HomeHistory Great Leap Forward and Famine
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The Great Leap Forward was Mao's great experiment, a massive mobilization of Chinese society in a mythic effort to transform it. The aim was to radically increase production, especially steel production, to establish China as an economically developed nation overnight. Labor was fully collectivized, food consumption communalized, and property nationalized. The central premise was Mao's conviction that Will could overcome the material present. Beginning in 1958, massive resources were sacrificed in the effort to achieve industrialization. The GLF took on the fevered pitch of a millenarian cult, but the question of belief is for me a vital and unresolved question. Did the farmers believe that the wild mobilization effort would really increase production? In the course of fieldwork, I came to weigh this question of belief against the brutal fact of coercion. Is the notion that the people believed in what they were doing no more than an illusion forced out of a strict totalitarian state? If so, what motivated the officials that turned the screws? Understanding the Great Leap Forward takes on a heavy significance when one considers the human costs; the experiment culminated in a famine of astounding proportions, bloated by Mao's tolerance to sacrificing individual well-being for what he saw as the greater interest of the Chinese nation. A common estimate puts the number who died at 60 million. But what human faces lie behind that chilling statistic? This chapter attempts to explore how farmers remember and make sense of their experience of this social tragedy.




The prioritization of industrial-oriented development, achieved through the consolidation of State power, formed the vision of the Great Leap forward; but the vision turned out to be a house of cards, constructed out of one false claim after another. The era of the Great Leap Forward is often remembered and referred to by one of its constituent phenomena, the "bragging wind" (fu kua feng). While it is implied that the bragging wind is an enduring character of Chinese bureaucracy, it certainly reached peak velocity during the Great Leap Forward. The bragging wind refers to the tendency of officials to exaggerate achievements, namely the statistics of production in order to gain political benefit. The government in China works through a system of setting and fulfilling targets (renwu) which reinforces an emphasis on quantity over quality. Officials seek to claim production increases within their area of responsibility in order to be favored as successful administrators and gain promotion. During times of competitive inflation, if an official refuses to compete and is more mundane in his estimates, he is sure to lose out.


During the Great Leap Forward local officials, in principle more inclined to protect the farmers with whom they live, had to contend with inflated targets handed down from higher-ups who were competing with the exaggerations of other officials from other parts. These targets were impossible to meet and in fact, agriculture was suffering huge setbacks from the forced implementation of extravagant new techniques, part of the facade of progress. In the end, grain was taken away from villages based on inflated estimates and labor was organized into work projects on the basis of projected abundance. In reality villagers were being left to starve.


Old Wang, a man who in the 1950s married the widow of the local landlord Yang Yunzhong and now lives in Xiakou, described his encounter with the bragging wind in the copper mines of another county of Sichuan . By 1959, Wang had been working in copper mines for over 20 years when an "important expert" arrived at his mine to make a plan for increasing production. The expert made an outrageous estimate for how much metal the ore being mined could produce. Old Wang, wanting to do his part for the national effort and to be loyal to Chairman Mao, stepped forward and said based on his experience the nuggets could produce no more than an amount that was much lower than the expert's estimate. Old Wang's honesty was not rewarded and in time he realized that his behavior meant he was by-passed for promotions. Old Wang said he then knew that his notion of honesty was different from the loyalty to Chairman Mao that was being promoted by the "bragging wind." The idea of "loyalty" in those times was to make the leadership feel good with good news.




The first landmark event of the Great Leap Forward was the creation of communal eating arrangements. People say they had no objection to this rearrangement. Indeed "eating from a big pot" might readily symbolize a Chinese utopia. Food is the symbol of successful social relations and, given the successes of State policies up to that point, it may have seemed quite logical that the next step was for the government to take on the sponsorship of the free flow of food. Eating communally in a cafeteria was "like being a worker" and so a positive development. Furthermore, they ate well. "Every day was a feast (jiu da wan)." There was no planning as to how to ration the canteen stockpiles, and people enjoyed the eating frenzy of those early months. When one village's stocks ran low, people were allowed to go to the next village and eat their fill.


Yao Mingao said that the cafeteria and the movement to produce backyard steel were begun at roughly the same time. They had just started to "invest" their grain and pork when he left for Yunjing. He came back after a few months on leave and decided to stay at Xiakou. The cafeteria was going full steam and they ate very well. "There was a pig a week and chicken or duck every three days. That year there was an especially large number of pigs so we all ate very well."


Yunjing was the location of a coal mine where the people of Xiakou were sent to make their contribution to steel production. In the eighth month of 1958 all the able-bodied men and women of the village were called away to work at the coal mine a day's walk to the southwest of Ya'an. The villagers were reluctant to go off to these labor camps, sensing somehow that things would be better if they stayed home. The order came for them to leave on an appointed day, but no one went. The local officials had to come several times to urge them to leave and finally resorted to an ultimatum..."leave by 6 pm or else we bring in the military police" They all left that night. Only the old men and old women, a few officials, pregnant women, and children were left behind.


Wu Guangxing worked as head of the cafeteria at the mines for three years, staying on when the rest of his fellow villagers had been allowed to return home. He tells how at first the food at the cafeteria was not rationed; if there were ten people at a table, they would be served. There was a lot of waste and many freeloaders showed up. Five hundred people worked at his camp, but there were one thousand people eating. They started to use grain tickets as the famine set in, but food corruption was serious. There was a name list of who should eat, but when people deserted, there was no real way of keeping track. If one had good relations with a leader, one could collect the pay and rations of the deserters.


