New tag: famine


Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

Since the food shortages caused by the 1958 Great Leap Backward were such a major trauma for the people we meet during fieldwork, I’ve just added a tag in the sidebar for famine. See also the Maoism tag.

Indeed, this was no mere “three years of difficulty”: food shortages began even before the Leap, and continued throughout the Cultural Revolution right until the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

Among the main articles are:

The famine also features in many of the pages under Local ritual; it’s a theme of my work on Gaoluo (see e.g. A tribute to two local ritual leaders) and the Li family Daoists. Indeed, while there are many fine studies dedicated to the subject, it should be a recurring theme in coverage of local society, expressive culture, and people’s lives.

North Xinzhuang 1959

North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959.

Famine and expressive culture

Glimpses of the early 1960s’ cultural revival in response to desperation

Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

The disastrous consequences of the Great Leap Backward have been documented by several scholars. But between 1961 and 1965, as the CCP retreated briefly from extreme policies in a brief lull before the Four Cleanups campaign, traditional (incuding ritual) culture revived significantly throughout the countryside. I’ve documented this fleeting revival for my main fieldsites in Hebei (Plucking the winds ch.5) and Shanxi (Daoist priests of the Li family, ch.5), and it often features in my accounts of local ritual—note also the Maoism tag.

Apart from talking with people who can recall the period, documents by the provincial Bureaus of Culture from the late 1950s–early 1960s make an unlikely but fruitful source. While they are prescriptive decrees calling for further suppression of a gamut of “superstitious” activities, they thereby show how prevalent such practices were becoming—precisely in response to the desperation of the Leap.

Here I’ll focus on the province of Hunan, to complement my post on Yang Yinliu’s 1956 survey. [1]

Mao Zedong, Peng Dehuai, and Liu Shaoqi were all natives of Hunan. On 11th May 1959 Liu wrote to Chairman Mao after spending a month investigating the region of his birth:

According to comrades from the provincial Party committee, 40% of all houses in Hunan have been destroyed. Besides this there is also a portion that has been appropriated by state organs, enterprises, communes, and brigades.

On a visit to Mao’s home village in Shaoshan before the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959, the Chairman himself had hinted at a partial retreat from the more radical policies of the Leap. Peng Dehuai went on to confront him at the fateful Lushan conference of summer 1959:

When Peng had gone back to his home in Xiangtan, he found abuse and suffering everywhere, from farmers forced to practice close cropping to cadres tearing down houses in the iron and steel campaign. Visiting a retirement home and a kindergarten, he saw nothing but misery, the children in rags and the elderly crouched on bamboo mats in the freezing winter. Even after his visit he continued receiving letters from his home town about widespread starvation.

Becker notes that in the anti-Peng hysteria that followed the conference, Hua Guofeng personally supervised the brutal persecution of Peng’s family who lived in the Xiangtan region. Provincial leader Zhou Xiaozhou, who had tried to blunt the impact of extreme leftist policies, was purged, and the madness only escalated.

Dikötter observes:

The number of people per room in Hunan doubled during the years of the Great Leap Forward, as entire families crowded into a single room the size of a wardrobe—despite the space created by the loss of several million to starvation.

Ambitious yet misguided irrigation and land reclamation projects further depleted the environment. People were beaten to death in 82 out of 86 counties and cities. As investigating teams dispatched to the countryside reported:

In Daoxian county many thousands perished in 1960, but only 90% of the deaths could be attributed to disease and starvation. […] Having reviewed all the evidence, the team concluded that 10% had been buried alive, clubbed to death or otherwise killed by Party members or militia. In Shimen county, some 13,500 died in 1960, of whom 12% were “beaten or driven to their deaths”.

Dikötter cites reports from 1961:

In Yuanling county, testicles were beaten, soles of feet were branded, and noses were stuffed with hot peppers. Ears were nailed against the wall. In the Liuyang region, iron wires were used to chain farmers.

Liu Shaoqi returned to Hunan in 1961 in a widely-reported trip (online, see e.g. here):

Determined to avoid the large retinue of bodyguards and local officials that inevitably came with every visit from a top dignitary, Liu set off on 2nd April 1961 from Changsha, travelling in two jeeps in the company of his wife and a few close assistants, bowl and chopsticks tucked away in light luggage, ready for a Spartan regime in the countryside. Soon the convoy came across a sign announcing a giant pig farm. On closer inspection, it turned out that the farm consisted of no more than a dozen scrawny hogs foraging in the mud. Liu decided to spend the night in the fodder store, and his assistants combed the place in vain for some rice straw to soften the plank beds. Liu noted that even the human excrement piled up for fertilizer consisted of nothing but rough fibre, another telltale sign of widespread want. Nearby a few children in rags were digging for wild herbs.

Liu Shaoqi’s fears were confirmed over the following weeks, however difficult it was to get wary farmers to tell the truth. In one village where he stopped on his way home, he found that the number of deaths had been covered up by local leaders, while an official report drew a picture of everyday life which had nothing to do with the destitution Liu saw on the ground. He clashed with the local boss, who tried to steer the team away from speaking with villagers. He tracked down a cadre who had been dismissed as a rightist in 1959: Duan Shicheng spoke up, explaining how the brigade had earned a red flag during the Great Leap Forward. To protect their privileged status, Duan explained, local leaders had systematically persecuted anybody who dared to voice a dissenting view. In 1960 a meager crop of 360 tonnes of grain was talked up to 600 tonnes. After requisitions villagers were left with a paltry 180 kilos, out of which seed and fodder had to be taken, leaving a handful of rice a day.

In his home village Tanzichong, friends and relatives were less reluctant to speak out. They denied that there had been a drought the year before, blaming cadres instead for the food shortages. “Man-made disasters are the main reason, not natural calamities.” In the canteen cooking utensils, dirty bowls and chopsticks were tossed in a pile on the floor. A few asparagus leaves were the only vegetable available, to be prepared without cooking oil. Liu was shaken by what he saw. A few days later, he apologized to his fellow villagers in a mass meeting: “I haven’t returned home for nearly forty years. I really wanted to come home for a visit. Now I have seen how bitter your lives are. We have not done our jobs well, and we beg for your pardon.” That very evening the canteen was dissolved on Liu’s orders.

A committed party man, Liu Shaoqi was genuinely shocked by the disastrous state in which he found his home village. He had dedicated his every waking moment to the party, only to find that it had brought widespread abuse, destitution, and starvation to the people he was meant to serve.

Becker also describes Liu Shaoqi’s visit to Hunan:

In the Hengyang district “nearly an entire production team had died of hunger, and there was no one left with the strength to bury the bodies. These were still lying scattered about in the fields from which they had been trying to pull enough to stay alive.” Yet when Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Wang Guangmei, visited Hunan to see for themselves, local leaders went to extraordinary lengths to try and deceive them. Along the road leading to Liu’s home town of Ningxiang, starving peasants had torn the bark off the trees to eat, so officials plastered the tree trunks with mud and straw to conceal the scars. […] Liu only managed to discover the truth in the village where he had been born, Ku Mu Chong, when some villagers dared to tell him that twenty of their number had starved to death, including a nephew of Liu’s, and that a dozen more had fled.

Expressive culture
With all this in mind, it may seem almost perverse to turn our attention to expressive culture. Doubtless in some areas upon the 1949 Liberation, traditional culture was virtually stamped out, quite abruptly, only reviving after the collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s. Even where traditional genres survived relatively unscathed in the early 1950s (in 1956 Yang Yinliu’s team found rich material on his fine fieldtrip to Hunan, and his report contains no hint of the impending disaster), one might suppose that they would have declined further as collectivization intensified. We might doubt the ability of performance genres to survive through the famine following the 1958 Leap. Indeed, in many regions, irrespective of any official prohibitions, it may seem inconceivable that people could even have the strength to observe traditional cultural practices (see e.g. here, under “Religion and culture”).

On the contrary, it seems that it was precisely the desperation of the times that prompted (on the economic front) a revival of folk performing groups and (in the sphere of belief) a renewed emphasis on traditional ritual. With no food or shelter in their home villages, people resorted to extreme measures. Migration was a traditional response to adversity; Hunan peasants often crossed the border into Hubei (cf. the flight of Yanggao dwellers to Inner Mongolia: Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.120–21).

For the condition of folk performance activity in the early 1960s, apart from talking with people who recall the period, official documents in the Appendices of several of the provincial volumes of the monographs on opera and narrative-singing in the Anthology make an unlikely but revealing source, containing documents from imperial, Republican, and Maoist times, often relating to prohibitions (for all three periods!). [2] Often they inadvertently reveal “negative material” in discussing the desperate revival of folk and ritual groups from the late 1950s, reminding us that even through all the traumas of campaigns and collectivization, traditional genres “obstinately“, however tenuously, kept active.

