The Scar in People’s Heart

Yesterday, before Wendy’s parents went back home, we finally had some time to sit down together as a family and chat. It was a wonderful hour. We had the chance to know more about their experience in the old days, when they were young.

I don’t Know China Well

I admit (as I always do) that I don’t know China well. No matter how people claim, the history of this country is a mystery for many people, including me.

We chatted about the “three dark years” from 1959 to 1961, which is officially named “Three Years of Natural Disaster”. It is actually NOT. The three years is a blurred image for me. I know many people starved to death during the three years, but it is still hard to connect this piece of history with the person before me, and myself. It is not a far away history anyway.

Why and How

From 1959, before the Great Leap started, there came the order from Beijing. People in the whole country were not allowed to own any private property, and were not allowed to cook at home. Anyone who setup fire to cook would be sentenced as criminal. Everyone had to go to public dining rooms to have “free meal”.

It was not bad in the first year, since there was so many food that was more than people can eat. However, at the same time, people were almost not allowed to work in the field.

The second year, not surprisingly, there were not enough food left from the previous year. Since the order from the top were the same: No cooking at home, no private property (especially food), and no working, people started to starve.

During the three years, so many people did nothing, just wait to starve to death. I read about this in history books (of cause not the current official version), but I was still stocked when parents described some real stories. They emphasized this is not a story on TV or film, this was the real life. They saw it with their own eyes.

Their neighbours were found death. One with 5 persons – all found dead in their own home, quietly. The other family had 3 persons. The parents died, and lied on the bed. The child didn’t tell anyone, and went to dining room to collect three persons’ food. Although the food was still less than one normal meal for one child today, he ate them all, but it was too much for this child who barely didn’t eat for months, and die because eating too much. People found three bodies in their home long time later, two in bedroom and one in kitchen. In other families, after people died, the neighbours could do nothing because they were so weak to carry the bodies.

The lives of our parents, and their brothers were at the edge of death. Mom said she opened her eyes but was not able to see anything clearly. Even when bird flow by and drop shit onto ground, people would put it into their month…

Well. This was the real situation in the year 1959 to 1961 in the normal small village. Record shows overall, the weather for the whole country were good, and there were no natural disaster, but millions of people died. No one know the exact number.

It Changes Lives of a Generation

Before, when I talk about common sense, my example was: parents always keep food left from this meal to the next, and I only want fresh meal the next time. My parents’ common sense is “to save money”, and my common sense is “to get best experience”. I compared and claimed: there are two different common sense, and people seldom communicate about this, and this is the reason of conflict.

Now, I’d like to say, I was partially wrong. The common sense of parent generation was not “to save money”, it should be “to save food”. I deeply understand when a person witness his/her family member or friends starved and died just because there was nothing to eat, how uncomfortable he/she would be if he/she throw away food – for the rest of their lives.

It also explains about why the whole generation (above 60 in age) went along from the Culture Revolution have such a strong sense of “insecurity”. They save money, because they don’t know what may happen; they are very cautious to talk, because a political movement easily swipe their lives away. The more I learn about what they have experienced, the more I appreciate their decisions, and their behavior, and the more I understand about this country.

This is a scar in the heart of that generation. I saw it, but I didn’t realize why there is a scar before.

38 thoughts on “The Scar in People’s Heart

  1. that is a very powerful and deep hitting story. I can’t imagine being so desperate for food that I would wait for a bird to fly over and leave me something to eat. No, I can’t even relate to that.

  2. Great post!

    The official [Chinese]estimated death toll in this period is about 15 million dead of starvation out of a total 40 million deaths. Many analysts have estimated that the number of “abnormal deaths” ranged from 10 millon to 100 million. Some western analysts such as Patricia Buckley Ebrey estimate that about 20-40 million people had died of starvation caused by bad government policy and natural disasters. J. Banister estimates this number is about 23 million. Li Chengrui, a former minister of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, estimated 22 million (1998). His estimation was based on Ansley J. Coale and Jiang Zhenghua’s estimation of 17 million. Cao Shuji estimated 32.5 million. (Source: Wikipedia)

  3. In economics, there is a term of “the tragedy of the commons.” Public ponds or seas are typically overfished, and public meadows are devastated. It fits your description as well, I believe. The reason is what is always assumed as people’s self-interest that inevitably leads people to underperform and consume more. Sometimes, a bad result is foreseen, but nobody can save the situation.