At first he did not know what was happening beyond the boundaries of the coal camp which occupied a remote location on a mountain top. There were no settlements nearby and the road was posted with sentries and one needed a permit to pass. After a time, he noticed that peasants were walking the long trip up the mountain to the camps' cafeterias and asking to take away the water used to wash the rice, carrying it on their backs down the mountain. He asked a co-worker why the people wanted this water and was told it was for their pigs. Later he found out they were eating it themselves because they had no food. He said that in China , the worst affected area was Sichuan ; in Sichuan , Ya'an; in Ya'an, Yunjing, where he believes two thirds of the farmers died (an official of the county once told me the figure of 66%). The reason it was particularly severe in Yunjing was because workers were transferred from all over Sichuan to the Yunjing coal mines, and once the designated stockpiles were gone, they ate to nothing the local communes' supplies of grain.


By the end of 1958, for farmers in Yunjing the situation was clear: whereas production had been stable and secure, now all was in turmoil; harmony had changed to chaos. In a local township near the Yunjing mine, a young woman of 17 became the leader of a small peasant rebellion. I was told by people in Xiakou that "she used feudal superstition to appeal to her followers." The superstition she used was to "proclaim the current dynasty about to fall (xia tai), and declare herself the new Empress." She had the support of several production teams. They grabbed the guns of local work team members, and killed some officials. The story goes that Mao himself became alarmed over this rebellion because he heard the rebels came from "five counties" but "five counties" was a homonym for the name of their township, not a quantification of the area they held. A large military force arrived to put down the rebellion and the girl was executed.




While the main body of the villagers worked at the mines in the fall of 1958, the diminished labor force that was left struggled with getting in the bumper harvest of corn that had been grown that year. Much of the crops were lost because their labor power was not enough. "Can you imagine, there was only Zhu Congde, Wu Guangkui, pregnant women and some children to bring in the crop for the whole village." The people at Yunjing began to trickle back, sneaking away if they could, in advance of their general release in the spring of 1960 when the camp became unable to feed them all. Most of them arrived too late, however, to help with the winter wheat on the eve of their return, and yields were again affected.


As the famine wore on, conditions at the mine were relatively good for the few farmers, such as Wu Guangxing, who stayed on. Although the mine work was very dangerous because of collapses and explosions, (a dozen people had been killed and hundreds injured), they mostly used beggars and thieves to do that work. "This is how they resolved the city's problems."


Back home, the Great Leap Forward continued. Wenchuan was made the brigade head, part of a new brand of leaders on whom villagers lay blame for the famine. These leaders were "without education or culture and slavishly served the targets they were given." Production now went into the night when the hills would be lit by flashlights. It was a farce, however, because no one really worked.


In the effort to conform to targets for agricultural production set for the village, things got very reckless. For two years seed was "chaotically sewn." Whereas traditional practice is to dig a "nest" every one to two feet into which two or three corn seeds are placed, during 1960 a long trench was scraped out and early and late corn seed together were thrown in a thick row. When it came time to plant the wheat, it was just flung down in a thick carpet. These practices were a function of the targets. They would be given three days to plant 100 mu and so many jin of seed. Such waste was not appreciated by the farmers for whom frugality is a way of life, and forms a vivid part of their memories. Food was supposed to be eaten communally and shared but as famine grew, people increasingly had to turn to theft to supplement their rations. And as they did this, authorities sought to crack down on the illegal behavior that was running rampant.

I asked Wu Wenxue if anyone believed that the new practices would actually raise production. "Belief? no one bothered about belief." then in an oblique reference to Mao he said, "What the Emperor said you just did."





Wu Wenchuan was a very fierce brigade leader although he is not considered exceptional. It is said that he beat a man to death after wrongly accusing him of stealing. After the man died, his father then committed suicide. Later Wu Wenchuan was to be held responsible for their deaths, but for the time his behavior continued unchecked. The canteen had little food and only those adults who worked were allowed to eat. All agricultural tasks were to be done in groups and all tools were in the control of the village authorities; no private production was allowed. Theft of food became the big issue. Oi (1989, p. 124) describes peasants raiding granaries in Sichuan during 1960. Stealing the seed potatoes or seed corn was one way some people tried to cope with growing hunger, but one that carried its own risks. When people disobeyed or stole, Wenchuan beat them. The hunger grew more severe and by the time that the cafeteria finally "collapsed" and production ceased in July and August of 1961, when people were finally allowed to search for food as they would, many were too weak to move.


During the famine, Wu Guangjun had a job in the commune at Taiping and was also a member of the local militia. One evening we sat at his house and Yao Mingao was over too. They began to talk about those years. "Beating people was not correct," Wu Guangjun volunteered. He asserted that beating people was not a local style; it was something the officials had learned in "trading revolutionary experiences" with cadres from central Sichuan . He then told the story of how he was made to beat Yang Guofu who lives near the Chuan Zhu temple. He made it clear that Yang was no innocent himself. Despite the fact that he was in a wheelchair, he had pulled out a man's beard, hair by hair, at an earlier struggle session. Yang had offended the local party leader and Wu Guangjun was instructed to tie him up and beat him. The Secretary instructed Wu Guangjun that if he did not tie Yang tight and beat him to make it hurt, Wu Guangjun would be beaten himself. "There was no difference between that and a slave society," Wu Guangjun concluded.