A series of detailed documents from the Hunan Bureau of Culture between 1957 and 1965 gives a remarkably frank impression of a far-from-stable socialist society. [3]

A document from September 1961 innocuously prescribes a systematic project on the province’s rich heritage of local opera, specifically calling for impartial documentation irrespective of “feudal” and “superstitious” elements. Doubtless they benefitted from the model established by Yang Yinliu on his 1956 fieldwork. A lengthier document from March 1962 explicitly includes the diverse genres of narrative-singing in the project.

By October the Bureau of Culture was discussing the registration of “folk professional scattered artists” (minjian zhiye lingsan yiren 民间职业零散艺人) that they had initiated in 1957. They note the recent growth of such performers along with state cutbacks and the arrival of migrant groups; some belonged to the “five black categories”, performing “unhealthy” items.

With new campaigns for Socialist Education, the tide was turning: by April 1963, prompted by a central decree from Beijing, the Bureau of Culture issued a ban on the performance of “ghost operas”, which had grown “in the last couple of years”. For rural and urban Hunan they describe an increase of funeral elegies and rituals, offering incense and worshipping the Buddha, constructing temples, and inviting opera groups for rituals to invite the gods and redeem vows, [4] all encouraging the spread of anti-revolutionary elements and reactionary sects (fandong huidaomen).

A draft discussion from 1964 elaborates further on how to register folk performers, mentioning over 12,000 rural scattered semi-professional artists (performing opera, shadow-puppetry, marionettes, and narrative-singing), some of whose groups “have become hiding places for class enemies, their programmes mostly spreading feudal superstition and capitalism.”

Despite (or because of) the rising tide of political campaigns, a lengthy supplement from August 1965 reveals continuing issues:

wenjian 1
wenjian 2
wenjian 3
wenjian 4

Under “Severe situation” (pp.622–3), problems are listed under five headings, all with detailed examples:

  • Performing bad [feudalistic, superstitious, capitalistic] programmes, long prohibited but still rife, “poisoning people’s thinking”. This was a problem among the state troupes as well as folk groups: from the founding in November 1963 of the No.2 Marionette Troupe in Xinshao county to September 1964, 84 of their 103 performances were deemed “superstitious”.
  • People abandoning production to take up itinerant performance. Of 96 shadow-puppet artists in one district, 21 took it up before Liberation, 17 from Liberation to 1958, but 58 since 1958—and those taking it up since Liberation were mostly strong young men, badly needed to help agriculture recover from the disasters of the years of hardship. In Lixian county, [5] the senior yugu performer Cheng Dengyun’s oldest son (33) was a production-team chief, his second son (28) team accountant, his third son a strong worker, but from 1961 they all took up yugu and abandoned production.

Left: daoqing/yugu performers in Hengyang municipality, 1956.
Right: yugu, undated photo from Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan.

Yugu 渔鼓, related to daoqing 道情 and shadow-puppetry, is one of the most widespread genres of narrative-singing around Hunan and nearby provinces, using a distinctive drum made from a bamboo tube. The separate Anthology item on the genre introduces the early and later history of yugu, giving useful leads for the various regional styles. [6] But the 1964 document valuably supplements the largely official picture of yugu modernizing under the avuncular guidance of the Party. Online, besides more glossy official versions, you can find some excerpts from recent funerary performances, like this from Qidong county.

  • Exorbitant charges. In a case from 1963, two shadow-puppeteers from a commune in Hengnan county performed an opera to redeem a vow; apart from a ticket price [??] of 6 yuan, they also demanded a dou of “holy rice” and 2 jin of oil; at the end they gave a commune cadre a statue of the deity Guanyin and demanded a further 2 yuan as a donation.
  • Taking disciples, exploitative hiring practices—again showing the persistence of pre-revolutionary traditions.
  • Harbouring bad elements and carrying out anti-revolutionary activities; examples are given of puppeteers performing anti-Communist propaganda.

For local religious life over the Maoist era I haven’t yet sought documents from the Bureau of Religious Affairs, or indeed the archives of the Public Security Bureau, but one might expect revealing results there too.

* * *

Having endured yet more traumas in the Cultural Revolution, such genres, mostly based on ritual practice, revived spectacularly after the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s. But we can now see that the revival was not some miraculous atavistic re-imagining after three decades of silence: it took up a thread that had never been erased. Indeed, there was even a certain very limited activity through the Cultural Revolution decade. Equally, the wealth of research since the 1980s didn’t spring from a vacuum: it built on the brave work of scholars under Maoism.

Studies of expressive culture under Maoism are often narrowly based on central policy towards “the arts”. Candid documents like those discussed here reveal not only regional policy but—more interestingly—the real situation on the ground, even if they were seeking to “correct” it. Thus the Party refutes its own simplistic narrative that “feudal superstition” was abruptly suppressed after Liberation—a claim that is rarely challenged even by scholars outside China .

So the study of Maoism, expressive culture, and people’s lives should go hand in hand.


[1] The material here is based on Jasper Becker, Hungry ghosts and Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, consulting the indexes under Hunan. The famine in some provinces, notably Henan, was considerably worse: I won’t attempt to summarize the abundant material here, but again it is described by Becker, Dikötter, et al. For refs. to Henan folk opera troupes begging during the famine, see Zhongguo quyi zhi, Henan juan, pp.735–40. For the great famines of Ukraine and China, see here.

[2] Zhongguo xiqu zhi 中国戏曲志 and Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志; cf. pp.329–30 of my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003). For a recent discussion of sources on Maoism, see Sebastian Veg (ed.), Popular memories of the Mao era: from critical debate to reassessing history (2019).

[3] For all the rich material on local household Daoist ritual in Hunan, I would love to read more accounts of their activities under Maoism.

[4] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp.614–25.

[5] Confession: in “Reading between the lines” I miswrote this place-name—I have no culture!

[6] Zhongguo quyi zhi, Hunan juan, pp. 67–74; for its music, see pp.275–300, and Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Hunan juan.


The Cultural Revolution in Tibet

book cover

With my focus on Han Chinese culture, I rarely presume to venture into modern Tibetan history. But amidst the recent escalation in the plight of the Uyghurs, we should keep in mind the chronic tribulations of the Tibetans within the PRC.

Social and political change is a major element in studying the travails of expressive culture and religious activity—not least under authoritarian regimes, including the Han Chinese and ethnic minorities. So work on the Maoist era is particularly important, with local studies such as Chen village, the work of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts, my study of Gaoluo (Plucking the winds)—and, devastatingly, Guo Yuhua‘s study of a Shaanbei village.

For Han Chinese regions, accounts of factional fighting, armed warfare, and massacres are common for the Cultural Revolution—largely pertaining to the years 1966–68. Since the tension between religious practice and politics is one of my major themes, this disturbingly riveting book makes an extraordinary case-study for a rural Tibetan county near Lhasa:

  • Melvyn C. Goldstein, Ben Jiao, and Tanzen Lhundrup, On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet: The Nyemo incident of 1969 (University of California Press, 2009).

It’s the fruit of collaboration between Goldstein, leading scholar of modern Tibetan history, with Ben Jiao (Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, Lhasa) and Tanzen Lhundrup of the China Tibetology Centre in Beijing. Yet another instance of the vast amount of material that Goldstein has managed to unearth over a long period, the book prompts us to reflect not only on society, politics, and religion, but on the multiple viewpoints afforded by interpreting fieldwork material.

Since the 1980s, Tibetan studies have emerged impressively from an uncritical reified nostalgia for an idealized old culture, when few (either under Chinese rule or in the diaspora) were able or willing to document modernity and a changing society—a view that still tinges scholarship on Han Chinese culture, not least Daoist ritual

Besides Goldstein’s own ongoing history of modern Tibet (the first three volumes of which take us up to 1957), the definitive single-volume study, from 1999, is

  • Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows: a history of  modern Tibet since 1947.

Chapter 12 makes a useful introduction to the Cultural Revolution. Note also this site. And a vivid personal account of the period is the eight-part series by Tsering Woeser to be found here, based on collections of her father’s photos[1]

Also most authoritative on modern Tibetan society are the voluminous writings of Robbie Barnett, going back to the early days of the ground-breaking Tibet Information Network. [2] He introduces the field in this 2014 interview.

Throughout the Tibetan populations—not just in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR) but also in Amdo and Kham—unrest has been constant under Chinese rule. Major incidents include the 1959 Khamba uprisings (note the 10th Panchen Lama’s 1962 report to Chairman Mao, detailing severe sufferings among Tibetan communities); [3] and since the partial liberalizations after 1980, the disturbances of 1987–9 and 2008. Such friction is still ongoing today.

By the early 1960s the CCP leadership, including TAR Party boss Zhang Guohua, were anxious. Through much of the 50s they had sought for the “stability” of a “gradualist” approach for Tibet: collective farming was postponed after the 1959 rebellion, and when the Cultural Revolution erupted they made a case for controlling its volatility. But warfare inevitably broke out between the rival Gyenlo and Nyamdre factions, spreading out from Lhasa. The army sided with Nyamdre. In June 1968 a major battle took place at the Jokhang temple.

