Part Five

The Vulnerable



Communal nurseries and kindergartens were set up everywhere in the summer of 1958, allowing women to step out of their homes and join the Great Leap Forward. Problems appeared right away, as children were separated from their parents all day long, in some cases for weeks on end. In the countryside retired women and unmarried girls were given crash courses in childcare, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the number of toddlers that parents were required to hand over to the state. And as labour shortages became acute in the rush towards industrialisation, even they were forced to work in the fields and factories, leaving children in minimal care. The buildings of childcare centres were often ramshackle, in some cases not having any fixed premises at all, but making do with a mud hut or an abandoned shed, and allowing the children to run wild.1 Outside the capital, in Daxing county, a mere dozen out of 475 boarding kindergartens had rudimentary equipment, and more often than not children simply ate and slept on the floor. Many of the buildings had leaking roofs, and some lacked doors and windowpanes altogether. As carers had only a rudimentary training, accidents were frequent, with children bumping into boiling kettles and suffering burns. Neglect was such that in one facility several children aged three to four were unable to walk. In the suburbs clustered around Beijing, a third of all kindergartens were described by the Women’s Federation as ‘backward’.2 Even in the capital childcare was basic in the extreme. In the nurseries everybody cried, one report noted: the children forced away from their families would burst into tears first, quickly followed by inexperienced young carers who felt utterly overwhelmed by the pressure, and finally mothers reluctant to entrust their offspring to the state would also start crying.3

Lack of qualified staff also led to the use of corporal punishment to maintain a semblance of order in overcrowded kindergartens. This was common even in the cities, one of the worst cases being a female supervisor who used a hot iron to discipline recalcitrant children, and burned a three-year-old on the arm.4 Poor standards of care and shabby facilities also combined to produce disease. Eating utensils were shared while infected children were not segregated, allowing germs to colonise the kindergarten. Even in the relative oasis of Shanghai, toddlers risked going about all day with faeces in their pants.5 In Beijing infection rates were high. In the Number Two Cotton Factory, 90 per cent of the children were sick, commonly with measles and chickenpox. Scabies and worms were also widespread. Death rates were high.6 In the suburbs flies abounded and the kindergartens reeked of urine. Food poisoning was a common occurrence, killing many children. Diarrhoea infected four in five children; some of them also suffered from rickets.7 With the advance of the famine, oedema became widespread, as bodies started swelling up with water. In Nanjing, two out of three children inspected in a kindergarten suffered from water retention; many also had trachoma (an infectious eye disease) and hepatitis.8

Abuse was rife. Food was commonly stolen from kindergartens, as hardened adults pilfered the rations designated for helpless children. This happened in three-quarters of all kindergartens in Guangzhou, either through blatant theft or more subtly via accounting irregularities.9 In one case in Nanjing, all the meat rationed for the children was taken home by director Li Darao, who also appropriated the entire soap ration. Elsewhere in the city all the meat and sugar was evenly divided up between members of staff.10 In the countryside abuse was more frequent but less well documented. In November 1960 one or two infants died every day in Qichun county, Hubei: the workers in charge of the premises ate most of the food.11 In the end, as the state receded in the midst of chaos, the kindergartens simply folded, leaving villagers to fend for their children. To take but one example, the number of childcare institutions in Guangdong declined from 35,000 to 5,400 in 1961 alone.12

Children old enough to be sent to school were made to work. A work–study programme, launched by the central government in the autumn of 1957, required all students to participate in productive labour, which in practice could amount to half of all time spent in school. This was before the Great Leap Forward had even started.13 As the country was mobilised in the steel campaign in the autumn of 1958, children not only collected scrap iron and old bricks, but actually operated the furnaces, a task so gruelling that some fainted after long shifts in the heat. Hundreds of primary schools in Wuhan opened several factories each in a burst of industrialisation. In the schools children were kept on the premises all day long, sleeping in primitive conditions, sometimes three to a bed in leaking buildings. Teaching was suspended for weeks on end, as the world of collective labour was deemed to be the centre of individual development. Anxious parents had no alternative but to sneak into the school buildings at night to check on the well-being of their children.14 Then passive resistance took effect, and by early 1959 some students attended formal classes only, opting to skip work experience; a few left school altogether.15 In Nanjing, many of the truants simply stayed at home, but a quarter found work in factories. Several students worked for the police.16

Schoolchildren had to participate in productive labour, but were often put to work without adequate safety measures. Accidents were common and hundreds died throughout the Great Leap Forward. While digging a canal in Gansu, seven students perished as a bank collapsed. In Shandong eight met their ends working in an abandoned kiln when a wall caved in.17

