The worst of the Great Famine was in Xinyang in China's central Henan province, where one in eight people died from the famine. Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “One of Yang's most compelling case studies is of Xinyang, a city in Henan province, where a million people out of a population of more than eight million were victims of Maoist experimentation. Here, as in many parts of China, exaggerated reports of harvests and aggressive procurements of grain by the state led to mass starvation. By the spring of 1960, according to one of Yang's witnesses, corpses lay on the roads and in the fields, hardened by the winter cold and bent, often with holes in their buttocks and legs where flesh had been torn off. The survivors blamed dogs for the disfigurement. But the dogs had already been eaten. The truth was that many people that winter and the next survived by preying on the dead, sometimes even on their own family members.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012]

Yang Jisheng wrote in “Tombstone”: Xinyang Prefecture lies in the southeast of Henan, bordering the provinces of Hubei and Anhui. In 1958 the prefecture administered eighteen counties, the city of Xinyang, and the town of Zhumadian. It was home to 8.5 million people. Most of the prefecture consisted of mountain ranges that had served as bases for China's revolutionary forces, and where hundreds of thousands of lives had been sacrificed in the civil war with the Kuomintang. Elderly residents say, "Even the trees and grasses of the Dabie Mountains served the Communist Party." This lush region was the province's main producer of grain and cotton and an abundant source of tea leaves, timber, bamboo, tung oil, and medicinal herbs. Scenic Jigong Shan (Rooster Mountain) is located here. In short, Xinyang, along with nearby Nanyang and Luoyang, was the economic engine of the province. Yet from the winter of 1959 to the spring of 1960, at least one million people starved to death here—one out of every eight residents. “Li Jian, an official of the CCP Central Control Commission (the precursor of the Discipline and Inspection Commission) sent to Henan in the wake of the famine, found that the largest number of starvation deaths occurred in Xinyang and two other prefectures: Nanyang and Xuchang. The most horrific situation became known as the "Xinyang Incident." [Source:“Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962" by Yang Jisheng, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008]

Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books: "The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, November 22, 2012]

"Yang interviewed a colleague at the Xinhua news agency who had been stationed in Xinyang. During a long-distance bus ride, he said, “I could see one corpse after another in the ditches along the roadway, but no one on the bus dared to talk about the starvation.” The reporter found out that a third of the population in some areas had died while “the leading cadres continued to stuff themselves.” But “after I personally witnessed how people who spoke the truth were brought to ruin, how could I dare to write an internal reference report?”

"The starvation led to the destruction of human relations. In one case, an official heard about a teenage girl whose parents had died. Near death, she killed her four-year-old brother and ate him. Filled with pity and a sense of helplessness, the official finally arrested the girl, reasoning that at least in jail she might get something to eat. Local granaries were rarely opened, with officials who dared to do so punished, often with death. Meanwhile, farmers couldn’t leave their villages. A Central Committee “urgent communiqué” declared anyone leaving rural areas to be a vagrant. Local officials enforced the travel ban brutally, beating thousands to death. Police controlled all train stations. Long-distance buses were driven only by Party members. Postal service was so heavily monitored that it essentially shut down. Rural China had become a gulag without food. “The peasants could only stay home and await death,” Yang writes.

"When Mao finally heard about the Xinyang Incident in 1960, he acted delusionally, declaring that landlords had retaken control and wrecked his utopian experiment. One main culprit he identified was the daughters of landlords, whom he accused of marrying Communist Party officials and ruining them. An inspection team headed by a senior Party member arrived in Xinyang and concluded that local officials were responsible for failing to follow Beijing’s orders. Of course they had been following Beijing’s orders, which is why the starvation had taken place. No matter, several thousand were arrested and beaten, and hundreds were killed. That meant an even further hardening of local officials against any sort of rational response. The famine continued, spreading nationally and claiming tens of millions."

