2007: Ran Yunfei: Food During the 1959-61 Famine

Ran Yunfei is scholarly Chengdu writer who writes about education, society, history and literary topics. He has tried to avoid politics, but trying to write the truth about history and society easily gets writers into trouble with the Chinese Communist Party.

In his book based on the diaries of early twentieth century Sichuan University Professor Wu Yu, Ran wrote a chapter on Sichuan food history including the arrival of spicy food in Sichuan several hundred years ago. See my note of Ran Yunfei’s book: Sichuan Food and Hunan Food

Wu Yu: A Life in the Republican Era by Ran Yunfei

For more by and about Ran Yunfei see:

2012: Ian Johnson’s NYRB interview with Ran Yunfei: Learning How to Argue

2015: A Writer Turns to Christ

YouTube: 冉云飞 从人本主义教育到圣经里的教育


Food During the 1959-61 Famine

(Ran Yunfei note:  Some young friends asked me about the 1959 – 61 Great Famine.  I wasn’t there. However, five members of my family starved to death and I’ve read many books about it such as Yang Jisheng’ s  Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 , Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, Frank Dikoetter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, and Dongfu’s  Wheat Seedlings, Eggs and Dye  《麦苗黄菜花青》 During that three-year-long famine, there was basically no food.  If sometimes there was food, what sort of food was it? Young people want to know, so I’ll post an old article to let you know a little bit of the facts.  

Written in Chengdu, September 4, 2014

Picture of a boy eating Guanyin soil.

When I wrote “Wang Kaiyun’s Sichuan Cuisine”, I said I would dedicate a long article to talk about food during the three-year Great Famine.  However,  I have not been able to finish it because collecting information has been difficult.  However, recently I read the memoirs of some old people who had been condemned as “rightists’ and together with what my own family told me,  what I experienced in my early childhood (I didn’t didn’t really experience it, but I did eat a lot of wild vegetables as a child), so first wrote write a short article that my fellow sufferers would notice and then they might be able to contribute their own memories and experiences on this topic to create a special history of foods that saved people’s lives so as to contribute some historical materials to the history of famine relief. 

When I was born after the three years of catastrophe had ended,  I ate mostly sweet potatoes and pumpkins as a child. Now when people in my family eat these, or friends order these dishes, I still do not eat them, because my stomach has a subconscious reaction to see it and rebels against eating it. Of course, I have also eaten soft quan grass, stinging laobao, fern moss 蕨苔and other wild vegetables.  These wild vegetables are not what people today think of them; that we eat them for the sake of the environment and for nutrition.  These wild vegetables, on the contrary, have no nutrition, no oil, and no salt. We eat them in soups only so that our stomachs won’t hurt.  Today everybody is happy to eat ferns which are also on my refuse to eat list.  

We lived in Pingba, where it is impossible to get fern moss, so my second brother went to a lot of trouble to get them at Maoguling mountain about Guangyuan. With great difficulty he was able to dig up some ferns that could be mashed into a starch or dough. At first it was good but soon it got to be hard to swallow.  In order to fill our stomachs, however, we forced ourselves to swallow it or else our bodies wouldn’t be able to get by.  As for our family members alive during the famine, their experiences were much worse than mine.  A few years before my dear mother died a few years ago,  I took the books Atlas of Chinese Wild Vegetables and Atlas of Yunnan Wild Vegetables and asked her to see which wild vegetables were available in our local area and what they were called locally so as to establish a correspondence between scientific names and common names (I also did this once last year with my second family brother). Unfortunately, I looked around through all my shelves and boxes and could not find my notes for some time.  Otherwise, I could have started writing Food During the Three-Year Famine. As for the so-called food that my elder brother and my second brother ate, such as Guanyin soil and glutinous leaves. This is unimaginable today. I will want to someday write these stories, because how could we ever forget such a tragic history?

