Thursday, 4 August 2011

Mao's Great Famine - the redundancy of courage or the arbitrary banality of evil?

On the last day of our holiday I read in almost a single sitting Frank Dikötter's brilliant account of Mao's so-called "great leap forward" between 1958-1961. Mao's Great Famine makes for fairly desperate reading and I am still shell-shocked from what I have learned from Dikötter's scholarship. The scale of the sheer wanton destruction of human beings and of the natural environment is beyond comprehension. Scholars disagree how many "additional" deaths occurred because of the famine and the violent terror that accompanied it, but it seems to be between 30 and 45 million people.
Part of me was fascinated to read Dikötter's disection of how power, politics and decision-making took place as the great leap forwards was implemented across the party. Part of me simply felt deeply, deeply sick.
Very occasionally individuals try to act against the system, to hide grain for their villages or their family, to question the irrationality of planting in a way that will kill the seed, to say no. Nearly always they encounter a brutal end. Towards the end of the book we hear about the speech of the one highly placed party official, Liu Shaoqui who actually questions and condemns the leadership - having seen the impact of famine on his home province. "History will judge you and me, even cannibalism will go into the books." We are told that Mao is present for the speech. We are made to understand that the leader will bide his time to have his revenge and this comrade will be purged in the cultural revolution. The famine proved to Mao that the party, and he as its leader, exercised almost total control over the most populous nation on earth. His detached political pleasure at the destruction is frightening.
Reading it I was reminded of the title of Timothy Mo's novel about East Timor "the Redundancy of Courage". The hopelessness of resistance in such a system - the hopelessness of even being able to find out what forms resistance might have taken when destruction is so massive and access to information is managed - the only photos of the time of the great famine are propaganda photos. Sometimes even the story cannot survive yet Dikötter uses the detailed information he finds in the archives he has been allowed access to, to try and tell the story of individuals and communities. He gives people, and the tiny shards of information he finds out about them, a story and a name. It is very moving.
However, you cannot read history like this as a theologian without feeling deeply challenged. There is a passing reference to hope about two-thirds into the book. How destructive hope was for people, giving them energy to struggle on. People hoped that "if only the great leader knew" then things could change for the better, for a more rational future. In the face of this level of destruction of human beings and of humanity how do you preach about God's care for each individual, counting the hairs on each of our heads?
After reading a book like this - I have no answers just questions.

1 Comment:

Manoj Kurian said...

Thank you for sharing those brilliant insights, Jane. The famine was massive. It is thought provoking, that with the work of dedicated individuals, slogging through long years of research and hard work, truth does get a hearing, albeit after half a century. It also spurred me to think of the silent, persistent and consistent hunger that plagues the different regions of the world even today. I am also reminded that I am part of the society and system that perpetuates starving people to death. A Mao in my own context by my societal and individual inactions and actions. Manoj Kurian