One time Wu Guangjun had started to walk into a meeting when he suddenly saw that the targets were Yao Mingao and Wu Guangliang. He immediately backed out and left, (not wanting to have to participate in beating his own fellow villagers and kinsmen). Yao Mingao and Wu Guangliang were being criticized for "eating too much and spreading too wide." In 1959 they were catching fish to supplement their diet and illicitly sharing them with cafeteria staff who added rice to make a porridge. They were in trouble for being "crafty" and because Wenchuan did not like them, he beat them at the meeting. When he was done, he told the militia to beat them more after the meeting. Then they were sent to live in other villages, where as outsiders, it was anticipated that they would have a hard time.


There were many fish in the river at this time, as well as wild animals that might have been a source of game meat. I asked Wu Guangren, an expert fisherman of the village, how it was that so many people starved when fish were so plentiful. He answered that after 1960, definitely no one in the village ate fish. There was no way. The fish were not so big and so easy to catch as some would say. Not everyone in the village knew how. Moreover, no one had any tools, the freedom to fish, or the time to prepare the food. All tools had been taken away and were kept by the village cadres under lock and key. Houses were bare and no one was allowed to go out, especially if you had a bad class background. People had to work for the commune from morning to night, and any activity that was not for the collective was forbidden.


Wu Guangren told how the massive deaths of the famine were most fundamentally the result of a lack of freedom (ziyou):


During the day you worked for "production" which was not to feed yourself. At night you were closed into an empty house. You might sneak out but you had nothing but your hands. The best you could do was use your hands to steal. There was no difference between that life and being in jail; the whole thing was like a prison. The store houses had grain, and in the fields there were some vegetables, but only the officials were able to access them. It was very bitter. If you were a poor peasant you were a little better off. If you were a bad element you had it very hard.





In accounting for how this tragedy could happen, people explain that the officials at that time did not care about the masses because they had enough to eat themselves; it was that simple. Official positions yielded food privileges, and those outside of the circle had to struggle twice as hard to eat and were brutally punished if discovered. "The officials had plenty of food so they did not care. They ate fine." Eventually they organized teams to go out and dig wild plants to eat, but the officials never organized fishing because "the village cadres were stupid and insensitive. They had food."


Throughout this period, agricultural production was overseen by a series of work teams who lived and ate at the commune headquarters in Taiping. There was at least one sympathetic scene when a young girl of 18, a member of the team, cried when she saw how low the village stockpile of food had become. "So many people and nothing to eat." But the fact that officials were allowed to live and eat separately was at the crux of the problem.




Yang Yong worked in the book store in Ya'an during the famine. When she walked the public road she would see the dying people sitting along its sides, their mouths moving in repetitive gasps like the mouths of young birds to be fed. Wu Guangxing said his heart went out to all the people he saw suffering from hunger on his trips from Yunjing to Ya'an to buy supplies for the cafeteria. On one of these trips, during a walk of 30 kilometres, he saw 50 persons dead or dying of hunger. At one house he went in and saw a small child alone with ten corpses. He also visited Xiakou during the famine. One woman he knew called to him but he did not recognize her because she was all bones and her face had turned black. There were no coffins for all these people. The best they got was wrapped in a sheet and buried in a smaller hole. In Taiping they used a big natural trench and threw people in one by one as they died. People say that at Yunjing children gathered at the bus station hoping to eat the vomit off the long-distance buses. And inevitably there are rumors that there were people who ate their own babies to survive.




Wu Guangxing told me that when he left for the coal mine the village had about one-hundred and fifty people. When he came back at the end of 1962, there were only seventy-two, including two new people. Roughly half had died. Around Xiakou it is common to hear people make categories about who died and who lived. They say that in the countryside the people who died in the famine were the old people, infants, some young people, the honest, and the stupid. People with bad class backgrounds also had a harder time of it.


Old people died because people were more likely to give children what food they could spare. Children cried when they were hungry and so were harder to ignore. Some young strong people died, those who had particularly large grain requirements. Stupid people and honest people died because to survive one had to "be tricky" and "to steal." "Bad elements" suffered because they were poorly connected to official sources of power, were cowed, and for them, punishments meted out for common crimes were particularly severe. Wu Guangren said, "the people who died were of the bad classes, those without guts, and the stupid. Those who died were already dead."


Yang Yong said that among the many people who died, there were a few young men, but mostly old people and infants. The people who died were those who could not care for themselves and had no one to care for them. Clever (congming) people did the best. Yao Mingao and Wu Guangliang were the most clever. Honest people would not dare to do what they did and died because of it.


People died and people were killed. There was a man who went to Bifeng to steal corn from the mountain fields. He was seen in a remote hiding place by the locals of that village, betrayed by his smoke. They shot at him and missed. He dove into the river and they shot again and killed him.


Wu Guangkui's family had six children and eight people in his older generation at the time of the famine. His youngest child at the time of the famine was his son, born in 1959. The whole family took the rice ration from the canteen and gave it to the son; each meal/day he got a whole half jin of rice. In the evening, the older people ate. Wu Guangkui also stole food--beans and grain. "A person had to steal. Some people did not go out and look for wild food as I did. They waited to be sick enough to go to the hospital where food was the medicine given. But if I had gone to the hospital, who would have looked after my family?" He lost none of his children but his two parents both died. I asked if this was because his parents had given over their food for the young people to live. He answered that it was not that, his parents had their own ration from the cafeteria but it was not enough. He had not been able to care for them, he said, to give them any extra. I saw a nice gravestone in a field along the road above Xiakou; erected in the 1980s, it bore his parents name and was tended with proper formalities.


