Sites of Horror

The horror of mass destruction was first encountered by the party leadership in Xinyang: it reduced Li Xiannian, a tough veteran of the Red Army, to tears. The immediate reaction was to blame counter-revolutionaries. Soon a campaign unfolded across the country to take power back from the forces of reaction, often with military backing from the centre. But in a clever move designed to portray Xinyang as an exception, reports were released within the party relating to the ‘Xinyang incident’. To this was added the ‘Fengyang incident’, named after a dusty county in a plain by the Huai River in Anhui province. Here too a reign of terror had claimed a quarter of the 335,000 villagers. A compilation of party reports on both cases started circulating in the 1980s, including a 600-page document that was smuggled out of China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. These subsequently became the basis for most studies of the period. Xinyang became a byword for the famine.

However, local cadres who convened across the country to discuss the Xinyang report in 1961 were unimpressed. In Xiangtan, Hunan, a county where tens of thousands had died, some cadres thought that the Xinyang incident paled in comparison to what had happened in their own backyard. Why should it be called an ‘incident’, some wondered?1

There are, indeed, vast numbers of villages where death claimed more than 30 per cent of the population in a single year – in some cases entire hamlets were wiped out. But counties are much larger political entities, their populations typically ranging from 120,000 to 350,000. A death rate of 10 per cent in one year across an entire county, composed of many hundreds of villages, some tightly clustered together, others divided by hills, rivers or forests, could have occurred only under immense political pressure. These sites of horror, where deceit and terror combined to produce mass killings, existed across the country. Every province under the leadership of a political zealot had several, some even boasted a dozen. There is unlikely to be a complete list of such cases any time soon, given that so much of the party archives remains locked away, but below is a provisional list of fifty-six counties, which will no doubt grow as better sources become available. It is based on a compilation of forty counties by Wang Weizhi, a demographer who worked for the Public Security Bureau in Beijing.2But his information is incomplete, as it is derived from official figures sent to the capital rather than on local findings. A number of counties have been added to the list on the basis of the archival material consulted for this book (they are marked with an asterisk). Several of these cases will be examined in this chapter.

Sichuan: Shizhu, Yingjing, Fuling*, Rongxian, Dazu*, Ziyang, Xiushan,  Youyang, Nanxi, Dianjiang, Leshan, Jianwei, Muchuan, Pingshan*, Bixian*, Ya’an*, Lushan*, Seda*

Anhui: Chaoxian, Taihe, Dingyuan, Wuwei, Xuancheng, Haoxian, Suxian, Fengyang, Fuyang, Feidong, Wuhe

Henan: Guangshan, Shangcheng, Xincai, Runan, Tanghe, Xixian, Gushi, Zhengyang, Shangcai, Suiping

Gansu: Tongwei*, Longxi*, Wuwei*

Guizhou: Meitan, Chishui, Jinsha, Tongzi

Qinghai: Huangzhong, Zaduo, Zhenghe

Shandong: Juye*, Jining*, Qihe*, Pingyuan*

Hunan: Guzhang*

Guangxi: Huanjiang

Tongwei, in the north-west of Gansu, was one of the poorest areas in the country. Set among undulating hills and divided by ravines on an arid loess plateau, it was once an important stop on the ancient silk road. Before the centre of gravity moved away towards the lush south, the region had heaved with human activity, as good use was made of the rich loess. Signs of the past are everywhere, as the soil is easy to dig. Walls, houses and mounds for tombs were made of loess and seemed to be carved straight out of the landscape. Caves were sculpted out of brittle hills, some with arched openings and dusty courtyards. Over time wind and rain eroded the mountain, and the dwellings ended up standing on their own. Terraces on top of hills and roads through deep valleys blended into a landscape of dirt that was moulded over the ages by busy hands. The Red Army occupied Tongwei in September 1935, where Mao composed an ode to the Long March.

