An Essay on the Sources

The bulk of the sources come from party archives in China, and a few words about these may help the reader better to understand the foundation on which the book rests. In a one-party state, archives do not belong to the public, they belong to the party. They are often housed in a special building on the local party committee premises, which are generally set among lush and lovingly manicured grounds closely guarded by military personnel. Access to the archives is strictly regulated and would have been unthinkable until a decade or so ago, but over the past few years increasing quantities of documents older than thirty years have become available for consultation to readers with a letter of recommendation. The extent and quality of the material vary from place to place, but in general most collections distinguish between ‘open’, or declassified, and ‘closed’, or controlled files, as truly sensitive material remains out of bounds except to the eyes of the most senior party members. The very fact that this distinction removes from the scrutiny of most historians a large proportion of vital information indicates that this book has been written with relatively ‘soft’ material: future historians, hopefully, will be able to reveal the true scale of what happened on the basis of fully open archives.

Another complication presents itself in the fact that, with the exception of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most central archives are extremely difficult to access. Most historians tend to rely on provincial and county collections instead. Although a good dozen city and county archives have been used in this work, the majority of the material comes from ten provincial archives (listed in the Select Bibliography), which were chosen largely on the basis of openness. Until now no historian, to my knowledge, has been able to work on the Maoist era in the Anhui provincial archives, while the collection in Henan also remains highly restricted, to the point where even if access were granted it would remain rather meaningless, as only the most banal documents would be handed over to the researcher, often in painfully small quantities. Other collections, by contrast, have been gradually opening up, and my selection represents a good spread of provinces in terms of population density (Shandong versus Gansu), severity of the famine (Sichuan on one extreme, Zhejiang on the other) and geography (from Hebei in the north to Guangdong in the south).

The archives inside each provincial collection reflect the structure of the party machinery and are often divided into smaller groups according to the institution they belonged to – for instance the Bureau for Hygiene or the Bureau for Forestry. What the historian finds, then, is often extremely diverse material, far more so than the stark term ‘archives’ actually suggests. There are letters written by ordinary people, surveys of working conditions in factories by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, investigations into cases of corruption, Bureau of Public Security reports of theft, murder, arson and assault on granaries, detailed evidence of local cadre abuses compiled by special teams sent in during rectification campaigns, general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivisation campaign, secret opinion surveys and much more.

The huge variety of material is nonetheless of official provenance. Even the letters written by ordinary farmers and workers would have been selected for some official purpose, and we have little alternative but to view everyday life through the prism of the state. This observation, of course, is true for all state archives, including those of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. It does not mean that we cannot read them against the grain. Finally, any historian worth his salt will know how to assess the authorship of official reports, their intended audience, the institutional context which engendered them and the conditions of their production. Historians are attuned to the complications which result from the distortion of social reality by official rhetoric, as terms such as ‘sabotage’, ‘slacking’, ‘treason’, ‘enemy of the people’ and ‘leftist excesses’ obscure what happened. Yet the sheer variety and abundance of reports about resistance demonstrate the persistence of rural strategies of survival, while the state itself was a complex, sprawling organisation which hardly ever spoke – or reported – with one voice. Just as senior leaders such as Peng Dehuai and Mao Zedong clashed in their findings about the Great Leap Forward, different individuals, units and organisations varied enormously in how they reported what they found on the ground.

Provincial archives are not only much richer than the smaller collections which can be found in counties, cities or even villages, but they also tend to keep copies of important files that were sent to them from above, namely Beijing, or from below, for instance when counties reported on important matters such as grain shortages or the collapse of a dam. In the bureaucratic maze of communist China, a document was hardly ever ‘unique’, in the sense that copies were made and circulated to many institutions who might have claimed a stake in the case at hand. Many of the reports compiled by work teams, for instance, would have been sent to several dozen party members. An important central document was distributed to every province and county, while more sensitive material might have been copied only to the first secretaries of each province. In other words, a wealth of material which does not necessarily pertain to the region in question can be found in provincial collections, including minutes of speeches and gatherings at the highest level. These minutes can vary considerably, as they were taken by different people, sometimes from tape recordings. Some are more detailed than others. I have tried to make it as easy as possible for the interested reader to find out the provenance of each document. In the Notes the first number in the archival location data refers to the general collection, the name of which is provided in the list of archives at the end of this book. As an example, ‘Hunan, 6 Oct. 1962, 207-1-750, pp. 44–9’ indicates that the document is contained in a file from the Hunan provincial archives in collection 207, which stands for the Bureau for Water Conservancy and Hydroelectricity.