By summer 1969—by which time the major violence in inland China had been pacified—serious unrest had broken out in a quarter of the rural counties of TAR, in which ordinary Tibetans participated as much as Chinese-led revolutionary groups. On the Cultural Revolution in Tibet focuses on Nyemo county in Lhasa municipality, but outlines other disturbances in at least eighteen counties; most of the five for which the authors give brief accounts involved a religious element.

The book
Using far more detailed material than previously available, the authors analyse the violence in Nyemo, which came to be led by the former nun Trinley Chödrön. Unlike the 1959 Khamba uprising, the authors argue, this was not explicitly a revolt against the Chinese occupiers. Assessing the balance of nationalist and economic elements, they find the latter more significant:

The Nyemo disturbance was not a spontaneous Tibetan nationalistic uprising against the Chinese “oppressor”, nor was it a revolt aimed at creating an independent Tibet. To the contrary, it was the outgrowth of a careful strategy orchestrated by a Maoist revolutionary faction to seize control of its county from a rival revolutionary organization.

The power-struggle, they comment,

clearly had nothing to do with the now famous nun called Trinley Chödrön. Gyenlo’s move to wrest power from Nyamdre started well before the nun from Nyemo was involved, and it certainly would have continued with or without her presence. Moreover, at this time, Gyenlo’s strategy was not about religion or nationalism; it was about Gyenlo defeating its rival revolutionary faction with the support of village masses who were willing to join in this venture because Gyenlo was promising them that they would benefit by being allowed to keep more grain, by ridding themselves of officials they saw as corrupt and avaricious, and by stopping implementation of the collective system.

The authors seek to refute previous views of the revolt:

Rather than a simple dichotomy, angry Tibetans spontaneously organizing and striking back at hated Chinese or Tibetans rising to fight only for their material interests, there were multiple levels and multiple actors, Tibetan and Chinese, with different motives, using and manipulating each other for different end goals.

Some may have stood to gain following the “Democratic Reforms” implemented in Tibet after 1959, but the common people were soon hit by exactions, leading to food shortages (from which the Han peoples across inland China were also suffering terribly). The Gyenlo faction promised to postpone the threatened imposition of collective farming. But while the authors find economic factors more urgent causes of popular discontent, the widely-resented assault on religion was a further factor:

Notwithstanding the suppression of organized religion (monasteries and nunneries) after 1959, individuals had still been permitted to practice religion on a private basis. That freedom ended with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Indeed, a work-team sent from Lhasa in 1987 (just as further waves of unrest were looming) reported on the negative consequences of the Party’s assaults on religion:

We used to talk too much but do too little to help people with their religious beliefs. Especially during the Great Cultural Revolution, religious beliefs were labelled as one of the “four olds”, and nobody was allowed to practise any religion. People did not like our policies, and once something tempting about religion appeared, the masses were easily fooled.

This is the tightrope from which the regime constantly falls.

The problematic figure of Trinley Chödrön
Among Tibetans and Westerners it may be tempting to view the nun who came to lead the violence as a heroic freedom fighter, a kind of Joan of Arc. The authors go to some lengths to describe her background and the development of her spiritual powers. Her family and fellow villagers themselves described her as having mental problems—which were doubtless exacerbated by the 1959 measures and the new campaign to destroy the “four olds”.

As she developed the powers of a trance-medium, claiming possession by deities, the book describes how she went (in 1968!) with her younger brother to a local lama called Chamba Tenzin for the tsago che initiation ritual. This briefly caused her to become more stable, and she herself applied to join the Gyenlo faction. It was now, as her trances became more frequent, that she gained a following. Still, when she claimed to be possessed by Jowo Rimpoche (the Sakyamuni Buddha whose statue in the Jokhang chapel in Lhasa was the most sacred in Tibet), orthodox lamas were sceptical, not least since trance-mediums channel local territorial deities, not Buddhas.

Of course, in local society mediums were by no means perceived as unbalanced; and  a system was in place to distinguish fake mediums. The authors note how her claims to possession diverged from the those of mediums in traditional society; and it was not just atheist cadres who regarded her as a crazy charlatan.

Still, the authors claim, it was precisely because she was considered insane that she was given latitude to perform religious activities at this unlikely time; but gradually locals came to trust in her powers of healing. The most powerful god by whom she claimed to be possessed was to be Ani Gongmey Gyemo, aunt and adviser of the legendary King Gesar—although how she acquired this allegiance is unclear, since the Gesar story was not popular in Nyemo, and this seems to be a unique case. Anyway, as the authors note, Ani Gongmey Gyemo and Gesar

were not some mythical figures in folktales, nor were they simply local mountain deities; they were real and powerful deities famous for fighting for Buddhism in Tibet.

While Trinley Chödrön’s claim to be a medium for a figure connected to King Gesar was at the core of previous scholars’ understanding of her as primarily a religious or ethno-nationalist figure, the authors note that she now also began to praise the Thoughts of Chairman Mao in public. The pragmatic Gyenlo leaders, while themselves secular in mentality, now saw the value of utilizing her as a channel for the religious faith of local people, to earn them more support in their factional struggle. Still, they themselves described her as “the crazy one”, an assessment they shared with more devout Tibetans; and they were preparing to kill her once they had won victory.

Her following was consolidated with the formation of a group of adherents known as warrior-heroes (badü), who also went into trance in what the authors call a kind of “Gesar hysteria”. With the faction now known informally as Gyenlo’s Army of the Gods, she became crucial to their cause, and soon a series of brutal killings began.

The authors give a nuanced categorization of the “enemies” killed and mutilated, including not just Chinese and Tibetan cadres but those who had ridiculed Trinley Chödrön’s religious authenticity and other hapless victims of her personal vendettas. But still the Gyenlo leaders refrained from intervening to have her detained:

“It is not necessary to arrest the nun. She is just a common lunatic. We’ll have trouble if we take her to the Public Security Bureau. So don’t bother her. She is useful to us. We need to protect her.”

At last the PLA arrived, putting themselves in the firing line. Just like the Boxers in 1900, Trinley Chödrön’s adherents rashly claimed immunity from bullets. Locals, while disillusioned, were fearful of her powers. But eventually in June 1969 she was captured, her followers surrendering. Early in 1970, along with the other warrior-heroes and her lama, she was executed at the sand dune area below the Sera monastery near Lhasa. Gyenlo leaders managed to exculpate themselves until 1970, blaming the massacres on the very “religious reactionaries” whom they had exploited. Investigations continued in 1971; though in 1972 the Gyenlo faction was punished, revised assessments in the 1980s reduced the verdicts.


As the authors observe, the Nyemo disturbances would not have been possible without the state-sanctioned chaos that Mao unleashed with the Cultural Revolution. Yet disturbances of one kind or another have erupted constantly ever since the Chinese occupied Tibet.

It was, of course, very unorthodox for a revolutionary organization of the masses to ask a Tibetan religious medium to dress in costume, go into a trance, and summon a god to motivate them to undertake revolutionary work for Chairman Mao, but Gyenlo in Nyemo was pragmatic to the core, and the leaders found it easy to rationalize the temporary utilization of “superstition” (religion) as an acceptable price to pay for achieving their consuming goal of deposing Nyamdre and taking control of the county.

Though the authors are to some extent proposing an alternative explanation of the Nyemo revolt to those of previous scholars like Tsering Shakya, they conclude:

However, we should not minimize what clearly fuelled this incident: the anger many rural Tibetans felt at the direction party policies had taken, not only in the realms of taxation and economic freedom, but also towards religion and culture.

And to me this doesn’t look so far from Shakya’s own view (The dragon in the land of snows, pp.346–7):

The revolt of 1969 was inspired by the Tibetans’ desire to regain some measure of social, psychological, and cultural freedom. It was not, however, a conscious nationalist uprising, but a cultural response to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
A nationalistic interpretation of the events in Nyemo tends to stress the Tibetanness of the revolt and view it as an anti-Chinese uprising. However, at this stage we do not know how far the events in Nyemo can be separated from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and it has to be remembered that it was the Chinese authorities who highlighted the revolt as a nationalist and separatist movement.

On first reading, Goldstein’s analysis seems perfectly convincing. But we can also learn from critical reviews by three scholars who have themselves made notable progress in documenting the travails of modern Tibet: Charlene MakleyRonald Schwartz, and Benno Ryan Weiner. What they dispute is the balance of economic/materialist and cultural/nationalist explanations; the role of religion; and the very interpretation of local accounts.