Xi Daolong, head of the county, was a model party member, selected in May 1958 by the province to attend one of the communist party’s most prestigious meetings in Beijing. When the Chairman’s call for radical collectivisation came a few months later, Xi responded with zeal, amalgamating all the co-operatives into fourteen giant communes. Under the watchful eyes of the militia, everything was collectivised, land, livestock, homes, tools and even pots, tins and jars were confiscated. Farmers had to follow every dictate from party leaders. As Tongwei was a key link in the province’s plan to divert a tributary of the Yellow River up the mountains to create a water highway which would turn the arid plateau into a green garden, one in five farmers was dispatched to work on a reservoir. In order to please an inspection team, sent to spur on work on the irrigation scheme, half of all villagers were dragged out to distant construction sites in the midst of the harvest. The crop was allowed to rot in the fields. In a poverty-stricken county where farmers only just managed to eke out a living, more than 13,000 hectares were abandoned in the first year of the Great Leap Forward alone. Over the years the harvest shrank, from 82,000 tonnes in 1957 to 58,000 tonnes in 1958, to 42,000 in 1959 and finally to a miserable 18,000 tonnes in 1960. But the procurements increased. Xi Daolong reported a bumper harvest of 130,000 tonnes in 1958. The state took a third. In 1959 Xi again reported twice as much. As the state now took almost half, there was hardly any grain left.3

Villagers who complained were branded rightists, saboteurs or anti-party agitators. The head of the county, a man called Tian Buxiao, was deeply shaken by what he saw in the countryside. He was denounced as an anti-party element and repeatedly subjected to struggle sessions as a ‘small Peng Dehuai’. He committed suicide in October 1959. Over a thousand cadres who objected in one way or another were taken to task. Some were dismissed, others locked up, but torture was also widespread, in particular against villagers. People were buried alive in the caves carved from the loess hills. In the winter they were buried under the snow. Other forms of torture were used, including bamboo needles. In the unedited report appended to the file containing the final version sent up to the provincial committee, a sentence mentions that ‘people were beaten to death and made into compost’.4 More than 1,300 were beaten or tortured to death. By the winter of 1959–60 people were eating bark, roots and chaff.5

According to a report compiled by the county committee in Tongwei a few years after the famine, some 60,000 people died in 1959 and 1960 (the county had 210,000 villagers in 1957). Few households escaped starvation. Almost everyone had several relatives who died of hunger, and more than 2,000 families were entirely wiped out.6

Xi Daolong was eventually arrested, but he could hardly have presided over a reign of terror lasting several years without the support of his superiors. One rung above him stood Dou Minghai, party secretary of the Dingxi region to which Tongwei belonged. Dou himself was under constant scrutiny from Zhang Zhongliang, the boss in Gansu. So intense was the pressure that he considered villagers who tried to escape from the region to be ‘all bad’, every one of them guilty of ‘opposing the party’. He kept on pressing for higher procurement rates, declaring that ‘I would rather that people die of hunger than ask the state for grain.’7 But in the end even his superiors could no longer ignore the extent of the starvation, and a hundred-strong team was sent from the provincial capital Lanzhou in February 1960. Xi Daolong and his aides were arrested.8 A month later a report was sent to Beijing. The central leadership declared Tongwei to be ‘completely rotten’.9

Sichuan, unlike Gansu, is a rich and fertile province traditionally known as the ‘land of abundance’, with subtropical forests and hundreds of rivers that have been diverted since ancient times for irrigation purposes. But in this huge province the size of France, there are vast variations, with deep valleys and rugged mountains on the Western Sichuan Plateau, sparsely populated with ethnic minority people, in contrast to the basin around Chengdu, where low hills and alluvial plains support tens of millions of farmers. More counties in Sichuan than anywhere else had a death rate of over 10 per cent a year. Most were impoverished areas in the mountains around the basin area, but quite a few were scattered around Chongqing, a city clinging higgledy-piggledy to steep cliffs by the Yangzi.