    That’s why property rights is so important.

  4. Interesting, more and more “political” article on your blog, so you may soon get unplugged.

    By the way according to many, never any time in human history more people have starve to death than during the great leap forward.

    And that to produce crappy useless steel, which was a way to fulfill the megalomania of a Chairman Mao.

    I always wander how Chinese have been able to do such things… such as destroy your iron kitchen tools to do iron…

    the goal of producing iron is to produce goods, not destroy goods to produce tools… how can you arrive in a state where everybody lack of basic common sense??

    I am sure that these kind of stupid policies will have been impossible to implement in many countries, because the population will just have said: “fcuk off”. Same story for culturral revolution.

    Maybe 5000 years in wich you have been taught not to think but obey enable to obey even to the most stupid orders.

    See you!

  5. This is off topic.

    You had a posting about a really expensive hotel a little while back. How about some postings about lower priced, but still decent hotels in Shanghai?

  6. sounds more like the Great Leap into Hell. Bet Mao wasn’t chasing after bird droppings or serving them to his family. it always seems like the most vulnerable people suffer the most and pay the dearest price.

  7. Till today, people still don’t own properties. They simply own the right to use such properties for 70 years.

  8. jqian

    so people only have a 70 year ‘leasehold’ in China? what if a person lives until he or she is 86 years old, where does that person live his final 16 years?

  9. What a wonderful opportunity to learn from the previous generation. I’m sure Wendy’s parents appreciated your interest, and the chance to tell you in depth about their own life experience. All we want, as parents, is for our children’s lives to be better/easier than our own. It must give them great pleasure to see you and Wendy living in a prosperous and happy period of time after such a difficult season in the history of your country.

  10. That’s funny, today before I read your blog I was just thinking about a movie I saw a long time ago called “To Live” that portrayed how that era of time affected people’s lives. I’m surprised that this movie was even made … perhaps it was carefully produced the same way your entry was written conscientiously written.


  11. Jianshuo:

    Your parents’ story was sad. However, for many many more people, their youth or lives were completed wasted.

    Taking my parents as example, when the culture revolution started, they just graduated from one of the top engineer schools and their careers just started to take off. Then came the political storm, for the next 10 years, they literally did not do much career wise, other than make some toys for me and one sofa for our home. (It was very popular to make your own sofa during that period of time if you work at factory.) I don’t think my parents had never been forced to go to countryside or had no food to eat. However, from 25 to 35, their lives were wasted and in people’s lives, how many 25 to 35 do you have? The saddest thing is that almost not only my parents had these experience, it happend amost to EVERYONE who lived in China during that period .

    Often times, I was thinking if my parents were given the same opportunity which I have, their lifes would have been very different. The sad stories were not only live with the people who died but also left the marks to the people who live thru it.

    Sorry, I really do not want to get your blog into any trouble, but I have to say “A country has to face her own history, otherwise the country can not make any progress (maybe economically but not humanistically)

  12. I’d like to recommand movie “To Live” to anyone who want to know history of modern China. The movie told a very sad story in an intentionally peaceful tune. I believe it is the best movie made by director Zhang YiMou. The movie was band in China and he never made any serious movie since.

    It is avialable in most of the public libaries, and maybe even Block Buster in the US. To anyone who want to buy it in China, just find any DVD vendor on the street and ask for (Huo2 Zhe4 活着).

  13. JS: From my parents’ description, in Shanghai, the situation was better than your description. At least, people CAN cook @ home. Still the food was in shortage. They mentioned that there were lots of people died in the villages. So I think there might be difference in executing the order from the government at that time. Maybe we shall look into more FACTS to draw an conclusion. Don’t take the conclusion from others as they experienced that, they might have mixed up their own feelings into their description, the root cause of which is yet to be discovered.

