“Mao’s Great Famine” and China’s moral landscape

The recent tragic death of a toddler who was run over twice while eighteen passersby ignored her (all caught on camera) has scandalized China and provoked disturbing questions about the moral state of Chinese society. I suspect a significant part (though not all) of the answer to those questions is found in the legacy of the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), which is brutally catalogued in the 2010 book Mao’s Great Famine. (Other, deeper cultural factors are explored here.)

Of the 45 million abnormal deaths during the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), one to three million were suicides and 2.5 million people died from beatings/torture. Most of the rest starved to death, though many were murdered outright, worked to death or deliberately starved. That was Mainland China, 1958-1962. It’s been called “one of the most deadly mass killings in human history” [pp.x-xi], and eventually led to the Cultural Revolution.

The stats above are the findings of Dutch historian Dr. Frank Dikötter in Mao’s Great Famine: the History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, which claims more accurate statistics compiled from archive sources not previously available, and connects the dysfunction and decisions of the central government with their end results at the village and family level. Dikötter also connects the dots between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution at the political level and at street level, showing how the Cultural Revolution was rooted politically and historically in the Great Leap Forward, and that when it comes to the violence and abuse of the Red Guards, the Cultural Revolution actually invented very little. He pins the blame for the disaster on Mao and the central government and demonstrates how government policies greatly exacerbated so-called natural disasters like flooding (on which the excess deaths from the time period are officially blamed).

That all interests me, but what interests me even more is the experience of that generation of Chinese at a personal, family and village level, and how that might relate to the present. Particularly the impact the Great Leap Forward must have had on relationships and moral standards at the time, during the Cultural Revolution, and down to today. While this isn’t the focus of Dikötter’s book, in several instances Dikötter discusses the impact of forced collectivisation, the Party’s culture of violence, and mass starvation on relationships and morality.

[C]oercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward. [p.x]

Mao… extend[ed] the military structure of the Party to all of society… Every aspect of society was organized along military lines… in a continuous revolution. These were not merely martial terms rhetorically deployed to heighten group cohesion. All the leaders were military men attuned to the rigours of warfare. They had spent twenty years fighting a guerrilla war in extreme conditions of deprivation… They glorified violence in which the end justified the means. In 1962, havng lost millions of people in his province, Li Jingquan compared the Great Leap Forward to the Long March, in which only one in ten had made it to the end: “We are not weak, we are stronger, we have kept the backbone.”
The brute force with which the country had been conquered was now unleashed upon the economy — regardless of casualty figures… The country became a giant boot camp in which ordinary people no longer had a say in the tasks they were commanded to carry out… They had to follow orders, failing which they risked punishment. Whatever checks existed on violence — religion, law, community, family — were simply swept away. [pp.298-9]

In a moral universe in which means justified the ends, many would be prepared to become the Chairman’s willing instruments, casting aside every idea about right and wrong to achieve the ends he envisaged. [pp.102-3]

Despite the vision of social order the regime projected at home and abroad… So destructive was radical collectivization that that at every level the population tried to circumvent, undermine or exploit the master plan, secretly giving full scope to the profit motive that the Party tried to eliminate. As famine spread, the very survival of an ordinary person came increasingly to depend on the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state… [T]hese phenomena were not so much the grit that stopped the machinery as the oil that prevented the system from coming to a complete standstill… Obfuscation was the communist way of life. People lied to survive… [p.xiv]

Collectivization forced everybody, at one point or another, to make grim moral compromises. Routine degradations thus went hand in hand with mass destruction. [p.xv]

Life in the countryside has always been tough in China, and strict observance of traditional notions of filial piety would simply have been beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest households before the communist takeover… But in most cases, before 1949, [the elderly] could count on a measure of care and dignity: their mere survival demanded respect.

