There is no doubt that the Great Leap Famine in China more than half a century ago was the worst man-made calamity of modern times. Between early 1958 and the spring of 1961, somewhere between 30 and 45 million people died. The more cautious figure is five million more than the population of Scandinavia, the higher one the current population of Spain. The famine was compressed geographically and temporally. Henan, Gansu, Anhui, Guizhou, Qinghai and Sichuan were the worst hit provinces. Most of the victims died between January and April 1960, when all the grain was gone and before the new crops were up. They had tried everything they could to save themselves. They stripped the bark from trees, and ate the roots, runners and leaves of crop plants, as well as insects, bran, cornstalks and rotten sweet potatoes. The rural population of North China had age-old ways of coping with food shortages. They were no strangers to drought, famine and flood; millions had died in an earlier man-made famine in 1938, when Chiang Kaishek decided to slow the Japanese advance by opening the dikes and changing the course of the Yellow River. In the Great Leap Famine, the Entomological Research Institute of China’s Academy of Sciences helpfully supplied lists of the protein and fat content of many insects: dried larva of the corn borer, dried fly maggot, dried dung beetle, termites, locusts and silkworm pupae, together with recipes for their preparation. Before reaching this point, people had eaten the green crops in the fields (chi qing), thereby reducing the harvest that the authorities could seize to negligible proportions. Quite apart from scouring the environment for everything and anything that could be eaten, they did what any starving people would do. They tried to flee, first to the cities, where the food supply was better. For the most part they were stopped on the roads and at transportation hubs by militiamen, who arrested and beat them. If they couldn’t escape, they raided public granaries and storerooms; they stole; they rustled livestock and fodder; they torched the homes of hated cadres; and they rioted.
LRB 6 December 2012 | PDF Download