What happened at the highest level, inside the corridors of power in Beijing? So far, to understand court politics under Mao most historians have relied on official publications, internal documents (neibu) or Red Guard material released during the Cultural Revolution. In contrast I prefer to use archival material as far as possible, and I do so for three reasons. First, entire sentences or sections have been omitted from the published speeches of senior leaders, in particular, but not only, in Red Guard material. There are countless examples of small stylistic changes or more profound editorial excisions, and they change the overall sense of many of these speeches. Second, the minutes of entire meetings have been censored, either officially in the mainland or in the Red Guard material smuggled out of China during the Cultural Revolution. And third, while historians have given much weight to meetings on which leading party members have later commented, crucial events and decisions have simply been ignored or censored, even in the otherwise very reliable official biographies of leaders published by party historians with access to the Central Archives in Beijing. This is the case, as we have seen, with the meeting at the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai on 25 March 1959 at which Mao suggested that a third of all grain should be procured to meet foreign commitments.

In short, the entire record of the Maoist era, as reflected in official and internally published sources, is a skilful exercise in obfuscation and, as such, an inadequate basis for historical research. This rather sceptical view is confirmed by a recent biography of Zhou Enlai by Gao Wenqian. Gao, a party historian who worked in the Central Archives in Beijing for many years, smuggled out his notes before absconding to the United States. The premier described in Gao’s groundbreaking biography is substantially different from the iconic figure most of us are used to (Gao Wenqian, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, New York: PublicAffairs, 2007). However, while bearing these shortcomings in mind, anything published by the Central Documents Research Office (Zhongyang wenxian yanjiu shi), including their voluminous and carefully referenced biographies of leaders, is invaluable. The problem with these publications is the vast amount of crucial information that has been deliberately excluded, and the same can be said of the post-1949 manuscripts of Mao published in a dozen volumes as Mao Zedong, Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao (Mao Zedong’s manuscripts since the founding of the People’s Republic), Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1987–96.

China, like all communist states, has a sprawling bureaucracy in which obsessive attention to the most minute details – even in the midst of widespread want – can reach absurd dimensions, but not every scrap of paper ends up carefully preserved in an archive. Factories, government units, even the courts and the police sometimes dispose of their files, for instance when they move to new quarters. Some of these documents – confessions, reports, directives, permits and certificates of every sort – end up in the delightfully chaotic flea markets of Guangzhou, Shanghai or Beijing. Over many a weekend, as the archives are closed, I have sifted through dusty papers: some of these were in bundles spread on a blanket, with the owner squatting on a pile of old newspapers; others were displayed on makeshift tables among memorabilia, postcards, magazines and stamps. I have built up a small collection of documents (as well as a pile of ration coupons of every shade and colour, since they are one of the very few artefacts of bureaucracy to have survived the famine), but have quoted very few of them, and then only when no equivalent exists in the official party archives.

A small proportion of the evidence comes from foreign archives, in particular Russian and East German, the two countries that were most closely involved with China at the time. All in all, they are helpful in reconstructing the foreign trade and policy aspects of the era, although they are much more limited when it comes to observations about everyday life. Most advisers were confined to the cities, and by 1960 even the East Germans – who remained sympathetic to the Great Leap Forward for much longer than other Eastern Europeans – were leaving in droves. A few snippets can be gleaned from reports to London, although overall the fabled sinologists in the British embassy were pretty clueless – and poorly prepared too, without any apparent knowledge of collectivisation and its effects. A low-ranking scribbler with experience of the Soviet Union would have done a better job. Very much the opposite could be said of the staff of the secret services in Taiwan, who compiled extremely detailed and insightful reports about every aspect of the famine for Chiang Kai-shek and a select few of his acolytes in regular intelligence bulletins, which can be found in the Bureau of Investigation in Hsin-tien, on the outskirts of Taipei. The United States refused to believe Chiang Kai-shek (as CIA reports show), no doubt fearing that the Generalissimo might drag them into an invasion of the mainland. However, since the party archives in China are much more reliable, I have not used this material at all.

Several times a week the official press agency Xinhua compiled a report three to ten pages long called Internal Reference (Neibu cankao) which was distributed to officials at the ministerial level and higher. This source pales in comparison with the archival material, as it was heavily censored, but nonetheless contains interesting snippets of information. Finally, some of the memoirs and personal recollections of party members, interpreters, secretaries and diplomats can be useful, although many suffer from self-censorship and lack of concrete detail. Pride of place should be given to Mao’s personal physician Li Zhisui. Much maligned by some sinologists for being too ‘sensational’, he is a very reliable guide whose recollections can be verified, sometimes almost verbatim, in the party archives (an observation also confirmed by Lorenz Lüthi, who worked extensively with Soviet documents; see Lorenz M. Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 354).