Wu Wenbing was released from his seven years of corrective labor as everyone left for Yunjing, and so he too went. At about this time, his wife died of madness. His daughters barely knew him. It is said that they were estranged from him. No doubt dispirited, he died in the famine.




To be "cunning" (jiao hua) is not a positive trait, and yet is associated with intelligence which is good (being clever or congming). Moreover, it is recognized that one had to be cunning to survive the famine. Yao Mingao presents the portrait of a survivor. The son of Yang Yunzhong's widow, his family had a landlord class label. Conditions were not in his favor but he was clever at stealing. Yao Mingao tells with humor how he used his brains to steal enough food for himself and his cousins to survive. He figures that enough years have past, he can tell these stories.


During the Great Leap Forward Wu Guangleng, because he had a good class background, was guardian of the village store house for grain and other foodstuffs kept in his house. Wu Guangleng was not so clever and was fond of his sleep. When he was sleeping, Yao Mingao and Wu Guangliang would remove the tiles from the roof of his house and by lowering someone down were able to creep in and take what they needed, putting the tiles back when they were done. They were never caught for this.


They were caught, however, for the fish porridge and sent away to separate villages in other parts of the commune. When Yao Mingao arrived at Mengchuan, the local leader said he looked unwell and sent him to the hospital to recover. After a time he was still at the hospital, and participated in the work of that institution. He volunteered to carry the manure, a job others were unwilling to do. In this way he earned the confidence and respect of the local cadres and was eventually given a job milling the grain. This was a prize position allowing ample opportunities to glean food. The last miller had been dismissed because he was stupid and was caught adding water to the flour to cover for his thieving. Eventually Yao Mingao was able to tell his leaders that he was grateful to them because he was well fed, but his cousins were hungry and he was even allowed to take food to them. His cousins were the two daughters of Wu Wenbing, and he felt he wanted to help them because in earlier times Wu Wenbing had taken good care of him. He said he never really suffered from hunger during the famine.


Yang Yong and Wu Guangjun told how they obtained fish during that time when they lived at the commune headquarters in Taiping. Wu Guangjun was a small official in charge of installing a telephone line to the village at Qian Jia mountain. He was able to reverse the charge on the telephone wire leading out from the commune and use it to electrocute fish in the river. In addition, his friends at the commune then encouraged him to steal some rapeseed oil from the factory in Taiping because they knew he had the guts necessary. He ate fish and used extra fish to exchange with commune officials for rice. A small group of them would eat together surreptitiously.


Wu Guangjun's father survived. This was because Wu Guangjun helped him, but also because he was smart himself. Wu Guangjun's father processed a traditional fish poison from tree bark. Whereas the traditional practice called for many families working together to poison a whole section of the river, Wu Guangjun's father put just a small amount of poison into a bamboo tube so he could place it right where he needed it, at the bottom of a deep and isolated pool where the big fish lived.


Wu Guangren lived in an extended house with Wu Wennian's mother. They managed to steal some beans, but it was dangerous to cook them. If Wenchuan saw smoke from their houses he would surely investigate and punish them if he found food. Wu Wennian's father had died from sickness after having been beaten for cooking food. Wu Guangren figured a way out. He tied his beans in a cloth and the cloth and beans he put in boiling water. When cadres came to investigate why he had smoke from his house, he pulled out the cloth, beans and all, and said that he was just boiling some water to drink.





Villagers said that conditions began to improve in 1962. According to a widely-accepted account, in 1962 an investigation and report was made to the government by an "old Red Army soldier" revealing the true story of what was happening around China . As a result the government began to try to come to terms with the mistakes that had plunged the country into famine. This effort to account for the famine locals refer to as the "anti-rightist deviation" campaign ( fan youqing ). This movement brought the downfall of Wenchuan and provided locals the beginnings of a sense of retribution and redress, but today they see through that movement too. The movement targeted those who were said to be "disobedient" and it was organized by the middle level cadres, the same middle level cadres who were really to blame for the famine. They were not likely to fashion the campaign to target themselves, so, instead, focused on scape-goating the lower level cadres, who, more than the middle cadres, had little choice but to be disobedient.


In the case of Xiakou there were two people called to the anti-rightist meeting: one was Wenchuan. It was said that once they knew he was to be taken away for his crimes, the villagers wanted to kill him on the spot and he had to be taken off in the night. The other person called to the meeting was Zhu Congde, and his case points up the irony of the campaign. His crime was, in the eyes of the villagers, no crime at all.


Zhu Congde


Zhu Congde was the leader of teams one and two up until 1960 when he went to the hospital. While he was still leader, he went to a meeting in Ya'an to get planting instructions, and while he was gone members of his family allowed team members to divide 1200 jin of corn harvested in Xiakou among themselves. Other people in the village say that it was Zhu Congde himself who authorized the local distribution of grain.

This grain was supposed to be given to the commune, and the commune was angry because they had shared their rice with Xiakou, so they expected Xiakou to share its corn. Because of this incident, in June of 1962 Zhu Congde was called to attend the big anti-rightist meeting in Ya'an city. This meeting was a struggle meeting and had more than two-thousand people in attendance. At the beginning of this anti-rightist campaign, he saw the top leader of the commune beaten severely for his mistakes, and this frightened Zhu. Other people attending this meeting wore cotton padding on their knees in case they were made to kneel on broken tiles; they shaved their heads to prevent themselves from being dragged by their hair; and they put boards under their clothes to try to shield themselves from physical blows.


