How Three Million Chinese Citizens Starved to Death – in a Year

Expressen, 9th April, 2018
By Ulf Olsson
Translated by Nicholas Lawrence

Ulf Olsson reads an elucidating essay written by Liu Zhenyun, one of Chinese contemporary literature’s biggest names, about the Chinese mass starvation of 1942.

How can three million people starve to death in less than a year? In 1942 the Chinese province of Henan was hit by severe draught, followed by an invasion of locusts. The harvests were ruined, the water supply was wiped out.

The year is 1988 and author Liu Zehnyun writes no novels: instead he is given an “assigment” by a friend to investigate what happened. “Tillbaka till 1942” is his report: a precise, sarcastic critique of the conditions that reigned. Including as well the novella “Överhuvuden”: an equally precise, yet more playful, study in how a Chinese village was governed during the period of a few decades.

So why did three million people die in such a short amount of time? Henan province was surrounded by warring armies: the Japanese occupation forces on one side, and Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese army on the other. Between the two armies was a no man’s land – populated by millions of people. The space between was left without government – the authority that did exist only contributed further to the catastrophe: the armies confiscated the only grain remaining.

50 Year Old Wounds

Liu travels to Henan, speaking with older relatives and other survivors. When he asks how many died the laconic reply is more often than not “a few dozen” – a few dozen in every little village soon adds up to millions of people. And just as many fled, abandoned their homes in the hope of having any chance of survival. But to ask the older generation about the period is, Liu writes, like tearing open wounds that have taken 50 years to heal: “thick scabs which have dried and, over the years, turned to armour, so that tearing them away is as difficult as moving mountains.”

Eventually it fell to Mao Zedong and the communists to move those mountains.

“Överhuvuden” portrays how a village is governed, before and after “liberation,” during the period of a few decades, how the village elder is transformed into a party official. But has anything changed, or is it only titles that have been replaced?

In this way, both of Liu’s stories act as affecting studies of the relationship between forms of government and everyday life, between politics and people. Today’s Syria, anyone?

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