two books on China that are banned in that country and important for Westerners to note, especially as we fret over the speed of China's economic growth.

The first book is called Mubei  or "Tombstone", and it's a thorough account of the Great Famine of 1959-1962, which was sparked, as readers will know, by Mao Zedung's re-engineering of the country's agricultural system. The dictator's warped intention was to force a boom of grain production and boost the country's export market. The massive reorganization of China's farms, Zedong's poorly informed crop-manipulation experiments and the requirement that all farmers meet unrealistically high quotas combined to create food shortages.Twenty to forty million people perished, either by starvation or by punishment.

Tombstone, written by Yang Jisheng -- known as a meticulous and prize-winning journalist -- offers "an honest look at [China's] past, and especially at the record of where it has been during sixty years of Communist rule," says reviewer Perry Link, a scholar of Chinese literature and professor at University of California, Riverside. What's new in Yang's record of the famine, which was published in Hong Kong, is "overwhelming" detail.

Link writes:

Yang records how starving people ate tree bark, weeds, bird droppings, and flesh that had been cut from dead bodies, sometimes of their own family members; how they wandered into neighboring counties in search of food, only to find adjacent areas equally destitute, and then, when caught, found themselves charged as “criminal fugitives,” deniers of the truth that “there is no famine.” Punishments for this kind of offense included public humiliation, plus flogging. Parents who left their children at roadsides, hoping that perhaps a stranger might save them, were accused of “assaulting the Party.” As the famine worsened corpses became more visible at roadsides. There was no problem of dogs eating the corpses, Yang notes, because humans had long since eaten all the dogs—and toads, and lizards, and rats. People learned not to kill rats immediately; it was better to tie a string to a rat’s leg, follow it to its hole, and kill it then. That way one could eat the rat as well as dig down into its hole to recover whatever grain it might have stored below.

Police guarded county bus stations to prevent people from fleeing. Sometimes entire villages were put under lockdown. In the archives of local post offices, Yang found personal letters that had been confiscated during the famine because they had “cast aspersions on the excellent situation.” And where was all the resistance coming from? It came, said Mao, because “the democratic revolution has not been thorough enough.” “Right deviationists” needed to be punished, and the punishments needed to be public in order to warn others. Yang lists cases of people buried alive or suspended from beams in commune mess halls, and cites countless examples of the severing of ears. Some punishments acquired ghastly sobriquets. To strip a person bare, tie his hands, string him from a beam, wrap him in cloth, douse the cloth in oil, and set it afire was “lighting the celestial lantern.” To bury a living person with the shaved head exposed, then smash the skull to splatter the brain, was “opening the flower.” At times it is hard to read Yang. You have to set the book down, take a break, and come back later. This review omits the most difficult examples.

Yang's research also suggests that at the height of the famine, the Chinese government had stockpiled 22 million tonnes of grain.

It's no wonder that the modern Chinese party does not want this book to be read, of course. As Link writes, "Today’s 'rising China,' which from the outside can seem to exude strength and confidence, inwardly lives with an unsure view of itself. People sense, even if they do not want to talk about it, that their country’s current system is grounded partly in fraud, cannot be relied upon to treat people fairly, and might not hold up. Insecurity, the new national mood, extends from laid-off migrant laborers to the men at the top of the Communist Party."

Material wealth and consumer culture offers little protection from this cynicism, he adds, since these things too could disappear or be appropriated at any time.

Link's second review examines the novel Ruyan@sars.come by the writer Hu Fayun. It tells the story of a mother's discovery of the world outside China once her son goes abroad to study in France. The son leaves his mother a computer and internet access, which alters her life and allows the novel to address issues of China's communist history from the famine to modern day atrocities and information control. Fayun's book gets at the reasons, as Link notes, that "even leaders of the Communist Party send their children—and large amounts of their money—to places like Vancouver and Los Angeles." (Some 70 to 80% of Chinese students who study abroad do not return to the homeland, Link reports.) An uncensored version of is floating around cyberspace, while the Communist party has allowed a censored iteration to circulate within China.

Here's a section that probably landed on the cutting-room floor:
here [in China], who knows when all hell might break loose, leaving no place to hide?… Everyone feels this at a certain level but doesn’t say so. Why else would the people who hold all the power in our society be sending their sons and daughters abroad?

Read the complete review and eye-opening essay, here.
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