Beginning with the latter, lessons from the book are not just in the extraordinary detail, but in the constant dilemma of assessing fieldwork material. As the authors observe, “We investigate the past not to deduce practical political lessons, but to find out what really happened.” In the years following the violence several investigation teams descended on Nyemo—reminding me of the 1974 visit to Gaoluo of a team seeking material on the Boxer uprising of 1900 (see my Plucking the winds, pp.37–42 and n.42).

TOHAPThe authors seek to assure the reliability of interviews by collating a wide range of accounts (including but not limited to interrogations and confessions), from victims and perpetrators, members of both factions, ordinary people caught up in the events, officials and soldiers. [4]  So they claim:

“in the end we feel confident that we are able to represent the different attitudes and experiences in Nyemo accurately.”

Alas, multiple interpretations are always likely to emerge, depending on people’s experience of the society in question and their whole worldview.

Thus Makley argues:

Despite the complex and copious data which they present, the authors’ overwhelmingly statist perspective and the bluntness of their analytic tools obscure their conclusions and leave us with little against which to assess them. In the end, they echo the findings of the state teams charged with re-investigating and re-labeling the Nyemo events in the mid-80s. They refer throughout to “the Nyemo incident”, the term which the 1980s team used to re-categorize the events as isolated local conflicts rather than fundamentally ethnic “rebellion” against Chinese rule.

So she is

unconvinced by the authors’ easy assertions that they controlled for “bias” in their “private” interviews and were able to get at participants’ actual experiences during the violence.

Of course, she isn’t suggesting we should dismiss all the local accounts of the nun’s disturbed mental state as statements made under duress, as propaganda for which the authors have fallen—that might almost amount to questioning the validity of any field discussions within the PRC. After all, such accounts note both Trinley Chödrön’s instability and the faith that local people came to have in her.

I can’t presume to assess Makley’s criticisms, but they are worth citing at some length. She finds that Goldstein’s

preference for the clear contours of the social over the messy indeterminacies of the cultural—especially since the rise of the modern Chinese state critically depended on categorizing and disciplining “ethnic minorities” as premodern Others mired in alien cultural worlds—subtly negates Tibetan concerns.

Although to me the book’s variety of views seem suitably messy, and not oblivious to the cultural, Makley comments that Goldstein is brought

face to face with the quintessential premodern Other: Trinley Chödrön, a young Buddhist nun turned deity medium who led brutal attacks, murders and maimings in the name of resistance to Chinese-led “democratic reforms”.

As she explains,

the authors aim to refute idealized or simplistic views that the nun was primarily an ethnic nationalist leading a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, arguing instead that she accepted the administrative contours of the “new society” under Mao, only seeking to restore “religion” within it.

But she counters:

Their statist view from the outside gives us no real sense of Trinley Chödrön and her followers’ own, very Tibetan cosmologies and notions of personhood, agency and  power. There is no cultural history of Nyemo here as a specifically Tibetan locale, only testimonies gathered by successive waves of statist outsiders. Thus, despite a perfunctory nod to the basic features of deity possession as a “cultural script” among Tibetans, Trinley Chödrön ultimately figures as the marginal premodern Other par excellence. We come to view the defrocked nun’s unconventional mediumship, claiming possession by Gongmai Gyemo, the divine aunt of the great Tibetan epic hero Gesar, and ordering brutal attacks against her “Gyenlo” enemies, as the repulsive workings of a cult (as in Jim Jones, or Waco).

Of course, “the exoticized premodern Other” was precisely how Tibetan clerics were portrayed before the growth of serious scholarship. And there may indeed be scope for a more sympathetic portrayal. But surely it wasn’t just “statist” Chinese and Tibetan cadres, but ordinary villagers and lamas too, who described her as “crazy”; those whose limbs were hacked off might be reluctant to entertain a cultural defence. Perhaps one might say that Trinley Chödrön’s mental instability reflected that of Tibetan society traumatized under Chinese occupation.

The fate of Tibetan religion under Chinese rule has become a major field, with many detailed and sensitive case-studies. Goldstein may tend to favour economic explanations, but he is quite aware of the major role of religion (e.g. his 1998 co-edited book with Matthew Kapstein, Buddhism in contemporary Tibet: religious revival and cultural identity). Of course, Makley is not suggesting a return to the outmoded idealization of Tibetan religion; critical ethnographies, such as her own, are to be encouraged.

She further unpacks the authors’ language:

Trinley Chödrön is “the nun” (never the god!) and, unlike other Tibetan youth who were “barely affected”, she is bitterly angry and thus “mentally disturbed” and “unbalanced” at the loss of Buddhist monastic life enforced with the Democratic Reforms. Faction leaders are “firmly committed” to their factions, treating each other as kin; Trinley Chödrön and her followers are “fanatically committed” to the gods, “immersed in imagined worlds”, or subject to “Gesar hysteria”. In essence, this is a stratigraphic approach to history; the Nyemo events unfold on “two planes”, the Tibetan cultural world of protector gods inhabited by Trinley Chödrön layered over the primary world of economic concerns and realpolitik inhabited by faction leaders and most other Tibetans. Culture never infects the faction leaders’ motives. Their brutality is understandable; Trinley Chödrön’s is an aberration.

Schwartz’s critique largely tallies with Makley’s. He finds the authors “at a loss to explain the syncretic and millenarian elements of Trinley Chödrön’s religious vision.” And

The testimony of the participants collected by the researchers through interviews also declares the mediums to be frauds. But the pressure to reconstruct the Nyemo incident in line with the officially acceptable narrative—in both the interrogations documented by Chinese investigators immediately after the incident and in the recollections of participants many years later—is difficult to ignore.

Schwartz continues:

The authors gloss over the extent to which cultural practices suppressed by the new state reappeared overnight and quickly became widespread once it became clear that they were permitted—burning incense, prayers, the exchange of katas. But the same thing happened after 1980 following the post-Mao reforms and continues right up to the present whenever policies on religious practice are relaxed. The underlying memory of religious practice has never disappeared, and whatever its sources, it is deeply rooted in Tibetan culture and society. The revival of religion defies a strictly economic explanation—it recurs during periods of prosperity as well as during periods of deprivation.

Goldstein and his co-authors’ efforts to temper the overwhelming focus among Westerners on ethnicity and nationalism in the Sino–Tibetan conflict is laudable, but their own profoundly statist and modernist perspective forces them to swing the pendulum too far the other way. The particularly Tibetan violence of Trinley Chödrön and her followers in 1969 is just too great a challenge for them. Their efforts to cordon off Trinley Chödrön from the other characters whom they recognize as modern and rational leads to no clear sense of her character and motives: she is mentally ill, she is a hapless puppet, she is a cunning manipulator. In the end, we are left with no real means to assess the authors’ core claim that Trinley Chödrön accepted the “new society” under Mao, because they give us no systematic sense of local Tibetans’ own views and experiences of “the state” or of the Maoist factions. Only a decade after the trauma of the Democratic Reforms, we cannot assume with the authors that Tibetans had entirely assimilated the grounding premises and administrative geographies of the modern Chinese state. A clue comes when the authors comment incredulously at Trinley Chödrön’s “bizarre” statement that Mao is the incarnation of Manjuśri. Yet for centuries Tibetans across the plateau have recognized emperors as incarnations of the bodhisattva of wisdom; Trinley Chödrön here recognizes Mao as a commensurate imperial agent—far away and benign, yet under the jurisdiction of Buddhism.

This is a good instance of how carefully we have to read Goldstein’s text. The relevant passage from his p.81:

At the same time, the nun also said bizarre things like “I am the right shoulder [hand] of Chairman Mao” and “Chairman Mao will not treat us badly, since he is the incarnation of Manjuśri. It is the internal [local] people who are the worst.” Such claims and comments reinforced many people’s belief in her mental instability…

So whereas lamas and common people do seem to have been taken aback by her initial claim to be possessed by Jowo Rimpoche, and indeed by her mental problems, in this case the authors haven’t given a source to show that locals doubted the Manjuśri–Mao equation. Schwartz goes on:

The unfortunate, unintended effect of the authors’ modernist ttake on Trinley Chödrön is that it individualizes, pathologizes, and dehumanizes Tibetans’ shock, grief, and anger at the physical and cultural violence of CCP intervention in 1959. Trinley Chödrön as the emblematic premodern Other stands in for any misguidedly ethnic Tibetan left behind in the sweep of Chinese-led modernization. Indeed, throughout the book, although the devastating trauma of the 1959 Democratic Reforms is referred to, it is not considered as a major causal factor behind the Nyemo events ten years later during the Cultural Revolution. Such violence could only happen in the absence of the state. Cordoning off Trinley Chödrön as the aberrant premodern allows the authors to retain the ultimate value in the book: the modern, rational State that returns, legitimately, to restore Order.

* * *

Both the book and its reviews overturn the simplistic stories once told on both sides of the fence. As a mere onlooker, I take the reviewers’ points, but I like to think that the seemingly conflicting “materialist” and “cultural” interpretations can be mutually beneficial.

