Sparrows were in short supply that summer, which meant that locusts were abundant. Mao Yushi would go to the fields, catch them and eat them. He had no choice. His stomach compelled him.
More than half a century has passed since Mao felt that intolerable hunger gnawing at his mind, driving his actions. China has changed a lot since then. It has grown more prosperous, with food waste now rivalling food security as a threat to the country’s welfare.
“China has become a different country, a new China,” said Mao, 86, from his apartment in Beijing. But even as the world transformed around him, Mao’s mind could never quite escape the memory of one year: 1960.
For 12 months, Mao would witness, and live through, one of the greatest man-made tragedies of all time. China’s Great Famine claimed millions of lives during a time of peace, and yet, talking about it remains taboo.
That silence always unsettled Mao. He has since made it his “personal responsibility to tell the truth about the Great Famine”. It’s a task that has grown difficult for scholars like him in recent years, since President Xi Jinping came to power.
Still now, as he sits in the comfort of a doily-covered chair, the images churn in his mind. The green ooze, the bitter taste, of locusts in the summertime. The local basketball court plowed over and seeded with grain. And the loose skin, draped over nothing but bone.
At the time of the Great Famine, Mao hadn’t yet become the prominent economist and government critic he is today. He was just the team leader at a railway research academy in Beijing. But, as he puts it, he was a “free thinker”. And that was a dangerous thing to be.
Starting around 1957, those who spoke out were branded as adversaries of the Communist government and its leader, Mao Zedong. Under the Anti-Rightist Campaign, individuals with contrary opinions, particularly intellectuals, were punished.
“What I spoke about were just the things that happened after the economic reform. For example, there were no supplies of pork, of meat. So I said: ‘Why don’t we raise the price to encourage production?'” Mao said. “But this kind of thinking was not allowed at that time because China was pursuing a planned economy.”
His words earned him the label “rightist”. Mao recalls that his salary was cut, and he was demoted from team leader. Then, he found out he would be “re-educated” through months of labour in the countryside.
Ten other “rightists” – including engineers, technicians and research fellows – shared his fate. Together, in January 1960, they were sent to a small village in Shandong, a province located along China’s east coast, where the Yellow River meets the sea. Then, aged 31, Mao had to leave his wife and toddler behind in Beijing.
A photograph taken that year shows Mao with his chin held high, sitting alongside other exiled men. All but one wear a hat, and a few are armed against the cold with gloves and scarves. They knew to expect the freezing temperatures, but not the starvation.
The height of China’s Great Famine
The Great Famine started to grip China as early as 1958. But Mao says that he was not really aware of it until he reached the village. He had been sheltered in the relative stability of the capital.
“The government blocked all the information exchange,” he said with a short, bitter laugh. “We didn’t know at all.”
When the men arrived in Shandong, a banquet was set up to greet them. A local official presiding over the affair gave a short speech.
“He said, ‘There’s no problem in the food supply. Everybody has sufficient food,'” Mao recalled.
“I didn’t understand what he meant. What did this mean, ‘sufficient food’? In Beijing, we didn’t have anything like a shortage of food.”
It wasn’t long until Mao found out exactly what the official was trying to hide. Villagers had already started to die. The “rightists” had arrived in Shandong at the high point of the three-year famine. In 1960, national statistics indicate there were 25.4 deaths per 1,000 – more than double what it had been three years prior.
That number was not evenly spread across China: While some communities hardly felt the famine’s impact, others were practically decimated. It did not matter how successful an area’s grain crops were; its people could still be consumed by starvation and death.
The province of Sichuan was a prime example. So bountiful are its harvests that the province bears the nickname “land of abundance”. But archival documents indicate that the death rate was as high as 66.4 percent for certain Sichuan counties.
“That means that famine is not because of the agriculture being backwards, but because of the political policies,” said Mao.
He is one of a number of academics who pin the blame squarely on China’s leadership.
“The term famine brings to mind the absence of food and people somehow slowly starving to death. It’s a very passive sort of image,” said Frank Dikötter, the author of the book, Mao’s Great Famine.
“There was a whole variety of ways in which people were no longer treated as people, but merely as dispensable numbers – as figures on a balance sheet. I think that’s something that is not very well conveyed by the term ‘famine’.
