I have read a number of books recently in my quest for knowledge about China. The book I am reading is titled: “The Great Famine in China 1958-1962, A Documentary History”, by Zhou Xun. It is basically a collection of records that cover the period from 1958 to 1962 in China. This period is one that is called the Great Leap Forward. It is also one that caused great tragedy and hardship on the people of China because it was a time of Famine and Starvation. Living in America, the land of plenty, and believe me I appreciate that truth even more as I learn about the struggles of China. I have also recently finished an unauthorized biography of Mao Zedong. So I have read a little too much lately about how hard things have been during the establishment of Communism here in China. I admit is more than just depressing, it is ghastly. If you don’t have compassion and pity for the average person living in China now, read what I have read and you will have.
There were so many challenges that were faced by these people of this country during that time period.
I know that I don’t understand the Chinese and probably never will. They think about their history in the terms of thousands of years where I am pretty dang excited that my family lineage can be traced back to the 1600s, that basically gets them past the Qing Dynasty and into the end of the Ming Dynasty. I don’t have the perspective that they have to history and life, living in this country, surviving Emperors, War Lords, Invaders, and tyrannical land lords. I am sure that my family suffered through many of those issues too but the history of it is forgotten in my family’s stories. Sure I can read about the Dark Ages in Europe and know that my kin and progenitors survived that as I am here today. I know that they went to America to seek freedom and opportunity and that is something I appreciate more each and every day I live away from those freedoms. But, I don’t have that historical perspective in my genetics like they seem to have.
The people that are living in China now are survivors. Plain and Simple.
In their history, if it could go wrong it did. If their countrymen could take advantage of them when they were down, they did. If they wouldn’t think that the situation could get any worse, it could and it would. During the establishment of communism here in many cases, rather than turn to the international community for assistance and support, the leaders hid their troubles and shielded the world from seeing how bad it really was. The propaganda machine would refuse the help because it might mean that the “chosen way” was not going to work and it would potential destroy the facade that they so desperately wanted to maintain. I cannot believe that leaders of countries and nations would be so uncaring for their people but they too may have believed their own propaganda.
Our neighbor grew up here in China, moved to Canada as a college graduate, and married an Expat and moved back. She says that as a kid she remembers being told that she needed to eat all of her food because there were starving kids in America that would love to have the food she was wasting.
From the recesses of my mind are memories that have been suppressed when my mother died occasionally there are memories that leak out into recognition. Some of those are reminders to me and others around me of my youth and eating. I am certain that I was told as a child that I needed to eat my food because there were starving children in China. There probably wasn’t a big media push that told the world this as there was when I was a teenager and the African continent was starving. But there must have been enough information getting out that the world knew all was not right in Communist China. Indeed, not much was right between 1958 and 1962.
It seems oddly funny now that we each would have been told that the other was starving. We each thought the other had it so bad. The Chinese children believed that the Americans were starving, and most of them weren’t. The American children believed that Chinese were starving, and sadly, they were. The Chinese children were told that living in American it was dark all of the time, the sun never shone. The American children, or at least this one, didn’t really think much about China and the Sun except when we were digging a deep hole and thought we dig all the way to China. I can’t remember one instance in my life where I was hungry because I had missed more than two meals. Even on that Mormon Fast Sunday when we missed two meals intentionally, I always knew it was temporary and that a feast was just a few hours away. My Chinese equivalent self may have never had that luxury.
The book’s author ties together a number of documents from various official records. These records are descriptions of actual events that are matter of fact about the horrors that existed. They describe the massive death tolls, the ineffective bureaucracies that mismanaged relief, the riots for food, the selling of children for food, the horrors of cannibalism, and the extremes of poverty and begging that decimated villages and collectives. The fact that the birth rates, survival rates, and fertility rates were severely impacted during this period and immediately after is a reminder to me that my generation in China is actually quite a bit smaller than it would be or should be. The stature of the survivors in my generation is also impacted. These people that are my age and slightly older really are shorter than they should be because of what they lived through, or more appropriately lived without – food.
It reminds me that it is difficult for us looking in at China to understand the concerns that this country’s leaders must deal with. In fact, everyone of them lived through this period of starvation and horror. There is probably not one of them was not directly affected by this as their food was rationed and they may have gone to bed hungry on many occasions. They probably each knew someone that starved to death. So as I wish that we could see greater progress towards the inevitable, in my opinion, I am now a little more patient with the slow progress. I can appreciate the caution that is being applied, though I may not agree with the method or approach, I can certainly understand why they are so caution in their approach to change.
When we consider that the Great Leap Forward was as significant a change then as what they are endeavoring to do now, it is hard not to draw a correlation with the associated Great Famine. That kind of tragedy today would not go quietly in the night as it did before the 24-hour news cycle. The millions of starving people would flood the air waves and TVs of the world. The tragedy of cannibalism to survive is not even fathomable to my mind and conscience. The revolts within the villages demanding food would certainly cause a greater uproar than they did at that time. I respect their decision to go slow because the last time they tried something big like this there really were some horrible things that happened with it. Sure we can say it is bad timing, but even with the little available information that is out there, there are some things that are not just coincidence. The changes and decisions of the Great Leap Forward did create some of those problems.
That is not a place the Chinese want to be in again, ever. We should not want it either. So if going slow and making progress a little at a time is how that is avoided. Then I am one to accept a little at a time. That doesn’t mean that I won’t complain about the rate of change, because I will. I just won’t complain quite as loudly as I might have nor will I be as judgmental about the slow progress. They are seeing the risks of that change through a set of glasses that I hope I nor my family every have to wear.