Zhu Congde tells that within the commune, there were people who accused him of being a fat cadre. He had been an activist, but says he "did it to serve the people, not to get rich." His job as village leader was not well paid, and he lost most of his own family in the famine--his parents, his wife, and his baby daughter; he told his critics that he did not eat their grain. They wanted to `struggle' him because he had been an activist.


Zhu Congde was traumatized by the anti-rightist movement. Some people did try to support and encourage him by saying his crime was not severe, "he was just the tail of the masses instead of being the leader of the masses"; but he was particularly frightened by the words uttered by the county-level party secretary when he saw Zhu Congde at the meeting, "Why has Zhu Congde not spoken out? He must take responsibility for the corn. Although he may not have been there when the grain was divided," the secretary reasoned, "if the mountain does not open its mouth, the tiger does not eat people."


As it turned out Zhu Congde was not beaten, nor was he declared a rightist; he got off with just the criticism. While he was away at this meeting, however, others in the commune anticipated that he would be declared a rightist. They used the opportunity of his apparent fall from favor to take down part of his house, requisitioning it for the construction of a township building. The people he was afraid of, who had wanted to `get' him for being an activist, now just laughed at him, saying he had been used by the party. "The party used you when they needed you and now they kick you because you are dispensable" they told him.


After the famine, there was a bureaucratic reorganization and Zhu's job no longer existed. He was glad because this way he did not have to quit; Zhu Congde never wanted to be an official again. Even though they urged him to continue to take up Chairman Mao's work, he answered that he was not worthy and could not. He added that he is qualified to be an official because he has the proper qualities: he is healthy, literate, speaks well and is clear of heart/not corrupt. And he gave us his opinion on the problems of the famine, "The starvation was people's own fault, not Mao's. Mao would not have done such a terrible thing. It was the people's bragging that got them into trouble." He had lied once and said the tea was harvested, when it was not. Because he said it was done, his people were called away to do other work and there was no one to finish the harvest. He learned his lesson. "The job of a good official is to guard the people while listening to the upper leaders. Bad leaders just listen to upper leaders." While he acknowledged that it was difficult not to lie, for if you did not lie you would be criticized, he concluded that "An official should never lie. Those people who lied deserve to die."



Wu Wenchuan


The other person in Xiakou called to the anti-rightist meeting was Wu Wenchuan, the fearsome village leader famous for his violence. He told us his story one morning as we sat at his brother's house. In the mid 1950s Wu Wenchuan went away as a soldier for several years. After he came back from Yunjing, he was made head of the four teams that made the brigade. Before the end of the famine, he was called to attend the meeting of people accused of being rightists, the same one Zhu Congde went to in Ya'an city.


There were three kinds of crimes dealt with at this meeting, he told. The most serious were people (officials) accused of stealing from their production teams. These crimes were those such as taking the team's cow and eating it. The culprits were beaten severely by everyone present and by his reckoning they deserved it. It was correct that they were punished.


The second set of crimes were those of individuals who had not fulfilled their work targets. In fact this is the crime most fundamentally associated with the anti-rightist movement. Wu Wenxue intervened with his own comments on how the identification of this crime revealed that the party was looking for scapegoats. Wu Wenchuan, too, sympathized with individuals accused of this crime. They had had little alternative. Production targets handed down to village officials were impossible to realize. The officials had to report to the commune daily, and if they had not met the target they would be criticized and struggled, if not demoted, so they all learned to lie. Now, during the anti-rightist movement, they were called to account for the gap between their reports and the reality, and they were accused of stealing the difference.


Wu Wenchuan said his crime was of a third category, labelled "a work-style problem." This was considered a relatively mild problem. He was not beaten but put into a three month reeducation program. At the reeducation program he was told his thought was correct but he had been too extreme in his methods. He had not understood the difficulties of the masses because as an official he had not known hunger and he had eaten his fill. He had been a good worker himself; his crime had been excessive force in beating people. He said the reeducation had been good for him and that to have sent him had been correct. The program had helped him to correct his attitude and his temper (piqi) and he has been different since then. He finished by telling how certain people of the village had, in time, exacted their revenge by managing to deprive him of a vegetable garden. Today his health is not good and he is one of the poorest people in the village and still has to buy his vegetables. He offered his poverty as proof that he had never been corrupt. He has nothing.


The anti-rightist deviation campaign sought to put the blame for the famine on the "rightists" who were said to oppose Mao for their own personal gain, those who were not obedient to the system. While we were in China , an article appeared in the Sichuan paper which sought to reevaluate the past and shift the blame to the "leftists" of that period since they were those who had the extreme ideas for raising production. Farmers were less interested in right and left dichotomies. In general they chose to blame a system instigated by the middle level cadres who cared more about their own careers than the suffering of the masses. In targeting Wu Wenchuan, the officials targeted someone who made the masses unhappy, and people felt this was correct. On the other hand, other targets had more ambivalent statuses. The disobedient actions of Zhu Congde helped protect fellow villagers. Although it made the commune unhappy, I heard people in the village say that in Xiakou it had almost certainly saved lives. Targeting such "crimes" is viewed cynically. Such crimes were necessarily widespread because of the deep contradictions of the system of that time.





The famine lasted over two years. Officially it is said to have been caused by "natural disaster," specifically poor weather conditions that effected agricultural production. Some urban people still give lip service to the official version of this myth and some young ones may even half believe it. It was not permitted for citizens to talk of the famine and the tensions of the Cultural Revolution helped to enshrine the official version; in the cities where people had much to lose, who would dare tell the truth? Even today they are more retentive than rural people about this sad episode. The farmers saw firsthand why agricultural production failed, they had more people die, and had much to be bitter about.


