BECKER, Jasper (1996) Hungry Ghosts, Mao's Secret Famine [Cap 7: "An Overview of the Famine"; Cap 8:"Henan: a Catastrophe of Lies"; Cap 13:"The Anatomy of the Hunger"; Cap 14 "Cannibalism", pp. 99-129 & 198-219], Nova York, Free Press.





'The evil deeds of evil rulers are the source of disorder.'



THE FAMINE OF 1958-61 was unique in Chinese history. For the first time, every corner of this huge country experienced hunger, from the cold wheat-growing lands of Heilongjiang in the far north to the lush semi-tropical island of Hainan in the south. It was a situation which, even during the famines of the 1920s, experts had said was impossible. They had believed that even if one part of the country suffered shortages, China was so big and varied that there would always be a surplus somewhere else. Yet this time people starved everywhere.

Dynastic records describe how other great calamities had reduced the population of China by as much as half, but these were the consequence of great convulsions such as the civil war which followed the Qin dynasty's collapse some 2,000 years earlier, or brutal invasions, like that of Genghis Khan's Mongols in the fourteenth century. In 1959, China was at peace, unified under one government, with a modem transport and communications system. Moreover, the Communist government was the first since the seventeenth century to be entirely in the hands of ethnic Chinese acting independently of outside forces. The Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty, who had regarded themselves as a separate race of conquerors, had been swept away. The Western powers' influence had come to an end, and the Japanese invaders had been defeated. Even Russia, with the departure of her experts in 1960, no longer exerted any influence over the Chinese government. For the first time the Chinese Communist Party was free of the influence of the Comintern which supervised the affairs of other Communist Parties.

The famine left no one in China untouched but it did not affect the country uniformly. Many factors played a role - geography, the policies of local leaders, nationality, sex, age, political affiliation, class background, and whether one lived in the city or the countryside. Geography was important but this famine was peculiar in that its effects were not concentrated in the traditional famine belt. Indeed, some of the richest regions suffered more than others. The traditional famine belt lies between the two main river systems of China, the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, which flow from west to east. The Yellow River rises deep inland and flows through Gansu and Shaanxi provinces and on through the provinces of Shanxi, Shandong, Hebei and northern Henan across the North China plain. This is the ancient heartland of Chinese civilization but the river has been called China's Sorrow. Its silt-laden waters bring fertility to the lands through which they flow but also disastrous floods.

Further south, the Huai River is still more notorious because for much of its length through the provinces of Henan and Anhui, it winds through flat land, prone to extensive flooding. In times of drought, the soil is baked rock hard but in good years this region, like the North China plain, produces important grain surpluses to feed the coastal cities. Yet while all the provinces along these rivers have experienced severe famines, their fate between 1958 and 1961 depended as much on the acts of their leaders as on natural conditions. Henan and Anhui fared the worst, being governed by two ultra-left-wing leaders whose fanaticism led to both terrible atrocities and an enormous death toll. Events in both provinces are described separately in the following two chapters.

China's greatest river is the Yangtze. It rises in the Tibetan plateau, gathers in the fertile basin of Sichuan province, perhaps the most arable region in China, pours through narrow gorges and then meanders across the richest parts of central China until it reaches the sea near Shanghai. Historically, mass famines were rare in Sichuan, but in 1958 - 61 this great granary recorded the highest number of deaths of any province: it too was controlled by another Maoist stalwart, Li Jingquan. His enthusiasm for the Great Leap Forward ensured that food shortages hit the Sichuanese earlier than the peasants in some other provinces. On the other hand, Sichuan recovered more quickly than the northern provinces because in the south peasants can grow two or more crops a year. Events in Sichuan and the rest of south-west China are described in Chapter 10.

Some of the last territory to be conquered by the Han Chinese lies south of the Yangtze and is still inhabited by large populations of minority peoples. During the Long March in the 1930s, even the Communists were astonished by the poverty of some minority peasants who could barely afford to clothe themselves. In these regions, Han Chinese tend to farm the flat valley lands. Though generally more prosperous than the indigenous peoples, in 1958-61 they had less to eat. Since they lived in the most accessible districts, the authorities were able to seize more of their food supplies and so they died in greater numbers than the minorities living in the remote hills.

In the west of China, Tibetans, Mongols, Uyghurs and other peoples are scattered over steppes, mountains and deserts. In some ways, these minorities were better off during the famine because the authorities, however ruthless, found it harder to enforce their demands; and when the grain was taken away, they could forage in the mountains, forests and grasslands. This was not the case among the deeply religious and' independent Tibetans. Communist policies there provoked a major revolt, and repression combined with famine wrought a terrible disaster described in Chapter 1.

The three provinces of Manchuria - Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang - and Inner Mongolia had been settled by Han Chinese in large numbers only in recent times. The famine of 1958-61 brought another wave of settlers fleeing hunger to the south. Inner Mongolia alone absorbed an extra million refugees and Heilongjiang province saw its population increase from 14 million to 20 million between 1958 and 1964, largely because of immigration. Yet even in Manchuria people starved, despite the fact that the region normally has a surplus of food, though the famine there seems to have struck later than in Sichuan and many other provinces.

The coastal provinces and cities traditionally import grain, relying on the inland provinces for up to a third of their needs, but are prime exporters of cash crops such as tea, cotton, silk and fruit. When the customary grain imports from inland ceased, their inhabitants starved. However, in the later stages of the famine many of those living in Fujian, Zhejiang and Guangdong had the advantage of receiving food packages from overseas relatives, for their provinces are the ancestral homes of the majority of Chinese living abroad. One interviewee recalled how her mother travelled regularly by fishing boat from Malaysia to Guangdong carrying barrels of pork fat steeped in oil which saved her home village from starvation. Yet although these provinces are geographically similar, their experiences during the famine differed. Zhejiang had, before the launch of the Great Leap Forward, been a stronghold of private farming. In the campaign against opponents of collectivization, those who abandoned the collectives were subjected to brutal suppression. In 1958, in one county alone, Yongjia, near the city of Wenzhou, 200,000 peasants were 'struggled' as 'right opportunists' and many were killed or sent to labour camps.' Neighbouring Fujian province had to bear the burden of being the first line of defence against a possible invasion by the Kuomintang across the straits from Taiwan. Between 1959 and 1963, the province was placed under strict military control and had to feed the large numbers of troops quartered there. Many people were arrested as suspected spies after the authorities required a considerable part of the population to report on their neighbours. In Fujian, Zhejiang and Guangdong, the government also took absurd measures to boost grain production. Peasants were ordered to cut down their orchards and uproot their tea bushes and instead plant grain. And to open up more land for grain, the hills in the lightly wooded interior were set on fire as part of a crude slash-and-burn programme and then sown with grain. The first year's crop was good because ash enriches the soil, but the following year the harvest was poor. By 1960 the Fujianese were eating nothing but sweet potatoes. These regions are also noted both for breeding freshwater fish and sea fish but interviewees said that in the midst of the famine peasants and fishermen were strictly forbidden to engage in any private fishing.

Generally, those who lived in the great cities on the coast and along the main water-ways, such as Wuhan on the Yangtze, suffered least for they received ration tickets. Moreover, plans to establish urban communes were never implemented and the urban population was never forbidden to cook at home. Many did die, though, especially the old and the very young, but the famine took longer to affect them, as Chapter 15 explains. Even in the very worst provinces, such as Anhui, the urban population was sheltered to such an extent that often they had no knowledge of what was happening in the villages.

The most vulnerable section of China's population, around five per cent, were those whom Mao called 'enemies of the people'. Anyone who had in previous campaigns of repression been labelled a 'black element' was given the lowest priority in the allocation of food. Landlords, rich peasants, former members of the Nationalist regime, religious leaders, rightists, counter-revolutionaries and the families of such individuals died in the greatest numbers. During the Great Leap Forward, many more people were placed in these categories and often imprisoned. As Chapter 12 explains, the penal system underwent a huge expansion as millions were arrested without trial. Most of the new penal colonies were established in the frozen northern wastes of Heilongjiang or in sparsely settled lands in the west, where it is hard to grow food at the best of times. Up to half the prisoners dispatched to provinces such as Qinghai or Gansu died. Indeed the inmates of the penal colonies suffered a double misfortune. The provinces where they were imprisoned were led by hard-line extremists whose policies devastated the local population and prisoners alike.

Not surprisingly, those who suffered least throughout China were Party members. They consistently had first call on the state's grain reserves, they lived in separate compounds closed off from the outside world, and they ate in separate canteens. Even in labour camps, prisoners who had been Party members received more food than their fellow inmates.' Members of the families of officials admitted in interviews that they often had little inkling of the misery outside their privileged world and what they did know came from their servants. In the countryside, the commune leaders did not eat in the collective kitchens with the peasants but in separate canteens. Many sources have testified that the food there was always adequate and often very good, with the cadres receiving not only sufficient grain but also meat of all kinds. Zhang Zhongliang, the First Secretary of Gansu, where at least a million people starved to death, travelled with his own personal cook. In Henan's Xinyang prefecture, one of the worst affected areas in the country, the Party Secretary Lu Xianwen would travel to local communes and order in advance elaborate banquets of twenty-four courses, according to Party documents. Only at the village level did the lowest officials such as production team leaders sometimes starve to death.

The death tolls during the famine will be discussed later, but broadly speaking the bulk of those who died were the ordinary Han Chinese peasants living in the new communes. By the end of 1958, virtually the entire rural population of some 500 million was under the control of this new and bizarre form of organization which formed the institutional framework of the Great Leap Forward. Mao and his cronies boasted that the communes were the gateway to heaven and Kang Sheng composed several ditties for the peasants to repeat:

Communism is paradise.

The People's Communes

are the bridge to it.


Communism is heaven.

The Commune is the ladder.

If we build that ladder

We can climb the heights.

The peasants soon came to regard the communes as an instrument of terror. They were set up in a great rush in the summer of 1958, often within a month, sometimes within fortyeight hours. The source of their inspiration was the Communist Manifesto in which Marx envisaged organizing the peasants into industrial armies based in 'agro-cities' which would close the gap between town and country. Around 10.000 peasants were grouped into each commune, although sometimes they contained two or three times that number. To create a commune, the local authorities merely merged the 'higher collectives' which had been set up in 1955-6. The first commune established in April 1958 at Chayashan in Henan province brought together 27 collectives, 9,300 farms and 43,000 people. As the Party put it, 'In 1958, a new social organization appeared fresh as the morning sun above the broad horizon of East Asia." The communes formed one of the Party's 'Three Red Banners' the other two being the Great Leap Forward and 'the general line for socialist construction' which would propel China into Communism. They set out to achieve the abolition of all private property, the industrialization of the countryside and the complete fusion of the state bureaucracy, the Party and the peasantry into a militarized and disciplined organization. Early each morning, the peasants would march to work behind a red flag, in some cases even carrying rifles. Within the commune they were formed into production teams, which sometimes comprised the entire workforce of a small village, and these production teams were grouped within a larger unit called a brigade. Special detachments of exemplary workers were drafted as 'shock troops' who would work twenty-four hours without a break, while the rest of the commune worked two shifts. There were even militarized teams of shock women workers.

