2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 54

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The Wisdom in the Memories of the Great Famine's Survivors: Oral History Testimonies on the Origins and Development of the Great Leap Forward Famine in Rural China, with Special Reference to Narratives of Survival and Devastation in Anhui Province

Organizer and Chair: Ralph A. Thaxton, Brandeis University, USA

Discussants: Yang Su, University of California, Irvine, USA; Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, University of Vienna, Austria

This panel presents the oral history research findings of a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Team, co-directed by Ralph A. Thaxton, Jr., and Lu Huilin. The four presenters focus on interrelated aspects of the origins and development of the Great Leap Forward Famine in three counties, three communes, and six villages located in southeastern Anhui province, on the rural periphery of the Lower Middle Yangtze Region. Relying on interviews with 140 individual survivors of the great famine of 1958-61, we show that in the Kuomintang period this area enjoyed robust commercial and cultural ties to Shanghai, and that it was taken over by New Fourth Army guerilla forces in March of 1950. The presenters will address the following key issues and questions: (1) Challenging the convention wisdom that the 1949-52 land reform was necessary to improve popular livelihood, we reconstruct the land reform process as a revolutionary state simplification that undermined off-farm survival pursuits in the short term and set the course for the political disentitlement that escalated in the collective years, culminating in the nearly complete loss of power over livelihood in the Great Leap. (2) Focusing on the formation of the Communist party-state in the early 1950s, we deepen understanding of the backgrounds and reputations of the local enforcement agents of the Leap famine, exploring what they gained materially, from joining the Communist Revolution, why they quickly became the dreaded enemies of ordinary tillers, and why and how they imposed the terror that engendered social suffering and death in the Leap episode. (3) We address the relationship of political geography to the famine's death rate at the commune and village level. How do individual testimonies on household famine death statistics compare with the marcolevel demography of the Great Leap's death rates at the regional, provincial, and county level? Do the latter always predict the former? Why did the inhabitants of some highland bamboo villages and hamlets on the periphery of commune power suffer as much, or if not more, than rice paddy tillers living on lowland plains in close proximity to the appropriation arm of the Communist party-state and also closer to the main lines of transportation? Who, in the reasoning, of villagers, was to blame for the Great Leap famine and its death rate--Mao and his policies or the cadres and their wayward actions? (4) The presenters also draw on memories of famine survivors to explain how rural people understood who they were, and who they were becoming, in a world in which Communist party cadres were promising to eliminate the suffering of the old pre-1949 order while simultaneously delivering new suffering. How, in the course of the Leap famine, did villagers cope with suffering and attempt to maintain family-centered identities that were in conflict with socialist state efforts to surrender all identity to the emerging Communist Revolution and its order of sacrifice--efforts that proved traumatic for the subjects of this order?

The Origins and Nature of Communist Party Leadership in Southeast Anhui in the 1950s, with Special Reference to the Modality of Rule that Crystallized in the Great Leap Forward and to Its Role in Spiking the Death Rate in the Course of the Great Leap Famine
Huilin Lu, Beijing University, China

This paper focuses on oral history findings from Xuancheng, Changde, and Jingxian county villages to focus on the formation of the local political base of the Communist party in the early phase of revolutionary takeover and state formation. By studying the party recruitment of brigade level party leaders, and focusing on their backgrounds, activities, and reputations, it explores what the party's ground level activists gained materially from embracing the revolution, why they quickly because the dreaded enemies of ordinary tillers, why and how they used force and terror to impose the transcript of the Great Leap Forward. It deepens our understanding of the relationship of a coercive modality of rule and social suffering in the Great Leap, paying special attention to the link between this modality of rule and memories villagers hold about why their counterparts died in the course of the Leap famine.

Under the Bamboo Forest: Some Reflections on Individual Memories of the Great Leap Famine's Death Rate at the Household Level and Village Level: What the Oral History Evidence Tells Us.
Ralph A. Thaxton, Brandeis University, USA

This paper uses oral history interview data from two different highland forest villages, one in Xuancheng county and another in Guangde, to reflect on individual memories of the Great Leap famine's death rate at the household and village level. How do these memories compare with national, regional, provincial, county demographic mappings of the famine's death rate, as related in the received wisdom of global scholarship on the Great Leap famine? Do the memories famine survivors hold of the famine's death rate resonate with macrolevel accounts? By focusing on one upland village in particular, this paper seeks to answer why the inhabitants of villages and hamlets in highland terrain, located on the periphery of commune power, suffered as much if not more than rice paddy tillers living in lowland plain communities in close proximity to the lower tip of the Communist party-captured state and also closer to the main lines of transportation. It explores the political and economic factors contributing to the vulnerability of highlanders during the Great Leap Forward Famine in southeast Anhui. It also sheds new light on whether survivors place blame for the Leap famine on Mao's policies or on the wayward behavior of local Communist leaders.

Trauma, Memory, and Identity in the Aftermath of the Great Leap Forward Famie: Findings from Oral History Research in Xuancheng, Anhui.
Min Audrey Yang, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Drawing on memories of famine survivors in one Anhui village, located in famine devastated Xuangcheng county, this paper attempts to explain how rural people understood who they were, and who they were becoming, in a world in which Communist party cares were promising to eliminate of the old pre-1949 order while simultaneously delivering new suffering to villagers. How, in the course, of the Great Leap famine, did villagers cope with suffering and attempt to maintain family-centered identities that often were in conflict with socialist state efforts to make them surrender all identity to the emerging Communist Revolution and its order of sacrifice--efforts that proved traumatic for the rural subjects of this new revolutionary order? Relying on original ethnography and on cutting edge social science literature on trauma, this paper will explore the deep subjectivity of famine survivors and thereby provide some tentative answers to this important question.