“A better term would be ‘mass murder’.”
The policies that led to starvation
The idea that the famine was the fruit of human folly, or of iron-fisted ambition, is still hotly debated in China. Many hardline supporters of the Communist party maintain that violent weather had ravaged the countryside, leaving stomachs empty. The yearly cycle of droughts and floods were particularly brutal, they say.
Mao personally rejects that interpretation as a “lie”. The famine cannot simply be boiled down to “three years of natural disasters”, as it is commonly referred to in China.
Poor governance, not just thin supplies, led to the famine, he insists.
His voice starts to warble as he recounts how warning signs were ignored and critical voices were suppressed.
In the lead-up to the famine, Mao Zedong had called on China to rapidly industrialise, as part of a plan called the ‘Great Leap Forward’. The aim was to speed past the United Kingdom’s industrial output in 15 years and surpass the United States in 30. China was going to climb to the top of the global stage in record time.
To do that, the country needed grain, and lots of it. Impatient for higher yields, the government took over private farmland and reorganised it into collectives. Farmers were obliged to sow less but harvest more. And what was grown was requisitioned: for cities, for communal kitchens, even for export abroad. Still more was locked away in reserve silos.
‘Humans are reduced into animals’
The farmers Mao met in Shandong did not have enough left over to eat. He and his fellow “rightists” were at least assured a government ration, in the form of 15 kilograms of flour per month. That was barely enough for the men themselves to survive on. But there were no supplies set aside for the village farmers. They could only eat what they had not been forced to sell.
The most desperate times were during the winter and spring, particularly in May, right before June’s wheat harvests. Theft was common. Seeds were barely planted before they were dug up again to be eaten. Potatoes never grew to their full size, Mao said. Hungry hands would tear through the dirt to find them while they were still small.
The desperation threatened to doom the harvest. So Mao says he was made to sleep in the fields at night in case someone tried to steal the budding crops. The locals trusted him. They figured that he had less incentive to rob the fields himself since his family lived so far away.
Mao, though, was going hungry, too. “I would drink a lot of water to fill my stomach,” he said. “I could not tie my shoestrings because my stomach was so swollen.”
He felt no better than an animal, trying to eat anything that he could put in his mouth. He and the villagers would rip the bark from trees for nourishment, or boil the leaves and flowers of local elms to create the taste, if not the satisfaction, of food.
And then, of course, there were the locusts. “They really could be eaten. It’s a good food,” he said with small, unconvincing chuckle.
Across China, the situation was equally bleak. People resorted to scraping clay out of the earth and swallowing it to calm the pangs of hunger. But the clay clogged their intestines and weakened their already fragile bodies. With meat scarce and bodies piling up, cannibalism became common in a few areas. The dead fed the living, and when that failed, there were even reports of people being murdered and eaten.
Mao remembers how it felt to have no other thoughts than those of food. It was life stripped down to its basest impulse. “You don’t have any future. You don’t have any idea what you will pursue in your life. All this disappears,” he said. “The only thing you want is food. Humans are reduced into animals, even worse than animals.”
Animals, at very least, yearn for sex as much as food, Mao added. But the hunger left the villagers bereft of such impulses. Mao admits that it took him half a year to recover his sex drive after he left the village for his home in Beijing.
Witnessing the deaths
The birth rate suffered accordingly. Of all the families Mao met in his rural town, only one was expecting a child, he says. And that was the family of the local party secretary. “In the village, only the people who had privileged power, they could give birth to babies,” said Mao. “The other women in the village had no births at all.”
Decades later, in his academic work, Mao would calculate how many babies should have been born, had the population continued to grow at the same pace as before the famine.
For the period between 1959 and 1961, the number he arrived at was 16 million.
That statistic pales in comparison to the number of actual deaths China endured as the famine raged on. If he had to guess, Mao believes 10 percent of the Shandong village died. His gaze starts to linger in midair as he recalls what happened to the farmer who lived next door to him.
The mere thought of it makes Mao sit up straight in his armchair, his slippered feet tap-tap-tapping a nervous rhythm on the floor. The farmer had a wife and two daughters, the youngest of whom could not have been more than two or three years old.
Mao had seen parents forego their own meals to feed their children, but he knew their sacrifices would be useless. The cruel pattern Mao observed was that, if the mother died, her child would soon follow. Soon, the family of four next-door became a family of two, as mother and toddler died in short succession.
