Frank Dikotter
Mao's Great Famine

Travelling extensively through the Qing Empire in the 1870s, Baron von Richthofen reported that the entire north of the country was destitute of trees, the barren mountains and hills offering a desolate view. Securing fuel for the long, cold winters was always a problem in imperial China. Farmers raised large quantities of maize and sorghum: seeds were used for food, while the stalks served as fuel to heat the kang, a hypocaust bed which the family slept on at night and sat on during the winter when it was heated by flues built inside. In a country depleted of forests, lack of fuel was widely felt: the scarcity of wood meant that every chip, twig, root and shaving was eagerly gleaned by children or elderly women, who stripped the ground bare.

Forest destruction—for clearing, fuel and timber—was made worse after 1949 by rash interference in the natural environment. Mao viewed nature as an enemy to be overcome, an adversary to be brought to heel, an entity fundamentally separate from humans which should be reshaped and harnessed through mass mobilisation. War had to be waged against nature by people pitted against the environment in a ceaseless struggle for survival. A voluntarist philosophy held that human will and the boundless energy of the revolutionary masses could radically transform material conditions and overcome whatever difficulties were thrown in the path to a communist future. The physical world itself could be reshaped, hills erased, mountains levelled, rivers raised—bucket by bucket if necessary. Launching the Great Leap Forward, Mao declared that 'there is a new war: we should open fire on nature.'

The Great Leap Forward decimated the forests. In the drive to increase steel output, the backyard furnaces that mushroomed everywhere had to be fed, farmers fanning out into the mountains to cut down trees for fuel. In Yizhang county, Hunan, the mountains were covered in lush primeval forest. A great cutting followed, some units felling two-thirds of the trees to feed the furnaces. By 1959 nothing but bare mountains remained. In Anhua, to the west of Changsha, an entire forest was turned into a vast expanse of mud. Being driven through thick ancestral forests along the road from Yunnan to Sichuan, Soviet specialists in forestry and soil preservation noted that trees had been randomly felled, resulting in landslides. Forests were brutalised werywhere, sometimes beyond recovery.

But random logging did not stop with the end of the steel campaign. The famine was not just a matter of hunger, but rather of shortages of all essentials, fuel in particular. As farmers were desperate for firewood and timber, they reproduced habits acquired during the steel campaign, returning to the woods to cut and slash. Stealing was easier than ever before because lines of responsibility for forestry had become blurred with collectivisation: the forest belonged to the people. In Wudu county, in arid Gansu, there had been some 760 people in charge of forestry before the Great Leap Forward; by 1962 about a hundred remained. The situation was the same all over China. In 1957 Jilin province was covered in dense forests and beautiful woodlands managed by 247 forestry stations. Only eight of these survived collectivisation.

Not only were local brigades powerless to stop depredations of natural resources, but they were often complicit in them. When walking through the gates of Sihai commune in Yanqing county up in the mountains just outside Beijing, a visitor in March 1961 was met with the sight of some 180,000 stumps of trees—linden and mulberry—cut an inch or two above the ground. This was the work of a mere two units. Farmers were so desperate for warmth that they even cut down fruit trees in the middle of the winter. As the Forestry Bureau from Beijing reported, 50,000 apple, apricot and walnut trees were hacked down by one village in Changping. while a brigade used a tractor to uproot 890,000 plants and seedlings for fuel. More often than not, communes would send teams to poach from neighbours: from Huairou a hundred farmers were dispatched across the county border to Yanqing, where they cut down 180,000 trees in less than three weeks. Closer to the capitol, trees along the railway were felled, 10,000 vanishing along the line in Daxing counry. Further south even telephone poles were taken down for fuel. Far inland, in Gansu, a single brigade destroyed two-thirds of all 120,000 varnish trees, crippling the local economy, while another team managed to fell 40 per cent of the tea-oil trees on which local villages had depended for their livelihoods.

People were desperate for kindling. Some villages burned not only their furniture but even some of their houses after cutting down the trees: 'What is under the pot is more scarce even than what is in the pot,' farmers lamented. Even in Panyu, Guangdong, surrounded by subtropical vegetation, two-thirds of all households had no fuel to start a fire, some even lacking a match. Fire had to be borrowed from neighbours. Once started, it was guarded like a precious commodity as entire villages sank back into a primitive barter €economy.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.