Surviving Mao’s Great Famine
BANGKOK—In order to help him sleep at night, 10-year-old Jiang Nai Ke ate the plaster from the walls of his grandparent’s home to dull his hunger pains during the worst period of the Great Famine.
All around him during 1960 people began dying of starvation. By the time the famine came to a halt in 1962, half of the people in the village where he lived in Liaoning province, northern China, had perished.
“People did what they did to survive, they ate anything,” said Jiang now in his early 60s and living in Bangkok. “Some people even ate the dirt; they would grab the earth and eat it.”
Some even resorted to cannibalism.
Great Leap Forward
Two years earlier in 1958, Communist Party leader Mao Zedong instigated his Great Leap Forward which he said would propel China’s agricultural and industrial output ahead of the developed world.
“The officials implemented some very weird decisions on how to conduct farming in 1958,” recalled Jiang who described the land around his grandparent’s village as consisting of sandy soil that was able to grow peanuts, corn, rice and wheat.
“It was a political movement called ‘digging the earth.’ The farmers even had to dig up crops they were growing and near ready to harvest, just to use these new techniques. The people had to dig one meter deep and the good topsoil was put one meter underground, so it was not good for planting. It was useless and crazy,” Jiang said.
The reforms also included a “melting steel” political movement, Jiang said, which forced Chinese to turn in their metal possessions—pots, spoons, door knobs—which would be melted down in backyard blast-furnaces to produce steel which proved to be brittle and useless.
Organized into communes, peasant communities across China were also ordered by local cadres to hand over all of their food to the authorities.
“So they bring out the food, and the officials check that you have given everything,” said Jiang.
“Nobody dared to resist the orders because the Party had already killed a lot of people and everyone was scared. They did this all across the country.”
Jiang said that after four months of everyone eating at a communal “big kitchen” the village’s food supply ran out and people were then told to fend for themselves.
“The local authorities had some pans left and they gave them back to the families so they could cook at home but the people had no food to cook. They gave it all to the big kitchen before.”
Next: Starvation Sets In