"...the locusts noisily thanked us and turned their jaws toward our crops, swallowing our greed whole..."
October 29, 2007 9:25 AM   Subscribe

In 1958, Chairman Mao started a war. His foe: millions of hungry animals across China, particularly the sparrow. Villages and cities were mobilized to execute the birds en masse. Their crime: pecking away at fields and storehouses, stealing precious grain from the mouths of China's masses. Entire families brandished pots, pans, and other weapons of cacophonous warfare to panic the birds into forced flight, causing millions of them to drop from the skies.

The sparrows, it was discovered, could sustain no more than a minute or so of continuous flight without dying of fatigue- this technique, along with firing squads and nest destruction, killed an estimated 4 million or more sparrows.

The sparrow war backfired, however. By the time it was realized that the sparrow consumed primarily insects, not grain, the locust population had already spiraled out of control. This event, along with other causes(8KB .PDF) culminated in the deaths of 30 million people as famine unfolded across the land from 1959-1961. This was just one of the many disasterous inititatives of Mao's Great Leap Forward.

In 2006, instrumental post-rock band Red Sparowes released a stunning album, Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun, inspired by these events. The song titles of the album comprise a poem about the inspiration for the album:
The Great Leap Forward poured down upon us one day like a mighty storm, suddenly and furiously blinding our senses.
We stood transfixed in blank devotion as our leader spoke to us, looking down on our mute faces with a great, raging, and unseeing Eye.
Like the howling glory of the darkest winds, this voice was thunderous and the words holy, tangling their way around our hearts and clutching our innocent awe.
A message of avarice rained down upon us and carried us away into false dreams of endless riches.
Annihilate the sparrow, that stealer of seed, and our harvests will abound; we will watch our wealth flood in.
And by our own hand did every last bird lie silent in their puddles, the air barren of song as the clouds drifted away. For killing their greatest enemy, the locusts noisily thanked us and turned their jaws toward our crops, swallowing our greed whole.
Millions starved and became skinnier and skinnier, while our leaders became fatter and fatter.
Finally, as that blazing sun shone down upon us, did we know that true enemy was the voice of blind idolatry; and only then did we begin to think for ourselves.

Make sure to check out the second link as it contains an interesting first-hand account from someone who participated in the sparrow massacre.
posted by baphomet (40 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
this is fascinating.
posted by dismas at 9:31 AM on October 29, 2007

There's special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
posted by The White Hat at 9:32 AM on October 29, 2007 [7 favorites]

Can't fly more than a minute. Locusts.

That is awesome.
posted by DU at 9:33 AM on October 29, 2007

Fix link for 'Great Leap Forward' in OP, pls. tnx.
posted by ardgedee at 9:38 AM on October 29, 2007

Jasper Beckers's Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine is an excellent treatment of this event.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:40 AM on October 29, 2007

Fix link for 'Great Leap Forward' in OP, pls. tnx.

Maybe he's paying homage to Maothowie.
posted by homunculus at 9:41 AM on October 29, 2007

There are no rats in China, Comrade.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:41 AM on October 29, 2007

Wow. Just... wow.

Great post as always, baphomet. Thanks.
posted by koeselitz at 9:42 AM on October 29, 2007

Posts like this reinforce how little I actually know. Good stuff, thanks.
posted by donovan at 9:47 AM on October 29, 2007

Wow. This is amazing stuff. Thanks, baphomet.
posted by hojoki at 9:54 AM on October 29, 2007

"Great Leap Forward" link was fixed by admin, thanks for bringing that to my attention. Thanks for the great responses so far!
posted by baphomet at 9:58 AM on October 29, 2007

Man, the Cultural Revolution was a perfect storm of thoughtless ideas. This is a new one on me. Fascinating.
posted by absalom at 9:59 AM on October 29, 2007

I first heard about this in the fantastic book Collapse by Jared M. Diamond.
posted by dobie at 10:00 AM on October 29, 2007

I hope the cacophonous warfare of the next election cycle doesn't cause me to drop dead.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 10:02 AM on October 29, 2007

I remember reading about this in Macro-economics class. It was a pretty fascinating story but the professor used it as an example of how he thought that the Clinton administration was going to destroy the US. The was in the Spring of '93 and he was certain that Clinton was a Marxist and was going to collectivize the economy.
posted by octothorpe at 10:04 AM on October 29, 2007

Reminds me a little of the story about all the passenger pigeons in North America... except they mainly just got eaten.