The famine is referred to in colloquial speech as the "grain gate" (liangshi guan) So many people were never able to pass through that gate, and for those who did, life on the other side little resembled what it had been in the past. After a short respite of reform and family-based production, collectivized production, begun on the eve of the famine, was again re-instituted and was to remain the rule for the next twenty years. All over Sichuan forests were now gone, cut down as fuel for steel production. Traditional culture and practice came under unprecedented scrutiny and pressure in the campaigns that followed throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s. Traditional feasting ended in 1958, and did not resume until after the reforms of the early 1980s had set in; both because the economics that underpinned it were restructured and because Mao emphasized frugality as a value the masses should cultivate. Mountain songs were said to have been rarely sung after 1958, because people's hearts were not in it any more. Any naive and benevolent trust in government was radically altered. The mood was different.




In examining remembrances of this period, there is a paradox. Farmers today choose to emphasize that they did not approve of the policies of the Great Leap Forward; it was a simple matter of coercion. Yet one must consider what motivated those who did the coercion. Was it simply the stupidity and selfishness of the officials as the farmers indicate? Even if we accept their analysis, for those of us outside of the Chinese experience, farmers' accounts still leave open the question of how the movement got underway. There are ways in which the ideology of the Great Leap Forward resonates with certain attitudes and values still widely current today and there are indications that support for Mao was extremely strong on the eve of the movement. At the end of the 1950s, a vision of economic progress was built on the foundation of confidence born of the economic successes of the 1950s. This vision was to be realized through obedience to the choreographic instructions of the communist state, and individuals competed to show that they were doing the most to serve the state and the mood of development. By some reflections on these more abstracted points, we can attempt to add some further insight into how the Great Leap Forward may have started.






Competition between individuals is fierce in Chinese political and economic life and each political movement has created a new guise, a new form in which competition is manifest. In the early 1990s we heard many Chinese assert that factional struggles still strongly colored daily life in work units and villages in China , perhaps a function of the tendency to have a single legitimate encompassing structure of leadership and opportunity. This competition is for official privilege, an enduring phenomenon at once despised and expected. To get rich or to eat well is strongly associated with becoming an official, hence the expression, "become an official, get rich" ( sheng guan, fa cai ). As a counterbalance to individual competition, the idea of loyalty is a glue that binds groups together. The idea of loyalty in an environment that is fiercely competitive can make leaders intolerant of opposition within the ranks; opposition usually indicates a split. Examples of 'loyal opposition' are rare in Chinese political life. Furthermore, because political life is seen as an encompassing whole, there is a tendency to assess individuals as either for or against a given group, with little room for neutrality. These dynamics add momentum to Chinese political movements.


During the Great Leap Forward, the government provided a broad and spirited vision of what could be attained, and so played to people's competitive spirit. This helped to mobilize individuals. At the beginning of the Great Leap Forward everyone was encouraged to contribute an idea. One man remembers that his brother won great praise for his suggestion that two buffalo instead of one be attached to the plow. This idea, like most of the new ideas, did not work; but the point was to demonstrate oneself to be a revolutionary thinker. There was opportunity for advancement.





If competition was the engine of the Great Leap Forward, the promise of economic development provided a goal with powerful legitimating potency and one that provides the cyclical motif of Chinese history a linear counterpart. In Ya'an, farmers are fascinated by the notion of "scientific development." The word "science" is popularly used as a synonym for advanced or efficacious technologies, especially mechanized agricultural production, and is associated with wealth. Visions of the ideal China of the future frequently evoke a technological wonderland which prizes the role of the scientist as a sorcerer-servant of the State. The term "science" is used approvingly to mean some technique or devise that possesses universal value, not a particular scientific methodology of competing theories. If the steep and rocky land around Xiakou is not appropriate for tractor cultivation, it is symbolic of the hopeless backwardness of their poor mountain area, but in no way compromises the value of the tractor.


A central symbol of the Great Leap Forward movement was the satellite, a quintessential technological device. Sputnik had just been successfully launched by the Soviet Union and the Chinese were eager to parallel the excellence of this socialist achievement. Slogans from the period, faded but still visible on peasant houses in the area, exhort the people to "raise production like a satellite." Local people still remember the excitement that surrounded local competition to "send up a satellite," which they define as to pioneer some important advance, or break a record, using Chinese ingenuity and the resources at hand.


Education is believed to be critical to becoming scientific, and through education as well as other means many farmers aspire to "change their skins" and become workers. An important theme in the farmers' discourse on "development" is the idea of becoming a worker. Being a worker is generally valued as something better than being a farmer, both in terms of social status and financial security. A worker is something more modern than a farmer, but more than that, a worker has access to a higher and more stable salary which is delivered rain or shine. The worker eats better. He has better access to education for his children, and thus opportunity for further economic betterment. An intellectual or a local farmer may express the idea that through education the people need to "raise their standards of personal quality" (tigao ren de suzhi) to be appropriate vessels for new technologies. It is less common to hear discussions about making technologies appropriate to people as they are.