The death toll of that three-year catastrophe that lasted from1959 to 1961 is now estimated to be around 60 million people. Some people may say that this figure is inaccurate, but that is not the people’s fault, it is the fault of the officials, because they did not publish the truth, did not open the archives, and do not admit that they committed crimes, which is the worst crime of all. Of course, statistics and research can be conducted on this statistic, but after checking the Public Security Bureau’s books of household registration files, one finds that officials are definitely not willing to cooperate with researchers. They may even beat up the researcher until he too takes his place in yet another book. These figures may be conservative of the cover-ups that officials felt that they had to do.  However, if we can add them up, it must be a large number. Mr Cao Shuji 曹树基, a demographic historian, has done this.  He analyzed the number of deaths in Sichuan Province. But here, I think there is still a lot of substantial work that still can be done. I hope that you, my friends, are thoughtful people, and that you make your own inquiries, make your own record, in order to preserve this painful history for China today and for further study by later generations. Something need not be a major event for it to be considered historical material. Do a good job of recording all kinds of disasters, that is, to preserve these precious memories for the sake of your own rights and interests, for the sake of knowing the disasters that your ancestors suffered so that that one day we can fully expose of the brutal falsehoods of the rulers can be exposed and their evil can be hidden no longer.

Recently, I read the Memoirs of the Passing Years 《逝水年华回忆录》 (self-published) by Mr. Yu Min 俞民, who is in his eighties in Luquan, Yunnan Province.  Yu records some of the starvation deaths, many of the foods starving people were forced to eat, and the stories of rightists who were convicted for mentioning the famine. Tang Guangneng’s parents-in-law were servants who had only one adopted daughter; he was a farmer for hire who came to his wife’s household as a son-in-law. He later joined the army and the Communist Party. During the rectification campaign, Tang Guangneng said, “In 1955, when he returned home from the army, there was not a single grain in his house, his mother-in-law and his wife ate bran, and he was unable to work in the field and slept in bed. He brought back dozens of pounds worth of food stamps to buy grain and rice mixed in the chaff and vegetables mixed with chaff so that they could make it through the winter.” (P53)  For doing this, Tang Guangneng became a rightist who had “attacked the Party’s policy of unified purchase and sale of grain”. This shows that there were some remote and poor places in the 1950s that faced starvation years before the famine of 1959-61. As for the food in the great famine of 1959 – 1961 (in some places, the problem of hunger started to appear as early as 1958) , here is an excerpt from Mr. Yu Min’s recollections:

After experiencing the Great Leap Forward, the Great War to Make Iron and Steel, and the People’s Commune Movement from 1958 to 1959, productivity was greatly damaged due to the abrupt skipping of intermediate stages, food production was severely reduced, and coupled with high forced requisitions, people’s life became increasingly difficult. Company shelves were empty and there was but little food to buy in the market: only viscous tofu paste and cedar oak root cake. These two foods, pungent and slightly bitter, were only minor poisons, and anyways better than grass roots, bark, for satisfyomg one’s hunger. Viscous tofu paste with salt was 20 cents a bowl. Cedar oak root cake was also 20 cents a bowl. I also went to buy some to eat.  The bean curd and slurry bloated my stomach and upset my digestion. I tossed and turned for a few days in my sleep.  After I took some gastrointestinal medicine I felt better.  I resolved never to eat that again. But hunger always confuses people.  There were many places that were worse off than we were. In Banjiao Village in Shanlexiang, there is not even a single grain of rice to put in the pot. The production brigade cadres led the commune member up a cliff to dig up some Daliao (name of a local plant) and to the river, and to dig wild vegetables growing near bamboo groves, up the mountain to gather mountain plants, and to the fields to cut the tips of broad bean plants, go up the mountain to pick white flowers, to the field to cut broad bean tips as rations, and to cut up corn stalks into short pieces, soak them in water to make a small amount of starch for soup. (P64)