In the countryside most children did not have the luxury of school at all. They were expected to work in the fields, carry manure, look after cattle or collect firewood for the canteen. Much of this followed traditional practice, as children in poor families had always been expected to help out. But collectivisation brought in its wake a much harsher regime, one in which labour was the property of the collective rather than the individual or the family. Children were no longer asked to work by parents but bossed around by local cadres instead. Many treated children as if they were adults. Tang Suoqun, a thirteen-year-old girl, was made to carry a forty-one-kilo load of cut grass. Not far away a boy aged fourteen had to haul manure weighing fifty kilos.18

Throughout the country a stark logic governed relationships between the rulers and ruled. As there was not enough food to go around, the most able workers were given preferential treatment while those considered to be idlers – children, the sick and the elderly – were abused. The party archives provide long and painful lists of examples. Ailong, a thirteen-year-old boy who looked after the ducks in Guangdong, was caught digging up roots for food. He was forced to assume the aeroplane position, was covered in excrement and had bamboo inserted under his nails. The beatings he received were so ferocious that he was crippled for life.19 In Luoding county, Guangdong, local cadre Qu Bendi beat to death an eight-year-old who had stolen a handful of rice.20 In Hunan, Tan Yunqing, aged twelve, was drowned in a pond like a puppy for having pilfered food from the canteen.21 Sometimes parents were forced to inflict the punishment. When a boy stole a handful of grain in the same village in Hunan where Tan Yunqing was drowned, local boss Xiong Changming forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later.22

Reprisals were also taken against children as a form of collective punishment. Guo Huansheng, on her own with three children, was refused leave of absence to take her five-year-old son to the hospital. She was a stubborn woman and made her way all alone to Guangzhou without permission, but nonetheless lost her child to disease in the hospital. When she returned home after an absence of ten days she discovered that her two other children had been ignored by the entire village. Covered in excrement, they had worms crawling on their anuses and armpits. Both soon died. Local cadre He Liming then started appearing at her house to bang on the door and denounce her as a shirker. The woman lost her mind.23 In Liaojia village, near Changsha, one parent escaped to the city, leaving behind two children. The local cadres locked them inside the house, and they starved to death a few days later.24

Recalcitrant children were also locked up. In subtropical Guangdong children could be placed inside a hog’s cage simply for talking during a meeting.25 The police helped, putting children aged seven to ten behind bars for stealing small amounts of food in Shuicheng county, Guizhou. One eleven-year-old was locked up for eight months for the theft of a kilo of corn.26 Larger correctional facilities were established at the county level, designed specifically for children deemed to be incorrigible. In Fengxian county, under the jurisdiction of Shanghai, some 200 children aged six to ten ended up in a re-education camp under the control of the Public Security Bureau: physical punishment included being kicked, standing, kneeling and the insertion of needles into palms; some were handcuffed.27

Pressure also came from inside the family. When the parents were too busy working in the fields or taken ill and confined to their beds, the children were in charge of fetching the allocated ration from the canteen, which could be many kilometres away. The children – sometimes as young as four – had to jostle with adults in the canteen, and then carry the food back to the family. The strain was immense, and many of those interviewed today remember vividly how they let their families down on one or another occasion. Ding Qiao’er was a small girl of eight when she had to look after her entire family, as her father was taken ill and her mother had kidney stones and bound feet, which meant that she could not work for the commune and earn a living. Every day the girl had to queue in the canteen for up to an hour, all the while being pushed aside and bullied by hungry adults. The entire family of six depended on the one bowl of watery porridge she was handed, but one day, after a heavy downpour, the scrawny girl slipped on her way back home and spilt the entire contents. ‘I cried, but then I remembered that my parents and the whole family were still waiting for me to bring the food back for them to eat. So I picked myself up and scraped the food up from the ground. It was full of sand.’ Her family got angry, blaming her for having wasted the ration on which all depended. ‘But in the end they ate the food, slowly, because it was full of sand. If they did not eat it, they would be so hungry that they might go crazy.’28

Children fought with each other for food. Although Ding Qiao’er was the child who brought home the family ration, sometimes her parents would give more food to her brothers, depriving her and her younger sister. They argued, they cried and sometimes they even fought with each other over the rations. Liu Shu, who grew up in Renshou county, Sichuan, also remembers how his younger brother filled up his bowl first, leaving next to nothing for the others. ‘At each meal, he screamed loudly. Every meal was like that. Because he screamed, he was often beaten.’29 Li Erjie, a mother of three, recalled that her two sons fought over food every day. ‘They fought fiercely. My youngest daughter received the smallest ration, although she always cried for the biggest amount. She cried very loudly to get her way. My other children cursed her for that and still remember it to this day.’30