Liu reported: “The level of energy expended on covering up what was happening is chilling.One passage in the book reads: "When the Guangshan County post office discovered an anonymous letter to Beijing disclosing starvation deaths, the public security bureau began hunting down the writer. One of the post office's counter staff recalled that a pockmarked woman had mailed the letter. The local public security bureau rounded up and interrogated every pockmarked woman without identifying the culprit. It was subsequently determined that the writer worked in Zhengzhou and had written the letter upon returning to her home village and seeing people starving to death." Those who tried to leave the area were sent to labor camps. Ideological campaigns continued; in one district of Henan alone, 1,000 people were beaten to death for political problems. [Source: Louisa Lim, NPR, November 10, 2012]

Political Pressure Breeds Exaggeration in Xinyang

refugees in Hong Kong

Yang Jisheng wrote in “Tombstone”: In a political system such as China's, those below imitate those above, and political struggles at the higher levels are replicated at the lower levels in an expanded and even more ruthless form. This is what happened in Xinyang. “Following the provincial-level campaign against the "Pan, Yang, Wang" clique and the campaign against right deviation, Xinyang's Guangshan County on November 11, 1959, conducted a criticism, or "struggle," session against the secretary of the CCP county secretariat, Zhang Fuhong, who was labeled a "right deviationist" and a "degenerate element." During the struggle session, county party secretary Ma Longshan took the lead by kicking Zhang, after which others set upon him with fists and feet. Other struggle sessions were conducted by county-level cadres on November 13 and 14, during which Zhang was beaten bloody, his hair ripped out in patches, and his uniform torn to shreds, leaving him barely able to walk. [Source:“Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962" by Yang Jisheng, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008]

“On November 15, Zhang was handed over to commune cadres, by which time he could only lie on the floor while he was kicked and punched and had what remained of his hair torn out. Another struggle session by commune cadres on November 16 left Zhang near death; by the time he was dragged home that day, he had lost control of his bodily functions and could no longer eat or drink. On November 17 he was accused of malingering and attacked again. On November 18 he was accused of pining for the return of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and was dragged from his bed for more struggle. When he asked for water, he was refused. Around noon on November 19, Zhang Fuhong died.

“Xinyang's deputy party secretary and prefectural commissioner, Zhang Shufan, subsequently related in his memoirs why Zhang Fuhong was targeted. In the spring of 1959, in order to alleviate famine conditions among the peasants, Ma Longshan sent Zhang Fuhong to a production team to launch a pilot project in which output quotas were assigned to each household. Other localities were doing the same, but following the political reversals of the Central Committee's Lushan Conference, household output quotas were labeled right opportunism. Ma denied responsibility, saying Zhang Fuhong had initiated the use of quotas. Although Zhang insisted that Ma had assigned him to carry out the system,6 an official one level higher can crush his subordinate, and that is what happened here.

“Campaigns against right deviation in other counties were similarly brutal. In Xi County, party secretary Xu Xilan directed a struggle session against deputy secretary Feng Peiran. Xu sat above Feng with a handgun at his side while someone held Feng by the neck as others beat and kicked him. According to Zhang Shufan's memoirs, some twelve thousand struggle sessions were held in the prefecture, and all kinds of ridiculous statements were made under political pressure.

“In 1958, Xinyang's Suiping County was given nationwide publicity for Great Leap production successes referred to as Sputniks, or "satellites." These "grand achievements" were attributed to the "struggle against right-deviating conservatism." In an atmosphere of extreme political pressure, anyone who dared question the accuracy of these reported crop yields risked being labeled a "doubter" or "denier" engaged in "casting aspersions on the excellent situation," and anyone who exposed the fraudulence of the high-yield model was subjected to struggle.

“A drought in 1959 drove down Xinyang's crop yields, but prefectural party cadres, overcome by fanaticism, proposed the slogan of "Big drought, big harvest" and claimed higher yields than the year before. Commissioner Zhang Shufan, who was directly responsible for agriculture, in early August convened a meeting of leading county cadres to provide "practical and realistic" appraisals of the disaster and to adopt advanced measures such as varied crop plantings to prevent a famine.

“Following the Lushan Conference, the prefectural party committee had each county report its projected yields. Under the political pressure of the times, each county's estimate was exceeded by that of the next, as all feared being criticized for reporting the lowest projection. Yu Dehong, a staff member at the prefectural party committee meeting, later recalled that the first projection totaled 15 billion kilos. Zhang Shufan and others thought this excessively optimistic and asked everyone to submit new figures, which subsequently totaled 7.5 billion kilos and finally 3.6 billion kilos. During a meeting of the prefectural party committee's standing committee, eight of the nine standing committee members believed that the 1959 crop yield would exceed that of 1958, and that given the 1958 yield of 2.8 billion kilos, a 3.6 billion kilo yield for 1959 was very reasonable. Zhang Shufan, however, expected a yield of only 1.5 to 2.0 billion kilos.