This was the case, for instance, with Fuling, a relatively prosperous county with terraced fields along the Yangzi River in the hinterland outside Chongqing. Baozi, a commune of 15,000 people known as ‘Fuling’s grain storage’, produced such abundant harvests that it usually sent half of its produce as tribute to the state. Along the main road up to 400 people could be found on any one day, busy bringing grain, vegetables and pigs to market. But by 1961 grain output had plummeted by some 87 per cent. The fields were overgrown with weeds, and half of the population had vanished. A ‘wind of communism’ had blown over the commune, as bricks, wood, pots, tools and even needles and nappies for babies had been confiscated in a mad scramble for collectivisation in which the very notion of individual property was seen as ‘rightist conservatism’. ‘We can eat our fill even without agriculture for three years’, was the slogan of the day, as 70 per cent of the workforce was diverted away from agriculture towards the building of large canteens, piggeries and markets. People still working in the fields had to follow commands from the commune, for instance tearing out acres of maize because a deputy party secretary thought that the leaves were turned in the wrong direction. Close planting, on the other hand, killed the rice crop on some of the most fertile plots. In parts of the commune 80 per cent of the rice terraces were converted to dry land for vegetables, with disastrous results. Then, as an order came from Li Jingquan that advanced units should help turn the mountains into a rich green, with slopes covered with wheat, farmers were made to abandon the fertile terraces to scrape the rocky earth up in the highlands many miles away.

To conceal the precipitous decline in agricultural output, in 1959 the commune leaders declared a crop of 11,000 tonnes instead of the 3,500 tonnes in storage. The state took 3,000 tonnes. The militia went around checking for hidden stashes of grain, taking whatever they could get their hands on. Struggle sessions punctuated the daily schedule. Body weight was the class line demarcating the poor from the rich: to be fat was to be a rightist, and rightists were ceaselessly pursued – often to the death. In the end people had nothing to eat but bark and mud. Up to a third of the population died in some of the villages in Baozi.10

Baozi was by no means exceptional. Throughout Fuling county, death rates were high, with some villages losing 9 per cent of their people in a single month in 1960.11 An average death rate of 40 to 50 per cent was not uncommon in brigades across the region.12

Other counties in the Chongqing area also had death rates of over 10 per cent in 1960, for instance Shizhu, Xiushan and Youyang. In Shizhu the militia forbade villagers from foraging for roots and wild herbs, searching every home for pots and pans to prevent cooking outside the canteens. Violence was common, as ‘beating squads’ (darendui) in parts of the county took charge of discipline; some carried pincers and bamboo needles. Chen Zhilin, a deputy secretary of one of the communes, beat several hundred people, killing eight. Some were buried alive. In the county as a whole – according to the Public Security Bureau – some 64,000 people died in 1959–60 alone, or 20 per cent of the population. So overwhelmed by waves of death were the authorities that in the end the dead were cast into mass graves. Forty bodies were tossed into a pit in Shuitian commune. Near the road to the county capital, another sixty corpses were buried in a shallow trench, but the job was carried out so badly that twenty of the bodies had parts sticking out of the ground, which were soon attacked by ravenous dogs. As coffin wood was scarce, several dead toddlers at a time were carried out in rattan containers to be buried.13

Far away from the lush valleys along the Yangzi, pitched battles bloodied the grasslands up in the Tibetan plateau to the west. In 1959 in Serthar (Seda), a county in the Ganzi autonomous region, Tibetans were rounded up and forced into collectives, after Lhasa had been rocked by rebellion and the Dalai Lama forced to flee on foot over the Himalayan mountains into India. Dozens of uprisings took place in Ganzi by the end of 1958, leading to thousands of arrests and many executions.14 In Serthar widespread slaughter preceded collectivisation, since herdsmen preferred to kill their sheep rather than hand them over to the state. Tens of thousands of animals were butchered and eaten. The cadres, in control of the grain, refused to feed the nomads, using the militia to extract every possible hint of wealth from those they considered to be their enemies. Corralled into makeshift communes, many people died of disease. Whereas the nomads had had access to clean water all year round, they were now packed into shoddy encampments without adequate facilities, and quickly overrun with excrement and detritus. Out of a population of some 16,000, about 15 per cent died in 1960 alone. About 40 per cent of those who died were beaten or tortured to death.15