For a few months in 1958, commune leaders actually separated men and women into different living quarters. (Indeed Mao even wondered whether it would suffice for men and women to meet twice a month for the purposes of procreation.) This separation first took place at the Xushui commune in Hebei but was later extended to many parts of the country, including Henan, Hunan and Anhui, as well as to battalions dispatched to work on dams and other construction projects. In one commune in Anhui province, men and women lived in dormitories at opposite ends of the village. The commune leaders believed that this separation was good for production and stressed that men and women, including married couples, could 'collectively' attend meetings and work in the fields. The Communist Party's explicit aim was to destroy the family as an institution:

The framework of the individual family, which has existed for thousands of years, has been shattered for all time .. . We must regard the People's Commune as our family and not pay too much attention to the formation of a separate family of our own. For years motherly love has been glorified. . . but it is wrong to degrade a person from a social to a biological creature ... the dearest people in the world are our parents, yet they cannot be compared with Chairman Mao and the Communist Party ... for it is not the family which has given us everything but the Communist Party and the great revolution ... Personal love is not so important: therefore women should not claim too much of their husbands' energy.'


To this end, the elderly were sent off to live in 'happiness homes' portrayed as retirement homes, while children were separated from their parents and placed in nurseries or boarding schools. In most communes, such plans were only briefly realized, if at all, but the cadres were almost universally successful in destroying domestic life by banning cooking and eating at home. Collective kitchens were set up everywhere and operated for at least three years. Usually the largest house in the village was turned into the kitchen where the food was cooked in large pots. A few places had communal dining halls but, more often than not, people squatted on the ground to eat their food. Only later on in the famine were they allowed to return to their huts to eat as families.

The agro-cities never actually existed as such, but in many places ambitious plans were set in motion. In Anhui's Fengyang county, cadres decided that they would refashion the county town by straightening out its twisting lanes. 'The streets should run in straight lines with four lanes, and in the middle there should be gardens and flowers,' urged a planning conference? The dissident journalist Liu Binyan, who was exiled as a rightist to a village in Shanxi province in the north-west, recalled even more ambitious plans:

There was no underground water in the mountain village but orders came for a fountain to be set up on the main street. The people rarely ever had a scrap of meat but were ordered to carve out cave dwellings in the mountainsides to house a zoo containing tigers and lions. Their carefully tended terraced fields were destroyed to erect a miniature Summer Palace."

Many more such wonderful institutions were supposedly set up overnight. Fengyang county claimed that by the end of 1958 it had established 154 specialized red universities, 46 agricultural middle schools, 509 primary schools, 24 agricultural technical schools, 156 clubs, 44 cultural palaces and 105 theatrical troupes." The latter helped to provide a relentless programme of revolutionary songs which continued while the peasants worked and ate. If they were working around the clock, there were performances or broadcasts all night. Even when they were supposedly at rest, the peasants were obliged to attend political meetings and rallies.

In theory, the fantastic harvests were supposed to create unprecedented leisure for the peasants. When Mao visited Hebei's Xushui commune and heard of the great autumn harvest expected, he recommended: 'Plant a little less and do half a day's work. Use the other half for culture: study science, promote culture and recreation, run a college and middle school.' Yet such was the reality that, at the end of 1958, the People's Daily ran an article headlined 'See that the Peasants take rest'. It pointed out that an experiment had been carried out which compared the achievements of peasants forced to work four or five days without sleep, with those of a team which stopped at midnight and had two rest periods during the day. More was achieved, it said, by those allowed to rest. So the paper recommended that the peasants should not be overworked but allowed to sleep.

At the same time, the peasants were forced to hand over virtually all their private possessions. In some places, a Utopian madness gripped the villagers. One senior leader, Bo Yibo, later described what happened in a town in Hubei province:

The Party Secretary of Paoma town announced in October 1958 that Socialism would end on November 7th and Communism would begin on November 8th. After the meeting, everyone immediately took to the streets and began grabbing goods out of the shops. When the shelves were bare, they went to other people's homes and took their chickens and vegetables home to cat. People even stopped making a distinction as to which children belonged to whom. Only wives were safe from this sharing because the Party secretary was unsure about this. So he asked the higher-level authorities for instructions on whether people should continue to be allowed to keep their own wives."

Even the bodily wastes of the peasants became public property. In the communes, communal latrines replaced private ones because the excrement had to be used on the communal fields. Any individuality in clothing was discouraged and men and women dressed alike in unisex baggy cotton trousers and jackets. And, as has been described earlier, a great effort was made to eradicate every aspect of religion and folk culture. All these policies amounted to nothing less than an attempt to expunge every and any visible difference in wealth and status between individuals, as well as between villages and counties.

The administration of the peasant's life underwent a great change too. In the past the villagers themselves had controlled many aspects of their lives. Now the commune took charge not just of all matters to do with farming, but also marriages, funerals, travel and the distribution of food and other goods. The language itself was transformed: shops were renamed 'material supply offices'; instead of cash, there were 'certificates of purchase'; and money kept in banks on deposit became 'public accumulation funds'. Chen Boda had envisaged the complete abolition of money and this almost came true. The peasants had to use ration tickets for just about everything, including hot water.

Within each commune, a new unified administrative structure was set up which was responsible for every decision, no matter how trivial. The commune Party secretary ran a handful of committees which supervised agriculture, food and trade, political, legal and military affairs, science and technology. In addition, another office was responsible for drawing up a daily plan for work, education, culture, health and welfare. Under this highly centralized administration, the individual was powerless - nothing could be done without permission from the commune headquarters which often lay several days' journey away.

Through the communes, a direct line of command reached from Mao right down to the individual peasant. Such a militaristic structure of control had, perhaps, never been so absolute at any other time in China's history. Above the communes stood the county administration, the prefectural Party committee, the provincial Party and then Mao and his cronies at the centre. Each of the twenty-eight provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities was designed to be a self-sufficient and autonomous entity. This meant that the provincial Party boss acted as a kind of regent answerable only to Mao. The civilian administration, such as the national ministries responsible for education, health, agriculture and so on, no longer functioned, nor did the administration of local government. The Party was everything and no one could challenge or appeal against any decisions taken because no other authority existed.

With money virtually abolished, the communes substituted an extraordinarily elaborate system to compute the value of work done and to achieve an egalitarian distribution of wealth. In the first stage of the communes, the cadres were supposed to apply the principle of each according to his work, so each facet of work was calculated on a point system. First, each peasant was graded on a scale of 1 -10, according to the individual's physical strength and health. Skill, knowledge or experience were not taken into account. Then each type of work was graded separately with different accounting systems for each crop, for the various jobs in the construction of dams and irrigation works, and for sideline work such as raising chickens or repairing tools.

At first, the contract system was employed, under which each peasant, production team or brigade agreed to carry out a fixed amount of labour in a given period to meet the production targets set by the state. Surplus output was then divided among the different levels according to another complicated formula. At the beginning, there was, therefore, an incentive to work hard since income was linked to productivity. But then, in the autumn of 1958, Mao was so bowled over by what he was shown in model communes in Anhui and Henan that he decided China was ready to move to the next stage of Communism in which each would receive according to his needs. Touring Anhui province, Mao declared: 'Since one commune can put into practice the principle of eating without pay, other communes can do likewise. Since rice can be eaten without pay, clothing can also be had without pay in the future.'

In Henan's communes not even work points were awarded.

Food was distributed in communal mess halls free of charge according to individual requirements. Everything was free, from clothes to haircuts. Under this supply system, the expenses of seven of the ten 'basic necessities of life' were borne by the commune: food, clothing, housing, childbirth, education, medical treatment and marriages and funerals. No one was even paid pocket money. The communes also began to redistribute wealth between the villages, so that the richer villages had to hand over some of their tools and animals to the poorer ones as well as anything else they possessed, including cash. When the harvest was gathered in, it was delivered to the commune headquarters which then divided it up as it saw fit. In some parts of the country this redistribution of wealth took place between counties.

Inevitably, all this caused a great deal of resentment among the peasants but by the winter of 1958-9 the whole experiment was, in any case, beginning to fall apart. In many places, therefore, it is possible that the final stage was never carried out. Nevertheless, the effect of these policies on peasant attitudes to farm work was always the same. They felt there was no longer an incentive to work hard, to care for the fields or tend the animals, because the fruits of their labour would in any event be taken away. Instead, the peasants assumed that since Communism had arrived the state would provide everything they needed. In fact, this was only true as far as the local cadres were concerned - they did indeed live well on what the state provided.

The psychological impact of the system must also be viewed in the light of traditional Chinese farming practices. Despite the backward technology employed, the Chinese peasant who farmed his small plot of land was a model of efficiency. With the advent of the communes, the Communists treated farming as if it were akin to manufacturing and could be organized like an assembly line. This approach took no account of the peasant's skill in minutely tailoring his work to suit local conditions. Even in the eighteenth century, Jesuit priests working in China had been deeply impressed by the way in which most peasants constantly fine-tuned their plots of land to get the maximum out of them: 'Most farmers have a refined knowledge of weather and time, or, in other words, of the sequence of seasonal change, as it applies to their own small area.' The peasant's knowledge of farming techniques was considerable: 'They are not content to determine what sort of manure is suitable for each soil. They go on to desire what account should be taken of what has been harvested, and what is to be sown, of the weather that has gone before, and that chosen [for a particular operation]."

Now that the peasant no longer considered the land his own, there was no need to nurture it carefully in order to provide the maximum output over an extended period of time. Instead, orders came from a distant bureaucracy which tried to extract the maximum in the shortest possible time by sowing early, or by trying to reap two crops instead of one, or by trying to grow unsuitable crops. With the full power of the Party behind the orders to apply Mao's innovations such as close planting, deep ploughing and so on, the peasants had no choice but to obey. They knew that these methods were wrong but now each had only to concern himself with collecting work points.

After the first terrible winter of famine in 1958-9, apathy set in. The Party cadres had increasingly to rely on force and terror to get the peasants to obey their orders. At the height of the famine, they wielded the power of life and death because they controlled the grain stores and could kill anyone by depriving them of food. In many places, the cadres ordered that only those who worked could eat and left the sick, the old and the young to die. In Sichuan and some other provinces, it took a mere six months for the communes to make the journey from Utopia, where each could eat his fill, to a hell where it was 'work or starve to death'.





'This is a holocaust and massacre committed by our enemies.'

Party report on Xinyang prefecture


WHAT HAPPENED IN the quiet rural province of Henan in central China between 1958 and 1961 is so extraordinary that even beside the other horrors of the twentieth century, it stands out. After Mao's death, the Communist Party allowed the publication of heavily disguised versions of the events in Henan, such works being briefly encouraged to discredit the Maoists resisting Deng Xiaoping's rural reforms. A local opera by Du Xi called Huang Huo or Catastrophe of Lies appeared in 1979, and the novelist Zhang Yigong published The Case of Criminal Li Tongzhong, the story of a rural cadre who secretly raids a state granary to distribute food during the famine and is then caught and punished for his 'crime'. However, after 1982 such works were quietly shelved and the full story of the 'Xinyang incident', as the events in Henan are euphemistically termed, has never been made known beyond the inner circles of the Communist Party. This is the first attempt to describe the horror which consumed this otherwise unremarkable rural backwater.