“In late August and early September, the Henan provincial party committee convened an enlarged meeting to implement the spirit of the Lushan Conference. Each prefecture was asked to report projected crop yields. Zhang Shufan led off for Xinyang by reporting that his standing committee projected a crop yield of 3.6 billion kilos, but that his more modest personal projection was 1.5 to 2 billion kilos. The provincial party committee was dissatisfied with Zhang's report and subsequently asked prefectural party secretary Lu Xianwen, "What's going on in Xinyang?" Under pressure, Lu convened another meeting of county party secretaries requesting new projections. At first no one spoke, but finally someone asked, "Isn't it what we already reported in our meeting?" Lu Xianwen replied, "Someone took exception to those projections." By "someone," Lu was referring to Zhang Shufan. Soon afterward, right-deviating elements were sought out and subjected to struggle, and this county head who had dared to speak the truth was stripped of his official position.

Procurement Based on Absurd Projections

Yang Jisheng wrote in “Tombstone”: Exaggerated yield projections meant high state procurement quotas. In Henan, every county was forced to hand over every available kernel of grain. Zhang Shufan recalls:Following the expanded meeting, I returned to the prefecture to head up the autumn harvest procurement. The provincial party committee based its procurement on the big 1958 harvest, and our prefecture met our quota of 800 million kilos by taking every kernel of grain ration and seed grain from the peasants. Immediately after the harvest, many localities were left with nothing to eat, and people began to leave the prefecture in search of food. Many communal kitchens had no food to serve their members, and the helpless villagers staved their hunger at home as best they could with sweet potatoes and wild herbs. [Source:“Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962" by Yang Jisheng, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008]

“Higher levels reported a somewhat smaller procurement quota, but agreed that excessive procurement had serious repercussions: In 1959, Xinyang suffered a drought. The total grain yield of the prefecture was less than 1.63 billion kilos, a decrease of 46.1 percent from 1958, but the prefectural party committee projected a grain yield of more than 3.21 billion kilos. On that basis, the province set Xinyang's procurement quota at 480 million kilos, which was 21.5 million kilos more than in 1958. The prefectural party committee added 5 percent to the procurement quota for each county, raising the total procurement quota to 502.45 million kilos. After the prefecture met its quota, the food ration left after seed grain and fodder were excluded was only 82.25 kilos of unprocessed grain per person for the year. Based on typical consumption of 17.5 kilos per person per month, that was enough to feed the population for four months. With no supplementary foodstuffs or oil, the 17.5 kilos of unprocessed grain amounted to 12.5 kilos of edible grain, barely enough to prevent starvation. In addition, some 1.8 million people were engaged in irrigation projects in the prefecture, and they alone consumed a large share of the available grain.

The Henan provincial party committee subsequently found, Last year the autumn yield of the entire prefecture of Xinyang was estimated at only a little more than 1 billion kilos, but was exaggerated to 3.2 billion kilos, and the province set the prefecture's procurement quota at 480 million kilos, with additional procurements at the prefecture, county, and commune levels increasing the procurement quota by more than 20 percent. After the prefecture met its mid-October procurement quota of more than 350 million kilos, 3,751 communal kitchens (370,000 people) were left without food. Even under those conditions, the campaign against false underreporting of output and of widespread private withholding of foodstuffs continued in all communes and production teams.

As this campaign gained force, it exacerbated the famine. In 1958, Xinyang Prefecture organized about 30 percent of the prefecture's working population for the great iron and steel production campaign. The steel furnaces didn't actually smelt any iron; rather, the woks and cooking utensils of the peasants, the door knockers from their homes, and the bells from temples were all melted down in order to report success. In addition to the 1.2 million laborers used for this campaign, more than half a million were engaged in ball bearing production, and another 2.0 million in irrigation projects. Feeding these laborers left that much less grain for the farm production teams.