Guizhou, unlike its northern neighbour Sichuan, is an impoverished province, historically rocked by rebellions from the minority people who compose at least a third of the population – many of them living in poverty in the hills and highlands that dominate what is known as the ‘kingdom of mountains’. Chishui, once prosperous as a strategically located pass for the transportation of salt, is a forlorn outpost on the border with Sichuan. The river that flows through a red sandstone valley picks up the sediment and gives the place its name, which means ‘Red Water’. In March 1935 the Red Army crossed the river several times, turning the county into a holy ground keenly promoted by local leaders after the revolution. Up in the scarlet mountains, small villages were hidden among giant tree ferns and bright-green bamboo, but most of the people grew paddy and sugarcane along the river and its tributaries. Between October 1959 and April 1960, around 24,000 people died – more than 10 per cent of the population.16

Wang Linchi, a relatively young man at thirty-five, was in charge of the county. He was given a coveted red flag in 1958 and was commended by the central leadership for having transformed a backwater into a ‘Five-Thousand-Kilo County’ thanks to the many innovations heralded by the Great Leap Forward. In Chishui, under Wang Linchi, deep ploughing meant digging to a depth of 1 to 1.5 metres: the deeper the better. Large quantities of seed were used, often 200 to 450 kilos per hectare, but at times as much as a tonne or two, sometimes even three tonnes. Among other great schemes devised by the county leadership was an irrigation project in which water would be conveyed through a network of bamboo pipes to every plot in the county. ‘Water pipes in the skies of Chishui’ was the slogan, but the scheme failed miserably after acres of bamboo forest were chopped down, depriving the villagers of a much-needed resource.

The result of the Great Leap Forward in Chishui was a plummeting grain output and the virtual extermination of the livestock. But Wang was determined to maintain his reputation. As early as September 1958, many months before Zhao Ziyang’s report on the hiding of grain in Guangdong, he decreed that a part of the crop was being withheld by ‘rich peasants’ and ‘bad elements’ in a sustained attack on the socialist system. A merciless counter-attack with armed cadres was required to save the communes and prevent a counter-revolution. People on the ground were terrorised. A year later, in the wake of the Lushan plenum, villagers were divided into ‘poor peasants’ and ‘rich peasants’. Behind the backs of rich peasants stood the landlords, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries and other elements who were bent on wrecking the revolution: ‘Poor and Rich Peasants, This Struggle is to the Death!’ Several thousand cadres were expelled from the party for having the wrong class background, while mass demonstrations, struggle meetings and anti-hiding campaigns were organised to root out every class enemy. Like Mao, Wang Linchi was a poet, composing verses to celebrate the working class and organising a traditional opera in which he starred as the main actor – before hundreds of invited guests tucking into a lavish banquet. In the meantime, agriculture was neglected: although in January 1960 Wang announced to his superiors in Guiyang a bumper crop of 33,500 tonnes, 80 per cent of this amount existed on paper only.17

Wang Linchi was hardly a unique case in Guizhou, a radical province led by Zhou Lin, a close follower of Mao. Everywhere Zhou Lin tacitly encouraged a radical approach to the Great Leap Forward, resulting in one of the highest death rates in the country. In Meitan, famous for its tea, 45,000 people died in six months. Wang Qingchen, the first party secretary, deployed a labour force of 50,000 at will, building giant tea gardens, orchards, irrigation systems and communal buildings that would turn Meitan into a national model. Forty thousand pigs were requisitioned for a ‘Ten-Thousand-Hog City’. Anybody critical of these schemes was accused of ‘stirring an evil revisionist trend’ and given the label of ‘rightist opportunist’. In 1960 an ‘Arrest Many and Detain Many’ campaign was organised by the police and the militia, sweeping across the region and locking up close to 3,000 people in a month. A simple slogan seemed to capture the Meitan spirit: ‘Those Who are Unable to Produce Grain will Not be Given Any Grain’.18

