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“Our history is all fabricated.”
November 11, 2012 10:47 PM   Subscribe

Mubei, or Tombstone, by Yang Jisheng, was published in 2008 and is considered to be the definitive account of the Chinese Great Famine. The book is banned in China, but has been available in Hong Kong. Counterfeit and electronic copies have allowed many Chinese to access the book. Before this November, Tombstone was available only in Chinese; however, the English translation has now been released.

Recently, Yang Jisheng spoke with NPR. Reviews of the English edition have been done by the New York Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, Times Higher Education, and the Nation. The Great Famine was also previously discussed here at MeFi.

WARNING. Some of the content in the links above are quite graphic and disturbing.
posted by Bokmakierie (27 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Google Books

Just in time for China to block all of Google-everything...
posted by thewalrus at 11:09 PM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


An estimated thirty-six million Chinese men, women and children starved to death during China’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s.

You know, considering that Lenin's New Economic Policy of 1921 resulted in a similar famine that killed a paltry 5 million enemies of the state, you'd think the Chinese would be proud of the way they doubled down on this communist right of passage.
posted by three blind mice at 1:08 AM on November 12, 2012


I thought that Nation piece was a very thoughtful and interesting, thank you. For anyone interested, Dikotter's book is only Five bucks on Kindle at the moment.
posted by smoke at 1:48 AM on November 12, 2012


TBM, is there a point hiding beyond the snide shots?
posted by smoke at 1:49 AM on November 12, 2012


TBM, is there a point hiding beyond the snide shots?

That two countries following similar ideologies achieved similar results. Also, jokes.
posted by Winnemac at 1:57 AM on November 12, 2012


Well that would be pretty fatuous given the number of famines in non-communist countries, would it not?
posted by smoke at 2:12 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


right, because large scale starvation could never happen under capitalism, which explains why indians have longer life-expectancies than north koreans.

on preview, smoke beat me to the punch
posted by matkline at 2:14 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


A detail I didn't know:

Family kitchens were destroyed; even utensils were taken over by the commune or fed to "backyard furnaces" and melted down into useless iron lumps. All food was served in canteens and distributed according to merit; for the uncooperative, starvation was the punishment of first resort.

Researching and writing a rigorous history like this in secret while still living under the same government that committed these crimes is the most heroic thing that can be done with a pen. Another Solzhenitsyn.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:19 AM on November 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


Also, the large scale famines in China's Republican era were roughly comparable in their devastation, but, of course, there's a cottage industry dedicated to criticizing Mao Zedong in the West. The guy on these posters apparently single-handedly controlled a country of near 1 billion people.

Minqi Li does a nice job of dispelling this whole myth.
posted by matkline at 2:20 AM on November 12, 2012


I really miss the days when conservatives made sense and lefties were delusional.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:36 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


That two countries following similar ideologies achieved similar results. Also, jokes.

Hmmmm. Yes. The thing is, that the framing makes ideology everything, as the framings in critiques of communist governments tend to do. They ignore the larger historical picture in almost every case. The Nation article above does this, trying to draw a line between Mao's government and the Imperial governments before them. He doesn't hang his point on communism, but, rather totalitarianism (and, he has a point -- totalitarian governments obviously can "stay their course" long after a less absolutist state would have given up or collapsed. However, I am not sure there is much difference between the overall cycle of behaviors in the absolutist governments of the empires (China or Russia) and the absolutist empires of their successors. I don't know as much about the history of Russia, and I don't believe I know enough about the history of China, but imagining that famine was somehow rare in China before the 50s shows an utter ignorance of (or, perhaps, rhetorical blindness to) Chinese history. There is not something unique in the Chinese climate that produces famines, but there is something in the governments with which the Chinese have been afflicted regardless of ideology (and, of course, later governments have taken their cues from earlier) for some 3000 years that seems to encourage and exacerbate the problems of dealing with such a large and populous country.

Furthermore, the Great Leap Forward, even in shorthand, was a complex event that cannot be summed up as "Hur hur, Mao starved people." As far as I can see, Stalin actually did this -- he had an end goal of fewer people with starvation as his tool. Mao's crime, in the Great Leap Forward was much more like the British Government's response to the Irish Potato Famine -- lack of will to deal with political issues exacerbating a developing human disaster -- rather than the planned slaughter by Stalin, but that would, of course, make things awkward for the purposes of communism- or China-basing. Here's my breakdown of the event from a previous post that lays out some of the steps in a way that, I hope, is reasonably clear and not overly summarized.