For me, branching out from the often reified realm of Daoist ritual studies, the intrusion of the Real World is most welcome—even if its interpretation is controversial. However lurid and “messy” the story may be, all this serves as a reminder of the importance of Tibetan studies. Both the book and the responses to it indicate the acumen that is now being brought to bear on the plight of the Tibetans, from which scholars of Han Chinese society and culture can learn.

As to the embattled condition of Tibetan expressive culture—particularly the traditions of ritual and soundscape that have somehow continued to evolve against all the odds—again there is a far more complex story to be told than the reified portrayals on both sides of the PRC–exile divide. It would be rash of me to attempt an overview, “reading between the lines” of research by Tibetan and Chinese scholars within the PRC. But maybe one day I will.

With many thanks to Robbie Barnett


[1] See also interviews by Ian Johnson (here and here, as well as Woeser’s 2013 book (with Wang Lixiong) Voices from Tibet. Indeed, following the initial lively debate between Tsering Shakya and Wang Lixiong, the latter has come much closer to Shakya’s viewpoint.

[2] See e.g. Robert Barnett and Ronald Schwartz (eds.), Tibetan modernities: notes from the field on cultural and social change (2008).

[3] See A poisoned arrow: the secret report of the 10th Panchen Lama (TIN, 1998).

[4] See the Tibet oral history archive; cf. Wu Wenguang’s archive for the famine.


A Daoist serves a state troupe

17 troupe 1959

North Shanxi Arts Work Troupe, Datong 1959. Li Qing front row, far right.

My post on the folk–conservatoire gulf reminds me of the brief sojourn of the great household Daoist Li Qing in the grimy coal city of Datong as a state-employed musician. Indeed throughout China, many “folk artists” were recruited to such troupes, like wind players Hu Tianquan and Wang Tiechui. Daoists were also enlisted; Daoist priest Yang Yuanheng even served as professor at the Central Conservatoire in Beijing until his death in 1959.

But under Maoism the “food-bowl” of the state troupes was short-lived; most employees were soon laid off—such as Zhu Qinfu, Daoist drum master from Wuxi (see my Folk music of China, pp.197, 256–266). And while in the troupes, performers’ lives were no picnic: the whole society was poor, all the more so during the Years of Hardship while Li Qing was employed.

The following is adapted from ch.5 of my Daoist priests of the Li family.

In the early years after the 1949 Liberation, religious ritual in Yanggao had persisted despite sporadic campaigns and the nominally atheist stance of the new Communist leadership. But by 1954, as collectivization began to be enforced ever more rigidly (see here, under “Famine in China”), creating ever-larger units which made it hard to protect local interests, and with ambitious new mobilizations taking up more and more time, it was becoming increasingly hard to “do religion.” The main thrust of campaigns may have been economic, as household enterprises were forced into inactivity; but “eliminating superstition” was never forgotten, and was to be one explicit slogan of the 1958 Great Leap Forward.

Li Qing eats off the state
When not busy laboring in the collective fields or doing rituals, Li Qing enjoyed playing his beloved sheng mouth-organ in the village’s amateur “little opera band”, accompanying both the majestic “great opera” (Jinju) and the skittish local errentai duets. In the bitter cold of the first moon in 1958 Li Qing, now aged 33 sui, made the journey to Yanggao county-town to take part with his village band in a secular arts festival there. The county cultural authorities were choosing musicians for their Shanxi opera troupe, [1] and were keen to recruit Li Qing. But scouts attending from the prestigious North Shanxi Arts-work Troupe in the grimy regional capital city of Datong pulled more weight, and it was for this ensemble that he was now chosen. In this period regional arts-work troupes and county opera troupes throughout China commonly recruited Daoists and other folk ritual performers as instrumentalists. Li Qing was to spend nearly four years in the troupe. Thus, although they made regular tours of the countryside, he was protected somewhat from the worst excesses of the Great Leap Forward back home.

In 2011, to learn more about Li Qing’s time in the troupe I visited Datong to seek out some of his former colleagues there—Li Manshan and Li Bin had already bumped into a couple of them on trips there.

It’s good to see my old friend Bureau Chief Li again. We track down two old musicians from the troupe and invite them round to his posh flat where I am staying the night. It would make a tranquil venue, but since it is the time of the Mid-Autumn festival, an auspicious time for weddings, our chat is regularly punctuated by deafening firecrackers echoing around the high-rises, so that the soundtrack evokes the battle of the Somme.


Li Kui (left) and Zhang Futian, Datong 2011.

Li Kui, who played erhu fiddle in the troupe, and the effervescent Zhang Futian, a dizi flute player, both born in 1939, were 19 sui when they joined, thirteen years younger than Li Qing. Wary of hagiography as I am, all those who met Li Qing remain moved by his kindly soul and unsurpassed musicianship. Those years were not just a contrast to the rest of his life but a unique period for everyone. Recruitment to a prestigious state ensemble may sound grand—until you realize not only the desperate conditions of the late 1950s but that they spent much of the year touring the ravaged countryside on foot. Still, for them the period has a bitter-sweet nostalgia that I can’t help sharing. My visit provides an excuse for them to get together to reminisce about old times—they are so loquacious that I rarely get to chip in with a question.

Li Qing went off to Datong to take up his new job in the 8th moon of 1958, just as the Great Leap Forward was being rolled out to great fanfare. Even if he had a choice about taking the job, he can have had little hesitation. With Daoist ritual business, and society as a whole, going through such a tough period since the enforcement of collectivization, he would have been grateful to get on the state payroll.

The Party officials of the troupe must have found out about Li Qing’s rich-peasant status but drawn a veil over it. Throughout the Maoist period, the Yanggao cultural cadres didn’t dare have any contact with the Daoists or even the shawm bands—but the Datong troupe leaders didn’t need to know that Li Qing was a Daoist. His colleagues would find out, but everyone understood there was no need to discuss that kind of thing. He didn’t talk much at first, but became more chatty as he felt more at ease. For his closest friends he even furtively held sessions to determine the date.

The new troupe, based in a compound at no.13 Zhengdian street, was an amalgamation of the North Shanxi and Xinzhou regional troupes. Eight or nine musicians were recruited to the band at first, gradually increasing to around sixteen; with singers, dancers, stage crew, and cadres, the troupe consisted of around sixty people. Its reputation was second only to the troupe in the provincial capital Taiyuan.

Li Qing now found himself accompanying stirring patriotic folk songs and short simple instrumental compositions in revolutionary style. As a household Daoist, he was a born musician, and effortlessly versatile. Apart from his old vocal liturgy and the “holy pieces” of the shengguan instrumental music, he knew a wide range of more folksy instrumental pieces played on procession and for the popular afternoon sequence, and he had the local opera repertoire in his blood.

Dancer Feng Yumei, also from Yanggao, arranged some of the earliest dance suites in folklore style, like “The Earth around the Yellow River” (Huanghe yifangtu), considered one of the earliest and best creations in the idiom. The troupe performed a new opera composed in Hubei, later made into a film.

Li Qing was the only Daoist in the troupe; the only other instrumentalist from Yanggao was the fine gujiang shawm player Shi Ming (1932–2003) from Wangguantun just northwest (see also my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, p.22). They remained lifelong friends. Shi Ming, already 27 sui, had an eye for the dancers, but they preferred the younger more eligible guys, like Li Kui himself! The troupe’s star soloist on the suona shawm was Yang Xixi from Xinzhou. Our friends ranked him alongside the nationally celebrated virtuoso Hu Tianquan, also a native of Xinzhou, mainly renowned for his sheng playing. Li Qing sometimes played Yang Xixi’s guanzi for fun.

As the only sheng player in the troupe, Li Qing accompanied Zhang Futian’s flute solos. Sometimes he played solos himself, accompanied on the accordion by one Ma Yun, over 50 sui in 1958. One solo that his colleagues recall was a Napoleonic Marche du Victoire (Kaixuan guilai), perhaps even the March from Aida. Imagine—Li Qing even performed a foreign piece! He played with feeling, and was infinitely adaptable. The conductor never criticized him; if he made the slightest error, he would correct it at once. Zhang Futian’s appraisal was still higher than that of the local Daoists: “He was a genius—the greatest musician I ever met.”

WGT trio_2

Li Qing (left) with fellow wind players Yang Xixi and Shi Ming, 1959.

No less impressive was Li Qing’s personality. Affable and generous, he had no temper. Even if he got ill, he never asked for leave. He earned a reputation for generosity and for smoothing over disputes in the troupe; his mere presence was enough to ease any tensions within the group. In a society where mutual suspicion was fostered and nasty rumours spread rapidly, he had no bad words for anyone, and bore no grudges. Folk musicians prided themselves on loyalty (yiqi).