The figure of 45,000 deaths is very high, but even so it may be an underestimate. According to an investigation by the provincial party committee, in one commune alone 12,000 people ‘died of starvation’, representing 22 per cent of the population.19 Focusing on one village, a more detailed inquest showed how over a third of the farmers died. Nongcha was once a relatively prosperous village, in which each family owned a few ducks and chickens, but by 1961 the crop had decreased to a third of what had been produced in 1957. Vegetables were hard to come by. Sugarcane production, indispensable for local farmers to trade against food and goods, was virtually wiped out. Many of the fields lay destroyed after experiments in deep ploughing and land reclamation. Some were called ‘moon plots’ because the pockmarked terrain would no longer retain any water. No work points were ever kept, and villages were fed according to the whims of local cadres in chaotic canteens. Personal property was seized, private plots were abolished. State procurements were sky high despite falling grain production: in 1959 three-quarters of the crop was dragged away by state agents, leaving the villagers to starve. By 1961 one pig was left in the entire village.20

When an inspection team was scheduled to visit Meitan in April 1960, the local leaders scurried about day and night to bury corpses in mass graves by the side of the road. Sick villagers and neglected children were locked up and guarded by the militia, while telltale trees without bark were torn out, roots and all.21 Travelling through the region in March 1960, Nie Rongzhen was ecstatic about Guizhou in a letter to Mao: ‘In fact Guizhou is not poor at all, it is very rich – in future it should be our industrial base in the south-west!’22

As the Yellow River nears the end of its long journey across the loess plateau, it intersects with the Grand Canal, an ancient man-made river completed in the seventh century to haul the grain tribute from the south to the imperial capital in the north. It is said that more than 47,000 labourers were needed to maintain the canal system, which was used, at its height in the mid-fifteenth century, by some 11,000 grain barges. Qihe is the main river port in Shandong, lying just north-west of Jinan, and it should have fared well thanks to its strategic location on the Yellow River. Before the Great Leap Forward it was known as a ‘grain store’ with an abundant crop that managed to reach 200,000 tonnes in a good year for a population of roughly half a million. Cotton, tobacco and fruit were also widely cultivated. By 1961 Qihe county had lost well over 100,000 people, or a fifth of its population compared to 1957. Half of the workers who had survived or stayed behind were sick. The economy lay in tatters. The 200,000 tonnes of grain harvested in 1956 had dwindled to a mere 16,000 a few years later. The collapse in peanut production was even more dramatic: whereas 7,780 tonnes had been taken from the fields in 1956, a pitiful 10 tonnes was all that could be gathered by 1961. Everything, it seemed, was reduced to about one-tenth of what could have been expected before 1958. Even the land under cultivation had shrunk, as a fifth was taken away for waterworks and roads, most of which were never finished. As everywhere in the north, the amount of alkaline soil doubled, reaching almost a third of the surface under cultivation. Despite – or rather as a consequence of – massive investment in water-conservancy projects, the overall irrigated surface shrank by 70 per cent. Off the fields the devastation was just as visible. Livestock was more than halved, the number of carts dwindled, while tens of thousands of simple tools such as rakes and hoes had vanished. Over half of all trees had been felled. Of all the housing in the county 38 per cent had been destroyed. Of what was left standing, a quarter was heavily damaged and needed urgent attention. Some 13,000 families did not even have a single room left to themselves.23

Hanzhuang was one of the many hamlets in Qihe county. It had 240 villagers in 1957, but by 1961 only 141 remained. A quarter of the village had died of hunger, one in six families having been entirely extinguished – a fact which always carried a great deal of weight in a culture which continued to emphasise descent, despite all the official rhetoric of class war. Between 1958 and 1961 only four children had been born in the village, one of whom had died in infancy. Many villagers were single, most were weak or sick, and few women from other villages were willing to marry local men. The village had lost some 40 per cent of its land, and well over half of what remained was almost barren through heavy salinisation. According to a local saying, ‘on leaving the house one beholds a white expanse’, as the salt whitened the earth for as far as the eye could see. In the midst of this thin, exhausted land stood derelict mud huts.