I think I am going to try and get my hands on this book, although I am not so keen about buying a Google ebook.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:20 AM on November 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


GenjiandProust: that's a very insightful comment. I just wanted to add that the 18th century Qing government specifically actually did spent a lot of time and money to alleviate famine, maintaining government reserves of grain that could be released in times of want. I don't recall the details (it's been ten years since I heard the lectures), but my Chinese history professor credited this Qing policy (along with a century of peace) as leading to the doubling of the population in the 18th century and thus, ironically, contributing to the hunger and political instability of the 19th century. But the Imperial regimes really did care about alleviating hunger, because they feared rebellion.

Also: the way I had been taught, one of the major factors in the Great Famine was that subordinates were too afraid of Mao to tell him that things weren't working out. They'd claim that harvests were great when really they had failed. That in itself is a damning indictment of Mao -- but I would be curious to read this account and see whether she agrees or whether he was told.
posted by jb at 5:15 AM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


That's the problem with being the absolute ruler - if shit goes sideways, it is your responsibility and it is your fault. More, I'm not convinced there wasn't a deliberately murderous element to it.

Starvation has always been a potent weapon. The part about family kitchens and cooking utensils is telling: even if they could gather or grow their own food, they would still be denied it for political reasons. That is a level of fine-grained control I'm not certain would be possible without the government Mao set up.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:16 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


jb: But the Imperial regimes really did care about alleviating hunger, because they feared rebellion.

Since I believe that people are also usually not sociopaths, I imagine that a genuine desire to not have their people starve might have had play, too. I think the biggest problem that Imperial China faced was its rigid bureaucracy, where every clique had its own agenda to advance itself not necessarily at the expense of the others but not cooperatively, either. This led to a state apparatus which was almost pathologically incapable of dealing with sudden change and very very susceptible to bribery and patronage schemes, which created a cycle of establishment of a dynasty with significant reform, followed by a stable period of growth and peace, where the majority of the fruits of that growth would aggregate to the elites, which would use their influence to reduce or eliminate their own tax burden, further increasing their wealth, eventually robbing the government of the means to react to crisis (often heralded by peasant rebellions touched off by agricultural failure) -- even if the structural problems with the bureaucracy would have allowed them to react -- and collapse of the dynasty, followed by a longer or shorter period of warlordism, lather, rinse, and repeat.

Hmmm. Maybe I am agreeing rather than quibbling with you -- trying to solve the agricultural issues would be less painful for the government than reform of the bureaucracy. Or, for that matter, the Chinese institution of the family which bears a lot of the blame here -- the intent to advance your own relations over any other concept of community leads to a near certainty of corruption at all levels.

Interestingly, my recent readings/listening in Russian history suggest strongly that some of the problems of Soviet rule immediately following the Russian Civil War (which later became enshrined in the government of the USSR) was the necessity of reemploying Tsarist bureaucrats since the revolutionaries did not have enough capable and committed people (after the immense losses of the First World War, the Civil War, and, of course, the Tsarist oppression of the previous few decades) to easily take command of such a large-scale government. Once reinstated, these bureaucrats entrenched themselves, and the bureaucracy-heavy style of late Tsarism essentially co-opted the vision of the soviets. (Stalin's willingness to use this apparatus to consolidate his own power only exacerbated the situation). The size of the bureaucracy seems to have stymied later attempts at reform, although, as I have said, I am fairly ignorant of Russian history, and I am not sure how much this narrative might have an ideological slant of which I am unaware....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:43 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also: the way I had been taught, one of the major factors in the Great Famine was that subordinates were too afraid of Mao to tell him that things weren't working out.

Actually, it gets a little crazier than this -- there seems to have been falsification at all levels -- collectives inflated their results, local bodies inflated those results, medium-level functionaries inflated those results, etc, so the central government was working off of badly skewed information. Then, when quota were increased and requisitions could not be met, those intermediate layers of government "solved" their immediate problem not by confessing but by trying to wring sufficient supplies out of the lower rungs. I am not even sure if strict agricultural failure was necessary to cause famine; wildly unrealistic production quotas enforced by local force would have created misery regardless.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:50 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


DiKotters book is not available on Kindle in the US.
posted by jadepearl at 5:53 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interestingly, my recent readings/listening in Russian history suggest strongly that some of the problems of Soviet rule immediately following the Russian Civil War (which later became enshrined in the government of the USSR) was the necessity of reemploying Tsarist bureaucrats since the revolutionaries did not have enough capable and committed people (after the immense losses of the First World War, the Civil War, and, of course, the Tsarist oppression of the previous few decades) to easily take command of such a large-scale government. Once reinstated, these bureaucrats entrenched themselves, and the bureaucracy-heavy style of late Tsarism essentially co-opted the vision of the soviets. (Stalin's willingness to use this apparatus to consolidate his own power only exacerbated the situation). The size of the bureaucracy seems to have stymied later attempts at reform, although, as I have said, I am fairly ignorant of Russian history, and I am not sure how much this narrative might have an ideological slant of which I am unaware....

