Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, much archival information has been released revealing the extent of famine in Soviet-controlled Ukraine in the early 1930s. The information is stunning. Some four million people are estimated to have perished during this period of starvation, known in Ukraine as the “Holodomor.”[i]
According to Ukranian speakers, the term Holodomor is said to mean “artificial hunger, organized on a vast scale by a criminal regime against a country's population.”[ii] The key word in this long description is artificial. The reason for this period of mass starvation was not crop disease as it had been in the Great Irish Famine, but rather government policy. In order to meet the meet the demands of Stalin’s programs for massive economic output, incredible amounts of grain were forcefully taken and exported to other European countries, leaving little or no grain for peasants to subsist on.
Personal accounts written by survivors of the Holodomor are both numerous and shocking. According to Survivor Ekaterina Marchenko:
“I have no idea how I managed to survive and stay alive. In 1933 we tried to survive the best we could. We collected grass, goose-foot, burdocks, rotten potatoes and made pancakes, soups from putrid beans or nettles. Collected gley from the trees and ate it, ate sparrows, pigeons, cats, dead and live dogs. When there was still cattle, it was eaten first, then - the domestic animals. Some were eating their own children, I would have never been able to eat my child. One of our neighbours came home when her husband, suffering from severe starvation ate their own baby-daughter. This woman went crazy.”[iii]
Despite these appalling first-hand accounts, artificial famine and cannibalism were not phenomena limited to Ukraine in the 1930s. In fact, as far as sheer numbers are concerned, the Holodomor pales in comparison to the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1962.
Utilizing many of the same strategies as the Soviet Union twenty-five years earlier, China under Mao launched its “Great Leap Forward,” a program designed to rapidly collectivize and industrialize China’s economy. Ill-conceived and unscientific agricultural and industrial policies precipitated mass famine and rampant cannibalism, resulting in an estimated thirty to fifty million deaths.[iv]
Mao believed that peasants, unskilled industrial workers, could drive China’s industrial growth. Fields were often left fallow while peasants toiled to make steel from scrap metal in crude backyard furnaces. Naturally, the infrastructure built by unskilled laborers typically fell to ruin within years of completion and millions starved. In addition to backyard steel production, the CCP unveiled its plan to greatly increase agricultural production; this policy became known as “close planting.” In effect, the CCP ordered farmers to plant much more seed in any given area than the land could feasibly support. Moreover, farmers were instructed to over-fertilize the already saturated land. The results were disastrous. China’s crop output fell dramatically and its fields were poisoned by the absurd levels of fertilizer. Compounding the problem further, Local CCP officials who feared retaliation from their superiors fabricated production reports to claim they met the Party’s impossible grain quotas. This dishonesty led Beijing to believe that grain quotas were indeed being met, thus what little grain was harvested China exported to other countries. Before the quagmire could be fully realized, some five percent of China’s population perished.
Former political prisoner Harry Wu, a survivor of the Great Chinese Famine, recently described his experience of being in one of China’s many forced labor camps at the height of the famine. Although Wu never resorted to cannibalism, Wu was nonetheless never the same after suffering through China’s famine:
“During this time, the Great Famine was wreaking havoc in all regions of China. Even those industrial workers who were loyal to the Communist Party were also starving. Thus, the prisoners in forced labor camps could only struggle to get by. I was always hungry. I started to steal cucumber and Chinese cabbage from the police’s vegetable garden. My best friend, Mr. Xing, was in an even worse condition. He would blatantly steal and eat other prisoners’ food at meal times. He tried once to escape. However, faced with a place rampant with famine like China, he had no place to buy or even beg or steal food. Thus, he could only give himself up and come back to the camp in order to rely on the consistent rationed food to survive. Every morning, the chef would use a ladle to serve into our bowls a thin porridge made from corn powder and crushed corncob, and another bag of soy powder to be used as seasoning. We would carefully count every spoon, because every spoon meant survival. Whenever we had meals, there would be some people lying on the bed, unwilling to get up. This would be the only way we know they were already dead. Their thin bodies were then lifted up and carried away, and new prisoners would arrive when night fell.”[v]
As alluded to in Wu’s testimony, outside China’s prison camps the famine was similarly extensive. For example, in Sichuan province, a predominantly rural province, the death toll stood at a remarkable eight million.[vi] In large cities, such as Beijing or Shanghai, the famine was less prevalent but nonetheless felt. Despite the intense starvation felt in the labor camps during the Great Chinese Famine, prisoner testimony suggests that the repercussions of being caught cannibalizing deterred the urge to cannibalize. That same urge often went unabated outside the labor camp system.
According to Frank Dikotter, cases of cannibalism during the Great Leap Forward first began in Yunnan in 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.”[vii] Official and detailed reports of cannibalism and starvation in general for that matter, are hard to come by. In fact, “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.”[viii] When cases of cannibalism were reported, there was a concerted effort to absolve the Party of all responsibility. For example, an official investigation into cannibalism by the Gansu provincial wing of the Communist Party noted that the reason Yang Zhongsheng killed and ate his brother Yang Sanshun was due to shenghuo wenti, translated best as “livelihood issues.” The Party also used the same reason, “livelihood issues,” to explain why Changpin Fan dug out the corpse of his buried father and proceeded to eat him. It is this bureaucratic detachment that has come to characterize the culture of Mao’s totalitarian state. Effectively labeling the individual as delinquent, the Party attempted to deflect responsibility and absolve itself from any wrongdoing during the famine period.
Ironically, despite distancing itself from the rampant cannibalism during the Great Chinese Famine, the Party often embraced savage acts of Cannibalism as a means of proving ones loyalty during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. According to one scholar:
This process began with the accusation and denunciation of the selected "class enemies," continued with their bludgeoning and dismembering, and ended with their partial consumption. After having been bludgeoned to death, some of their organs—their hearts, livers, and occasionally their genitals—were cut out, sometimes even before the victims died. Then these body parts were cooked and eaten by the assembled dignitaries in what were labeled "human flesh banquets.” These "banquets" were particularly widespread in the Province of Guangxi, where even the minor children of the former ruling classes were tortured and killed. As an example, a sixty-eight-year-old peasant caught the minor son of the former landlord, slit his chest open in front of everyone, and watched the boy die in agony. When questions about his deed by an investigating reporter, he boastfully declared: "Yes, I killed him.... The person I killed is an enemy.... Ha, ha! I make revolution, and my heart is red! Didn't Chairman Mao say: 'It's either we kill them, or they kill us?' You die and I live, this is class struggle!’”[ix]
Although cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution has not been widely reported, its significance should not be downplayed. Along with a litany of other brutal human rights violations, cannibalism can be seen as a fitting product of Mao’s Communist State, which, albeit a few generations removed from its vicious revolutionary campaigns, still holds power today.
[ii] Голодомор, in "Velykyi tlumachnyi slovnyk suchasnoi ukrainsʹkoi movy: 170 000 sliv", chief ed. V. T. Busel, Irpin, Perun (2004), ISBN 966-569-013-2
[v] Transcript from oral interview with Harry Wu (2/13/2012)
[vi] Dikkoter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine. (328)
[vii] Dikotter, 320.
[viii] Dikotter, 321.