Yet by the time of the Cultural Revolution a completely different set of values seemed to dominate, as young students tortured their teachers and Red Guards attacked elderly people. When did the moral universe turn upside down? While the Party was steeped in a culture of violence… the real watershed was the Great Leap Forward… [T]he people’s communes left children without their mothers, women without their husbands, and the elderly without relatives: these three family bonds were destroyed as the state was substituted for the family. As if this were not bad enough, collectivisation was followed by the agony of famine. As hunger stalked an already distressed social landscape, family cohesion unraveled further; starvation tested every tie to the limit. [p.263]

If that was the relational and moral world of your grandparents, which was reinforced again less than a decade later in the Cultural Revolution, wouldn’t you expect a society where injured toddlers are left to die in the road (to reference only one of a long list of examples)? Previously on this blog I’ve pointed out aspects of China’s pre-Liberation cultural heritage that encourage or at least enable the shocking, apparently amoral state of contemporary Chinese society. And I think that’s valid. But I also think it’s crucial to highlight the legacy of the Great Leap Forward in tearing apart the social and moral fabric of Chinese society (not to mention the decades of civil war and foreign invasion before that). With that as the immediate social and moral inheritance of today’s generations, and given the enabling cultural heritage, the stark mutual disregard for the basic welfare of fellow human beings, while not excusable, is certainly more understandable. Just reading this book, with its endless, gruesome train of anecdotes, is enough to kill off a small piece of your humanity — but what if you’d actually lived through it?

My parents were born in the mid-50s. That means they would have been young children during the Great Leap Forward and possibly old enough to remember some things. But Chinese who are now in their 60s and 70s certainly remember. It’s incredible to imagine that the old guys on the corner who introduced me to báijiÇ” 白酒 and tried to teach me Chinese chess 象棋 lived through this, at least as children. Mainlanders’ general relationship to the state and its resources and the obvious lack of general participation in ‘civil society’ makes so much more sense after glimpsing what the grandparents experienced.

So I recommend the book, with the suggestion that you become aware of the criticisms noted in the wikipedia entry, and with the warning that the brutality catalogued in its pages — which goes far beyond the sheer numbers or the biological and social nature of famine and starvation to the almost incomprehensible animalistic abuse that became routine — will gnaw on your humanity.

Related stuff:

P.S. – I found these photos by doing a Google image search for 大跃进 (Great Leap Forward) and 超英赶美 (“Surpass Britain, Catch Up with America”). Many propaganda images from the era are explained at ChinesePosters.net here and here. Apparently the only images publicly available are propaganda photos and posters.

P.P.SThe cover photo of the book “incorporates a 1962 image of Chinese refugees to Hong Kong begging for food as they are deported back to China.”

P.P.P.S – A great documentary by the same name (viewable here) does a good job of covering the basics.

2 thoughts on ““Mao’s Great Famine” and China’s moral landscape”

  1. While I wouldn’t blame Confucius for China’s moral decline I would blame the numerous campaigns launched by Mao Zedong to get rid of traditional Chinese values. It’s not that Mao’s objectives were wrong. He realized you couldn’t modernize China and make it powerful enough to repel covetous foreign powers like the Japanese without getting rid of many traditional habits and modes of thought. It is the way he went about implementing this idea that proved so disastrous.

    I agree that the Great Leap Forward began the process of destroying family ties and good neighborly behavior. Any civil society China might have had at this stage was destroyed by the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which followed. Former friends were encouraged to spy and inform on each other, children were encouraged to do the same with their parents and students were encouraged to humiliate their former teachers and even torture them to death. Virtually, no one was taught to trust anyone except Chairman Mao. As everything essential from food to shelter was in short supply and rationed a civilized people were turned into virtual savages in the space of 15-20 years. Everyone had to fight with those next to them just to stay alive!

    The above explains why today, we see people pushing to get on the bus before allowing people to get off, why people avoid lining up at McDonalds and in supermarkets and push there way in front of you and many other behaviors most of us Westerners consider uncivilized. It also explains why many people believe rumors and gossip far more than the government and the media and many other behaviors that don’t make sense to us.

  2. This post doesn’t even mention Confucianism.

    The [Great Leap Forward] explains why…

    But it doesn’t explain why pre-Liberation Chinese culture critics blamed the Confucian heritage for many of these (generally) same shortcomings (the nearly sub-human status and treatment of ‘strangers’). No doubt the Great Leap Forward/Cultural Revolution was catastrophic and relevant; that’s why I’m highlighting it in this post. But — at least according to people who know better than me — some of this behaviour is rooted in an enabling cultural heritage that reaches back to ancient China. At very least, according to the sources I’ve quoted in other posts, te Confucian heritage is a significant enabler/contributor to the problem. That’s not according to me, but the scholars I’ve read (I’m no expert on Confucianism!).

    But this post is about the Great Leap Forward, not Confucianism.

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