Curious -- if true, then there's a certain resemblance to what happened to the Manchu after they overthrew the Ming dynasty and founded the Qing. They were horse nomads who had no hope of managing the Imperial bureaucracy except to install themselves at the top and let themselves be assimilated by it, even to the extent of learning the Han language and gradually losing their own.

What I know of this comes from my late father-in-law, a man deeply studied in Chinese history. One of his pet peeves was that the language called "Mandarin Chinese" was not the language of the "Mandarins" (i.e., "man chu ren" = "Manchurian people") at all, but the language of the Han Chinese whom they had conquered and then been assimilated by.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 6:03 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure Mandarin and Manchurian are from different etymologies.
posted by kmz at 6:15 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


mandarin (n.)
"Chinese official," 1580s, via Port. mandarim or older Du. mandorijn from Malay mantri, from Hindi mantri "councilor, minister of state," from Skt. mantri, nom. of mantrin- "advisor," from mantra "counsel," from PIE root *men- "to think" (see mind (n.)). Form influenced in Portuguese by mandar "to command, order."
posted by twisted mister at 6:18 AM on November 12, 2012


Interesting -- should have done more homework on that myself. I wonder if what I was told is a Han-chauvinist false etymology?
posted by McCoy Pauley at 6:27 AM on November 12, 2012


You know, considering that Lenin's New Economic Policy of 1921 resulted in a similar famine that killed a paltry 5 million enemies of the state

The NEP was a massive *retreat* from the first Soviet command economy, in particular, of Prodrazvyorstka, the confiscation of grain and fodder from the peasantry in the Volga and Siberia to feed the central area of the Soviet Union, which is where the Bolsheviks were strongest, during the ending stages of the Russian Civil War.

The Bolsheviks were far from the only one doing this. Pretty much every faction in the Russian Civil War was grabbing whatever food they can, feeding it to those who supported them, and starving those who didn't. Between WWI from 1914-1918, and the Russian Civil War from 1918-1921, Russia had been fundamentally shattered, and there simply weren't any grain reserves. One of Russia's periodic droughts hit, the Volga basin becomes much less fertile, and thus began the catastrophe.

You can certainly argue that Soviet economic decision were a big factor in the Famine of 1921-1922, but the NEP explicitly reversed many of those decisions. Compared to Lenin's first command economy, and the Stalin Five Year Plans, NEP was a vast walk back towards capitalism.

Indeed, one thing the NEP accepted, which neither the original plan nor Stalin in the 1932-1933 famine would accept, was the massive amounts of foreign aid to attempt to mitigate the famine, including a huge amount from the US, via the American Relief Organization, headed by Herbert Hoover, which started in 1919 and operated in Europe through 1922 and Russia through 1923, ending only when the Soviets reached a point that they could again export grain.

I'm certainly not defending the Soviet Union here -- but to explicitly blame NEP for the 1921-1922 famines isn't correct. It was one of the few things they did that actually was mitigating some of the economic damage and human catastrophe that marked the 1915-1930 period in the area.

One issue -- still true today -- is that the three major farming areas in the area are all subject to periodic droughts. Indeed, most of the Volga River basin saw a severe drought in 2010 and 2011, with only moderate recovery this year.
posted by eriko at 7:03 AM on November 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Curious -- if true, then there's a certain resemblance to what happened to the Manchu after they overthrew the Ming dynasty and founded the Qing.

Well, the Confucian bureaucracy and, to a slightly lesser degree, the parallel system of the Eunuchs, proved remarkably resillient, reestablishing itself under pretty much every government until the end of the empire. I suspect that its long history informs the structure of the Chinese state today, although in a significantly altered way (a radically different system of qualification, for example).
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:44 AM on November 12, 2012


That's the problem with being the absolute ruler - if shit goes sideways, it is your responsibility and it is your fault. More, I'm not convinced there wasn't a deliberately murderous element to it.

Starvation has always been a potent weapon. The part about family kitchens and cooking utensils is telling: even if they could gather or grow their own food, they would still be denied it for political reasons. That is a level of fine-grained control I'm not certain would be possible without the government Mao set up.


I really don't believe this. First, I believe that Mao was sincerely concerned with the situation of the rural poor (although he didn't always seem all that interested in asking their opinions on what should be done). Second, the rural workers were his power base. The urban workers weren't strong enough to be be a sizable base of support, and the urban socialists were slaughtered by the Nationalists in the late 20s, so there just wasn't much there. Urban centers were also home to opposing groups, making them less attractive. It wouldn't make much sense for Mao to starve his own supporters while feeding fractious elements within the cities. Third, the development of the crisis really points to a centralized government caught off-guard by falsified reports, not a well-planned wide-scale murder-by-starvation campaign.