Mr. Yu Min was an old revolutionary who had been a passionate supporter of the Communist Party’s seizure of power, only to be beaten and put on the enemies list by the Communist Party in 1957. In his letter to me, he said, “I had been a blind fanatical follower of Marxism-Leninism and was slow to recognize in it a traditional Chinese dictatorship. I was ignorant of political deception, blackmail, plunder and murder.  Ignorant, I fell into the trap set by Mao Zedong in 1957.  I fell for the ‘lure the snake out of the hole’ The ‘Scheming in Broad Daylight’ 阳谋 plot and became one of its victims.” After serving a sentence of reform through labor, he was released in 1983.   He and his old companions returned to their hometown together to farm their own plots as farmers. Thus he had a fairly clear understanding of the situation in the countryside. He not only read the book Survey of Chinese Peasants, but also gave some of his own views on the the Three Rural Issues (sannong wenti 三农问题) [Three Rural Issues] , “especially the issue of land ownership is very sensitive, censorship is very tight, and a real minefield. But I am already eighty years old and my neck is flush with yellow earth.  If I don’t speak up again, I may not have the chance to do so, and then I will always be sorry for the peasants who live and die by my side.” (P147) Even in the last moments of life one cannot forget to speak the truth. Let us pay our deepest respect to our rightist elders like Mr. Yu Min.

If we encourage our seniors to recall their experiences, to record the fine details, and by encouraging them to write their memoirs, then the disaster we suffered will surely be recorded in greater and richer detail.

December 7, 2007 at 8:43 pm in Chengdu


三年大饥荒时期的食物

--作者:冉云飞

冉按:有年轻朋友问我三年大饥荒的事,我也不算过来人。但我家不仅饿死了有五口人,而且我还读了不少这样的书,如杨继绳《墓碑》、贾柏《饿鬼》、冯客《毛的大饥荒》、东夫《麦苗黄菜花青》。三年大饥荒时当然基本没有吃的,偶有食物的话,是些什么食物呢?年轻的朋友们想知道,那么我就发篇旧文章,让大家知道一点事实吧。图片为吃观音土的男孩。

2014年9月4日于成都

我曾在写《王闿运的四川食物》时,说过我会专门写一篇长文谈三年大灾难时的食物,因为收集资料的困难,至今未能完成。不过,最近读一些右派老人的回忆录,加上我自己家人的告知,以及我幼年的经历(我没经历过,但我小时也吃过许多野菜),先写一则短文,以引起同好者的注意,或者大家可以供给这方面的回忆与经历,以组成一部特殊活命饮食史,为救荒史留下一点难得的史料。

我出生时,已过了三年大灾难时期,小时吃的多是红薯、南瓜等,所以现在家中人吃这些东西,或者朋友们点这些菜,我至今是不吃的,因为胃有见之而反的下意识反应。当然也吃过软雀巴、刺老苞、蕨苔等野菜,这野菜不是像今天的人认为一样,是为了生态与营养,相反这些东西根本就没有什么营养,无油无盐,清汤寡水地吃下去,只有把你的胃吃伤,所以今天大家所乐意吃的蕨菜,也在我的拒绝之列。我们生活在平坝,那里根本就不可能有蕨苔,还是大家兄二家兄费很大的劲至矿元盖上的猫牯岭,不惜力地挖来,经过许多工序,做成淀粉蕨巴或者搅团,开始时有点新鲜,但吃多了也就无法下咽,但为了饱肚子,也得强行咽下,否则身体将无法支撑。至于我们其他经过三年大饥荒的家人,他们的经历就更是不堪闻问。前几年家慈去世前,我拿着《中国野菜图谱》、《云南野菜图谱》等书,让她看看哪些野菜是我们当地有的,其名在当地称为什么,做了个学名与俗称的对应(去年与二家兄也一起做了一次),可惜我翻箱倒柜,一时半会居然没能找到,不然,就可以开始写作《三年大灾难时期的食物》了。至于我大家兄、二家兄他们吃过观音土与糯叶等,在今日根本就不可想象的所谓食物,将来我会逐一写来,这样的悲惨历史,怎能忘怀?