The prefecture of Xinyang lies in a plain watered by the Huai River. At the time it was made up of 17 counties and was home to about a fifth of Henan's population of some 50 million. In April 1958, Xinyang shot to fame when the first commune in China was formed within the prefecture at Chayashan in Suiping county.' In response to this singular honour, the prefectural Party leadership became fanatically devoted to Mao and his dreams and, to sustain them, launched a reign of terror in which tens of thousands were beaten and tortured to death. A Communist Party report published in 1961 described the events not just as mass murder but as 'a holocaust'?

The great terror began in the autumn of 1959 when, in the wake of the Lushan meeting, the prefectural Party committee declared war on the peasants. Those who failed to fulfil their production quotas were condemned as 'little Peng Dehuais' and no mercy was shown towards them. Although the provincial Party Secretary, Wu Zhifu, had lowered the year's grain target for the province in view of a local drought, the zealous Xinyang leadership was determined to show that nature would not be permitted to force a retreat. The leadership insisted that the harvest of 1959 would be as good as that of 1958, so county officials strove to outdo each other in reporting good results. After the summer, the First Secretary of Xinyang prefecture, Lu Xianwen, declared that despite the drought, the 1959 harvest in his region was 3.92 million tonnes, double the real figure. Grain levies, hitherto set at around 30 per cent of the harvest, now amounted in practice to nearly 90 per cent. For example, in one county within the prefecture, Guangshan, cadres reported a harvest of 239,280 tonnes when it was really only 88,392 tonnes, and fixed the grain levy at 75,500 tonnes. When they were unable to collect more than 62,500 tonnes, close to the entire harvest, the local cadres launched a brutal 'and-hiding campaign'.

Lu Xianwen declared that anyone who even suggested that the 1959 harvest was lower than that of 1958 was an enemy of the people, a criminal who opposed the Three Red Banners. He went on to claim that since the villagers were hiding plenty of grain, the Party was confronted with an ideological conflict, a struggle between two different lines. As he told one meeting in the early autumn: 'It is not that there is no food. There is plenty of grain, but 90 per cent of the people have ideological problems."

At a meeting of his deputies Lu Xianwen announced that a class struggle was now beginning in which all the peasants were the enemy. This struggle against the peasantry must, he said, be waged even more ruthlessly than had been that against the Japanese. When county Party secretaries returned from their meeting in Xinyang city, they passed the same message down to their subordinates. The secretary of Gu Man county told his cadres that during this period the peasants must be considered as anti-Party and against socialism. The peasants, he said, were the enemy, and this was war.

Some low-ranking cadres, local peasants themselves, were appalled by this, but dissent was impossible. No one, however humble, was allowed to remain neutral in this struggle. In Guangshan county, First Party Secretary Ma Longshan publicly 'struggled' one of his deputies, Zhang Fuhong, beating him so severely that his scalp was ripped off and he died from his wounds.' In similar struggle sessions which took place all over the prefecture, no Party member could refuse to take part and all had tojoin in the beating and torture of those suspected of hiding grain. Even prospective Party members were warned that if they did not participate, they would be barred from membership. To enforce the terror, the Public Security Bureau began to arrest both officials and peasants accused of being 'right opportunists'. Over 10,000 were detained, many of them subsequently dying from beatings or starvation.'

All over Xinyang, local officials also began to organize mass rallies which sometimes masqueraded as public entertainments to intimidate the peasants. On one such occasion, 10,000 people were invited to attend an opera performance, but when it was over the county Party Secretary, Lian Dezhu, went on stage and personally beat four peasants accused of hoarding grain. On other occasions, cadres demonstrated to the already starving peasants that some had indeed hidden grain by staging fake searches. In one commune, Ji Gong Shang, they secretly buried grain which they had first taken from a state granary. Then they summoned the peasants to watch an on-the-spot inspection in which the cadres duly discovered the 'secret' cache. All over the prefecture, cadres staged house-to-house searches, turning everything upside down to unearth the reserves which the peasantry was supposedly hiding from the state.'

At some rallies organized by the prefectural Party, every peasant attending had to hand over a quota of 5 lbs of grain. Later, when cadres were convinced that there really was no grain left, they would hold another rally at which the peasants were ordered to donate their chickens, ducks, pigs and other livestock. Finally, the peasants had to hand over their remaining possessions, everything from quilts to bronze door knockers even, if they had nothing better, their cotton winter coats. In schools, teachers and pupils also had to take part in the campaign and deliver whatever grain or food coupons they possessed. Cadres in some places had to report three times a day on their achievements in the anti-hiding-grain production campaign. The prefectural Party committees even organized a competition to see which county could obtain the most grain. Huang Chuan county urged its inhabitants to eat less for three days so that it could rise higher than ninth place, its leaders declaring that it was better to let a few hundred people starve to death than sacrifice their honour.

To force the peasants to hand over their last remaining reserves, the officials did not simply beat the peasants but created a nightmare of organized torture and murder.' In its unpredictable terror, this rivalled the land reform campaign of 1948. Lu Xianwen issued orders to his cadres to crack down on what he termed 'the three obstacles': people who declared that there was no grain left; peasants who tried to flee; and those who called for the closure of the collective kitchens. In implementing the crackdown, each place invented its own methods of torture. In Guangshan county, local officials thought up thirty different tortures while Huang Chuan county had a list of seventy. Party documents drawn up after the arrest of the Xinyang prefecture's leadership in 1961 give details.

Many involved tying up and beating to death the victims, whose numbers in each locality ran into the hundreds. One Public Security chief, Chen Rubin, personally beat over 200 people in the Yidian production brigade of Dingyuan commune, Luoshan county. Han Defu, Second Secretary of the Segang commune, thrashed over 300 people. Guo Shouli, head of the militia of Nayuan brigade in Liji commune, Gushi county, beat 110 militiamen, 11 of whom were left permanently disabled and 6 of whom died. The same official arrested a commune member, Wei Shaoqiao, who had left one of the dam construction sites and returned home without permission. He was beaten to death, and when his wife came to look for him, she too was tied up and beaten until she died. She was three months pregnant. Guo Shouli then wanted to cut off the roots' of the family and killed the couple's 4-year-old child.

Others were buried alive or deliberately frozen to death: 'At the headquarters of the reservoir construction site of Ding Yuan of Luoshan commune, peasant Liu Nanjie had all his clothes removed and was then forced to stand outside in freezing snowy weather. ' In another case at Huashudian commune in Guangshan county, thirteen orphans were kept in water outdoors until they all froze to death. A common form of punishment was for cadres to drag people along by their hair. In one case in Huang Chuan county, a peasant woman was dragged for sixty feet over the ground until she died. Officials are also recorded as having tortured people by burning the hair on their heads, chins or genitals. The peasants tried to escape this form of cruelty by shaving off all their hair but then the cadres began to cut off the ears of their victims. In the Da Luying production brigade in Fan Hu commune, Xixian county, cadres hacked off the ears of seventeen people. A 20year-old girl, Huang Xiu Lian, who was president of the commune's Women's Association, cut off the ears of four people, one of whom later died. Elsewhere women were humiliated by having sticks inserted into their genitals. Others were forced to sit or stand motionless for long periods, or made to run long distances.

Party records list still more grotesque methods of instilling fear and terror. The Party Secretary of Qisi commune in Gushi county, Jiang Xue Zhong, is said to have invented a method of boiling human flesh to turn it into fertilizer and was rumoured to have boiled more than a hundred children. Subsequent investigations revealed that he had boiled at least twenty corpses. Equally harsh punishments were meted out to those working in labour gangs on various huge reservoir and irrigation projects within the prefecture. According to figures for Gushi county, of the 60,000 workers sent to work on one dam project, 10,700 perished from exhaustion, hunger, cold or beatings.

There was almost nothing the peasants could do to save themselves in the face of this terror. When the collective canteens ran out of grain, some began slaughtering the remaining livestock. Retribution was savage after Lu Xianwen denounced this as 'sabotage of production' and demanded the punishment of offenders. Cadres in Xiangyang Dian commune in Pingyu county ordered the culprits to be dressed in mourning. Some had their noses pierced and wire pulled through the nostrils. They were then forced to pull a plough in the field like an ox. Others were stripped naked and beaten, and an oxhide still covered in fresh blood was tied around them. When the hide dried, it was torn off, ripping the victim's skin with it. An 18-year-old student, Wang Guoxi, was similarly treated when he was accused of stealing a sheep belonging to the Party Secretary of the Zhaoluo production brigade in Fan Hu commune, Xixian county. Strung up in the sheepskin, he was dragged from village to village for three days without food. When it was pulled off, the sheepskin, which by then had shrunk, took off much of his own skin as well and he subsequently died. An official account comments that various kinds of counter-revolutionary atrocities of unparalleled savagery took place in almost all counties and communes and, according to the records, they took place not only in rural areas but in cities, factories, government units, schools, shops and hospitals. Eight headmasters of Guangshan county's 12 middle schools committed murder and it has been discovered that 28 teachers and students were beaten to death or forced to commit suicide in two middle schools.

Even when, at the start of winter, it was clear that the peasants had nothing to eat but tree bark, wild grass seeds and wild vegetables, Lu Xianwen declared that this was merely 'a ruse of rich peasants' and ordered the search for grain to be redoubled. Party cadres were also incited to smash the cooking pots in every household to prevent them from being used at home to cook grass soup.

Some tried to flee but Lu ordered the arrest of such 'criminals' after seeing children begging by the roadside. Militiamen were instructed to guard every road and railway and to arrest any travellers, even those staying in hostels. All government organizations were given strict orders not to provide refuge to the fleeing peasants." In Gushi county, the militia arrested at least 15,000 people who were then sent to labour camps. In Huang Chuan county, the head of the Public Security Bureau allowed 200 to starve to death in prison and then dispatched the 4 tonnes of grain he had thereby saved to the Party authorities.

The most extraordinary aspect of these events is that throughout the famine the state granaries in the prefecture were full of grain which the peasants said was sufficient to keep everyone alive. Several sources have stated that even at the height of the famine, the Party leadership ate well. By the beginning of 1960, with nothing left to eat and no longer able to flee, the peasants began to die in huge numbers. In the early stages of the famine, most of those who died were old people or men forced to do hard labour on inadequate rations. Now, it was women and children. Whole villages starved to death. In Xixian county alone, 639 villages were left deserted and 100,000 starved to death. A similar number died in Xincai county. 12 Corpses littered the fields and roads as the peasants collapsed from starvation. Few of the bodies were buried. Many simply lay down at home and died.

