China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2017/Jan

A great disaster of an unnatural kind

The Four Books by Chinese writer, Yan Lianke, winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, was published in Hong Kong by Mingpao Press in 2010. The book, like many of the author’s titles, is banned on the mainland.

Yan dedicated it to “that history that is forgotten as well as to the tens of thousands of dead and living intellectuals.”

That history refers to the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1961) and the attendant Great Famine that caused the death of tens of millions of people in China. It is a history seldom revisited. A recent order by the Chinese Communist Party lists “the Party’s past mistakes” as one of the Seven Unmentionables.

As contemporary Chinese literature becomes more widely known, Yan points to a void: “But that which has to do with witness, the witnessing of human nature, history, truth, space, memory, all this is forbidden.”

As if to prove Yan’s point, The Four Books, which powerfully evokes the experience of the destruction of what is human, is reviewed on some blogs in China as a fable – without reference to history!

The story takes place in a re-education camp (#99) to which a group of disgraced intellectuals are sent. The characters are given names according to their vocation (Writer, Scholar, Music, Religion, Experiment).

They are to be re-moulded under the supervision of a commander who has the features and mentality of a child, and who is therefore named, Child.

Together they live through (or not) every campaign of the era (iron-forging, Sputnik fields, communal kitchens) that was to launch the country – without parallel – into Communism.

The title, The Four Books, could be an allusion to the four Confucian classics whose values were overturned in various episodes of book-burning, the cultivation of distrust and betrayal (Writer secretly informs on his fellow inmates and is rewarded) and in scenes of cannibalism.

The title could also be an allusion to the four gospels of the bible. To my knowledge, Yan Lianke has never explained why The Four Books is filled with Judeo-Christian references.

Biblical echoes

The opening mimics the language of the creation story in Genesis. The character, Religion, has a strong devotion to the blessed Mary. Most strikingly, the story ends with a scene of crucifixion.

Why does a tale of unremitting socialist enterprise (by definition atheist) begin with creation and end with sacrifice?

The construction of the camp, ex nihilo, in the middle of nowhere is compared with the act of creation. While educated people are singled out for persecution, the state believes in re-education (through labour, struggle sessions and militarism) to create a new people and new society.

Does the refrain from Genesis (And so it was) imply that everything hinges on the word of One? When the voices of ordinary villagers or workers, low-level cadres and even senior Party officials do not count or are silenced, reality becomes far-fetched.

Never has Chinese literature had “so many strange stories” that were part of a “rich, absurd and improbable reality,” Yan once said in an interview.

One such story is iron-forging – or the campaign of backyard furnaces. Under the slogans “kill the moon, shoot the sun,” “surpass Britain and rival America” and with freedom as a bait, the prisoners toil.

One problem: where are the materials for making iron? Every tree is cut down for fuel. Every scrap of metal is seized, including farming and kitchen utensils, even tiny nails on the wall.

Child and Experiment came up with an ingenious solution: along old river courses, there is abundant black sand. They use a magnet to draw the sand.

Then they lay it in mud-furnaces and fire for four days and four nights. Out comes molten iron that they cast into a five-pointed star.

When over-zealous industrialisation ebbs, the wave of collectivised agriculture crests. Camp #99, like other communes, catches the Sputnik fever (named after the first satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957).

Every collective is to have a field devoted to high-yield agriculture. At the county meeting where rewards are given for harvest reports, Child bursts into tears when he hears others report 1,600 kilos, 10,000 kilos, even 100,000 kilos per mu (0.16 acres).

Child asks the others: “Is it really possible to produce 10,000 kilos?” The others laugh and pat him on his head. Child revises his yield to 15,000.

Camp #99 (with the best educated inmates) is tasked to grow wheat with grain the size of corn seeds. Writer volunteers for this duty and lives apart. He tends to his 120 wheat plants, as a pastor cares for his flock.

In order to boost their growth, he feeds the plants with his own blood. One horrific and mesmerising scene has Writer dancing in the rain, all 10 of his fingertips cut, as his blood sprinkles on every plant.

Lu Xun wrote in A Madman’s Diary about a mental patient’s paranoia of people eating people. During the years dubbed officially the “three-year natural disasters,” eating people was no longer a metaphor, but a choice that some made to survive the manmade famine.