One of the first settlers in Virginia wrote that, `There are wild pigeons in winter beyond number or imagination, myself have seen three or four hours together flocks in the air, so thick that even have they shadowed the sky from us.' Similar reports can be found from the Dutch on Manhattan Island in 1625, from Salem in Massachusetts in 1631 and some of the first explorers in Louisiana in 1698.
posted by chuckdarwin at 10:06 AM on October 29, 2007

absalom, The Great Leap Forward, along with the Five Year Plan, another event from around that time you may also have a vague understanding of were not part of the Cultural Revolution, they were part of Mao's attempts at social engineering and mobilization of the masses to create a socialist utopia. It was the failure of these that led to Mao being pushed to the side by the other members of the senior leadership in the late 1950's which in turn led to Mao retaking power through the cultural revolution when he decided he did not like the direction the country was going in 1964.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:13 AM on October 29, 2007

BobbyDigital: Heh, my understanding is not vague so much as it is musty and cobwebbed. Believe it or not, I actually spent a good deal of time in grad school studying China. (though, to be fair, mostly in antiquity.)

I was foolishly and thoughtlessly clumping all of his reform efforts under the "Cultural Revolution" banner. I do not even deserve the Little Red Book lighter that sits on my desk. I will mail it to you as penance.
posted by absalom at 10:29 AM on October 29, 2007

PS: (In sincerity) Thanks for the correction.
posted by absalom at 10:30 AM on October 29, 2007

Waiting for the Great Leap Forward
posted by Meatbomb at 10:51 AM on October 29, 2007

Who...will take pity in his heart?
And who will feed, a starving Sparrow?

This is fascinating. It also ranks up there with the biggest Stupid Things People Do...ever.
posted by notsnot at 10:53 AM on October 29, 2007

I wonder if the absence of rats, flies, and mosquitoes had any negative effects like the loss of the sparrows.
posted by cazoo at 10:58 AM on October 29, 2007

There's a parallel to this in the Great Plague of 1665 in London. The leadership was so convinced it was being spread (possibly via fleas) by cats and dogs that they ordered them all killed...

opening the way for the rats.
posted by fingerbang at 11:11 AM on October 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

I remember reading about this in Macro-economics class. It was a pretty fascinating story but the professor used it as an example of how he thought that the Clinton administration was going to destroy the US. The was in the Spring of '93 and he was certain that Clinton was a Marxist and was going to collectivize the economy.

When I rule the world, economics departments will be seamlessly merged with Religious Studies.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:41 AM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I studied in China, I had a teacher who was fond of telling us about some of the Great Leap initiatives that she remembered from her childhood. Teacher L told us in vivid detail about several of these in particular - one was the sparrow hunting, one was fighting with other kids for scrap metal items for their backyard furnace and tending it, and one was a campaign to pull up grass from public grounds to make a "clean" environment of clay for the children to play in.

We were appalled at the sparrow hunting tales most of all. But to her as a kid it had been kind of a game, so she didn't really share our outrage. The thing that seemed to really conflict with her world view was the idea that keeping areas clear of grass and any kind of vegetation would make them a cleaner place for kids to play. She remembered her entire class at school going out during their breaks and pulling up grass and weeds from the school grounds.

The interesting thing was that at the time, the city (Beijing) and central government was conducting a kind of public outreach campaign to promote the planting of trees and other plants to combat air pollution. This was in 1999 - right before the 50th anniversary of the PRC. Every time you turned on the TV, there was a news story about some local celebrity or politician participating in a tree planting ceremony somewhere.