The salary system was graded. Ordinary members got 25 kuai a month, most of the band 35 kuai. Relatively senior, Li Qing was soon considered an “old artist” (laoyiren), getting 45 kuai a month. The wind players and dancers got an extra 2 liang in rations.

During his time in the troupe Li Qing learned the modern system of notation called jianpu “simplified notation,” which uses the Arabic numerals 1 to 7 to represent the solfeggio pitches of Chinese gongche notation. [2] Though simple, it never caught on in the countryside; for the Daoists, traditional gongche remained in place as a means of learning the outline of the shengguan instrumental melodies, and they had no need of any notation at all to learn all the complex vocal hymns. The gongche solfeggio translates rather easily into numerical notation. The latter was used in the troupe to learn new pieces, but Shi Ming didn’t take to it, so Li Qing helped him learn them. Li Qing was to put this new skill to use from the 1980s when he used it to write scores of his Daoist repertoire.

For much of the year the troupe went on tour through the impoverished countryside, doing over a hundred performances a year. Apart from visits further afield in north China, they toured throughout north Shanxi, including Yanggao villages—mostly on foot, sometimes with horses and carts. Sometimes they slept in peasant homes, dispersed among several suitable families by the village brigade, or in the village school; or they put up a big tent. They took their own food, and stoves to cook it on. Li Qing didn’t smoke or drink, but the others drank laobaiganr liquor from a little flask; at first the troupe supplied them with packs of Happiness cigarettes, but later they were reduced to picking up fag-ends after a gig and rolling them into a new one. Their program was written in ink and stuck up as a poster. It was a tough life—Zhang Futian admits he got fed up with it.

Over these four years Li Qing was only able to go home once or twice a year for a couple of days, bringing only a bit of money, but no food. His wife, alone with four children to look after, never visited him in Datong. Li Manshan only went to see him once, in 1961; but soon after he arrived, Li Qing had to go off with the troupe to Harbin in northeast China to perform, so he could only go to the station with his father before taking a packed windowless bus back to Yanggao town and walking home from there.

For several generations the Li family’s exquisite sheng mouth-organs had been made by the Gao family in Gaoshantun near Upper Liangyuan. In 1961 Li Qing managed to get an invitation for the elderly master Gao Bin (1887–1967) to spend ten days with the troupe mending his various sheng, when Gao was really down on his luck; even the meager pickings in the troupe’s canteen probably saved his life.

Like many state work-units throughout China, the troupe was cut back in 1962, and Li Qing returned to his village early that spring. With such relocations, by 1963 some 84% of the Chinese population were living in the countryside—the highest proportion in the history of the People’s Republic. [3]

The troupe staggered on until it was disbanded in late 1962. Some of its members were recruited to the provincial song-and-dance troupe in Taiyuan, some of the Xinzhou contingent found work back home, while others like Li Qing and Shi Ming had to return home to their starving villages. Several of the performers went on to wider fame; dancer Feng Yumei 冯玉梅 became chair of the provincial dance association, and folksinger Xing Chouhua 刑丑花, from Xinzhou, gained national renown. The troupe reformed in 1964; soon, mainly using Western instruments for the revolutionary “model operas”, it was dominated by “educated youth” from Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. But it disbanded again in 1968.

For a peasant like Li Qing to be chosen for the troupe was a great honor. His “black” class status was no barrier to being selected, and on his return his local prestige was even greater. But in volatile political times, assaults were not far away. If the economy hadn’t collapsed at this time, Li Qing might have continued in the state system; after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he might even have become a sheng professor at a conservatoire. Still, I am grateful that the troupe folded, and that the troupes or conservatoires never again summoned him. Had he secured a long-term state post, he would never have resumed his ritual practice, copied all those scriptures and scores, or taught the present generation.

* * *

If Li Qing’s repertoire in the troupe was new, and his long ritual tradition on hold, at least he was still playing the sheng there and receiving a handsome regular salary. Food supplies in the city were scant, even in state work units; but meanwhile back in Upper Liangyuan, people were desperate. In the absence of Li Qing there were still plenty of Daoists available; the senior Li Peiye, or Li Peisen (who had cannily absented himself from political scrutiny by moving to Yang Pagoda), could have still led bands if there were demand. But they were virtually inactive; not only had their instruments been confiscated, but people’s bellies were empty, and patrons had no strength to observe ritual proprieties.

Still, Li Qing’s return in 1962 coincided with a very brief ritual revival, with a retreat from the extremist policies of the disastrous Leap. Though very few domestic or temple rituals had been held for some years. Li Manshan recalls taking part in a ritual in 1963, commissioned at the home of an individual as a vow for recovering from illness. This was perhaps the last time they recited the Averting Calamity scriptures (Rangzai jing). Already by now they were mainly doing funerals, but Li Qing’s widow recalled that even then they were only able to do two or three a month. So there was less work in the early 1960s than now—there was still a serious famine, and however many deaths there were, people couldn’t afford to put on a grand funeral even if they had the energy.

However intermittent the Daoists’ appearances were during these years, Li Manshan sighs as he recalls how the villagers loved their grand rituals before the Cultural Revolution—in the days before TV and pop music. Even by the time of my visits in 1991 and 1992 there still wasn’t any singing outside the gate—that only began from 1993. In 1991 virtually the whole village seemed to turn out, crowding round respectfully (see my film, from 30.32). Li Qing’s sojourn in the troupe had added to his reputation as a Daoist and virtuous man; Li Manshan’s own repute is still based to a considerable degree on that of his father.

For the Li family Daoists’ ritual revival from the late 1970s, see here and here.


[1] For which see the Yanggao xianzhi (1993), p.468. Alas, links to Chinese websites cited in my book seem to have disappeared—watch this space.

[2] For gongche and cipher notation, see also my Folk music of China, pp.111–123; Plucking the winds, pp.245–246, 262–263.

[3] Cf. Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China, p.19.



Following my posts on the work of Philippe Sands, on blind minstrels in the Ukraine, [1] and on the famines in Ukraine and China, I’ve been belatedly educating myself on the appalling history of the vast region introduced in Between East and West by reading

The region where some 14 million people (mostly civilians) were killed from 1930 to 1945, largely east of the Molotov–Ribbentrop line, includes Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states. Victims were Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts. And it was to the bloodlands that most Jewish victims from west and south Europe, Hungary, Romania, and so on, were transported to die.

Growing up in post-war Britain, perhaps my ignorance isn’t so unusual—but it’s disturbing, and needs rectifying. As Anne Applebaum comments in her review,

If we are American, we think “the war” was something that started with Pearl Harbor in 1941 and ended with the atomic bomb in 1945. If we are British, we remember the Blitz of 1940 […] and the liberation of Belsen. If we are French, we remember Vichy and the Resistance. If we are Dutch we think of Anne Frank. Even if we are German we know only a part of the story.

My own belated awareness is partly prompted by my studies of the fates of Chinese people whom I’ve met in the course of fieldwork. Indeed, it’s worth re-reading Ian Johnson’s article “Who killed more, Hitler, Stalin or Mao?”, itself a companion to an article by Snyder.

I wonder what would it take for this vast region of the bloodlands to be recognized as the central physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front. And as Snyder says, the mass killing of the 20th century is of the greatest moral significance for the 21st.

One might even begin by reading his brilliant “Conclusion: humanity”. And apart from reading static silent texts, there’s a wealth of documentary footage online—which you can choose to explore, or not.

Snyder corrects many widespread misconceptions [here I combine his text and Ascherson’s review]. The western public still tends to associate mass killing with “Nazi concentration camps” (cf. my posts on Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen), and with Auschwitz in particular; and Stalin is thought to have killed far more people than the Nazis by consigning millions to the gulag. But neither assumption is accurate.

  • In the Soviet Union, although about a million men and women perished in the labour camps, 90% of gulag prisoners survived. Stalin’s great killing took place not in Siberia, but in the western Soviet republics, above all in 1930s’ Ukraine where at least four million people died in man-made famines and in the slaughter of the “kulak” peasantry.
  • In the Third Reich concentration camps, a million prisoners died miserable deaths during the Nazi period. US and British troops liberated some of those camps, but none of the major death camps, which were further east. And 10 million others who never entered any of the camps were shot (mostly Jews), deliberately starved to death (mostly Soviet prisoners of war), or gassed in special “killing centres” which were not holding camps at all. Auschwitz, terrible as it was, formed a sort of coda to the Jewish Holocaust. By the time the main gas chambers came on line in 1943, most of Europe’s Jewish victims were already dead. Some—Polish Jews especially—had been gassed in the three killing centres set up on Polish territory: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
  • So more common methods of killing than gassing were starvation and shooting. Most of those Jewish victims had been shot and pitched into mass graves by German Einsatzgruppen operating far to the east in Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus, moving from village to village behind the front lines of war.

In a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps. […] The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp.