Violent Campaign Against False Reporting of Output

Yang Jisheng wrote in “Tombstone”: Excessively high requisition quotas made procurement difficult. If farmers were unable to hand over the required amount, the government would accuse production teams of concealing grain. A "struggle between the two roads" (of socialism and capitalism) was launched to counteract the alleged withholding of grain. This campaign used political pressure, mental torture, and ruthless violence to extort every last kernel of grain or seed from the peasants. Anyone who uttered the slightest protest was beaten, sometimes fatally. [Source:“Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962" by Yang Jisheng, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008]

“A meeting at Rooster Mountain pushed the campaign against grain hoarding to a climax. Li Ruiying, the wife of Zhang Shufan, was chair of Xinyang Prefecture's Federation of Women. In June 1959 the prefectural party committee had her lead a work group to Rooster Mountain Commune to report on a pilot project to produce 5,000 kilos of paddy per mu of land, the brainchild of the county party secretary. Li Ruiying's team stayed at Rooster Mountain for a month, during which they learned that this model commune was a fraud and that the peasants there were starving. Li wrote to prefectural party secretary Lu Xianwen requesting 105,000 kilos of grain, but Lu refused and labeled Li Ruiying a right deviationist. A cadre sent to Rooster Mountain to replace Li also truthfully reported the hunger of commune members, only to be labeled a "vacillator."

Li's replacement, Wang Binglin, tried to appease party secretary Lu Xianwen by organizing an on-the-spot meeting to oppose "false reporting of output and private withholding," the arcane official formulation for hoarding. All that was produced were rice husks covered by a thin layer of grain. The prefectural party committee ordered local cadres to stifle the public outcry, stop villagers from fleeing in search of food, and halt the closure of communal kitchens. After that, anyone who claimed to have no grain was labeled a "negator of the Three Red Banners," a "negator of the Great Harvest," or a "right deviationist," and was subjected to struggle. If communal kitchens closed due to lack of food, this was labeled "the masses threatening the cadres," and abandoning starving children along the roadsides was labeled "an assault against the party."

Punishments were inflicted on cadres and villagers alike. In Guangshan County, 2,241 people were beaten, 105 fatally, and 526 cadres were stripped of their official positions. The number of deaths from physical abuse rose even higher toward the end of the campaign. In The Xinyang Incident, Qiao Peihua describes the situation in one village: At the end of September 1959, Wang Pinggui, a member of the Wangxiaowan production team, was forced to hand over grain kept in his home, and was beaten with a shoulder pole, dying of his injuries five days later. Not long after Wang's death, the rest of his four-member household died of starvation.

“In October 1959, Luo Mingzhu of the Luowan production team, upon failing to hand over any grain, was bound and suspended in mid-air and beaten, then doused with ice-cold water. He died the next day. On October 13, 1959, Wang Taishu of the Chenwan production team, upon failing to hand over any grain, was bound and beaten with shoulder poles and rods, dying four days later. His fourteen-year-old daughter, Wang Pingrong, subsequently died of starvation. On October 15, 1959, Zhang Zhirong of the Xiongwan production team, upon failing to hand over any grain, was bound and beaten to death with kindling and poles. The brigade's cadre used tongs to insert rice and soya beans into the deceased's anus while shouting, "Now you can grow grain out of your corpse!" Zhang left behind children aged eight and ten who subsequently died of starvation.

“On October 19, 1959, Chenwan production team member Chen Xiaojia and his son Chen Guihou were hung from the beam of the communal dining hall when they failed to hand over any grain. They were beaten and doused with cold water, both dying within seven days. Two small children who survived them eventually died of starvation. On October 24, 1959, the married couple Zheng Jinhou and Luo Mingying of the Yanwan production team had 28 silver coins seized from their home during the campaign and were beaten to death. Their three children, left without anyone to care for them, starved to death. On November 8, 1959, Xu Chuanzheng of the Xiongwan production team was falsely accused of withholding grain. He was hung from the beam of the communal dining hall and brutally beaten, dying six days later. The six family members who survived him subsequently starved to death. “On November 8, 1959, Zhong Xingjian of the Yanwan production team was accused of "defying the leadership," and a cadre hacked him to death with an ax. These are only a portion of the incidents Qiao recounts.

“Liu Wencai, secretary of Guangshan County party secretariat, was in charge of the anti-hoarding campaign at Huaidian People's Commune, during which he flogged more than forty peasants, four of whom died. Some 93 percent of commune-level cadres in Guangshan County led such campaigns and personally took part in beatings. On November 28, 1960, a report was sent to Henan party secretary Wu Zhipu.