It is one of the most difficult memories Mao has of that year, and he struggles to tell the story aloud. He rubs his legs and closes his eyes, as his voice starts to quiver and his breathing goes jagged. Seconds pass in silence. And then, as if unable to contain himself, he speaks.
‘I think Mao Zedong is the biggest sinner in Chinese history’
“I think Mao Zedong is the biggest sinner in Chinese history, but his picture is still hung on Tiananmen Square,” he says.
By his calculations, 36 million people suffered unnatural death during the famine – far more than were killed in battle during the whole of World War II. This number varies greatly depending on whom you ask. Mao readily admits he has detractors, including Li Shengming of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Li has called the statistic an outright “lie”.
Precise numbers are impossible to come by. Early research estimated that 16.5 million had died, but later analyses suggest the death toll could exceed 45 million. Those lives – lost to famine and lost to history, neatly rounded away to the nearest million – have become the focus of Mao’s investigations.
“That is my quest – to answer the questions we don’t always know to ask,” Mao wrote in an editorial for the Washington Post.
He is not alone in his pursuit.
The laws restricting access to China’s archives were loosened for the first time in the 1990s, allowing academics and journalists to delve into records more than 30 years old. Details of the famine’s brutality came to light. By the late 2000s, high-profile books like Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone were finally discussing what had been taboo for so long – even though they were often banned before reaching the Chinese readership.
That has all changed in the past couple of years, says Xun Zhou, a history professor at the University of Essex.
She was among the few who combed through the archives, and she says that the archives she used have been closed in the years since China established its new leadership under Xi Jinping in 2012.
“Everything I read, it’s no longer available,” Xun says. It’s a shift she credits to the “anxiety in this new leadership”.
“The government doesn’t want to talk about [the famine] because it’s going to put into question the legitimacy of the party’s rule,” Xun said. “The famine destabilises – it doesn’t fit into the Chinese dream. It’s a nightmare.”
No consensus on the past
Yet, the famine lingers on the outskirts of people’s minds, shaping everyday actions. “You see that when the underground pulls in or the bus comes up to a stop, everybody just rushes. I call that ‘survival mentality’. Partly, this kind of behaviour, it came from the famine period,” Xun explained.
She also notes that the silence surrounding the famine has driven a wedge between the generations. “On one hand, the older generation is trying to protect the younger generation by not talking about it, but on the other hand, the memory of the famine continues to torment them.”
Fewer and fewer survivors remain, and every day their memories fade more and more. Today, when Mao tells people about the famine, he sees that they simply do not believe him.
It makes him worry about China’s “uncertain future”.
Because no one agrees on the past, Mao believes China cannot have a “consensus about what is right, what is wrong”. That sense of division is the biggest danger the country faces, he says.
Even at the height of the famine, the extreme conditions defied the imagination. Mao wrote letters to his wife in Beijing, explaining what he saw, but she simply couldn’t understand what he was going through. It seemed impossible.
The ghosts of 1960
Her arms now gesture discretely from around a corner, motioning him out of his armchair. A rich smell beckons from the kitchen.
It is noon. Time for interviews to end, and lunch to begin.
She was there at the end, Mao says, when he left Shandong for home in December 1960. Toddler in tow, she waited at the train station to welcome him on the night he arrived. Together, the three returned to their Beijing home.
Then, as now, she had prepared food for him. After a year of separation, he was touched by all her efforts. There was an array of food: cakes, candies, meats and all kinds of flavourful oils. Mao settled for a simple bowl of rice and oil.
But even that was too much for his shrunken stomach to bear. “In that night, I suffered very hard. I vomited all the food,” he recalls.
His appetite would recover, his nightmares would wane, but the memory of those desperate times and sunken bodies never dimmed. Anytime he has a good meal, he cannot help but think of the Great Famine. Even with two fridges in his apartment, he still hoards the scraps and other “small foods” others would throw away.
“I survived, but 36 million people died. They couldn’t survive. But if they could survive, what would they say about the famine?” he asks himself pensively.
The ghosts of 1960 cannot speak, but still, in spite of the pain it causes, Mao imagines what they would say.
You can follow Allison Griner on Twitter at @