An elder countryside doctor gave us his views on a sunny afternoon in 1993, "Mao had the right idea with the Great Leap Forward. We peasants want to become workers, and using machinery and science to help us make this transformation is still our ideal." The doctor felt that China was still "backward" because China cannot afford to educate her people and because the burden on the peasants is too heavy. If China could mechanize agriculture then China could develop factories and the peasants could become workers. Catering to this ideal of technological and social transformation gave the ideology of the Great Leap Forward broad appeal. In the doctor's account, the promise of a historical breakthrough was thwarted by the age-old and perennial problem of food corruption. The Great Leap Forward was correct in its effort to transform the peasantry into workers; the problem was that everyone ate instead of doing the task of production correctly. He lowered his voice to intimate scandal as he revealed the problem, "they went to Zhongli when they finished eating all of what this commune had. They just went from commune to commune eating."





In the late 1950s, confidence in the state had a firm foundation in the economic successes achieved through the policies of the period since Liberation. Security of production and food supplies is a primary concern of peasant farmers. In the period before Liberation this security had broken down. Due to the level of corruption, local elites were fighting over the provisioning of the "dong fang," a traditional institution which created a safeguarded stockpile of grain for emergency winter supplies. Rowe focuses on the winter defense as an important example of a new orientation toward public welfare and civic consciousness that, he asserts, arose in Chinese society around the time of the Taiping rebellion. (1989, p.127-186). The need to pay off clients promoted extravagant consumption of local food products and banditry further depleted peasant household stocks. The new State reversed these trends and gave farmers a new sense of security.


Food in China is of paramount significance; it is a marker of good social relations which in turn are critical for material well-being. The Great Leap Forward saw peasants "investing" their stockpiles of grain and livestock into communal kitchens. Whereas the custom had been to eat meat, on average, only twice a month, the village started to consume "a pig every week." Furthermore, local village officials-- themselves farmers-- began to demand an unprecedented obedience to policies and directives sent from above. How were farmers propelled into these practices that went far past what reason and custom might appear to support? Communal canteens with abundant food flowing must have seemed like the ultimate statement of the triumph of the communist state, and that people willingly and even happily invested and participated in the cafeterias must be indicative of confidences won. On the other hand, farmers looking back like to emphasize their lack of choice during the Great Leap period.





While there are indications that the Great Leap Forward had some appeal and support at the outset, farmers plainly prefer to downplay belief and emphasize the lack of choice. When I tried to ask if any one really believed in the idea that production was improving as a result of the new practices of the Great Leap Forward or how they felt about the orders etc., the answer came back, "it was not a question of belief, no one cared what we believed, we had to do as we were told" or "one had to do what the emperor said." Force was the sanction that ensured obedience.


How could such a thorough and appalling totalitarianism emerge? It is a fact that obedience is a salient concept in local life and the notion of obedience to an encompassing state via its officials has a cosmological significance in China. Much has been written on the "authoritarian" aspects of Chinese culture, but I would nevertheless like to give outline to the sense in which the creed of authoritarianism is both authenticated and contested in daily life in Xiakou.


There is traditional value in the idea that people should be obedient toward official dictates, as a child is obedient to his parents. In the altar room of local houses the center piece is a large sheet of paper on which the following five words appear: Heaven, Earth, Official, Parent, Teacher. These are the hierarchy of powers to which the individual should be respectful and obedient in order to make the world Harmonious. And obedience was/is customarily enforced with physical force. Many of the older men in the village recounted that the teachers in the Old Society beat their pupils readily if they made mistakes in their memorization. Children are constantly told to be obedient, praised for being obedient, and scolded and beaten for disobedience. The analogy between the parent:official and the child:subject is encountered in common speech. I was quite taken aback one day when Wu Guangxing said to me, "when a child is disobedient, the parent can hit the child and other people should not have anything to say about the parent's action," and I realized he was in fact drawing an analogy about the role of officials to discipline the people. The people's character is often said to be "cunning" ( jiao hua ) just as little boys and less often girls are said to be "tricky" ( tiao pi ) and so require guidance and discipline ( yao guan ).


Using religion as the model, one could further say that no aspect of life is too private to be overlooked by government concern. The pantheon of local gods in China are reflected images of idealized Government officials (Ahern 1981), (Feuchtwang 1992). In so far as Chinese religious practice represents a model for government, one can say that the role of the official is prevalent and encompassing. Scattered throughout the landscape are little alcoves housing local gods. These petty officials know the affairs of a particular village, bridge, or plot of land. They wear the clothes of an official and should be respected with offerings of red cloth and incense on special holidays. They can be called on in times of trouble, such as in the event of sickness or disease. The pantheon is loosely hierarchical with some temple gods in charge of regional affairs or generalized functions such as childbirth, water control, or final judgements, while others are restricted to a narrower territorial role. In the same way, real local officials are expected to manage (guan) many aspects of local life. They are involved in village disputes, set the rules for the management of local resources, etc. In principle, there is no idea that there is a sphere of life that is private which government should stay out of. The kitchen God is present on the very hearth of most local homes to report to the upper gods on each family's domestic state of affairs--do family members fight? Do they hit one another? Are the children filial?

From the above, we can draw that there was some traditional sanction and some psychological preparation for the idea that the farmers should obey the policies and dictates handed down by officials. This ideal of obedience was likely an enabling condition for the behaviors that led to the famine of 1960-1962. How was it that village level cadres took it upon themselves to carry out orders with sadistic vigilance? While I do not wish to depreciate farmers' accounts of the "slave society" and the physical force to which they were subjected, I also think that part of the answer to this haunting question must be the fact that there was a legitimating ideology--a pervasive ideal of obedience to the official, bloated by the recent successes of the party in the 1950s, and lacking in an idea of loyal opposition--available to the leaders, if not the oppressed.