That winter, cannibalism became widespread. Generally, the villagers ate the flesh of corpses, especially those of children. In rare cases, parents ate their own children, elder brothers ate younger brothers, elder sisters ate their younger sisters. In most cases, cannibalism was not punished by the Public Security Bureaux because it was not considered as severe a crime as destroying state property and the means of production. This latter crime often merited the death sentence. Travelling around the region over thirty years later, every peasant that I met aged over 50 said he personally knew of a case of cannibalism in his production team. One man pointed to a nearby cluster of huts and said he recalled entering a neighbour's house to find him eating the leg of a 5-year-old child of a relative who had died of starvation. The authorities came to hear of what he had done but although he was criticized, he was never put on trial. Generally, though, cannibalism was a secret, furtive event. Women would usually go out at night and cut flesh off the bodies, which lay under a thin layer of soil, and this would then be eaten in secrecy. Sometimes, though, the authorities did intervene. In one commune, a 15-year-old girl who survived by boiling her younger brother's corpse and eating it was caught. The Public Security Bureau charged her with 'destroying a corpse' and put her in prison where she subsequently starved to death. In Gushi county, in 1960, the authorities listed 200 cases of corpses being eaten and charged those arrested with the crime of 'destroying corpses 9 .

Among the peasants little blame or stigma was apparently attached to breaking such taboos. Bai Hua, one of China's most famous contemporary writers, recalls that while living in another part of China, he heard the following story from a workmate who returned from a visit to Xinyang. There, the man had discovered that all his relatives bar one had starved to death. This was his aunt who had managed to survive through chance because a pig had run into her hut one night. She quickly closed the door, killed it and buried it under the ground. She did not dare share the pork with anyone, not even her 5-year-old son, for she was convinced that if she did so, her son would blurt out the news to the other villagers. Then she feared that the authorities would seize the meat, beat her to death and leave her son to die anyway. So she let him starve to death. Neither Bai Hua nor his workmate condemned the aunt for her actions.

Deaths were kept secret for as long as possible. What food there was was distributed by the collective kitchen and generally one family member would be sent to collect the rations on behalf of the whole household. As long as the death of a family member was kept secret, the rest of the household could benefit from an extra ration. So the corpse would be kept in the hut. In Guangshan county, one woman with three children was caught after she had hidden the corpse of one of them behind the door and then finally, in desperation, had begun to eat it.

The Xinyang prefectural leadership did everything it could to hide what was going on from the world outside. The Party ensured that all mail and telephone calls were monitored and censored. No one could leave the region without written permission from the Party leaders who even posted cadres at the railway station in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital. They were accompanied by guards who searched and usually arrested anyone getting off a train from Xinyang. While in other parts of China the authorities issued starving peasants with 'begging certificates' which allowed them to try their luck elsewhere, this was strictly forbidden in Xinyang.

The provincial authorities in Zhengzhou did send inspection teams to Xinyang but they were prevented from gathering information. In one instance, the inspection team was simply not allowed to get off the train. Even when, in the autumn of 1959, the provincial authorities offered to send grain to relieve the shortages caused by the drought, it was refused. Some grain was delivered but it was returned by the Xinyang leadership who continued to insist that they were enjoying a bumper harvest. In the atmosphere of terror, no cadre at any level dared admit the truth: Liang Dezhen, the First Secretary of Huang Chuan county, turned back relief grain because he suspected that it was a ruse to trap him into making a political mistake, and one production brigade in the county that did take the grain sent it back as the fruits of its 'anti-hiding-grain production' work.

Much of the blame for what happened in Xinyang must rest with Wu Zhifu, the head of the Henan Party organization. A short, tubby man, the son of local peasants, Wu had joined the Party early on and became a student of Mao's at the Peasant Movement Training Institute in the mid-1920s. After the Communists had driven the Nationalists south of the Yangtze in 1948, he rose to be a senior member of the Party in Henan. As such, he was responsible for carrying out land reform in the province, which was marked by exceptional violence. Not only were landlords stripped of all their possessions, but so were rich peasants and large numbers of so-called middle peasants. According to one account, the peasants 'carried off and divided everything that could be moved. Beatings and killings were widespread and not all victims were landlords."' Indeed, the violence was so great that the Party was obliged to halt the process. Partly as a result, the post of First Secretary went not to Wu but to a more moderate figure called Pan Fusheng. Over the next few years, the Henan leadership was split between radical leftists loyal to Mao, who wanted to press ahead with collectivization as fast as possible, and moderates under Pan. The Maoists began to drive the peasants harder and harder, forcing them into ever larger co-operatives and pressurizing them to promise to deliver ever larger quotas of grain to the state. Such men were singled out for praise by Mao in July 1955 when he compiled his book The High Tide of Socialism in the Chinese Countryside. Henan suffered from famine in 1956 and Pan responded by splitting the co-operatives into smaller units and allowing peasants to leave if they wished. He criticized the collectivization, saying, 'The peasants are the same as beasts of burden, yellow oxen are tied up in the stall and human beings are harnessed in the fields. Girls and women pull ploughs and harrows with their wombs hanging down. Co-operation is transformed into the exploitation of human strength."' In the 1957 Anti-Rightist purge, Pan was accused of following in the footsteps of Bukharin - the Soviet leader shot for opposing Stalin's rush into collectivization - and dismissed." In his place Mao appointed Wu Zhifu, who turned Henan into the pace-setter for Maoist agriculture. As a result, many provinces adopted the slogan: 'Learn from Henan, catch up with Henan, press ahead consistently and win first position.'

Chen Boda, who spent much time in Henan, made Wu his protégé and asked him to write articles about his successes in Red Flag, the ideological journal which Chen edited. Henan was rewarded for its loyalty by being chosen as the site for both the country's first tractor factory and a giant hydro-electric scheme on the Yellow River.

Mao toured the new model communes in Henan several times in 1958, admiring their agricultural miracles and the speed with which some communes had apparently reached the final stage of Communism. In his wake, thousands of officials from around the country came to study the Henan model. Among the innovations launched in Chayashan was a technique called 'launching a sputnik. Unlike the Soviet Union's satellite, this sputnik required no technology or science, just peasants pushed into working for twenty-four hours at a stretch to achieve extraordinary feats of industry. The American j ournalist Anna Louise Strong claimed that in one such twenty-four hour sputnik, peasants produced a staggering 1.2 million tonnes of iron, more than the United States poured in a whole month. By launching sputniks, Wu promised to make Henan the first province to achieve full literacy, complete irrigation and full Communization. He also claimed that the Chayashan commune's sputniks were lifting grain yields to astronomical levels. Yields allegedly shot from an average of around 330 lbs per 0.17 acres to 3,300 lbs and sometimes even 11,000 lbs. After Mao visited these fields, he told a top-level meeting in Zhengzhou that such yields could now be reached by everyone. It was of course all lies, for everything Mao saw was a staged pantomime. Before each visit, local officials prepared fields for Mao to inspect by digging out shoots of wheat and replanting them all in one experimental field. When Mao arrived they put three children on top of the grain to show that the wheat was growing so closely together that it could support their weight. When he left, they put the grain back in the original fields. The same trick was used to demonstrate how successfully agriculture was being mechanized. At each commune Mao visited, he was delighted to see electric irrigation pumps watering the fields, but they were always the same pumps, which had been taken from the last commune and which were then installed in the next while he slept."

Trapped by their own lies, local officials then had to order the peasants to try to reach exceptional grain yield targets using methods such as deep ploughing and close planting. Some peasants genuinely believed that close planting would work if it was done with great accuracy. They cut up endless copies of the People'sDaily and on the pages spread out over the fields they marked out exactly where individual seeds should be placed. Experience dictated a limit of 12 lbs of seed per mu (0. 17 acres), but now they tried to plant 88-132 lbs per mu. In some places, layer upon layer of seeds were forcibly pressed into the ground. Naturally, the seeds suffocated each other and the fields remained barren. No one dared openly admit that Mao's ideas did not work, so they literally covered up the emperor's nakedness with their coats. They went to their huts and took out their cotton coats and bedding, and added seeds and water. In this way the seeds quickly sprouted. When the new seedlings were high enough, the mattresses and coats were buried under Soil.

In Henan, everything was taken to extremes. When the nation was ordered to exterminate the four pests and clean up their villages and latrines, the peasants in Xinyang set a new standard in this orgy of cleanliness by brushing the teeth of their oxen and sheep. Henan's irrigation projects were the grandest and most ambitious in China and work on them went on around the clock. In the fields, too, peasants worked at night by electric light; when that was not available, they used oil lamps and candles.

Henan's enthusiasm for the Great Leap Forward made Zhengzhou a favourite venue for a number of key top-level meetings in 1958. That year Wu reported that the Henan grain harvest was 35 million tonnes of grain, triple the real total of 12.5 million tonnes . To Mao this was a vindication of his policies and substantiated what he thought he had himself seen in Henan. In internal Party circulars, he described those who doubted him as 'tide-watchers', 'bean-counters' and 'right opportunists'. After the Lushan summit, Mao was equally pleased when at a meeting in November 1959, again in Zhengzhou, Wu Zhifu told him that Henan's agriculture was doing even better. Wu had returned from Lushan and had immediately organized a huge conference with cadres from the village level upwards. They were ordered to spare no effort to hunt down 'right opportunists'. Wu made a list of those who should be attacked. He said rightists included those who talked about the limitations of nature and predicted disaster, and divided them into five categories - among them the 'push-pull faction', the 'wait-and-see faction', the 'shaking-heads-in-front of-the-furnace faction' and the 'stretching-out-hands faction'.

These categories were so vague and so open to interpretation that anyone could be persecuted depending on the whim of their superiors. Fear and panic swept the province.

Wu Zhifu set a new and equally unrealistic grain target of 22 million tonnes for 1959. Though lower than the 1958 target of 35 million tonnes, because parts of Henan were stricken by drought, it was more than double what was actually harvested in 1959, estimated at 10.3 million tonnes of grain. 25 At the same time, Wu reduced the acreage sown to grain by 14 per cent in line with Williams' theories. In early 1960, he raised production targets still higher and commissioned more irrigation projects, reporting to Beijing that Henan's grain output that year was again very high and joining in the chorus of Maoist loyalists who were urging another 'Great Leap Forward'.