Calamity at Guangshan County's Huaidian People's Commune

Yang Jisheng wrote in “Tombstone”: “In the calamity at Guangshan County's Huaidian people's commune in the autumn of 1959, the commune's average yield per mu was 86 kilos, for a total of 5.955 million kilos. The commune's party committee reported a yield of 313 kilos per mu, for a total of 23.05 million kilos. The procurement quota set by the county was 6 million kilos, which exceeded the commune's total grain yield. In order to achieve the procurement quota, every means had to be taken to oppose false reporting and private withholding, and every scrap of food had to be seized from the masses. The final procurement was 5.185 million kilos. All of the communal kitchens were closed down, and deaths followed. Liu Wencai and the commune party committee attributed the kitchen closures and deaths to attacks by well-to-do middle peasants and sabotage by class enemies, and to the struggle between the two paths of socialism and capitalism. They continued the campaign against false reporting and private withholding for eight months. Within sixty or seventy days not a kernel of grain could be found anywhere, and mass starvation followed. [Source:“Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962" by Yang Jisheng, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008]

“The commune originally numbered 36,691 members in 8,027 households. Between September 1959 and June 1960, 12,134 people died (among them, 7,013 males and 5,121 females), constituting 33 percent of the total population. There were 780 households completely extinguished, making up 9.7 percent of all households. The village of Jiangwan originally had 45 inhabitants, but 44 of them died, leaving behind only one woman in her sixties, who went insane.

“There was a total of 1,510 cadres at the commune, brigade, and production team level, and 628, or 45.1 percent, took part in beatings. The number beaten totaled 3,528 (among them 231 cadres), with 558 dying while being beaten, 636 dying subsequently, another 141 left permanently disabled, 14 driven to commit suicide, and 43 driven away.

“Apart from the standard abuse of beating, kicking, exposure, and starvation, there were dozens of other extremely cruel forms of torture, including dousing the head with cold water, tearing out hair, cutting off ears, driving bamboo strips into the palms, driving pine needles into the gums, "lighting the celestial lantern," forcing lit embers into the mouth, branding the nipples, tearing out pubic hair, penetrating the genitals, and being buried alive.

“When thirteen children arrived at the commune begging for food, the commune's party secretary, surnamed Jiang, along with others incited kitchen staff to drag them deep into the mountains, where they were left to die of hunger and exposure.

“The official communal dining hall was divided into three types: a special dining room for party secretaries, a slightly larger room for party committee members, and a large mess hall for ordinary cadres. The special dining room served meat, fish, eggs, and fried peanuts.

“This was not the first time people had been beaten here. During the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957, not a single rightist escaped beating. They originated the practice of shaving the character for "right" into a person's hair and herding miscreants in front of pig troughs, where they were forced to scoop out congee with their hands and eat it.

“With no means of escaping a hopeless situation, ordinary people could not adequately look after their own. Families were scattered to the winds, children abandoned, and corpses left along the roadside to rot. As a result of the extreme deprivations of starvation, 381 commune members desecrated 134 corpses.

Lying became a means of survival. A Huangchuan County party committee member and the director of agriculture and labor carried out socialist education sessions at Sanpisi Commune. There was not a bite for them to eat in the production teams during the day, so they had to return to the commune at night to eat, but dared not report that the production team had no food.

“After the Xinyang Incident, the commune's first secretary, Jia Xinyuan, told a provincial party committee work group, "It wasn't that I didn't know anything at the time; of the 200 people who reported for military service last year, only 40 percent met the minimum weight requirement. I also knew about 100 or 200 people dying in one day. Struggling with myself, I went to the county three times to report what was happening, but turned back each time out of fear of being labeled a right deviationist. After returning, I then had to carry out campaigns against false reporting and private withholding."

During procurement, the leader of the Sanpisi production brigade told his commune party secretary, "People actually have no food to eat down there." The commune secretary criticized him: "That's right-deviationist thinking—you're viewing the problem in an overly simplistic manner!" That brigade held four meetings to counter hoarding and to search out hidden caches, and local leaders became struggle targets. The brigade was compelled to report 120,000 kilos of concealed grain, but not a single kernel was discovered.

Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters; Photographs, Everyday Life in Maoist Ohio State University and Wikicommons, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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