Yan’s fictional story hews to history. It does more by offering startling glimpses into the human soul. When a person is reduced to less than human, what do you see in or through her eyes? How does guilt survive?

Alongside this literary witness, I was reading a report by Yang Jisheng, renowned investigative journalist who retired from the Xinhua agency. His two-volume, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958 to 1962, was published in Chinese by Cosmos Books Hong Kong in 2008.

The condensed English translation stands at over 600 pages. Tombstone traces the brutality, misrule and carnage that took place across the country – at every level from the centre down to villages.

Yang chose the title for several reasons – “to erect a tombstone for my father, who died of starvation in 1959;” “for the 36 million Chinese who died of starvation;” “for the system that brought about the Great Famine.”

The epicentre

As it happens, Henan is the birthplace of both Yang Jisheng and Yan Lianke. Camp #99 is located south of the Yellow River (literally He-nan). Yang Jisheng’s chapter, The Epicentre of the Disaster, provides historical details.

Henan was the province where the Three Red Banners were most ardent and also where the famine hit hardest.

The Three Red Banners are the General Line, the Great Leap Forward and the People’s Commune that were to lead China into Communism.

During the anti-rightist movement that began in 1957, some 70,000 Henan residents, including 15 per cent of the province’s cadres, had been purged. This led to “wild exaggeration and horrendous brutality” in subsequent campaigns – all for self-preservation.

In 1958, Xinyang prefecture in southeastern Henan (near Luoyang) was lauded for its “grand achievements” in Sputnik fields. That was credited to political struggles – the triumph of socialist over capitalist roaders.

In 1959, Xinyang suffered a drought. The total grain yield of the prefecture dropped 46.1 per cent from 1958 to less than 1.63 billion kilos. “Big drought, big harvest,” the local party cheered. They projected a grain yield of more than 3.21 billion kilos.

Higher production means higher procurement quotas from the state. One local cadre recalled: “Our prefecture met our quota of 800 million kilos by taking every kernel of grain ration and seed grain from the peasants.”

Collectivised agriculture made matters worse. Farmers’ land was confiscated. The central government decided what to plant and how to plant. Chairman Mao advised deep-tilling and close-planting. Many crops wilted.

People’s Communes replaced families as the basic socio-economic unit. People depended on communes for meals, jobs and so on, which opened the way to corruption. In 1958, Henan boasted China’s first communal kitchen. By 1959, there was no food in 3,751 communal kitchens in Xinyang.

Between October and April 1960 more than one million in Xinyang prefecture starved to death.

Yang quoted memoirs and official records that described parents killing their young children before they themselves died from starvation.

Some gave food to only one child so he might continue the family line. Some ate flesh from corpses; some families killed their weaker members for food.

Yang estimated the Great Famine “brought about 36 million unnatural deaths and a shortfall of 40 million births. The total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million.” (p.430)

The ratio of 7:3 and 9:1

Party leaders tried to assign blame. Provincial cadres were responsible for 70 per cent of the errors; senior cadres 30 per cent. In other words, Party policies were mostly correct. Local implementation fell short.

Starvation deaths were like “one finger” compared with the “nine fingers of achievement.”

Aware of history’s judgment, Liu Shaoqi, then president of the Republic, admitted in early 1962 that the famine was “three parts natural disaster and seven parts manmade disaster.” For this he was persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution.

Manmade suffering

We recall that Yan Lianke’s book is full of biblical allusions. The story of Camp #99 ends with self-crucifixion.

Jesus says: Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life…. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person (John 6:54-56).

What is the difference between the Eucharist that Jesus Christ offers and people eating the flesh of another human being?

Yan is not a religious writer. But the self-crucifixion offers an important insight.

Communism is a totalitarian system where the private yields to the centre. It is also a belief and urges followers to sacrifice. But lacking communion with the divine and fellow beings, means that the suffering is manmade. It is sacrifice without salvation.


Such is the power of storytelling and truth-telling that several times when I closed The Four Books or Tombstone, I could not close my eyes.

I recommend both titles. The Four Books is available in English by Grove Press or Chatto & Windus (2015); Tombstone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).