Memories of the Great Leap Forward (1958) and Three Years of Famine (1959-61)

The Great Leap Forward, aimed at displaying the superiority of socialism and economically surpass the capitalist countries, proved to be a great disaster. Through what he thought to be a creative use of Marxism, Mao decided when material economic conditions were not ripe for a Chinese economic take-off, human willpower could help bridge the gap and speed up economy. Although this sounds a very far-fetched argument in the post-industrial age in the West,in a China ruled by the Chinese Communists who had just won the power to rule, technical expertise was not only something unfamiliar to most of them, but also something associated with the regime they had just overthrown--the Nationalists (Guomintang/Guomindang: GMT or GMD). The Communists' lack of expertise in these areas and their enemies' possession of it aplenty made the Communists feel defensive in the face of a United Nations sanctioned economic blocade of China that started in 1950. Emphasizing self-reliance,not quite knowing how to go about nation building, and distrustful of the few in China who had the expertise to administer and govern because they were largely not from the Communist ranks but remnants from the pre-1949 Nationalist era, a populist approach appealing to the idealism of the masses and focusing on willpower-something that did not have to be bought or learned and could be immediately put to use-overwhelmed the more technical oriented members within the Communist Party.

Although in Marxism, human willpower, or consciousness, was discussed as a constructive element promoting human progress, it had to work in connection with the material forces in society. Marx paid great attention to science and technology, and decided ultimately Communism would be brought about by a great abundance of material goods made possible by the development of science and technology and the advanced human consciousness, so that market economy would be abolished, replaced by a system wherein "everyone would work what they can, and everyone would take what they need." In the Great Leap Forward, only the human consciousness part was emphasized, and technical expertise was ignored, thereby resulting in the state policy of backyard furnaces and steel making as a populist movement instead of something done by skilled workers, and communal canteens with the consequence that even seeds in the granaries were eaten up. False reporting of grain production and concentration of rural resources on steel production all had a severe adverse effect on agriculture. The ensuing drought in 1959 in much of China basically sealed the fate of Chinese agriculture in that and the following years: famine.

The Three Years Famine (1959-1961) and Its Memory

The Three Years of Famine created the largest single human catastrophe in Communist China, killing up to 35 million people, in comparison with the catastrophe that has been talked much more about, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) which killed up to 1 million people, there has been much silence over the famine, and it is often mentioned as a by-product of something else, e.g. in explaining why someone is prone to getting all kinds of illnesses "Oh, because she/he was born in the three years of famine, and suffered from malnutrition from the very start!" Here, Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik why this silence from both the political aspect and popular perception of it in the form of novels. The government, she argues, has naturally the motivation to keep silent over the matter, as the famine was directly the result of the Great Leap Forward. Although quite a few within the Communist Party disagreed with the GLF and the populist approach to producing steel, the government largely keeps silent on the event because it is viewed as wrongful party policy and sheds a negative light on the Communist Party. On the other hand, there have also been motives rooted in Chinese culture that have prevented many Chinese from being very verbal about it. While Weigelin-Schwiedrzik is good at discussions of belated official dialogues on the Great famine and offers a good introduction on some literature dealing with this and related topics of trauma, she is not successful in explaining the cultural motives--especially what she calls a cultural habit of forgetting trauma--behind a belated discussion of trauma among the Chinese people.

Among the political motives, two primarily stand out: The Great Leap Forward was Mao's policy and so long as Mao was alive, it could not be openly criticized. On the other hand, any inner-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) criticism of the Great Leap Forward was retaliated by Mao who also complicated many other members of the Communist Party who, although they would eventually allow open discussion of the famine to some extent, would be reluctant to do so on a large scale because that would not make them look good. A more thorough discussion of the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famine would have to wait till most of these senior party members died, in the late 1990s.

Popular memory of the famine as reflected in novels appears to be quite didactic and follow some formulaic patterns, but these patterns were also particular to Chinese literature after 1978, when a revolutionary style that only sang praises to the Communist system was replaced by a more sober and naturalistic style where there was more realistic description of struggles to survive. It was in this context that Wang Ruowang's Hunger Trilogy, another of our readings for this course, was written.

Despite the naturalistic descriptions of hunger, brutality, and death, the novels remain didactic, reflecting one major purpose of writing for the novelists: the job of the intellectuals and of writing is to preserve/disseminate/reinforce moral values. The very realism or naturalism in these novels is didactic in itself--to expose the hypocrisy of Communist slogans that Communism has been a wonderful system for the people. One novel, Wang Zhiliang's "A Starving Mountain Village" users a naturalistic portrayal of the people in a mountain village's struggle for survival to remind the Communist party that policies such as the Great Leap Forward should never be implemented again.

In Yu Hua's novel "To Live, " which has been turned into a movie and available from most movie rental places such as Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos, the tragedy was accentuated not only by death, but death of one's posterity--because the Chinese emphasize the importance of genealogy, the perpetuation of the family line, the deaths of one's children/grandchildren take on more cultural poignancy--they are not just tragedies, but also threaten the whole notion of perpetuating the family line. The trauma was so great that the survivors would not even have the energy/stamina to mourn the dead. Their very own survival was something to feel happy about. This peculiar style of "detraumatizing the trauma" to borrow the words of Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, (p.58) was an indirect indictment of Communist policies that led to the political campaigns from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution.

Weigelin-Schwiedrzik argues that repetitive trauma in Chinese history leads to lapses of memory--she calls it a cultural tradition, but does not explain why. I can only say that if we accept her argument, it is because the Chinese have suffered just so much in the thousands of years of their history, including starvation, warfare--both domestic uprisings and multiple foreign invasions which caused enormous devastation until the 20th century, and the Communist rule simply added to the devastations. Thousands of years' autocracy made it hard for people to fight back, and the recourse to reconciliation with tragedies was their repression from memory--forced forgetting. But Weigelin-Schwiedrzik's failure to really explain this point is one of the weaknesses of this paper.

Ultimately, the didactic purpose of Chinese novelists in their depiction of trauma shines through the novels: the exposure of trauma, and even the forgetfulness of trauma, on paper is not to create new feelings of trauma, but to serve as admonition that revolutionary policies that caused such trauma should never be repeated again.