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Comparative book review: 'Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China' and 'Mao’s Great Famine'

Written by Ralph A. Thaxton Jr. and Frank Dikötter, respectively.

Rice Fields © Quangpraha/ Public Domain / Pixabay

In 1958, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under Mao Zedong’s chairmanship, began a campaign of unparalleled magnitude to overtake the United Kingdom in steel production and finally implement communism. This Great Leap Forward (GLF) would show the superiority of the command economy, highlight Mao’s superior vision, and turn the PRC into the leader of the communist world. However, despite the initial enthusiasm and the multitude of grandiose projects, the shortcomings likely outweigh its achievements by more than ‘one finger out of ten’. By 1962, as the famine receded, over 30 million excess deaths had occurred, and China’s economy was in shambles. As Marshal Lin Biao - a hero of the Civil War who would later become the officially designated successor of Mao - succinctly put it, the GLF was “based on a fantasy, and a total mess” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 123). He wrote this in his private journal moments after publicly backing Mao’s removal of fellow Marshal Peng Dehuai at the 1959 Lushan conference. Peng had dared to suggest the party should learn from the GLF’s mistakes.

At the core of both Thaxton’s Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China, Mao’s Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village, and Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, the History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958 – 62 is the unprecedented level of destruction and suffering the GLF brought upon China, and the effect it had on its inhabitants. Both focus on the experience of ordinary citizens, which they explore in radically different manners.

Two ways of writing history

Thaxton’s Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China is essentially the study of Da Fo village, located in Dongle County, Henan province, during the GLF. The isolated and marginalised village nicknamed “the old headache” is a former market village and was a bastion of radical Maoist during the GLF. This choice was suggested by farmers of a neighbouring village, against the advice of CCP supervisors, and because of its history of resistance. The geographical scope of Thaxton’s study is limited to Da Fo, broader Chinese history is only mentioned through the direct consequences it had on the “Great Buddha” village.

Compare this with Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine – the first opus of his People’s Trilogy. It opens with the death of Stalin, followed by a short summary of his relationship with Mao and continues with one of Mao’s trips to Moscow. Dikötter’s book aims at providing a complete picture of the suffering and provides relatively detailed accounts of relevant important events.

The difference in geographical scope reflects radically different methodologies. Trained in agrarian studies and politics, Thaxton is not a historian, although he specialised in Chinese politics and contentious politics. To write this book, he conducted research in rural northern China for over thirty years, where he discovered the enormous space the GLF occupies in popular memory. He “conducted and/or supervised approximately four hundred in-depth interviews with villagers aged twenty-one to eighty-five in Da Fo”, enabling him to retrace the history of the village from the beginning of the Republican period to the1990’s. This quasi-anthropological approach of “micro history” is the central interest of this book.

Compare this with Dikötter, who seeks to establish a broader picture of the GLF and provide instances of abuse across the whole of China. His book therefore constitutes an assemblage of archival evidence, classified by the author in various sections (strategies of survival, ways of dying, …), painting a nation-wide picture of the GLF.

To brush this picture, Dikötter uses a wide range of primary sources, many of which have only recently been opened to non-party historians. He gained access to some provincial and county level archives, which contain a wide variety of material of varying quality. He, therefore, focused on a handful of provinces and county (or city) archives, which he claims “represents a good spread of provinces in terms of population density […], severity of the famine […], and geography” (Dikötter, 2011, p.381). However, the reader might find that this collection of facts lacks contrast and hierarchy.

The two books largely echo each other: the strategies of survival depicted by Da Fo villagers were adopted nationwide in China (with of course some regional disparities: the rice-producing south could, for example, not rely on chi qing to the same extent as in the north), the violence of party members was not idiosyncratic to Da Fo, and the various ways of dying occurred with macabre regularity across the country. Thaxton was careful about his findings, as they resulted from the study of a single rural village and could, therefore, not be extended to the entirety of China. Dikötter’s account shows that many could be extended nationwide.

The tragedy

The books are first and foremost concerned with portraying the GLF as a tragedy. The authors adopt a human-level approach ensuring that despite the staggering scale of numbers, the reader realises statistics hide millions of omnipresent individual calamities. Those countless catastrophes accumulated until the GLF amounted to the deadliest and most destructive event of modern China. Indeed, not only was the ensuing famine one of the most fatal in recorded history, but the GLF also saw a rise in violence and an erosion of the social fabric. Truth and science were abandoned altogether, just as a maddening fever engulfed China.

Both books provide countless examples of personal tragedies, painting a landscape of absolute devastation. Part six of Dikötter’s book titled “Ways of Dying” is chilling. Starvation was ever-present, inducing oedema “everywhere” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 305). Individuals were forced to work until exhaustion, which not only aggravated the famine but was also the cause of accidents. The latter was also caused by cutting corners, ignoring safety regulations (a “rightist conservative” concern (Dikötter, 2011, p. 305)), and inadequate quality standards. The countryside was not spared, as shown by Thaxton’s fourth chapter: “the village’s Communist cadres escalated the party’s procurement claims until they precipitated a famine” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 119).

Alongside the famine was the destruction of property. The steel campaign commandeered any metal items, from individual pots (preventing individual cooking) to door hinges. Whole houses were committed to the furnaces, whilst megaprojects forced the relocation of entire villages. Similarly, traditions (even the most ingrained ones, such as the burial of the dead) were denied.

Unlike in the 1942 famine, violence became endemic and the cause of many deaths. Everywhere, local cadres would beat and terrorize the population. Few were spared, although the degree of violence varied widely. In Da Fo, boss Bao was “a major proponent of turning the tables upside down on the targets of public criticism” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 148), whilst other Commune leaders would violently beat villagers, sometimes depriving them of their food ration. This pales in comparison to some of the accounts of Mao’s Great Famine, which include acts such as mutilation, torture, humiliation, and other gruesome punishments. Self-criticism sessions were often the site of the worst exactions.

Some who dared oppose the GLF would be sent to laogai, or the laojiao, or respectively “reform-through-labour camps” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 322) and “reeducation-through-labour camps” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 323). Life inside the labour camp was miserable, as those condemned were faced with the most arduous of work and the worst of conditions. As Dikötter explains, “many ordinary people faced a spell of one to five years in a camp for the slightest misdemeanour” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 322). This forgotten gulag archipelago appears to have reached various extents in different regions and was sometimes indistinguishable from ‘normal’ projects such as the Ji County irrigation project, which “was equated with death” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 152) and was a dreaded assignment for ordinary villagers. Compare this with Gansu, where “82,000 prisoners worked in a hundred reform-through-labour camps in June 1960” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 320).

Institutional policies and ‘rational’ madness