Violence against children inside the family could go much further, as family members became competitors in the presence of insufficient food.31 Information is difficult to come by, but police reports sometimes get close to the complex family dynamics that developed in times of hunger. In Nanjing about two cases of murder inside the family were reported every month in the middle of the famine. Most of the violence was committed by men and directed against women and children, although one in five victims was an elderly person. In the majority of cases the reason behind murder was that the victims had become a burden. In Liuhe a paralysed girl was thrown into a pond by her parents. In Jiangpu, a dumb and probably retarded child aged eight stole repeatedly from both parents and neighbours, putting the family at risk: he was strangled in the night. A few cases show deliberate starving of a weaker family member. Wang Jiuchang, for instance, regularly ate the ration allocated to his eight-year-old daughter. He also took her cotton jacket and trousers in the middle of the winter. In the end she succumbed to hunger and cold.32

In the countryside, following an established tradition the communist party could do little about, children were sold or given away when they could no longer be supported by their own families. In Neiqiu county, Hebei, Chen Zhenyuan was strained to the limit by his family of six, and he gave his four-year-old son to a fellow villager. His seven-year-old was handed over to an uncle in a neighbouring county.33 In Chengdu, Li Erjie gave one of her three daughters to her sister. But other family members did not like the child, and the mother-in-law was a fierce woman who openly favoured her own grandson: ‘We have no food for ourselves, why should we keep another little bitch?’ she complained. She took away all of the food earmarked for the adopted child. The girl, who was only four years old, was also sent to fetch vegetables from the canteen every day, having to deal with adults pushing and shoving in the queue. She often fainted from hunger. She was neglected by her adoptive family and was found covered in lice a few months later, when she was taken back by her mother.34

Few families were willing to take on an extra burden in the famished countryside, prompting some people to abandon their children. The lucky ones were left behind in a city, some families making a great effort to break through the cordon fencing off the countryside. In Nanjing over 2,000 children were found abandoned in 1959, four times more than in the entire decade of communist rule up to the Great Leap Forward. Six out of ten were girls, and about a third were aged three or older; most were sick, a few blind or handicapped. Judging by the accents of those able to speak, many came from Anhui province, others from villages neighbouring Nanjing. Some of the families were interviewed by community workers. The most common rationale was the very logic of collectivisation, as some villagers gave official propaganda a twist by arguing that ‘children belong to the state’. Utopian images of abundance beyond the village, of wealth and happiness ensconced behind city walls, were also important. A common folk notion in the countryside was that a child could ‘enter town and enjoy a happy life’, as it would be brought up in prosperity.

But more tragic stories lurked behind such rationalisations, for instance in the case of a thirteen-year-old boy called Shi Liuhong. He was taken on a trek across the mountains from his home village in Hujiang. Tired and hungry, he fell asleep by the side of the road, only to find that his mother had gone when he woke up. This was one of the most common ways of ‘losing’ a child. The verb ‘lose’ (diu) was often used as a euphemism for abandonment. As a thirteen-year-old girl recounted, her father had died three years earlier and there was no food in the village. Her mother had first ‘lost’ her blind brother, aged fourteen; then her younger brother and sister were ‘lost’ in the mountains, before she too was left behind.35

As the last example shows, some children were abandoned in pairs, perhaps because the parents hoped that they might stay together. On the streets of Nanjing a six-year-old was thus found crying for his mother and holding on to two younger toddlers. But other reasons also accounted for the abandonment of siblings. Some were left on the streets because women from the countryside – desperate for food and shelter – ‘remarried’ men in the city who did not welcome children.36 Some had their date of birth scribbled on a piece of paper pinned to their clothes, others carried a written note in a pocket. In a few rare cases, desperate mothers took their children straight to the police station.37

There are no reliable statistics on the number of abandoned children, but in a city like Nanjing several thousand were found in a single year. In Wuhan, the capital of Hunan, four or five were picked up by the authorities each day by the summer of 1959.38 In the province as a whole some 21,000 children were placed in state orphanages by the summer of 1961, although many more were never recorded by the authorities.39

But in most cases children stayed with their parents to the very end. Across the countryside, in countless villages, starving children with swollen bellies and pipe-stem limbs, their heavy heads wobbling on thin little necks, were left to die in peasant huts, by empty fields or along dusty roadsides. In some villages in Jinghai county, Hebei, children aged four to five were unable to walk. Those who could wore nothing but an unlined garment, shuffling barefoot through the snow in the winter.40 Even in cities such as Shijiazhuang half of the babies died because their mothers had no milk.41 In some cases, children were almost the only ones to die. In a small village in Qionghai county, Guangdong, forty-seven people, or one in ten, died in the winter of 1958–9: of these, forty-one were infants and children, six were elderly.42

