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














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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