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.
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?