Yet, against all odds, sometimes the children were the ones who survived. In Sichuan it was estimated that 0.3 to 0.5 per cent of the rural population were orphans – meaning roughly 180,000 to 200,000 children without parents. Many roamed the villages in ragged groups, unwashed and unkempt, surviving on their wits – which, most of the time, meant theft. Children on their own were easy prey, stripped of their meagre belongings – cups, shoes, blankets, clothes – by their guardians or neighbours. Discarded by acquaintances once they had robbed her of her every possession, Gao Yuhua, a girl aged eleven, slept on a hay bed and had a mere loincloth to cover herself. She stayed alive by crushing grains of millet which she ate raw, and was described by an investigation team as resembling a ‘primitive child’ from the Stone Age.43 Xiang Qingping was adopted by a poor farmer in Fuling, but after the twelve-year-old had complained to neighbours that the man abused him and gave him mud to eat, his head was bashed in. Elsewhere in the county an orphan had his spine broken by angry villagers who caught him stealing from the fields.44 When siblings survived it was not uncommon for them to turn on each other. Among many reported cases, Jiang Laosan, aged seven, was beaten and robbed by his brother aged sixteen, dying a few months after becoming an orphan.45

Some of the orphans showed extraordinary resilience, as the story of Zhao Xiaobai, a soft-spoken woman with sad eyes, shows. A few years before the Great Leap Forward her family left their native village in Henan to join a migration programme encouraging farmers to settle in Gansu province. Her father was made to break ice in the mountains but died of hunger in 1959. Her mother was too ill to work. One of the local cadres came to the house, banging on the door to announce that slackers would not be fed. Another local bully came at night, pestering her mother for sexual favours. In the end, exhausted, she seems to have given up. In the middle of a freezing night in January 1960, she got up and went to the toilet. Her daughter Zhao Xiaobai, aged eleven, woke up and asked her mother where she was going. Then she fell asleep again, but two hours later her mother was still in the toilet. ‘I called out to her, but she did not answer. She just sat there, with her head towards one side, but she said nothing.’

Surrounded by strangers speaking an alien dialect, Zhao and her sister aged six ended up living with an uncle, who had also migrated to Gansu. ‘He was reasonable towards me, because I was old enough to go out and work. But he was not nice to my sister. You know in Gansu, it was very cold, minus 20 Celsius. He asked my sister to go out looking for kindling in such freezing weather. How could she find any wood? One day, as it was freezing, she came home empty-handed. So he beat her on the head, and she bled pretty badly.’ To protect her sister from her uncle’s abuse, Zhao took the six-year-old with her as she went to work like an adult, digging canals and ploughing fields. Here too she was unsafe. ‘Once, as I was working, I heard my little sister crying, and I saw somebody hurting her. Somebody was using sand balls to hit my sister, and she was surrounded by clumps of sand. Her eyes were covered in grit, and she just cried and cried.’ Zhao found a couple who were planning to return to Henan. She sold everything they had and bought two tickets at ten yuan. Back in Henan, at last, they found her grandmother who took the two girls under her wing. When asked how she had become the woman she is now, Zhao Xiaobai answered without hesitation: ‘Through suffering.’46

Some children never found anybody willing to look after them and were placed in orphanages, where conditions – rather predictably – were appalling. Physical punishment was common, for instance causing a dozen to die at the hands of their guardians in one commune in Dianjiang county, Sichuan.47 In Hubei orphans were sheltered in ramshackle buildings with leaking roofs and left to survive the winter without padded cotton clothes or blankets. Medical care was non-existent. Many thousands died of disease.48

Although infants died in disproportionate numbers, fewer of them were actually born during the famine. Demographic experts have relied on the published census figures of 1953, 1964 and 1982 to try to piece together the decline in births during the famine, but much more reliable figures are available from the archives, as in a command economy local authorities had to keep track of the population. In the Qujing region, Yunnan, where the famine appeared in 1958, births dropped from 106,000 in 1957 to 59,000 the following year. In Yunnan as a whole the number of births plummeted from 678,000 in 1957 to 450,000 in 1958.49

Another way to look at it is to find age-related statistics compiled after the famine. In Hunan, a province which was not among the worst-hit regions, a very clear gap appears among children aged three in 1964, that is born in 1961: there were some 600,000 fewer of them than six-year-olds, although they too must have suffered. On the other hand there were four times more children aged one, and four times more children under the age of one.50 But none of these statistics recorded what must have been countless unreported cases of infants dying within weeks of being born: who had any incentive to count the deaths of newborns whose births had not even been recorded in the middle of starvation?

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