But there is another side to the coin, and it would be surprising to me if most farmers ever said (or believed) that obedience should be blind. Farmers in Ya'an have a strong sense of the "just" (you daoli) and the "correct" (dui de) and a good leader is an enlightened leader whose interests are as one with the people. In Confucian terms this is the doctrine of governing through moral example. During the Great Leap Forward leaders had offended this moral ideal and this is what farmers mean when they say the new set of cadres who had been chosen were "without culture." These leaders, because they were stupid and selfish saw only half the coin.


Given traditional concepts of the encompassing role of the state, it is significant that there were several references to the period of the Great Leap Forward that put Mao at the level of an "Emperor." Even more striking than Wu Wenxue's comment that "we had to do what the Emperor said" is the story of the Empress of Yunjing, in effect implying that Mao had lost the Mandate of Heaven. In the purges that followed the Hundred Flowers movement, the internal critics of the government had been obliterated. The functionaries who could survive in this atmosphere were those who did not deviate from political correctness, either because they were excessively idealistic or extremely opportunistic. The government apparatus was perforce staffed by officials with demonstrated greed and/or slavish regard for the center. In traditional China, as in the Great Leap Forward, rebellions were attempted when officials were corrupt or self-interested or unjust, when natural calamity portended the need for new leadership, and when the villagers' socio-moral world was chaotic, not harmonious.


Thus, while "obedience" is valued in this system, it is also qualified by notions of "justice" and "correctness." When people have negative opinions of officials and their actions, there is a tradition of "loud complaint" (lao ren) and even rebellion. Here we have the images of Wu Guangjun's father spitting on the work team member in 1953, and the Empress of Yunjing in 1958. What is particularly interesting is that locals make the point that before the famine, the peasantry was much more "obedient" and likely to do as officials dictated. History does, after all, change things. Whether based on actual differences in behavior or not (ie were they really so obedient?), it is significant that according to local tradition, the events of 1959-63 constituted an important psychological turning point in attitudes toward the state, and a lesson not soon forgotten for those who lived through it.

For a detailed study of policy formulation and high-level politics during the Great Leap Forward, see MacFarquhar (1987).

For other accounts of this phenomenon, see Oi (1989, p. 84, 91), Endicott (1988, p. 57-61).

Wang's statement here, and the idea of "loyal opposition" make interesting comparison to the themes developed in Liu Binyan (1990)

The people's communes were larger administrative units of production organized during the Great Leap period. They are generally equivalent to the Township in size.

Stealing a cow was a capital offence in the Old Society.

Competition is a common theme in studies of Chinese society. It is especially prominent in works dealing with the Cultural Revolution, e.g. (Chan 1985), (Rosen 1981), (Solomon 1971, p.103).

These ideas of "competition" and "loyalty" are central to the cultural psychology approach taken up by the "political culture" school, (Solomon 1971), (Pye 1968) which argues that China's culture of "dependency" is sustained through the childhood socialisation process. While our experiences in the field corroborate some of the conclusions of the political culture studies, the approach itself suffers from being ahistorical, deterministic, and decontextualised.


Again, a cornerstone of the "political culture" approach (see previous note), and of Chan (1985). The authoritarian character of Chinese culture has been a major theme in recent debates among Chinese intellectuals Su (1991).

For a detailed study of policy formulation and high-level politics during the Great Leap Forward, see MacFarquhar (1987).

For other accounts of this phenomenon, see Oi (1989, p. 84, 91), Endicott (1988, p. 57-61).

Wang's statement here, and the idea of "loyal opposition" make interesting comparison to the themes developed in Liu Binyan (1990)

The people's communes were larger administrative units of production organized during the Great Leap period. They are generally equivalent to the Township in size.

Stealing a cow was a capital offence in the Old Society.

Competition is a common theme in studies of Chinese society. It is especially prominent in works dealing with the Cultural Revolution, e.g. (Chan 1985), (Rosen 1981), (Solomon 1971, p.103).

These ideas of "competition" and "loyalty" are central to the cultural psychology approach taken up by the "political culture" school, (Solomon 1971), (Pye 1968) which argues that China 's culture of "dependency" is sustained through the childhood socialisation process. While our experiences in the field corroborate some of the conclusions of the political culture studies, the approach itself suffers from being ahistorical, deterministic, and decontextualised.

Again, a cornerstone of the "political culture" approach (see previous note), and of Chan (1985). The authoritarian character of Chinese culture has been a major theme in recent debates among Chinese intellectuals Su (1991).




About This Essay


The Great Leap Forward to Famine in Ya'an

This essay presents villagers' experiences of the most traumatic historical period in local memory, from the formation of People's Communes in 1958 through the devastating famine of 1960-62. We argue that the Great Leap Forward marks the critical watershed in the history of the revolution in this place; death by starvation in staggering proportions following the failed experiment of mass collectivization effectively destroyed trust in the communist party and left a deep, painful memory that has continued to inform villagers' understandings of state intervention at the local level. The essay is based on interviews conducted in 1992-93 and on follow-up research carried out in 2004. An earlier version of this essay appeared as a chapter in Pam Leonard's 1994 Ph.D. thesis "The Political Landscape of a Sichuan Village ." In 2004 we received a series of questions from a scholar doing comparative research on famines worldwide. We used those questions to go back and interview one of our best local sources on the Great Leap Forward. That interview has been added to the essay as an audio file and transcription.