The blame for these acts of criminal folly cannot entirely be laid on Wu's shoulders, or on those of Xinyang's Lu. Xianwen. The fanaticism with which they pursued these goals derived in part from Henan's past which had created a fertile ground for Utopian fantasies. In a region notorious for its famines, the peasants were psychologically receptive to millenarian movements. Dynasties had come and gone, but their way of life had changed little. Most lived in the same kind of crude huts made of mud and straw as had their forefathers 2,000 years before, and across the same fields the patient ox pulled a wooden plough just as its ancestors had done. By the twentieth century, Henan was a backward and impoverished region known as the 'land of beggars'. The exhausted soil could not feed the growing population and many periodically fled elsewhere. Among those who stayed, many turned to secret societies and religious sects - it is no coincidence that in the first half of the twentieth century American missionaries built hospitals and churches in great numbers in the province. Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, disaster after disaster struck Henan. In April 1938, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek breached the dykes of the Yellow River to halt the Japanese army's southward advance. Some claim that as a result between I and 3.9 million peasants drowned or starved and another I I million were left homeless. Nonetheless, war continued to rack the region. In the plains the Nationalists and Japanese armies fought. In the Dabie mountains in the south of Henan, the Communist Red Army established a base and each army fought viciously for control of the peasantry. In 1943 Henan was the epicentre of what was then considered the worst famine in Chinese history when between 3 and 5 million died, This was the famine which the American journalist Theodore White witnessed and which he appealed, successfully, to Chiang Kai-shek to stop. It convinced him that the peasants were right to go over to the Communists after the Japanese defeat: 'I know how cruel the Chinese Communists can be: but no cruelty was greater than the Henan famine, and if the Communist idea promised government of any kind, then the ideas of mercy and liberty with which I had grown up were irrelevant.' In the light of what subsequently occurred in Henan under Mao, his comment has a terrible irony. The famines did not end with Japan's defeat in 1945. The following year another famine, witnessed by the Daily Telegraph correspondent John Ridley, carried off a further 5 million people in Henan.

Ultimately, responsibility for what happened in Henan in 1958-61 rested with Mao himself. He had personally sanctioned the orgy of violence and had held up Xinyang as a model for the rest of the country. As early as the beginning of 1959, Mao had received letters from peasants in some counties in Henan protesting that people were starving to death." He disregarded them and in response to complaints that production team leaders were brutally beating peasants who refused to hand over their hidden grain, he addressed a meeting of provincial leaders in February 1959 as follows: 'We should protect the enthusiasm of cadres and working-class people. As for those 5 per cent of cadres who break the law, we should look at them individually, and help them to overcome their mistakes. If we exaggerate this problem it is not good."' Officials were effectively given carte blanche to take any measures they wished to seize the fictitious hoards of grain.

However, reports of what was really happening in Henan were reaching the centre, and some influential figures in the capital were becoming concerned. Mao was guarded by a special unit of bodyguards, some of whom were recruited from the Xinyang region which had been an important military base for the Red Army during the 1940s, and they received letters from their relatives. Another source of information came from inspection tours by Mao's secretary Tian Jiaying and by Chen Yun, one of the most senior figures in the Party. Despite the efforts made to deceive them, both expressed scepticism about Henan's claims. Yet Mao only believed what he wanted to hear. He dismissed reports from these sources and instead accepted as the truth a report from the Xinyang leadership that insisted there was no grain crisis. It admitted that there were problems with falling grain supplies but claimed that this was only due to widespread sabotage by former landlords, counterrevolutionaries, revisionists and feudal elements. The Xinyang Party leadership (who appear to have had a direct channel of communication with Mao) proposed to solve the grain problem with a harsh crackdown. Mao was delighted to hear that, as he had always maintained, class struggle lay behind China's problems. He issued a directive to the rest of the country urging all Party members to deepen the struggle against such class enemies. The Xinyang report was copied and distributed to the whole Party as a model of what was wrong and what should be done about it. To support the Xinyang leadership, he dispatched some members from his own circle to the prefecture in January 1960. According to his doctor, Li Zhisui, Mao sent his confidential secretary, Gao Zhi, and his chief bodyguard, Feng Yaosong. He told them to come back if the assignment became too hard, saying, 'Don't worry, no one will die.'

For the entire summer of 1960 Mao did nothing, although it was by then becoming clear even to him that China was starving. The rest of the Chinese leadership was paralysed, waiting for Mao to change his mind. At the beginning of the winter, inspection teams led by senior Party leaders set out from Beijing to gather evidence of what was going on in the countryside. What happened next in Xinyang is not entirely clear. According to one version, an inspection team led by Chen Yun and Deng Liqun arrived in Xinyang but were detained as they got off the train and confined to a small room. They returned to sound the alarm. Another version has it that an army colonel from Beijing came home on leave and discovered that his relatives in Guangshan county were starving.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the famine was broken in early 1961 when about 30,000 men from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) were ordered to occupy Xinyang, distribute the grain in the state granaries and arrest the prefecture's leadership. The army stayed for three or four months. One source said that in Huang Chuan county, people were so weak they could only crawl across the ground to get to the grain. Some died only feet away from it. The troops also distributed 1.17 million winter coats and 140,000 quilts, and provided emergency accommodation. A report on Xinyang revealed that in places nine out of ten dwellings had been abandoned: the troops set about repairing a total of more than half a million dwellings and opened 80,000 government buildings as shelters for the peasants. A massive effort to gather fuel for fires was undertaken and an edict was promulgated to ensure that the peasants were not asked to do more than half a day's work.

Mao had himself authorized the PLA's intervention and, in a brief letter distributed within the Party, he wrote that it was necessary to do this even if he risked being accused of rightism. The PLA, together with cadres from Zhengzhou, launched an investigation into what had happened in Xinyang. About fifty of the top officials were arrested and interrogated, and a report was drawn up and widely distributed. The official version which Mao authorized blamed the whole episode on counterrevolutionaries and class enemies:

There are two reasons why our enemies could act so recklessly. On the one hand, they disguised themselves as the Communist Party and draped their counter-revolutionary souls with the banner of socialism and threw dust in the eyes of some people. On the other hand, there is a social basis for the counterrevolutionaries. As counter-revolutionaries were not thoroughly suppressed and land reform was not properly carried out, some landlords, rich peasants and bad men were left untouched and many of them sneaked into revolutionary organizations, collaborating with each other to carry out the restoration of the counterrevolutionary class and to conduct cannibalistic persecution of the masses. 28

Mao's views notwithstanding, the 'Xinyang incident' became widely known amongst the senior levels of the Party throughout China and was used to push for a reversal of policies in 1961. Versions of the findings of the investigation were circulated and have since reappeared in different publications that form the basis of the above account. It seems likely that one version containing higher death tolls was restricted to the top levels of the Party and that another was distributed to lower-ranking cadres to minimize the damage to morale. Evidence that morale was indeed damaged within the army comes from a document drawn up by the PLA's General Political Department, a copy of which the US State Department obtained in 1963. It expressed strong fears that the loyalty of the army was in doubt because some of the troops were openly blaming Mao for the death of their relatives. Different versions of the official report on the 'Xinyang incident' would explain why different sources give conflicting figures for the death toll. Some claim that the total population of Xinyang* was about 8 million in 1958 and that the final death toll was 4 million out of a provincial death toll of 7.8 million. A former Chinese Party official, Chen Yizi, who lived in Xinyang during the Cultural Revolution and, after 1979, took part in an official investigation into famine deaths, has said that the Henan provincial death toll was 8 million. When I visited the worst-hit counties, such as Luoshan and Guangshan, people readily admitted that two-thirds of the population had perished during the famine. Even in the less severely hit counties and communes, death rates of 20 or 30 per cent were standard. At the Chayashan commune, the first in China, the death rate was 33 per cent.

Other sources, including such books as Ding Shu's Ren Huo and Su Luozheng's July Storm, put the death toll in Xinyang at 1 million and the provincial total at around 2 million. Such sources provide detailed death tolls for each of the counties in Xinyang. Even if, in the absence of conclusive documentary proof, the lower figure of I million is accepted, this still means that around one in eight died, a figure which remains horrifying.

Few were punished for this holocaust. One version of the official report on Henan states that 130,000 cadres were investigated and ordered to reform their work-style. Of these, 8,000 were considered to have made 'serious mistakes', 983 were discharged from their posts and disciplined, and a mere 275 were arrested and brought to justice. Among them were 50 senior cadres. A handful, including the Xinyang Party secretary Lu Xianwen, were given the death sentence but were reprieved on Mao's orders Instead, Lu and the others were assigned to posts elsewhere in the country. Some of those responsible are still living in Zhengzhou over thirty years later. Wu Zhifu was protected by Mao and, though demoted to Second Secretary in 1962, was later given a high position in the South-West China Bureau. He reportedly wrote a self-criticism in which he said my crimes are very great. Whatever punishment is announced,

I will not protest even if it is death.' Even today, many in Henan still consider him to have been a good man forced to do bad things. He died in the early 1970s and was praised by the Party as an honoured patriot. His mother still lives in Zhengzhou and is dignified with gifts at Qingming, the Chinese festival honouring the dead. Wu's sons have been given good jobs in the government and allowed to study abroad. Few now want to remember Xinyang's bitter history or to try to understand what happened there.




'In those years, starvation became a sort of mental manacle,

depriving us of our freedom to think.'

Han Weitian


STARVATION CAN BE one of the most prolonged and humiliating forms of death. Its immediate effect is rapid weight loss as the body consumes reserves of fat and then muscle tissue. On a diet of 1,600 calories a day, equivalent to a pound of cereals, the body will lose a quarter of its weight in two to three months.' This, the first stage of starvation, is familiar from news pictures. Adults often have emaciated bodies and concave stomachs while the bellies of children are distended by the gases created by bacteria growing in the stomach and intestine. In tropical countries and especially among refugees living in camps, famine victims in this state are often carried away by disease before they reach the stage of terminal starvation.

However, in China the famine was different. The vast majority of people remained in their own homes. Standards of public health continued to be vigorously enforced. Even in the depths of the famine, people in villages or labour camps were inspected to see if they were obeying the sanitation regulations zealously laid down during the Great Leap Forward.

As the famine intensified, a large part of the population reached the second stage of starvation. The Encyclopaedia Byitannica describes it thus: 'Activity will be reduced and general lethargy will occur. If there is a further reduction in food intake, further weight loss will occur and the death rate will rise.

Psychologically the mind is dominated by a desire for food. Other emotions are dulled. Moral standards are lowered and in extreme conditions murder and cannibalism may occur.'

In this second stage, the body stops shrinking and begins to swell. In medieval Europe, this was called the 'dropsy'. It is now known as oedema (or edema), defined in the Encyclopaedia as 6 a swelling due to the effusion of watery fluid into the intercellular spaces of connective tissues'. A lack of protein means that fluid escapes from the blood into the tissues which, when punctured, secrete a thin incoagulable fluid'.

During the height of the famine, various sources suggest that around 10 per cent of the urban population and 10 to 30 per cent of the rural population suffered from oedema. In Fengyang, a report claimed that 37.8 per cent of the population was sick, largely from oedema. It is a condition easily detected. It is present if, when a finger is pressed against the skin, the skin preserves the indentation rather than reverting to its unmarked state. In Changsha, Hunan province, one writer recalls that 'Many of the old people and almost all the children I knew had the "water swelling disease", dropsy. Our bodies puffed up and wouldn't recede ... When acquaintances met, they squeezed each other's legs to see how swollen they were, and examined each other's skin to see if they were yellow. It was a game for me to poke Nai Nai's cheek and leave a hole that would fill up only very slowly like dough.' Even in Beijing, which as the capital received the highest priority in the supply of food, oedema was present. One doctor who worked there reckoned that it affected 10 per cent of the population. A health survey conducted in 1961 estimated that the same proportion of Heilongjiang's population likewise had oedema.