The village had boasted a total of 240 rooms, but a mere eighty remained standing, most of them with leaky roofs or walls that had caved in. There was nothing inside these miserable dwellings, as an inspection team revealed: ‘All the families have gone bankrupt through the famine. Those least affected have sold all their clothes and furniture, while the most damaged ones have had to sell their pots, bowls and basins, as well as the wood stripped from their houses. In the village twenty-seven families have sold everything they had.’ Yang Jimao, for instance, left the village in 1960. His wife and child could survive only by selling every possession. They had no bed, no pots and no tools to cultivate the land. They shared a ragged blanket and a threadbare coat. Others were worse off. Among the few people who had stayed in Hanzhuang was Liu Zailin, aged thirty-three, who soon died of hunger. His wife hanged herself from a rafter, leaving behind two children who were adopted by local villagers.

In Shandong the teams sent to investigate what had happened during the famine were coy about pointing the finger at abusive cadres, unlike their peers in Gansu or Guangdong. But the political dimensions of the famine were clear. The head of the village had changed fifteen times since the Great Leap Forward. Few could do anything to resist punitive procurements imposed from above, and in 1959 the villagers were left with an average of twenty-five kilos of grain per person – for the entire year. Widespread conscription of labour on irrigation projects did not help. In the winter of 1959–60 forty-six of the best labourers were recruited from Hanzhuang. They worked for forty days and nights on end, in the snow, but were not given any grain, which had to be supplied by the village, already depleted by state requisitions. Some died while digging earth outside in the cold, others dropped dead by the roadside on the way home.24

Across the Shandong countryside there were countless villages in a similar predicament, broken by four years of mass abuse. Early warning signs had appeared in April 1959. Tan Qilong, a senior leader in Shandong, personally witnessed how in several counties in the Jining region the trees had been stripped bare, children were abandoned and farmers died along the roadside, their faces sallow from hunger. In Juye people ate the straw from their pillows; thousands died of hunger. Tan Qilong reported this situation to provincial boss Shu Tong, but also took the exceptional step of sending a copy to Mao Zedong.25 A few weeks later, a contrite Shu Tong had to explain the ‘Jining incident’ to the Chairman, who was passing through the region in his special train.26

But Shu Tong did nothing to alleviate the famine. By his own admission, he detested bad news and refused even to talk about ‘one finger’ of shortcomings in Shandong, threatening those who were critical of the Great Leap Forward with the label of ‘rightist conservatism’.27According to others who had to work alongside Shu Tong, the regional tsar exploded in a violent rage when anybody prevented him from enforcing a utopian vision that had cost the lives of countless people. ‘He who strikes first prevails, he who strikes last fails’: Shu Tong religiously followed Mao’s advice about seizing the grain before the farmers could eat it, enforcing vast procurements to satisfy the demands from Beijing.28

Gansu, Sichuan, Guizhou, Shandong – all these provinces contained counties where the death rate was above 10 per cent in 1960. But nothing was as bad as Anhui, run by Zeng Xisheng, one of Mao’s most devoted followers. Like other provinces, Anhui was divided into regions, having over a dozen. One of these regions was Fuyang. Fuyang had a population of 8 million in 1958. Three years later more than 2.4 million people had died.29