The university bussed students to tree planting locations on the weekends, and they had planted sunflowers (I assume because they grow so quickly) pretty much everywhere along walls and walkways around the campus. It was kind of a frenzy of planting that absorbed a lot of people's time. However, it wasn't done in a sustainable manner, really. The grass and trees planted around the city late that summer were dying at a rapid rate once the anniversary was over in October - after all the world's media had left town. It left the city greener than it had been, of course, but not to the same extent as I think a lot of people had hoped.

The mindset during this period seemed to have a lot in common with Teacher L's stories of how everyone pitched in to pull up grass and eradicate weeds and plants during her childhood. When we pointed this out to her, she reluctantly agreed. But she wanted us to know that it was still different because the manner of persuading people to participate was so different. She said that despite it being insidious, she much preferred the "new way" of using media to sustain a marketing effort that encouraged people to participate, rather than the "old way" of cultivating fear and using it to motivate the populace.
posted by gemmy at 12:15 PM on October 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

It's easy enough (and valid, I suppose) to take as the lesson "Mao was an arrogant moron", but the deeper point is that when you make up your mind that some particular and irreversable course is so critically important that you just have to mobilise your entire population to accomplish it, you should bloody well make sure that it doesn't have some major unintended consequences.

I'd suggest forwarding this story to the President, but somehow I don't think he'd get the point.
posted by lodurr at 1:03 PM on October 29, 2007 [6 favorites]

Maybe Sparrow
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:11 PM on October 29, 2007

Thank you lodurr, that was a large part of the reason why I posted this. I think there's a direct corollary between this story and, say, our involvement in Afghanistan in the 60's- kill the sparrows and the locusts get out of control; arm the insurgent factions in Afghanistan and 20 years later they're training a new generation on how to fight you using the guerrilla tactics you trained them in. While the methodologies are drastically different (massive population mobilization vs. covert dissemination of information and tactics), huge amounts of public resources were expended in both cases and the results were catastrophic. I think it's fair to say that millions of sparrows are vacating the skies of Iraq as we speak...
posted by baphomet at 1:50 PM on October 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Though the sparrow cull may have seriously reduced the number of the birds in the "Sparrow Capital", there is still one reminant of the old nickname that Beijing ren still enjoy.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:53 PM on October 29, 2007

Yanjing is foul stuff. Its only redeeming value is its price.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:06 PM on October 29, 2007

The sparrow war backfired.

Yeah, imagine that. This is my surprised face-

: |
posted by lekvar at 8:47 PM on October 29, 2007

Thank you for introducing me to this story and this band.
posted by chlorus at 9:41 PM on October 29, 2007

Surprised Face:
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:04 PM on October 29, 2007

I think the sparrow element gets overplayed because it's a better story. 30m people didn't die because of an anti-sparrow campaign. They died because collectivization happened too quickly with homes and entire villages razed to be rebuilt as communes, common farm tools being thrown into backyard steel furnaces that netted little gain, and people literally watching crops die off because every Mao can only hear what he wanted to hear. Every province and every village over-reported crop yields by exponential degrees because they had too, but everyone believed it for a little while... so they let their crops wilt in the sun to produce larger steel yeilds. And this, combined with adverse weather conditions and the killing off of sparrows, killed off the same number of Chinese that the Japanese managed in WWII.

A question I think about almost every day, over which is worse: killing ~30m people for imperial expansion or killing ~30m people because your personality won't let you lose face?
posted by trinarian at 10:15 PM on October 29, 2007

Every province and every village over-reported crop yields by exponential degrees because they had too, but everyone believed it for a little while...

Just like the housing market!

I'll bet the USA loses 30m due to drought within the next decade.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:01 PM on October 29, 2007

30m people didn't die because of an anti-sparrow campaign. They died because...

... somebody thought they could rationally re-design EVERYTHING, and expect EVERYTHING to go along with them -- even the things that were outside their control.

"Collectivization", "markets", all that -- it's really secondary. This is all about assuming that you can reason out a whole political/social/physical ecology well enough to reshape it to your whim.