Blaming the event on "fine-grained control" is, I think, a complete misreading. If anything, the disaster was caused by having poor communication in both directions -- the local governments telling the central government what it wanted to hear, then making the most brutal efforts to fulfill the central government's quotas. If anything, the incredible lack of awareness and control of the central government helped spark the disaster. Then, when the situation became unignorable, the party's favoring political goals and dogma over the actual situation made the situation many times worse.

One more thing about collectivization -- at its earliest stages, it made a certain amount of sense. When we talk about the "family farm," we are not describing an American "family farm" -- we are talking about a fraction of an acre providing subsistence living. There is evidence that the early stages actually worked, adding efficiencies and economies of scale to an extremely inefficient system. Later huge-scale collectivization did produce farming communities too large to function with the available infrastructure, and related projects, like crowdsourcing metal smelting and civic works (like water control projects) were horribly misguided. But that initial kernel of collectivization might actually have been a good thing, had it been allowed to develop on its own merits instead of by an ideologically-driven accelerated time frame.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:25 AM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


GenjiandProust, reading some of the linked reviews it comes across that Mao willfully ignored evidence of the man-made famine and obstructed attempts to fix the problem until he was basically overruled in 1962 and the famine ended, to which he responded with a reign of terror (Cultural Revolution) and the torture and execution of the people who stopped the famine. I get the feeling that Mao justified his existence and power through crisis, without crisis there might have some something even worse: breakup of China, like what eventually happened to the USSR.
posted by stbalbach at 10:48 AM on November 12, 2012


stbalbach,

Mao was basically overruled in 1959, when he resigned as state chairman of the PRC. Recovery efforts were initiated at that time, but did not prevent the majority of deaths from occurring AFTER Mao stepped down. The view that Mao ignored millions of deaths around him until he was finally ousted, and then the famine simply stopped is just not true.
posted by yifes at 11:04 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've read Mubei, but it might be worth the effort to read it in English.

[...] imagining that famine was somehow rare in China before the 50s shows an utter ignorance of (or, perhaps, rhetorical blindness to) Chinese history. There is not something unique in the Chinese climate that produces famines, but there is something in the governments with which the Chinese have been afflicted regardless of ideology (and, of course, later governments have taken their cues from earlier) for some 3000 years that seems to encourage and exacerbate the problems of dealing with such a large and populous country.

posted by GenjiandProust at 4:20 AM on November 12

I just wanted to add that the 18th century Qing government specifically actually did spent a lot of time and money to alleviate famine, maintaining government reserves of grain that could be released in times of want. I don't recall the details (it's been ten years since I heard the lectures), but my Chinese history professor credited this Qing policy (along with a century of peace) as leading to the doubling of the population in the 18th century and thus, ironically, contributing to the hunger and political instability of the 19th century. But the Imperial regimes really did care about alleviating hunger, because they feared rebellion.

posted by jb at 5:15 AM on November 12


During Qianlong Emperor's reign (1735-1796), the population grew from 140 million to over 300 million. In previous dynasties the population went over 100 million toward the twilight years, followed by dynasty changes that killed millions of people. The Qing dysnasty, Qianlong's reign in particular, was an anomaly.

Qing/Qianlong's "success" was credited to several factors, such as a long stretch of stability, the widespread adoption of high-yield crops like sweet potato and corn, favorable changes in the tax regime, etc. Qianlong's grandfather Kangxi paved the road with land and tax reforms, among other policies. Kangxi's successor Yongzheng abolished the head tax and taxed by land instead, which discouraged land grab and encouraged farmers to reproduce more helping hands. Sweet potato and corn were introduced to China in the previous Ming dynasty and became widely planted during the 135-year reign of Kangxi-Yongzheng-Qianlong. Thus the road to population explosion.
posted by fatehunter at 2:32 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm really glad someone posted this. Growing up, my parents always alluded to this even which they lived through as children, but they've never elaborated or said anything more. Hopefully this will give me more insight about why they, especially my dad, detest China so much to the point where they haven't returned since they left around 1979. I'm actually the first member of my immediate family (granted it's just me, my parents, and my brother) to have visited/lived in China. I think the reason why I rarely identify myself as "Chinese" is colored by my dad's views of everything that has happened since the Communist takeover.

Anyway, started reading this last night and boy does the author have a bone to pick with the government. I haven't been this excited to read something in a while. Thanks for posting about this!
posted by astapasta24 at 6:00 PM on November 12, 2012


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