1959年至1961年的三年大灾难,死亡人数据现在的估计是6千万左右。有人或许会说,这数字不准确,不准确也不是民间的错,是官方的错,因为他不公布真相,不开放档案,犯了罪还不承认,其罪莫此为甚。这数字当然也可以进行统计与研究,但查公安局的户籍管理档案,官方肯定不愿意与研究者配合,甚至有可能将研究者打入另册。再者,也可以从各地的县志中加以搜罗,这些数字或许因为要替官方遮掩而有所保守,但如能将此加起来,也一定是个不小的数目,这一点人口史学家曹树基先生曾做过如此的工作,分析四川的死亡人数。但这里面,我认为还有许多大量的工作可以做。我希望朋友们都是有心人,你的一个询问,你的一个记录,就是在为中国保存痛史,保存为后来人作进一步研究的史料。史料并不是一定要重大事件才可堪称史料,而是细大不捐,做好各种与灾难有关的记载,就是为自己的权益、为先人的灾难,留下一笔珍贵的东西,让执政者的残暴虚假从各个方面立体地得到揭露,从而让他们的罪恶无处藏身。

近读云南禄劝八十多岁的俞民先生的《逝水年华回忆录》(自印)记载了一些饥饿死难的事,也记载了许多他们因饥饿而吃的食物,同时记载了因提及饥饿而获罪的右派。唐光能的岳父母是奴仆,只有一个养女,他是雇农,来这家作上门女婿,后来参军入党。在整风运动中,唐光能说:“1955年由军队复员回家,家里没有一粒粮食,家中岳母及老婆吃糠菜,无力下地干活,睡在床上。他带回几十斤粮票去买粮米掺在糠菜里混着吃一段时间才接上小春。”(P53)这样一来,唐光能变成了“攻击党的粮食统购统销政策”的右派。这说明,五十年代有一些边远的贫穷地方,不只是59年至61年才面临饥饿的威胁。至于1959年(有的地方提前至1958年已开始出现饥饿的问题)至1961年大饥饿大灾难中的食物,兹摘录一段俞民先生的回忆:

经历了1958年到1959年大跃进、大战钢铁、人民公社化运动后,由于超阶段的变革,生产力遭到极大的破坏,粮食严重减产,加上高征购,人民生活越来越艰难。公司货架空空如也,市场上的食品,只有粘渣渣豆腐和杉栎根粑粑,这两种食品,性辛微苦,有小毒,比草根、树皮好点,能充饥。粘渣渣豆腐加盐,两角一碗,杉栎根粑粑也是两角一个,饥不择食,我也去买来吃,吃后肚子胀痛,消化不了,折腾了几天,吃了些肠胃药才好些,此后,再也不敢问津了。但饥饿总是搅得人心神不宁。比我们更饿的地方还多哩,杉乐乡的半角村,根本无粮下锅,队干部带着社员爬到岩半中挖大料(当地植物名),到河边、箐边找野菜,上山采白花,到田里割蚕豆尖当口粮,还有用玉米杆砍成小段后用水浸泡出少量淀粉煮汤喝。(P64)

俞民先生是老革命,自己曾怀着一腔热血为共产党夺取政权贡献了自己的力量,到1957年时却被共产党打入另册。他在写给我的信中说:“我曾是一个盲目的狂热的马列主义信徒,对中国传统的独裁专制认识迟缓,对政治欺骗、讹诈、掠夺和谋杀认识不清,对毛泽东在1957年设下的陷阱毫无所知,中了‘引蛇出洞’的‘阳谋’之计而罹难。”他在右派改正后,八三年离休,他与老伴回老家一起自耕自种当农民,因此对农村的状况有相当清醒的认识,他不仅读《中国农民调查》,而且对三农问题提出了一些自己的看法,“特别是土地所有权问题很敏感,很违禁,是个雷区。但我已是八十老叟,黄土齐脖。再不说就可能没有机会说了,那我就永远对不起生死相依的农民。”(P147)在人生的最后时刻,也忘不了要发出真实的声音。让我们对像俞民先生一样的右派老人,致以我们深深的敬意。

从让自己的前辈回忆起,作点滴之记录,并且鼓励前辈们写回忆录,那么我们所受的灾难一定会有更加详实丰富的记录。

2007年12月7日8:43分于成都

转自《共识网》

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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