One of the reasons for the high death rate was the landscape itself. Flat and generally barren, it offered few places to hide. Many of those who wanted to flee the area followed the river into Xinyang, in neighbouring Henan, where the famine was even worse. The Huai River itself was a web of death. In 1957 it became the focus of a huge irrigation project which commanded up to 80 per cent of the labour force. Every hectare would have a duct, every ten hectares a canal and every hundred hectares a large waterway. Fields would be as smooth as a mirror, deep ploughing making the soil as pliable as dough. Fuyang would catch up with the future in a mere year or two.30 Slogans such as ‘On a Rainy Day We See a Bright Day, the Night Becomes the Day’ and ‘In Daytime We Fight the Sun, At Night We Battle the Stars’ were behind the ceaseless exploitation of the best workers along the river. Many succumbed to disease, exhaustion and death.31

To prevent workers from returning home over the Chinese New Year, the militia sealed their homes. With the inexorable advance of dams, dykes and channels, everything in the way was flattened. Trees, graves, even large bridges were torn down, forcing farmers to walk for several kilometres each day to attend to the fields.32 Entire villages were compelled to relocate overnight at the whim of a cadre: hundreds simply vanished from the map.33

Other giant schemes took away the best workers from the fields before the sowing or reaping was even completed. So abundant was the crop – the party line went – that grain should be turned into alcohol. Hao county, striving to become a ‘Five-Thousand-Tonne County’, built more than 3,200 alcohol factories in January 1959. Less than half ever worked, and many tonnes of grain went to waste.34

Just as ruinous were efforts to mechanise agriculture. Clunky iron wheels were added to some 10,000 carts, which were so heavy that bulls could no longer pull them.35 To compound the problem, the old carts were banned from the roads, and farmers seen to use them were denounced as rightists.36

The grain output plunged, but zealous cadres doubled it on paper. Punitive requisitions followed; carried out with routine violence, they sometimes extracted close to 90 per cent of the actual crop.37 To compensate for the shortage in grain, cadres burst into local households and carried away tables, chairs and beds. Farmers were even forced to turn in a set amount of cotton clothes, up to several kilos per family. Failure to fulfil the quota led to a ban from the canteen. Zhao Huairen had to hand over the cotton jackets of his seventy-year-old mother and his child. In the freezing cold they had to bury themselves underneath some straw to keep warm. By 1960 there was so little left to collect that in one commune the biggest haul consisted of a hundred coffins.38

Torture was rampant. Iron wire was used to pierce the ears of ‘bad elements’, while women were stripped and suspended by their hair. In the words of a leader in Jieshou county, ‘their breasts were twisted until liquid oozed out’.39 In Linquan, the use of violence was summarised as follows by the local party boss: ‘People died in tragic circumstances, being beaten and hanged to death, deprived of food or buried alive. Some were severely tortured and beaten, having their ears chopped off, their noses dug out, their mouths torn off, and so on, which often caused death. We discovered how extremely serious all of this was once we started investigating.’40 Murder was common. In Dahuangzhuang, a small village in Linquan, nine out of nineteen cadres had killed at least one villager during the famine. Li Fengying, a team leader, killed five people.41

In some cases villagers were deliberately entrapped. In late 1959, at the height of the famine, one of the food-processing factories belonging to the local grain bureau in Funan county left bean cakes in a courtyard with the gates wide open. As starving farmers tried to pilfer the food, the gates were suddenly locked behind them. ‘Some of those who were caught were forced into a grain sack that was tied at the end. Then they were beaten with iron bars. The sacks were covered in blood. Others had their faces carved by knives and then oil rubbed into the wounds.’42

Help for the famished was withheld. Fifteen tonnes of grain sent to support those in need in one county alone were confiscated, hastening the deaths of thousands.43 People also died when the local authorities tried to hide the famine from inspection teams. The militia, for instance, were instructed to seal off the villages and not to allow anyone with signs of starvation on to the streets.44 In one commune targeted for a visit by the Ministry of Interior in 1960, the county head scrambled to round up and hide more than 3,000 villagers with oedema. Locked up without any medical support, several hundred died in a matter of days.45 A local cadre had a quick look at Qin Zonghuai, who was one of those suffering from oedema. ‘He won’t live, bury him quickly,’ he ordered, as an inspection team was on its way. ‘He was still breathing while being buried,’ concluded the local party secretary.46

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!