Since officially there was no famine in China, only bumper harvests, doctors were forbidden to tell patients that they were starving. The usual Chinese terms for malnutrition and lack of food are yinyang bu liang and quefa yinyang. Instead, the government resorted to euphemisms. Doctors were told to talk about fictitious diseases such as fuzhong bing or shuizhong bing, that is swollen sickness or water illness. Oedema is, however, a symptom not a disease. At the same time, it was forbidden to record a death as due to starvation. Even in the prison camps this could not be done, and in some places all medical terms were dispensed with and oedema was simply referred to as 'Number Two Disease'.

Emmanuel John Hevi, an African student studying medicine in Beijing during the famine, records how his teachers claimed that the Chinese are physiologically different from the rest of humanity. His American-trained biology professor gave a lecture on the metabolism and explained that 'because proteins, fats and carbohydrates are inter-convertible during human metabolic processes, the people of China do not suffer any nutritional loss in consequence of their diet's deficiency in fats and proteins'. As Hevi comments, 'She was not telling us what she knew to be a fact but rather what she had been ordered to tell us as a political necessity ... Faced with a shortage of protein and fats, the Party declares that these things are no longer necessary but are luxuries which the Chinese people can well do without."

Fortunately, one authoritative medical description of the reality behind such nonsense has been written by Dr Benjamin Lee who now works in the Department of Pediatrics at the Louisiana State University Medical Center.' In 1958 he was sentenced as a rightist and spent the next four years on the Sino-Russian border in Heilongjiang province at the Lake Xingkai state farm. There he took notes of the effects of the famine on over 5,000 prisoners. Although Dr Lee only recorded what happened to camp inmates, his description applies equally well to millions of others outside the camps:

An inmate would become malnourished within a few weeks of arrival. Usually, the first sign of severe malnutrition in a prisoner was incontinence. However little water he had drunk, the victim would find himself having to urinate one or even two pints of colourless fluid a night. Prisoners had to get up at one- to threehour intervals and, even more humiliating in crowded cells, they would often pee in their pants before they made it to a pot or the latrines. Some gripped their penis to try and stop themselves.

Equally degrading was the way in which the starving lost control over their bowels, developing acute diarrhoea. Their stools would become milky and jellymlike, and often bloody. Terminal cases excreted reddish brown watery faeces in large quantities. Food would pass through the intestine within an hour, often without undergoing any change. Victims would also suffer from severe flatulence and at night they would sweat so severely that their bedclothes would become drenched.

The outside of the body would also change. In a third of the inmates, big patches of brown skin appeared, especially at the elbows, the spine, the feet and thighs. Some long-term prisoners found the skin inside their cheeks drying up and turning green. The skin would also fissure, creating crevasses in the hands and feet which became infected. The skin became particularly painful at the fingertips and the sides of the nails. Often the first sign of malnutrition was the appearance of fine parallel yellowish lines which appeared on the fingernails. The upper nail would flatten out and become thin and brittle, while the lower part turned thick and soft like dirty rubber. Sometimes the nails bled, causing intolerable pain. As they weakened, prisoners found that they could no longer make fine movements with their fingers and the tendons around the wrists became inflamed.

Starvation also changed the body in other ways. Large joints, like the shoulder, moved with a dull clanging noise. joints thickened and became enlarged. Even the cartilage at the end of the nose thickened so that the bridge of the nose widened into a crest. Much the same thing happened to the sternum. Other parts also swelled in strange ways. In some prisoners, the parotid glands under the neck and in front of the ears grew to the size of a hamburger. Others complained of swellings behind the knees, or at lymph nodes in the groin or under the arms. Veins in the eyeballs hardened and became inflamed. Fissures in the teeth appeared. In some cases, the chest collapsed and became compressed like a child's rib-cage to half or even a third of its normal extent.

Most inmates suffered from a terrible hacking cough. One former inmate said that this condition became worse at night when he would cough continuously, unable to catch his breath: 'My chest cavity seemed to have been packed with dynamite explosion after explosion would erupt from within me.' Many famine victims also fell into a high fever with severe headaches and cramps. High blood pressure, hypertension and bradycardia, when the heart beats very slowly, became common, while broken bones did not heal but swelled up dangerously.

Dr Lee could always tell when a prisoner was going to die. He would lose his appetite, the skin around his swollen body would turn translucent and his face would become corpse-like. However, the actual manner of death varied. Some would suddenly drop dead of heart failure while out walking or after dinner. Others died in a general convulsion. A few would begin to spit massive amounts of blood from their lungs as if they had severe pneumonia; or they would show signs of suffering from severe jaundice because their liver had failed. Often, death was heralded by violent diarrhoea after which the patient would collapse in a coma. When the authorities began to replace real food with food substitutes, many prisoners also died from perforation of the intestine.

Dr Lee's observations are borne out by others who survived the camps. Harry Wu noted that 'The heart does not stop beating from lack of nourishment. Depending on your overall health, you can survive for a week, even two, with no food or water at all. In such a depleted state, it is other things that kill you. Sometimes you catch cold, your lungs fill with fluid, finally you stop breathing. Sometimes bacteria in the food cause continuous diarrhoea that leads to death. Sometimes infection from a wound becomes fatal. The cause of death is always in your file as pleurisy or food poisoning or injury, never as starvation.'

Dr Tensing Choedak, while in the Jiuzhen prison camp in the Tenger Desert, Gansu, observed that in the first stage of starvation 'one and all resembled living skeletons. Ribs, hips and shin bones protruded, chests were concave, eyes bulged, teeth were loose, black hair turned russet, then beige and then fell Out. 7 7 Prisoners' eyes also weakened and they lost the ability to see properly at night. This stage was followed by oedema, and inmates like Harry Wu quickly learned what would happen next: 'For the first time I saw a person with one leg swollen and the other thin as a stick. I began to recognise the symptoms of oedema. First someone's foot would swell so that he could not wear his shoe. Slowly the swelling moved up through the ankle, the calf, the knee, the thigh. When it reached the stomach and made breathing difficult, a person died quickly.' A professor of English, Wu Ningkun, describes in A Single Tear his feelings of horror as he realizes his own body is changing: 'I was the first to come down with a serious case of oedema. I became emaciated, my ankles swelled and my legs got so weak that I often fell while walking to the fields for forced labour. I did not know what I looked like as there were no mirrors around but I could tell from the ghastly looks of the other inmates that I must have been quite a sight.'

Children came down with the same symptoms even in the cities. In A Mother's Ordeal Chi An, who was then a small girl in Shenyang, the provincial capital of Liaoning province, describes what happened to her family:

With the exception of the baby, all of us swelled up and turned a whiteish yellow, like pale turnips. We had so much fluid under our skin that if we cut ourselves, we no longer bled. Instead of blood, little beads of faintly pink liquid would ooze out. A scab never formed, and even the smallest scrape took a long time to heal.

In Ningxia province far to the west, prisoners believed that once the swelling reached the head, a person was doomed: 'The person soon resembled a balloon that had been filled full of air - the eyes would swell so that they became small slits: light couldn't penetrate them and one could not see out. But simple, straightforward oedema. could still not be described as a death mask. If the skin on the part that was swelling began to split and a yellow glandular fluid oozed out, then death was not far away.' 0

All remarked that in the final stage a person would develop this 'mask' which signalled that death must follow in a day or two. In Grass Soup, Zhang Xianliang describes this phenomenon vividly:

Needless to say, men with such death masks were emaciated. In addition, the skin of their faces and entire bodies turned a dull, dark colour; their hair looked dried-out and scorched: the mucus of their eyes increased but the eyes themselves became exceedingly, strangely bright. They emitted a 'thief's glare', a kind of shifty, scared yet crafty, debilitated but also poisonous light. No one felt afraid when they saw it though, for they knew that their own eyes were not much different.

A similar description comes in Red in Tooth and Claw, in which Han Weitian recalls, 'If you saw us, you would find each face starved into a pale mask, without flesh or life. Such faces were little different from those of the departed. No matter its shape, the face of the starvation victim is covered by only a fragile layer of skin. The eyes are hardly eyes but rather the pits of nuts fitted into sockets of bone. Such eyes shed no light.'

Strangely enough, people appeared to get better just before the end. Harry Wu was surprised by this when he watched the death of his friend Ma, a peasant arrested for stealing grain to feed his family. 'I had watched the swelling travel up Ma's body. His skin stretched so tight it became bright and smooth like glass. During his last days he seemed to experience increased energy and cheerfulness. His thin pale face regained some rosy colour. I later recognised those changes as typical of the last days of oedema. "The last redness of the setting sun" we said.'

Although all these descriptions of oedema come from writings about prison camps, peasants in villages in Anhui and Henan and just outside Beijing gave me identical descriptions. One man who grew up in Fengtai, a suburb of Beijing, recalled that as a child he knew that those people around him with heads swollen from oedema were certain to die within weeks.

Incredibly, some people did come back from the dead. When I was in a village in Anhui, a woman pointed to a man working outside, saying that he had literally returned from death. As a boy of about 9 during the famine, his family had given him up for dead but then someone forced some nourishing soup down his throat and he recovered. In some instances, even prisoners taken away for burial recovered. This happened to the Tibetan Ama Adhe, as she relates in A Strange Liberation:

My condition deteriorated, until finally I couldn't even walk. I would just sit there, maybe saying mantras. And one night I felt that my nose was getting very cold ... I thought maybe it is my turn to die of starvation ... the next morning I heard rushing water like a waterfall or a stream. And when I looked up, I saw that I had been thrown into the wooden cage that they built to hold the dead bodies. I realised where I was and I felt so sad, and I made a final prayer to His Holiness and the triple gem. Then the workers came round to carry away these corpses, and when they saw me they yelled out, 'Hey, this one has her eyes open!' And I was carried back to my cell.

Han Weitian was actually taken to the morgue in his labour camp: 'There were times when I sensed I was at last parting from the world. It was not a sense of pain, but only a feeling of yielding. The ache of hunger induced a feeling of suffocation so keen that one day I suddenly lost consciousness. I was later told that after I had passed out they found I had stopped breathing and was stiff and cold.' A friend of his who was the camp doctor came to hear of what had happened and went to examine him in the morgue. Han had already been lying there for half an hour when the doctor arrived. At first, the doctor failed to detect any sign of life but then, using a stethoscope, he heard faint breathing and brought Han to a fireside where he administered an in ection and fed him some thin lukewarm gruel. Miraculously, Han recovered. Dr Lee, too, managed to save several patients on the point of death by injecting them with thiamine, a form of vitamin B1.

Living on the verge of death produced a strange state of mind, as Han Weitian recalls:

In those years, starvation became a sort of mental manacle, depriving us of our freedom to think. We could not for a moment forget its threat. It seemed to be continuously putrefying the air and making it difficult to breathe ... it is strange that hunger can cause so much pain in your body. It seems like a vice pinching all your bones which feel dislocated for lack of flesh and sinews. Your head, hands, feet, even your belly and bowels are no longer where they normally are. You are tempted to cry out loud but haven't the strength. When experiencing extreme hunger, one can barely utter an audible sound.