  14. Walter

    The difference between different places is not in executing the orders from the central government. It is the central government that taxed the rural villages heavily and reallocated resources to the cities. I wonder where you think all the food in the city came from while people were starved to death in places where food was produced. In a top-down society, the evil always comes from above and blames always stay at the bottom. I see the same thing happening in today’s China as well.

  15. xge: I have to say that might be trade-offs. At that time, this country wanted to catch up with the advanced countries as soon as possible. So heavy industries were more emphasized than agriculture. Inevitably when there were nature disasters, food was in short supply. When there was no chance to save all the lives, it was a matter of serious choice. I don’t mean to conclude who is responsible for this tragedy. I hope everyone can judge things from this country’s current and previous situations instead of stamp ideas/believes. I saw too many junky criticisms from those who don’t know the country well.

  16. Exactly, the movie “To Live” (Huo2 Zhe4 活着) is one of the best movies to portray the sorrows of the past. It’s worth to see it twice. You can rent it from or or almost any mortar based video rental stores in the US. I think this movie should be considered a classic. It’s very heavy to watch that movie, a true human tragedy. And the sufferings can be so strong that westerners who haven’t experienced such may find hard to imagine.

  17. Walter: It is sad that you call starving people to death “trade-offs”. Besides, there was no nature disasters, and who is to live, who is to die is not a decision a government should make. An evil doing is a evil doing no matter what the situation is.

    BTW, I was born and raised in China. Have lived in 5 different provinces for more than 30 years. Have lived in villages, small and big cites. Have traveled all over China. I don’t know who you consider know China well and qualified to criticize.

  18. Walter: “I don’t mean to conclude who is responsible for this tragedy. ”

    It seems to me you are making more excuses to justify what was caused by the communist party in the 60’s. It is easy for people to see who is actually responsible, why you don’t want to conclude it? China has demanded decades for Japan to come to face it’s history and learn from the grave mistake it made and the suffering it imposed on people of Asia in WW2. Isn’t it time for the Chinese goverment to wake up and face it’s own past too?

  19. Walter, I am not a person who often feel angry, but I felt so sad when you say so. If you look up my blog entry in the first two years of blogging, you will see I made the same announcement just as you did. I thought of the same thing as you expressed. But in the last few years, when I learn more and partly through the leads from the commenter of this blog, I see the history a little bit more than I did, and I just feel sad about the way most people still did to face history.

    I completely agree with Ying Zhang, that we need to look at the history. Look at all the suffer, and pain in human history, to learn how to avoid it. We need to know better about the history of what Japanese did in China in 1930 to 1940s, and it is equally important or even more important to learn the history after that.

  20. I know a man in Shanghai, he lost a leg during the campaign of Culture Revolution by his neighbouring red guard who also happens to be his childhood friend.

    Today, the man and the former red guard both close to ’60 still live next to each other and two families are closely associated. The crippled man never blame the neighbour who beated him up none the former red guard shown any regret or remorse of the incident, nevertheless, both blame the ‘circumstance’ caused the consequence and mishap.

    Forget the past, look at the future, otherwise you’ll always have clip on the shoulder.

  21. Jian Shuo, just a matter of curious, do you know the history which prompted the intrusion of Japan into China during 1931 and 1937 respectively and would not declare war at each other until Pearl Harbour incident?

  22. Exiting to see your following comments and Jianshuo’s too !

    Stephen, we know eachother on this blog for a while, what are your relations to China ?

    Do you have Jianshuo’s phone no. ? Then we can make a connection, if Jianshuo agrees, and makes it :-)

  23. carsten, My next visit to Shanghai is during Chinese New Year, if Jian Shuo agrees, he can send his phone # via e-mail to me, please revert.

  24. Stephen, it is great that you are visiting Shanghai. Let’s have a meetup during Chinese New Year! I will arrange it.

    I will send carsten’s mobile phone and email to you, since it seems carsten agrees.

    Let’s be together.

  25. Stephen, Connections shouldn’t be that difficult. Although, I will be most likely in Qingdao in the Spring Festival. But the email and SMS can be an option :-) Jianshuo knows. Jianshuo, I hereby acnowlegde you my approval to provide Stephen my personal details.