Mao saying "kill the sparrows to save your crops" is really of a piece with capitalist lumberers saying "plant grass to replace rainforests." Capitalism v. collectivism doesn't really enter into it -- it's really a question of Maoism sharing a fundamental arrogance with ideologies all the way across the collectivization spectrum. Just as Mao thought he could conform nature to collectivist principles, so the Neo-cons think they can re-conform culture and societies and economies to Straussian principles. And, I fear, so will frightened people looking for a quick-fix assume that they can redesign the world to exacerbate global warming by artificial means.
posted by lodurr at 5:38 AM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'll bet the USA loses 30m due to drought within the next decade.

Hmm... 30M is a LOT of people to die. I've been thinking about this a lot, lately, and I truly don't think so -- not in that time frame. You sound like you are familiar with the climate models that have No Am getting dryer overall, which in combination with the depletion of our great artesian aquifers means there will be a real water shortage.

But we have great capacity for stopgap adaptation in the US (and Canada), and we have huge reservoirs of fresh water in the Great Lakes. Some of the cheap new solar technologies could power distributed desalination plants; we have lots of uranium ore, so we could even build massive nuclear desalination plants.

All of that is absolutely stopgap; I'm not arguing with the spirit of your premise, just the timeline. I think you have to push out to the 25-30 year time frame before you see a genuine potential for really massive casualites in No America. Mass relocation, sure: To freshwater sources, first. In a few years I expect to see land values along the "north coast" (Duluth to Syracuse or thereabouts) rising sharply, and pipelines from Superior and Michigan down and up into the great plains. Desalination will take longer -- it will be five years before anything really big comes online, another five before small scale desalinization becomes common (yes I am just pulling this out of my ass <g>), so I would expect ocean-coastal habitation to fall off at first, then rise as the lakes fail (which they could do pretty quickly if we start hitting them heavily for irrigation and direct human needs).

I do think there's a sort of "soft limit" to how much technology can do to solve our problems in these regards. You can think up all kinds of cool solutions to this problem or that, but you're limited in application by raw materials, energy, capital, and human will. It's rare that these things are taken account of by scenarists or SF writers; when it is, they get accused of being doomsayers.

Thank you in advance for tolerating my thinking out loud...
posted by lodurr at 5:55 AM on October 30, 2007

No America? Odd way of abbreviating it.

A large part of the USA is going to become drier than a popcorn fart. Mass relocation is a nifty idea... but who can afford it? Will the jobs relocate? The prisons? Will people uproot themselves (a lot of them didn't in N.Orleans)?

Entire states are going to become uninhabitable. The drying-up of the Ollagala (sp?) aquifer means no water at all for a lot of the interior USA. You are not going to solve that problem with pipelines.

30m dead in ten years is an exaggeration, but I don't think there's much of a future for the USA's non-wealthy. This next drought is going to make the depression-era dustbowl look like easy times.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:53 AM on October 30, 2007

As I said, I don't disagree with the sentiment, just the timeline. And I'm not saying the problems will be solved -- I'm saying they will be addressed. Or, if you prefer, put off until they're even more critical: Imagine Lake Michigan ringed by hungry, thirsty squatter-cities...then imagine national guard troops opening-fire during water riots...then imagine crops failing in heat the North American wheat and corn varieties can't tolerate.

But for the next ten to twenty years, I think we will see a great deal of effort and money expended in addressing the effects of climate change in No* America. Yes, the upheaval will be tremendous -- nothing we really have the experience to understand. No, the jobs will not generally relocate. It will be afforded by someone somehow in the short term because we won't tolerate the idea of starvation or death by thirst in the US, at least not within a generation or so.

BTW, I gather it's a really sore point with the Canadians but my understanding is that there are already plans for aqueducts from Michigan and Superior down into the plains states, to accommodate the impending failure of the Oglala aquifer. I'd go and get you a link, but I shouldn't really be doing this, much less that, today.

*[You know, I'll confess that I didn't really think about it. I just was being fast-typing lazy.]

posted by lodurr at 10:31 AM on October 30, 2007

(... and on this general topic -- posted before, but always worth linking to, one of the scarier stories I've read in the past year: "The Tamarisk Hunter")
posted by lodurr at 10:37 AM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

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