In Grass Soup, Zhang Xianliang remembers the feeling of suffocation:

This problem was not a result of some illness of the central respiratory system nor was it caused by injury to the head or lung disease. The fatigue of my body simply led to an exhaustion of my lungs as if they were too worn out to work. I often did forget to breathe and found that I would suddenly be dizzy, with pricks of light behind my eyes. Darkness would rise up before me as I fell over. Later I became accustomed to remembering to take in oxygen.

The final moment of death was often peaceful. The Tibetan Tenpa Soepa remarked: 'Dying from hunger can actually be an easy way to die. Not very painful. People would be sitting, and then fall over and die. No moans of agony." Dr Choedak also noticed how calm the final moments were. People lay immobile on the kang and then 'their breath became softer and more shallow until, at the last moment, bubbles of saliva slipped over their lips and they died'."

Many were not so fortunate and died painfully from the food substitutes which were introduced in 1960 and 1961. At times 80 per cent of the food served to prisoners was made up of substitutes. Such substances split the digestive tract or the sphincter. Outside the prisons people died in the same way. Like the prisoners, the peasants ate tree bark, corncobs, the chaff from soybeans, sorghum, wheat and other grains, ground-up roots and corn stalks. They also ate large amounts of grasses and weeds and anything else they could find which looked edible. This was all collected and thrown into the pot - the grass soup of Zhang's book. Tenpa Soepa, who like many others survived by eating wild grass, noticed that 'if you looked in the toilet it didn't look like a human being's toilet. All the stools were green from the grass and undigested leaves.'

Some prisoners were even fed sawdust and wood pulp. jean Pasqualini describes in Prisoner of Mao what happened in the Lake Xingkai camp in Heilongjiang in 1960. Dark brown sheets of the stuff arrived at the kitchens:

We prisoners had the honour of being the guinea pigs for the various ersatzes the scientific community came up with. The warder describing the new nutritional policy told us that paper pulp was guaranteed harmless and though it contained no nutritive value, it would make our wo'tous fatter and give us the satisfying impression of bulk. The new flour mix would be no more than thirty per cent powdered paper pulp. It will go through your digestive tracts easily, he said with assurance. We know exactly how you will feel.

The experiment led to mass constipation and a number of deaths among older and weaker prisoners. The wood pulp was abandoned although the government also tried out another variety of food substitute on the prisoners - marsh-water plankton.

They skimmed the slimy, green stuff off the swampy ponds around the camp and mixed it in with the mush either straight or dried and powdered, since it tasted too horrible to eat unaccompanied. Again we all fell sick and some of the weaker ones died. That particular plankton, they discovered after a few autopsies, was practically unassimilative for the human body. End of plankton experiment. At length our daily ersatz became ground corncobs, mixed in with the wo'tou flour. Afterwards it was adopted as the standard food supplement for the country at large.

In the countryside people also ate the straw of their huts, the cotton in their coats or mattresses, tree leaves and blossoms, and the feathers of ducks and chickens. Prisoners recounted how they chewed their shoes and boots, belts, coats and anything else made of leather. In Lanzhou, people actually raided the local tanneries for leather to eat.

The worst substitute of all derived from an ancient and mistaken belief that eating compounds of earth and weeds would fill up one's stomach and provide enormous endurance. This soil was known as 'Buddha's soil' or 'Guanyin soil', Guanyin being the goddess of mercy. In Gansu, peasants boiled the soil before eating it. One doctor recalls how he went to a Gansu village where the entire population, 800 in all, had died after eating Guanyin soil. When the medical team dissected some of the corpses, they found the soil had blocked up the intestine and it could not be digested or excreted. Another doctor, working elsewhere in China, believes such a practice was common:

People mixed it [the Guanyin soil] with corn flour and the bread made of this mixture was edible and, more important, very filling. As the news spread, tens of thousands of people copied this invention. But once in the stomach, the soil dried out all the moisture in the colon and the patients could not defecate for days. I had to open up their stomachs. I did this operation on about fourteen people every day. Many people never made it to the hospital and others died on the operating table. I had a note typed out and took it to the street committees in the district around the hospital. I saw people dropping dead with my own eyes. Nobody was interested in what I had to tell them. All they thought about was food."

Those in the cities were driven to forage for food like the survivors of some apocalyptic disaster. In Son of the Revolution, Liang Heng describes his childhood in Changsha, Hunan: 'I grew accustomed to going with my sisters to the Martyr's Park to pull up a kind of edible wild grass that could be made into a paste with broken grains of rice and steamed and eaten as "bittercakes". Gradually, even this became scarce and we had to walk miles to distant suburbs to find any."' Far to the north in Shenyang, Chi An made pancakes out of leaves picked from the poplars which lined the streets. The leaves were soaked overnight to remove tannic acid, then dipped in flour and browned in a wok without oil.

The smell of these leaf pancakes frying made my mouth water, but they didn't taste nearly as good as they looked. Despite the soaking, the poplar leaves retained an acid bite that made my salivary glands scream in protest. The worst part was the constipation they brought on. A day after Mother added them to our diet, we stopped having bowel movements. For a week after that, we felt increasingly bloated and crampy. Finally mother told us we would have to dig the hard little balls of faeces out with our fingers. My brother and I were too hungry to mind very much, though; we continued to devour the pancakes without protest."

In the desperate search for food many died from eating poisonous mushrooms, berries or leaves. A doctor who worked in one city hospital said that the emergency department was filled with people who had eaten poisonous wild vegetables.

Alcoholics, unable to satisfy their addiction, also died from drinking methanol, industrial alcohol and any number of other substitutes. To stop people from eating seeds after they were sown, the leaders of some communes and labour camps had the seeds dipped in poison. Sometimes scavenging children died from eating them."

Overeating could also kill. When better food became available at harvest time or after 1962, people ate more than their enfeebled digestive systems could cope with. Han Weitian has estimated that 2,000 fellow prisoners died from 'gourmandizing' in his camp in Qinghai. Prisoners there tried to build up their health by eating in a single sitting up to eighteen loaves of a black bread made out of pea powder. Then they returned to their heavy work: 'They more often than not ended up with stomach-aches. Some of these greedy eaters simply died in the field from violent stomach-aches. Such victims howled with pain while holding their swollen bellies.' One interviewee in Sichuan, who had been sent as a rightist to Ya'an, a poor region in the mountains west of Chengdu, recalls how many peasants died of overeating at the Spring Festival in 1962. On this rare occasion the peasants could fill their bellies with dumplings made of wheat and beans but their digestive systems broke down, often with fatal results. Even a medical team sent to treat famine victims in Gansu killed many patients by giving them too much food.

Since no one was permitted to acknowledge the reality of the famine, medical efforts to deal with the crisis were doomed to failure. Even in the hospitals in major cities, doctors were provided with few resources. Since they themselves were often starving, they could not stand up to the strain. At times as many as a third of the staff of one Beijing hospital were off sick. The one remedy available to doctors was to recommend a special diet for their patients. Those who contracted tuberculosis, which was very common, were given extra coupons to buy two ounces of sugar a month as well as milk and pig's liver.

Prolonged starvation left lasting effects on its victims. Many children developed rickets. A few became mentally retarded. Most found themselves to be shorter and smaller than normal when they matured. Several interviewees who had been young children during the famine claimed that they were six inches shorter than they would otherwise have been. Very few women were able to have children during the famine. A large proportion stopped menstruating because of the lack of protein in their diet. Some students sent down to the countryside said that they stopped menstruating for as long as five years. Women who did give birth often died because they did not stop bleeding. Mothers who survived found that they could not produce enough milk to feed their babies. Statistics from Fengyang in Anhui also reveal that many women suffered from prolapse of the uterus, the collapse of the womb. Those female peasants who were forced to work in the paddy fields also contracted infections from spending long periods up to their waists in water.

Even when in early 1961 medical teams were sent to some of the worst-affected areas in the countryside, the fiction about the famine was maintained. One doctor who spent three months on a relief mission in Gansu recalls that the Party organized a meeting on their return at which they were warned not to talk of the deaths they had witnessed. A Party official insisted that not a single death had occurred and that to deny this would constitute treason."




'I take a look at history: it is not a record of time but on each page are confusedly written the characters "benevolence, righteousness, and morals". Desperately unsleeping, I carefully look over it again and again for half the night, and at last find between the lines that it is full of the same words - "cannibalism!"

Lu Xun, Amy of a Madman, 1918


WHEN, 2,000 YEARS ago, the Han dynasty was established amidst enormous upheaval, it was recorded that nearly half the people in the empire died of starvation. This prompted the founding emperor Gao Zu to issue an official edict in 205 B C authorizing people to sell or eat their children if necessary. Over two millennia later his words were still being obeyed in Anhui. There, peasants practised a tradition of swopping their children with those of their neighbours to alleviate their hunger and to avoid consuming their own offspring. Villagers in Anhui described this practice in a phrase of classical Chinese - i tzu erh shih, or yi zi er shi in the modem pinyin spelling that dates back still further.' Nothing better demonstrates the remarkable continuity of Chinese culture than the fact that this phrase was first employed 2,500 years ago. In May 594 B C, the Chu army besieged the Song capital. Eventually its starving inhabitants sorrowfully recorded that 'in the city, we are exchanging our children and eating them, and splitting up their bones for fuel'.

During the famine of the Great Leap Forward, peasants killed and ate their children in many parts of China. In Wild Swans, Jung Chang recounts the story told by a senior Party official about an incident in Sichuan:

One day a peasant burst into his room and threw himself on the floor, screaming that he had committed a terrible crime and begging to be punished. Eventually it came out that he had killed his own baby and eaten it. Hunger had been like an uncontrollable force driving him to take up the knife. With tears rolling down his cheeks, the official ordered the peasant to be arrested. Later he was shot as a warning to baby killers.

At the other end of the country, in Liaoning province, the Shenyang provincial Party newspapers also reported cases of cannibalism. In A Mother's Ordeal a classmate of Chi An, whose story it tells, records what happened in her own hamlet:

A peasant woman, unable to stand the incessant crying for food of her two-year-old daughter, and perhaps thinking to end her suffering, had strangled her. She had given the girl's body to her husband, asking him to bury it. Instead, out of his mind with hunger, he had put the body into the cooking pot with what little food they had foraged. He had forced his wife to eat a bowl of the resulting stew. His wife, in a fit of remorse, had reported her husband's crime to the authorities. The fact that she voluntarily came forward to confess made no difference. Although there was no law against cannibalism in the criminal code of the People's Republic, the Ministry of Public Security treated such cases, which were a too common, with the utmost severity. Both husband and wife were arrested and summarily executed.