  26. I’ve heard about how many people starved to death during the period, but didn’t imagine that number was nearly that high. I understand that a lot of people also died during the Cultural Revolution from all the family/political struggles that went through. Ok – I admit “struggle” is too mild to describe what was going on.

  27. Jiao Shuo, I think perhaps your description of the Zai Huang years as the direct result of the Great Leap forward is oversimplifying the issue, especially your stress on the importance of loss of private property and communal kitchens as a reason. Confiscating iron or eating together in halls was a phenomon of the time as much as the starvation was; not the cause of it. The Great Leap forward attributed to the starvation in 2 major ways, 1) Bad planning. The major problem lie in that ppl in charge had no exp in agricultural manufacturing planning. It wouldn’t have mattered if farmers had their own land and their own pans; when all that they grew were regulated – and done so in a very bad way. Your inference that ppl were not allowed to work on fields, is perhaps missleading. People worked very hard those years on the fields; but they were planting acres of potatos on land that won’t grow potatos, or cabbages on land that is only suitable for potatos – because the party had planned so. 2) Ambitions and Miss reporting. Why was there suddenly countrywide shortage of food? You’d think the government would see it coming, if it was just bad planning. The central government had set up production goals for local admin to meet, and ppl were very eager at the beginning. Over reporting of yields, either out of personal ambition, fear or pride, from down in the village level caused an very inflated view of production once it got up to Central planners – who raised new goals even higher based on yields that didn’t exist. There was such a detachment from reality that the central gov did not realize that ppl were starving until it became a nationwide issue.

    This said, ppl who say there was no nature disaster is plain wrong; and say so just to support their own views of the Chinese government. There are nature disasters almost every year in China, and in those years it was unfortunately worth. No enough to kill tens of millions of ppl, it was an inability to respond them that caused that, but it was a major factor attributing to the famine.

    In terms of the worst hit; it wasn’t the village folks or the city folks. Villages were close enough to nature to barely live off wild things – roots and tree bark, and the gov. made sure that its major cities got its supplies, no matter how much it had to squeeze elsewhere. It was the towns, and small size cities that faired the worst.

  28. “We need to know better about the history of what Japanese did in China in 1930 to 1940s, and it is equally important or even more important to learn the history after that.”

    I don’t think we really have to worry about that. If you grew up abroad, then its quite easy to find a history book critical of China in those years – and these years. So knowing is purely based on your interest. If you lived in China, well there’s no need telling ppl what they have themselves personally experienced, its in their bones. No need to make a course, when everyone has family with grueling storys like the ones you tell.

  29. “but I have to say “A country has to face her own history, otherwise the country can not make any progress (maybe economically but not humanistically)”

    My grandfather, as a university professor was ridiculed, shaved, stripped, paraded, beaten to near death countless times during the cultural revolution, most fiercely by his closest students. By the end, these red guards had been spread all across China, some in the least inhabitable of places as pioneering young intellectuals. Their ex-professor had survived, and in a position to bring them home. My mom remembered a time when one of the nastiest of the lot, had come to face her father, kneeling, crying, apologising and asking for help. So my grandfather forgave this man who’d broken his jaw and made an habit of urinating on him. He then started finding and transfering these students back from villages in the middle of nowhere, helping them enroll in school again or find work.

    A country is an embodiment of her people. Perhaps a government has not made peace, but the people who’ve lived and made history have certainly faced their past, be it good or ill. And if her people are able to forgive their enemies, their country for past trangressions and find love for them both, what is more humane than this?

    So in the name of ‘progress’ do they not deserve our imitation more than our pity, critisizm, or self flagellation?

  30. even now i didn’t know why and how that out of peoples’ imaginations.i can’t believe that all the people in this country have the same idea that we just waitted to death.maybe they can do more,and the country’s leaders can also, and where are they?it’s in the wrong time that may be shouldn’t happend.

  31. Thanks for sharing.

    Apart from the details of the terrible tragedy The most interesting part for me was your recognition of different “common sense”. Because everyone and every country has a different history and different experiences peoples views of the same situation can be very different.

    The more we understand about peoples situation the more able we become to understand there decisions. Good or bad (People always make good decisions, only others or time revel them to be bad.)

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