February 3, 2013 § 1 Comment
I know about as much about China as, apparently, the average book-club member, and through exactly the same venues. Somewhere around middle school, I hit a vein of popular contemporary Chinese literature at the Watauga County Public Library, and so it was that I read and fell in love with Jung Chang, Adeline Yen Mah, and Yu Hua.
I mean, I didn’t follow up with it at all–I didn’t study the language in school, and shied out of conversations about Chinese politics and history whenever they came up. Aside from what I’ve read in novels, China’s a country I don’t know much about.
For some reason, though, over the winter, I bought Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962. Since it was released in English right around the time of Mo Yan’s Nobel win, the two kept coming up in reviews, often placed in opposition to one another.
This was, of course, a tombstone of a book: heavy in my backpack and in my mind, cold and dispassionate in its presentation and analysis of facts, and nuanced enough to present the different faces of famine as they appeared in different provinces, devastating year after devastating year.
I stood in awe of the twenty years of illicit archival research performed by Yang Jisheng, and in awe of his final estimate: 36 million dead.
What particularly drew me in–aside from the constant stream of folly, blindness, torture, death, and cannibalism–was his analysis of the causes of the famine: “The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism.” The only things I’ve read on totalitarianism, really, are Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and also Xenophon’s Hiero, which barely counts. But it was amazing, having read Arendt’s analysis of Nazism and Stalinism, to lay that theory over Yang’s portrait of the destruction caused by Maoism–to see where it fit, and to see where it didn’t. Statements like this one:
“In the face of a rigid political system, individual power was all but nonexistent. The system was like a casting mold; no matter how hard the metal, once it was melted and poured into the mold, it came out the same shape as everything else. Regardless of what kind of person went into the totalitarian system, all came out as conjoined twins facing in opposite directions: either despot or slave, depending on their position respective to those above or below them.”
absolutely blew me away. The relationship between famine and government (“food politics”? “hunger studies”?) seems so complex and interesting, but also utterly fundamental. And obviously very important. I have some reading and thinking to do.
The diagnosis of the famine as an urban v. rural conflict was also something I found noteworthy (but not surprising). I don’t know much about how the Great Leap Forward contributed to the development of the Cultural Revolution, but I wonder how much a role urban/rural tensions played. I mean, that particular problem is with us still, today. I was also struck by how boldly he talks about “the degeneration of the national character of the Chinese people” (is that why we can paint Chinese anomie with such broad strokes? or, maybe, condescend a bit?), but how little is said about the current system of government. We have this in the introduction:
“I firmly believe China will one day see totalitarianism replaced by democracy. And this day will not be long in coming.”
But we also have this, the last sentence in the book:
“…the very people who are most radical and hasty in their opposition to autocracy may be the very ones who facilitate the rise of a new autocratic power.”
Then again, he lives. In China. And Tombstone is, of course, banned there.
ETA: looking at all of this in light of what’s purportedly going on in North Korea takes this pretty firmly out of the past.
- some Mo Yan
- Jung Chang’s Mao
- Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines
- Cormac Ó Gráda’s Famine: A Short History
- but nothing alarmist