I have used a small number of interviews to give a voice occasionally to ordinary people – although, of course, they speak loudly and volubly in many a party document, from opinion surveys to police reports. About a hundred interviews were conducted by researchers specifically trained for this project by me over several years, often in the format of what specialists refer to as ‘insider interviewing’, meaning that interviewers spoke with people from the same social background in their own dialect, sometimes from the same village or even family, cutting out both the presence of an alien interviewer (foreign or urban Chinese) and a translator. All these interviews have been transcribed and deposited with the Universities Service Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. All the names of the interviewees, as well as those of a very small number of people who may still be alive, have been anonymised.

Finally, a short word about secondary sources. While for many decades the best specialists on the Maoist era were to be found in Europe, the United States and Japan, the centre of gravity has decidedly moved back to China. A small but growing body of work has been published on the famine by historians who have spent time in very different archival collections. Their publications are not always welcome in China, and more often than not appear in Hong Kong – a city which is rapidly emerging, once again, as the key interface between the mainland and the rest of the world. Yu Xiguang is the historian with by far the most experience in teasing out vital information from the archives, as is made clear by his superb anthology (Yu Xiguang, Dayuejin ku rizi: Shangshuji [The Great Leap Forward and the years of bitterness: A collection of memorials], Hong Kong: Shidai chaoliu chubanshe, 2005). Special mention must be made of Yang Jisheng, a retired journalist who was one of the first to use archival collections from the provinces (Yang Jisheng, Mubei: Zhongguo liushi niandai dajihuang jishi [Gravestone: A true history of the Great Famine in China in the 1960s], Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi, 2008). His work remains important, in particular in so far as few other historians have been able to research and publish on the famine in Henan province. But his two volumes do suffer from a number of serious shortcomings. Those familiar with the material will see that the book is more of a compilation of notes from different sources than a carefully constructed text. At times it looks like a hotchpotch which simply strings together large chunks of text, some lifted from the Web, a few from published sources, and others transcribed from archival material. Invaluable documents are thrown together with irrelevant anecdotes, making it difficult for the reader to see the wood for the trees. In some cases the author spent only a day or two in the archives, missing the most vital, and openly available, documents. This is the case for the chapter on Guangdong, which relies on a single file for the entire famine. But most of all there is no time line: by dispensing with a meaningful historical narrative and focusing heavily on grain shortages, the author misses an important dimension of the disaster. More solid is Lin Yunhui’s magisterial book, essential in tracing the development of the Great Leap Forward. While it relies for the greatest part on published sources and is concerned solely with court politics, its sheer scope and breadth of analysis supersede all other books in political science on the topic (Lin Yunhui, Wutuobang yundong: Cong dayuejin dao dajihuang, 1958–1961 [Utopian movement: From the Great Leap Forward to the Great Famine, 1958–61], Hong Kong: Xianggang zhongwen daxue dangdai Zhongguo wenhua yanjiu zhongxin, 2008). Last but not least, Gao Wangling’s work on peasant forms of resistance during the famine is a model of originality and insight, and it has been a major inspiration for this book (Gao Wangling, Renmin gongshe shiqi Zhongguo nongmin ‘fan-xingwei’ diaocha [Acts of peasant resistance in China during the people’s communes], Beijing: Zhonggong dangshi chubanshe, 2006).

In English much of the literature on the famine now looks rather dated, but readers interested in elite politics will still enjoy reading Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: The Great Leap Forward, 1958–1960, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. More recent is Alfred Chan, whose analysis of how Mao’s vision was actually implemented in Guangdong remains unsurpassed (Alfred L. Chan, Mao’s Crusade: Politics and Policy Implementation in China’s Great Leap Forward, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). There are some good village studies based on interviews, although of course they tend to rely on the words of those who survived, leaving the dead without a voice. A recent example is Ralph A. Thaxton, Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Jasper Becker’s account of the famine remains very readable (Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, New York: Henry Holt, 1996). Other authors whose work has touched on the famine include David Bachman, Bureaucracy, Economy, and Leadership in China: The Institutional Origins of the Great Leap Forward, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991; Thomas P. Bernstein, ‘Mao Zedong and the Famine of 1959–1960: A Study in Wilfulness’, China Quarterly, no. 186 (June 2006), pp. 421–45 and ‘Stalinism, Famine and Chinese Peasants: Grain Procurements during the Great Leap Forward’, Theory and Society, vol. 13 (May 1984), pp. 339–77; Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz and Mark Selden with Kay Ann Johnson, Chinese Village, Socialist State, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991; Jean-Luc Domenach, The Origins of the Great Leap Forward: The Case of One Chinese Province, Boulder: Westview Press, 1995; Penny Kane, Famine in China, 1959–61: Demographic and Social Implications, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988; Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, vol. 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961–1966, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999; Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun, China’s Road to Disaster: Mao, Central Politicians, and Provincial Leaders in the Unfolding of the Great Leap Forward, 1955–1959, Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999; Dali L. Yang, Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society, and Institutional Change since the Great Leap Famine, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. Other helpful studies are listed in the Select Bibliography.

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