The countryside was a world of noise before the famine. Hawkers filled the air with their chants, some using rattles to advertise their wares. The din of gongs, cymbals and firecrackers traditionally accompanied popular events, whether a burial or a wedding. Loudspeakers nailed to trees by street corners and village squares blasted out propaganda and revolutionary music. Passing trucks and buses, clouds of yellow dust billowing behind them, would have worked their horns incessantly. Boisterous conversations were yelled across fields, so loud that outsiders might mistake them for a bitter argument.

But after years of famine an eerie, unnatural silence descended upon the countryside. The few pigs that had not been confiscated had died of hunger and disease. Chickens and ducks had long since been slaughtered. There were no birds left in the trees, which had been stripped of their leaves and bark, their bare and bony spines standing stark against an empty sky. People were often famished beyond speech.

In this world plundered of every layer that might offer sustenance, down to bark and mud, corpses often ended up in shallow graves or simply by the roadside. A few people ate human flesh. This began in Yunnan, where the famine started in the summer of 1958. At first the carcasses of diseased livestock were unearthed, but as famine tightened its grip some people eventually dug up, boiled and ate human bodies.1 Soon the practice appeared in every region decimated by starvation, even in a relatively prosperous province such as Guangdong. For example in Tanbin, Luoding, a commune where one in twenty villagers died in 1960, several children were eaten.2

Few archives offer more than an oblique reference to cannibalism, but some police reports are quite detailed. In a small village in Xili county, Gansu, villagers caught the whiff of boiling meat from the hut of a neighbour. They reported the man to the village secretary, who suspected that a sheep might have been stolen and proceeded to inspect the premises. He discovered flesh stored in vats, as well as a hair clip, ornaments and a scarf buried at the bottom of a pit. The artefacts were immediately identified as the belongings of a young girl who had vanished from the village days earlier. The man not only confessed to the murder, but also owned up to having unearthed and eaten the corpses of young children on two previous occasions. After the village had taken measures to protect the graves from desecration, he had turned to murder.3

Human flesh, like everything else, was traded on the black market. A farmer who bartered a pair of shoes for a kilo of meat at the Zhangye railway station found that the package contained a human nose and several ears. He decided to report the finding to the local Public Security Bureau.4 To escape detection, human flesh was sometimes mixed with dog meat when sold on the black market.5

But few reports were ever systematically compiled. Under a regime in which the mere mention of famine could land a cadre in trouble, cases of cannibalism were covered up wherever they appeared. In Gansu province the provincial leader Zhang Zhongliang was personally told of a string of cases in Tongwei, Yumen, Wushan, Jingning and Wudu, but he dismissed the evidence out of hand, blaming ‘bad elements’.6 Shu Tong, leader of Shandong, also suppressed evidence about cannibalism, fearing that adverse news would harm his reputation.7Wang Linchi, the county leader of Chishui, one of the sites of horror covered in the previous chapter, took the local security forces to task for arresting villagers guilty of cannibalism.8 So unmentionable was the topic that in a report distributed to the party leadership the blame for the practice was placed on saboteurs who had tried to tarnish the reputation of the party by exhuming human bodies, pretending to eat them in order to publicise the extent of the famine.9

A few fairly comprehensive documents have survived. One of these was compiled in March 1961 by a municipal unit in Linxia, a city south of Lanzhou. Linxia was heavily influenced by Islam, populated predominantly by Hui people and the capital of a region with a dozen other ethnic minorities, including Tibetans, Salar, Bao’an and Dongxiang. The region suffered from mass collectivisation during the Great Leap Forward, which ran roughshod over the habits and customs of minorities. An investigation of the region in the immediate aftermath of the famine showed that 54,000 people had died in a mere two years.10 The report listed some fifty cases – discovered in the city, not in the entire region – all comprehensively arranged in the kind of list that was so much in favour with the planners, reducing horror to a mere set of facts and figures. Here are the details of four such cases:

Date: 25 February 1960. Location: Hongtai Commune, Yaohejia Village. Name of Culprit: Yang Zhongsheng. Status: Poor Farmer. Number of People Involved: 1. Name of Victim: Yang Ershun. Relationship with Culprit: Younger Brother. Number of People Involved: 1. Manner of Crime: Killed and Eaten. Reason: Livelihood Issues.

Date: [void]. Location: [void]. Name of Culprit: Ma Manai. Status: Poor Farmer. Number of People Involved: Entire Family of 4. Name of Victim: [void]. Relationship with Culprit: [void]. Number of People Involved: 13. Manner of Crime: Corpses Exhumed and Eaten. Reason: Livelihood Issues.

Date: 9 Jan. 1960. Location: Maiji Commune, Zhangsama Village. Name of Culprit: Kang Gamai. Status: Poor Farmer. Number of People Involved: 1. Name of Victim: Maha Maiji. Relationship with Culprit: Fellow Villager. Number of People Involved: 1. Manner of Crime: Hacked to Death, Cooked and Eaten. Reason: Livelihood Issues.

Date: March 1960. Location: Hongtai Commune, Xiaogou Gate. Name of Culprit: Zhu Shuangxi. Status: Poor Farmer. Number of People Involved: 2. Name of Victim: [void]. Relationship with Culprit: Husband and Elder Son. Number of People Involved: 2. Manner of Crime: Corpses Exhumed and Eaten. Reason: Livelihood Issues.

Most of the culprits on the list practised necrophagy, either eating those who had passed away or exhuming and eating cadavers after burial. The seventy-six victims fell into three categories: killed and eaten (twelve), eaten after death (sixteen) and exhumed and eaten (forty-eight). Among those who were murdered roughly half were fellow villagers and half were strangers passing through. Only one murder took place inside the family.11

Linxia was no exception. When a team of inspectors was sent to review the Qiaotou commune in Shizhu county, Sichuan, in early 1961, they were startled by the extent of cannibalism. Rather than take note of a few cases to signal the practice, as was usual, they made the effort to investigate one brigade in depth with the help of the local Public Security Bureau. The list they compiled provided the details of sixteen victims and eighteen perpetrators. Necrophagy had apparently started after Luo Wenxiu, a seventy-year-old woman, unearthed the bodies of two small children and cooked them for herself. In some cases only parts of a body were eaten. Ma Zemin’s heart, for instance, was scooped out. Much of this may have been related to the fact that most of these corpses were already in an advanced stage of putrefaction. Some people covered the meat in hot peppers.12

In Russian there is a distinction between liudoedstvo, literally ‘people eating’, and trupoedstvo, or ‘corpse eating’. It is a very useful distinction, one which introduces much-needed nuance into a topic stigmatised not only by the party, but also by its enemies, keen to portray cannibalism as a metaphor for the very system itself. And as the villagers themselves told and retold stories about body snatchers, cannibals with red eyes or families swapping their children between them before eating them, the whole business was sensationalised to the point where it was placed under a cloud of scepticism.13

But as the cases of Linxia and Qiaotou show, very few people were actually cannibals who killed to eat. Most were scavengers, extending their survival techniques to the eating of cadavers. How they reached their decision to eat human flesh must surely have varied from one person to the next. But as desperate survivors all of them would have witnessed many of the horrors being inflicted on living human beings, from body parts being chopped off to people being buried alive. Surely, in the midst of state-sponsored violence, necrophagy was neither the most common nor the most widespread way of degrading a human being.

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