The American and British soldiers who liberated the dying inmates from camps in Germany believed that they had discovered the horrors of Nazism. The images their photographers and cameramen captured of the corpses and the living skeletons at Bergen–Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler. As the Jews and Poles of Warsaw knew, and as Vasily Grossman and the Red Army knew, this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar.

  • Nor is it widely understood that Jews were fewer than 1% of the German population when Hitler came to power in 1933, and about one quarter of 1% by the beginning of World War Two. The great majority of murders of Jews took place in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Soviet Union. The murder of 165,000 German Jews was a ghastly crime in and of itself, but […] fewer than 3% of the deaths of the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered about as many non-Jews as Jews during the war, chiefly by starving Soviet prisoners of war (over 3 million) and residents of besieged cities (over a million), or by shooting civilians in “reprisals” (nearly a million).
    And until 1939 Stalin, later credited with defeating Hitler (if not in British public opinion), had a still worse record of mass killings—of his own civilians, moreover. Until then, Soviet terror (against both class and national enemies) was not only far greater in scale, it was incomparably more lethal—and largely unnoticed. By the end of 1938, the USSR had killed about a thousand times more people on ethnic grounds than had Nazi Germany, and far more Jews.

Poland, fatally partitioned between Hitler and Stalin in 1939, suffered terribly—with Warsaw subjected to brutal successive destructions. In western Europe this period was known as “the phony war”: nothing seemed to be happening. But on 22nd June 1941 (“one of the most significant days in the history of Europe”) Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, while sealing the fate of the Reich, was a further disaster for the civilian inhabitants of the whole region. It was only with these incursions that Hitler’s territory came to include large numbers of Jews to be (literally) disposed of. And

As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians.

As to Ukraine, already decimated by Stalin,

Hitler dreamed of the endlessly fertile Ukrainian soil, assuming that Germans would extract more from the terrain than the Soviets.

The Germans implemented mass starvation in POW camps:

As many Soviet prisoners-of-war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the entire course of the Second World War.
The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more.

This had the effect of strengthening Soviet resistance; and while local populations had already suffered terribly under Soviet rule, many now wondered if it might be a lesser evil. Still, in desperation many Soviet citizens were recruited for duties with the German army and police.

Thus some of the survivors of one German killing policy became accomplices in another, as a war to destroy the Soviet Union became a war to murder the Jews.

In the first lands that German soldiers reached in Operation Barbarossa, they were the war’s second occupier. […] The double occupation, first Soviet, then German, made the experience of the inhabitants of these lands all the more complicated and dangerous. […] They had to deal with the consequences of their own previous commitments under one occupier when the next one came; or make choices under one occupation while anticipating another.

When the Germans conquered an area they often found that the NKVD had shot prisoners. In 1943 they seized on their discovery of the 1940 massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in the forests of Katyn. But on 29th–30th September 1941 near Kiev, the Germans had murdered 33,761 Jews at Babi Yar; between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed there during the German occupation.

Local militias also took part in pogroms:

Political calculation and local suffering do not entirely explain the participation in these pogroms. Violence against Jews served to bring the Germans and elements of the local non-Jewish population closer together. Anger was directed, as the Germans wished, toward the Jews, rather than against collaborators with the Soviet regime as such. […] Violence against Jews also allowed local Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles who had themselves collaborated with the Soviet regime to escape any such taint.
Yet this psychic nazification would have been much more difficult without the palpable evidence of Soviet atrocities. The pogroms took place where the Soviets had recently arrived and where Soviet power was recently installed, where for the previous months Soviet organs of coercion had organized arrests, executions, and deportations. They were a joint production, a Nazi edition of a Soviet text.

Snyder details the fates of urban centres like Lviv, Łódź, Riga, Vilnius, and Minsk, giving background to Applebaum’s visits in Between East and West. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or deported.


Warsaw, 1944.

His story returns to Poland and the unimaginable final agony of Warsaw. As the Red Army advanced on Berlin, their revenge was horrific.

* * *

And thence to continuing sufferings after the formal end of war, with Germans now among the main victims of ethnic cleansing and transports (for an overview of the aftermath across Europe, see Keith Lowe, Savage continent). Through the war the Soviets had continued sending their own citizens to the Soviet gulag (not least the peoples of the Caucasus and Crimea; entire populations of Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechen, Ingush, Balkar, Tatar, Meshketian Turks, and so on, still less known in the West than the bloodlands), and in the post-war years deportations only increased.

As Stalin fabricated his own unblemished legend of the Soviet Union and its role in the war, belittling that of Soviet citizens in the Holocaust, he now engaged in his own anti-semitic purges. Although mass terror was no longer pursued after Stalin’s death, repression continued throughout the Soviet bloc, and the fates of the real victims were concealed.

The communists’ hesitation to distinguish and define Hitler’s major crime tended, as the decades passed, to confirm an aspect of Hitler’s worldview.
Communist leaders, beginning with Stalin and continuing to the end, could rightly say that few people in the West appreciated the role of the Red Army in the defeat of the Wehrmacht, and the suffering that the peoples of eastern Europe endured under German occupation. […] During the Cold War, the natural response in the West was to emphasize the enormous suffering that Stalinism had brought to the citizens of the Soviet Union. This, too, was true; but like the Soviet accounts it was not the only truth, or the whole truth.

In his “Conclusion: Humanity”, Snyder explores the complexities of collaboration and victimhood—even now a pressing issue for all these traumatized nations. Most peoples suffered double or triple occupations, trapped helplessly between evil regimes, forced into agonizing dilemmas with a view to mere survival. In a telling passage, Snyder reflects on choices:

At a great distance in time, we can choose to compare the Nazi and Soviet systems, or not. The hundreds of millions of Europeans who were touched by both regimes did not have this luxury.

The comparisons between leaders and systems began the moment that Hitler came to power. From 1933 through 1945 hundreds of millions of Europeans had to weigh what they knew about National Socialism and Stalinism as they made the decisions that would, all too often, determine their fate. This was true of unemployed German workers in early 1933, who had to decide whether they would vote for social democrats, communists, or Nazis. It was true, at the same moment, of Ukrainian peasants, some of whom hoped for a German invasion that would rescue them from the plight. It held for European politicians of the second half of the 1930s, who had to decide whether or not to enter Stalin’s Popular Fronts. The dilemma was felt sharply in Warsaw in these years, as Polish diplomats sought to keep an equal distance between their powerful German and Soviet neighbors in the hope of avoiding war.

When both the Germans and the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, Polish officers had to decide to whom they should surrender, and Polish Jews (and other Polish citizens besides) whether to flee to the other occupation zone. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, some Soviet prisoners of war weighed the risks of collaboration with the Germans against the likelihood of starving to death in prisoner-of-war camps. Belarusian youth had to decide whether to join the Soviet Partisans or the German police—before they were press-ganged into one or the other. Jews in Minsk in 1942 had to choose between remaining in the ghetto or fleeing to the forest to seek Soviet partisans. Polish Home Army commanders in 1944 had to decide whether or not to try to liberate Warsaw for themselves, or to wait for the Soviets. Most survivors of the Ukrainian famine of 1933 later experienced German occupation; most survivors of the German starvation camps of 1941 returned to Stalin’s Soviet Union; most survivors of the Holocaust who remained in Europe also experienced communism.

These Europeans, who inhabited the crucial part of Europe at the crucial time, were condemned to compare.
In the decades since Europe’s era of mass killing came to an end, much of the responsibility has been placed at the feet of “collaborators”. The classic example of collaboration is that of the Soviet citizens who served the Germans as policemen or guards during the Second World War, among whose duties was the killing of Jews. Almost none of these people collaborated for ideological reasons, and only a small minority had political motives of any discernible sort. […] In eastern Europe, it is hard to find political collaboration with the Germans that is not related to a previous experience of Soviet rule.

Snyder goes on:

In the 21st century, we see a second wave of aggressive wars with victim claims, in which leaders not only present their peoples as victims but make explicit reference to the mass murders of the 20th century. The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe that they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence.

And he reflects on the purpose of history, describing all kinds of later nationalist agendas, highly relevant today:

Our contemporary culture of commemoration takes for granted that memory prevents murder. […] Without history, the memories become private, which today means national; and the numbers become public, which is to say an instrument in the international competition for martyrdom.

Snyder’s detailed breakdown of figures is numbing (note also his Appendix “Numbers and terms”). [2]

In policies that were meant to kill civilians or prisoners of war, Nazi Germany murdered about ten million people in the bloodlands (and perhaps eleven million total), the Soviet Union under Stalin over four million in the bloodlands (and about six million total). If foreseeable deaths resulting from famine, ethnic cleansing, and long stays in camps are added, the Stalinist total rises to perhaps nine million and the Nazi to perhaps twelve. These larger numbers can never be precise, not least because millions of people who died as an indirect result of the Second World War were victims, in one way or another, of both systems.