In interviews, peasants readily acknowledged that they had witnessed cannibalism at first hand. 'It was nothing exceptional,' a local official told me in Anhui, while in Sichuan the former head of a village production team said he thought it had happened 'in every county and most villages'. Official Party documents bear this out. In one county in southern Henan, Gushi, the authorities recorded 200 cases-of cannibalism in a population of 900,000 at the start of the famine. In Anhui's

Fengyang county, with 335,000 people in 1958, the Party noted 63 cases of cannibalism in one commune alone. Interviewees also spoke of cannibalism occurring in Shaanxi, Ningxia and Hebei provinces. Former inmates of labour camps personally witnessed cases of cannibalism in camps in Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu and Heilongjiang. In the Qinghai prison camps, prisoners regularly cut the flesh off corpses and sold or ate it. Outside the camps, it was the same. A Tibetan peasant from Tongren county in Qinghai remembers that among the youths from Henan who were settled there, one girl killed an 8-year-old child and ate the corpse with three others. All four were arrested. In another case, a Tibetan family was caught eating the flesh from a child's corpse.

There are enough reports from different parts of the country to make it clear that the practice of cannibalism was not restricted to any one region, class or nationality. Peasants not only ate the flesh of the dead, they also sold it, and they killed and ate children, both their own and those of others. Given the dimensions of the famine, it is quite conceivable that cannibalism was practised on a scale unprecedented in the history of the twentieth century. Moreover, it took place with the knowledge of a government which is still in power and which wields considerable influence over world affairs. This startling fact is all the more plausible when one looks at the documented history of cannibalism in China and other parts of the world.

In the West, cannibalism is considered the ultimate taboo, the worst act of savagery, but it is far from unknown. Greek literature and the records of ancient Egypt frequently mention famine-related cannibalism. In Western Europe it often occurred during famines and the wartime sieges of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this century, two major incidents of recorded cannibalism in the West stand out: those in the Nazi concentration camps and in the Ukraine.

At the trial of the Treblinka concentration camp commandant after the Second World War, a former British internee testified that while clearing away dead bodies, he and his staff noted that a piece of flesh was missing from as many as one in ten cadavers:

I noticed on many occasions a very strange wound at the back of the thigh of many of the dead. First of all I dismissed it as a gunshot wound at close quarters but after seeing a few more I asked a friend and he told me that many of the prisoners were cutting chunks out of the bodies to eat. On my next visit to the mortuary I actually saw a prisoner whip out a knife, cut a portion of the leg of a dead body, and put it quickly into his mouth.'

The cannibalism which occurred during the Ukrainian famine of 1932-3 has closer parallels with China during the Great Leap Forward. Faced with an almost identical set of circumstances, Ukrainian peasants behaved much as the Chinese were to do nearly thirty years later. The Italian Consul in the then capital of Kharkov wrote in June 1933 to his embassy in Moscow that 'at present some 300 cases of cannibalism have been brought before a tribunal in Kharkov. Doctors of my acquaintance have noticed human flesh on sale at the market place."

An eyewitness who testified in an inquiry into the famine held by the US Congress in 1988 said that 'if a person was selling meat, the police would immediately seize the meat to check if it was human or dog meat. There were people who had no qualms about cutting off a piece of flesh from a dead body which they would sell in order to get money for bread.' Cannibalism was so common that the secret police, the OGPU, issued instructions on how to deal with it. In May 1933 the Vice-Commissar of the CIGPU and the chief procurator of the Ukraine told their subordinates:

The present criminal code does not cover punishment of persons guilty of cannibalism, therefore all cases of those accused of cannibalism must immediately be transferred to the local branches of the OGPU. If cannibalism was preceded by murder, covered by article 142 of the Penal Code, these cases should be withdrawn from the courts and from the prosecution divisions of the People's Commissariat of justice system and transferred for judgement to the Collegium of the OGPU in Moscow.

The Italian Consul reported a number of cases in which parents were arrested for infanticide and subsequently went mad:

Very frequent is the phenomenon of hallucination in which people see their children only as animals, kill them and eat them. Later, some, having recuperated with proper food, do not remember wanting to eat their children and deny even being able to think of such a thing. The phenomenon in question is the result of a lack of vitamins and would prove to be a very interesting study, alas one which is banned even from consideration from a scientific point of view.

Such terrible thoughts were prompted by a famine in which over 5 million died. Yet the Ukraine has some of the richest agricultural land in the world and famine there, although not unknown, was rare. By contrast, famine was such a regular occurrence throughout Chinese history that there existed a sort of 'famine culture' passed down through the generations. As many observers quoted in Chapter I pointed out, people knew what sort of wild vegetation could be eaten, what should be sold first to raise money and which members of a family should be sacrificed before others. Anhui peasants even believed that they knew how to detect cannibalism - those who ate human flesh smelt strange and their eyes and skin turned red.

The consumption of human flesh in China was not, however, limited to times of famine. Indeed one authority on the subject has concluded that cannibalism holds a unique place in Chinese culture and that the Chinese 'have admired the practice of cannibalism for centuries'. The American academic Kay Ray Chong has found numerous references to the practice in Chinese historical records and literature as well as in medical texts. In Cannibalism in China, published in 1990, Chong looked at cannibalism under two main headings: 'survival' cannibalism which took place as a last resort; and 'learned' cannibalism undertaken for other reasons. It is the latter which sets the Chinese apart. They are, he writes, 'quite unique in the sense [that] there are so many examples of learned cannibalism throughout their history'. In many periods of Chinese history, human flesh was considered a delicacy. In ancient times, cooks prepared exotic dishes of human flesh for jaded upper-class palates. Enough accounts of the various methods used to cook human flesh have been preserved for Chong to devote a whole chapter to them. For example, a Yuan dynasty writer, Dao Qingyi, recommends in Chuo geng lu (Records of Stopping Cultivation) that children's meat is the best-tasting food and proposes eating children whole, including their bones. He refers to men and women as 'two-legged sheep' and considers women's meat even more delicious than mutton.

Chinese literature is filled with accounts of Epicurean cannibalism. One of China's most famous works of literature, Shui hu zhuan, or The Water Margin (also translated as Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men are Brothers), contains frequent references to the sale of human meat and descriptions of cannibalism. Cooking methods are described in graphic detail. For example, when one of the main characters, Wu Sung, visits a wine shop, he is led into a room 'where men were cut to pieces, and on the walls there were men's skins stretched tight and nailed there, and upon the beams of the roof there hung several legs of men'.

Human flesh was regarded as part food, part medicine. In 1578, Li Shizhen published a medical reference book (Ben cao gang mu, or Materia Medica) which listed thirty-five different parts or organs, and the various diseases and ailments that they could be used to treat. Some parts of the body were especially valued because they were thought to boost sexual stamina. In the Ming dynasty, powerful eunuchs tried to regain their sexual potency by eating young men's brains. During the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, numerous Western accounts testified to the Chinese belief that drinking human blood would increase a man's sexual appetite. Whenever a public execution took place, women whose husbands were impotent would buy bread dipped in the fresh blood of the executed. As late as the nineteenth century, it was not unusual for Chinese executioners to eat the heart and brains of criminals.

Cannibalism was also a gesture of filial piety. Records from the Song dynasty (AD 420-79), talk of how people would cut off part of their own body to feed a revered elder. Often a daughter-in-law would cut flesh from her leg or thigh to make soup to feed a sick mother-in-law and this practice became so common that the state issued an edict forbidding it.

Throughout Chinese history, cannibalism was also extremely common in times of war. Not only was it the last resort of inhabitants trapped in besieged cities or fortresses, but in addition, prisoners of war or slain enemies often became a staple source of food. Under the Emperor Wu Di (AD 502-49) prisoners were purchased in cages. When there was a demand for meat, they would be taken out, killed, broiled and consumed. During the Yellow Turban rebellion in the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), thousands were butchered and eaten every day. A century later Wang Yancheng of the Min kingdom was said to have salted and dried the corpses of enemy soldiers which his men would take with them as supplies.

Such practices continued into modern times. During the Taiping rebellion of 1850-64, the hearts of prisoners were consumed by both sides to make them more bold in combat. Human flesh and organs were openly sold in the marketplace during this period and people were kidnapped and killed for food. Chinese soldiers stationed on Taiwan before the SinoJapanese War of 1894-5 also bought and ate the flesh of aborigines in the marketplace.

Cannibalism is also an expression of revenge and was recommended by Confucius. It was not enough, he said, to observe the mourning period for a parent murdered or killed in suspicious circumstances. Heaven would praise those who took revenge. Killing alone, however, was not sufficient. Enemies should be entirely consumed, including their bones, meat, heart and liver. Chinese historical records are littered with examples of kings and emperors who killed and ate their enemies, among them some of the greatest figures, such as the Emperor Qinshihuangdi, who first unified China. Liu Bang, the founder of the succeeding Han dynasty, distributed small pieces of his enemies for his vassals to consume as a way of testing their loyalty. Traitors were chopped up and pickled. In some cases, the victor of a struggle would force his enemy to eat a soup made from his son or father. Even buried enemies were not safe.

Little had changed by the nineteenth century. James Dyer Ball in Things Chinese recorded what happened when Cantonese villagers fell out over water rights in 1895. After armed clashes, the prisoners who had been taken were killed. Then their hearts and livers were distributed and eaten, even young children being allowed to participate in the feast. During the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists in the 1940s, there are also recorded instances when prisoners were killed and eaten in revenge.

Under Communist rule, cannibalism to obtain revenge continued, notably during the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi province in the far south of China. According to official documents obtained by the Chinese writer ZhengYi, in some schools students killed their principals in the school courtyard and then cooked and ate their bodies to celebrate a triumph over counter-revolutionaries'. Government-run cafeterias in the province are said to have displayed bodies dangling on meat hooks and to have served human flesh to employees. One document relates that 'There are many varieties of cannibalism and among them are these: killing someone and making a big dinner of it, slicing off the meat and having a big party, dividing up the flesh so each person takes a large chunk home to boil, roasting the liver and eating it for its medicinal properties, and so on.'

The documents obtained by Zheng Yi suggest that at least 137 people, and probably hundreds more, were eaten in Guangxi. The cannibalism was organized by local Communist Party officials and people took part to prove their revolutionary ardour. In one case, the first person to strip the body of a school principal was the former girlfriend of the principal's son. She wanted to show that she had no sympathy with him and was just as 'red' as anyone else. Harry Wu, in Laogai: The Chinese Gulag, records a similar incident while he was at the Wang Zhuang coal-mine in Shanxi. A prisoner called Yang Baoyin was summarily executed by firing squad for writing the words 'Overthrow Chairman Mao' and his brains were eaten by a Public Security cadre.

In Cannibalism in China, Chong concludes that cannibalism probably occurred on a massive scale in times of great convulsions. There is every reason to believe that this also holds true for the Great Leap Forward, a dark and secret legacy of China's ancient culture which few inside or outside China wish to confront. This chapter began with an extract from a short story by one of the most famous twentieth-century Chinese writers, Lu Xun. Since it is written in the style of Nietzsche, western readers assume it is allegorical, but Chinese readers would surely read it as a tirade against the unchanging realities of life in China.