But as he concludes, such statistics still have to be converted back into the stories of individuals: not the abstraction of 5.7 million Jewish dead, but 5.7 million times one.

It is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 individual people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenburg, whose clothes clung together as they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber.

As the Jews of Minsk were liquidated in 1942,

The girls and boys knew what would happen to them if they were caught. They would ask for a tattered bit of dignity as they walked up the ramp to their death: “Please sirs,” they would say to the Germans, “do not hit us. We can get to the trucks on our own.”

* * *

Apart from providing us with essential basic education, such work, both detailed and humane, should inform our historiography generally—all the more with the current worldwide fomenting of ugly xenophobia.

For China, despite all the noble work on the famine and laogai camps, truth remains to be publicly told. In the official myth, the concession of Cultural Revolution “mistakes” conspires to sweep under the carpet the earlier successive terrors of land reform and campaigns throughout the 1950s, as well as long-term hunger. Even studies of expressive culture and ritual need to take all this into account.

See also The Cultural Revolution in Tibet.


[1] In such posts I mention the painful maintenance of expressive culture through times of trauma (and indeed the theme of the music of the camps is both macabre and inspiring), but here it seems unthinkable even to try and do so. It does, however, put into even starker perspective both regimes’ showcasing of Great Works of National Art directed by Great Conductors (see e.g. here). See also e.g. Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw (ed.), Music traditions in totalitarian systems (Musicology Today, 2010).

[2] Statistics are always problematical. In China, as Ian Johnson observes, famine deaths alone over a mere four years seem to far outnumber the combined totals for killings under Stalin and Hitler from 1930 to 1945. But for the latter, if one includes “foreseeable” deaths caused by deportation, starvation, and incarceration, as well as combatant deaths and those due to war-related famine and disease, the numbers shoot up astronomically. Slowly, Hitler’s numbers approach Mao’s (see also Lives in Stalin’s Russia.)
Issues with statistics are illustrated by the conclusion of Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature: a history of violence and humanity (esp. ch.5), based on detailed yet unpalatable arguments, that the 20th century was probably not the bloodiest in history. His diachronic table (pp.235–6), adjusted to give mid-20th-century population equivalents, shows death tolls from many other conflicts worldwide outranking those discussed here. Highest on the list is the 8th-century An Lushan rebellion (said to have killed up to 5% of the world population, though even a substantially lower revised estimate seems exaggerated), followed by the Mongol conquests; global deaths for World War Two surpass those of Mao’s famine, but even they only come in 9th and 11th respectively—with the Taiping rebellion in between. See here for Pinker’s responses to some inevitable questions.

But again, we should return to Snyder’s Conclusion.

A brave journalist


As journalism, and journalists, currently face renewed threats around the world, a homage to Gareth Jones (1905–35) is timely. [1] This post serves mainly to direct readers to the comprehensive website about his life.

I’ve already mentioned him among the foreign journalists who tried to draw the world’s attention to the 1933 famine in Ukraine. On the site you can read his reports, including his rebuttal of Walter Duranty’s apologia for the Soviet regime.

Indeed, he features in Bukovsky’s film The living (from 24.33), which you can see in my post on the famine. His story is told in the 2012 Storyville documentary Hitler, Stalin and Mr Jones:

and now in the new feature film Mr Jones directed by Agnieszka Holland, with James Norton in the title role.

Besides documenting the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, once Jones was banned from the Soviet Union, his interests turned to the growing encroachment of Japan in the Far East. On the eve of his 30th birthday in 1935—just as Robert van Gulik was arriving in Harbin on his first visit to China—he was kidnapped and murdered by “bandits” in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo.

Had Jones lived to visit Yan’an after 1936, perhaps he would have been more critical than Edgar Snow or Agnes Smedley; and if he had travelled in China around 1960, he might have been more observant than other journalists at the time—and taken more photographs to accompany his record of the Holodomor.


[1] Since you ask, I am no more related to him than is Li Manshan to Laozi—or indeed to Andy Capp. But do read about my great-aunt Edith Miles.

Famine: Ukraine and China

LHJ 456 Kings detail

North Shanxi, Ten Kings ritual painting, detail: see here.

*Companion to two posts on the fates of blind bards in Ukraine and China*

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are an essential backdrop to the lives and cultures of people we meet doing fieldwork in China, including expressive culture and ritual. They loom large in the life stories of peasants whom I’ve got to know—like the villagers of Gaoluo in Hebei, and the inhabitants of Yanggao county in Shanxi (see below). And I haven’t even visited the worst-affected regions, like Henan, Anhui, or Gansu.

Yet this is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

I began by writing about expressive culture under state socialism in Ukraine and China, and I’ve given links to some basic readings on the Chinese famineGlobally, one might also adduce 1840s’ Ireland, Bengal 1943, North Korea, and chronic famines in Africa. A classic study is

  • Amartya Sen, Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation (1981).

However, one estimate suggests that 80% of 20th-century famine victims died in the Soviet Union and China.

Ukraine: the 1933 Holodomor
Here I discuss the Holodomor; in a post to follow I’ll take the story on to World War Two.

I found it useful to read these works in conjunction:

  • Robert Conquest, The harvest of sorrow (1986) (for a review of his work by Sheila Fitzpatrick, see here)
  • Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
  • Anne Applebaum, Red famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine (2017): reviewed by Sheila Fitzpatrick here, and, more critically, by Sophie Pinkham here.

One might begin with Applebaum’s summary of research in her Chapter 15 “The Holodomor in history and memory”, as well as Chapter 14 “The Cover-up” and her Epilogue. Snyder’s Chapter 1, “The Soviet famines”, makes a useful summary. While Conquest’s book, written before the collapse of the USSR, was a fine early study (for a review, with a fractious exchange, see here), Applebaum writes with the benefit of three decades of further research, using impressive Ukrainian sources and oral history projects since the 1980s (the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and many websites, including an interview database led by William Noll); and she offers insights on the changing political scene since the 1990s. Her maps are very good too (and note this site).

Conquest’s book was published soon after the 1985 documentary Harvest of despair (following the film proper, from 54′, are further interviews):

Note also Sergei Bukovsky, The living (aka Spell your name, or Live, 2006):

* * *

In the aftermath of World War One (see e.g. Why the First World War failed to end) and the Russian revolution, as the population was bludgeoned into submitting to the kolkhoz collective farms, the term kulak was soon devalued to denote anyone questioning Party policy—“enemies of the people”, as an odious phrase currently in vogue goes. Vasily Grossman cited a woman activist (Harvest of sorrow, p.129):

What I said to myself at the time was “they are not human beings, they are kulaks” … Who thought up this word “kulak” anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.”

Conquest (p.118) cites an activist in 1930:

He has a sick wife, five children and not a crumb of bread in the house. And that’s what we call a kulak! The kids are in rags and tatters. They all look like ghosts. I saw the pot on the oven—a few potatoes in water. That was their supper tonight.

This reminds me how fellow villagers of kindly Daoist Li Qing (see also my film, and book) ribbed him for his status as a “rich peasant” (see here, under “The sojourn of Educated Youth”).

Over a long period there was constant unrest, with mass executions and deportations. Defiance (which indeed soon offered the only hope of survival) took the form not only of lethargy; violent resistance was common—not least from women. Rebellions had broken out as early as 1919 (Harvest of sorrow ch.3, Red famine ch.2). A widespread famine ensued in 1921. But it wasn’t kept secret, and international aid was welcomed (notably from the American Relief Administration)—whereas by 1933 the scale of the disaster was concealed, and no foreign aid was accepted.

While periodic retrenchments, and “indigenization” policies, were brief, an uneasy stalemate prevailed in the 1920s. Conquest opens The harvest of sorrow thus:

At the beginning of 1927, the Soviet peasant, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or of other nationality, had good reason to look forward to a tolerable future. The land was his; and he was reasonably free to dispose of his crop. The fearful period of grain-seizure, of peasant rising suppressed in blood, of devastating famine, were over, and the Bolshevik government seemed to have adopted a reasonable settlement of the countryside’s interests.

Even by 1929 (Red famine p.113–14),

as Dolot remembered it, the presence of the Soviet state in his village had been minimal. “We were completely free in our movements. We took pleasure trips and travelled freely looking for jobs. We went to the big cities and neighboring towns to attend weddings, church bazaars, and funerals. No one asked us for documents or questioned us about our destinations.” […] The Soviet Union was in change, but not every aspect of life was controlled by the state, and peasants lived much as they had in the past.

Politics had remained loose and decentralized. The choice of Ukrainian or Russian schooling was made in the locale itself; villages were still self-governing, and the various groups tried to accommodate one another. In a passage reminiscent of China (see e.g. here, under “Old and new stories”), for Christmas Day in Pylypivka,

the boys made a star [traditional for carollers] and thought about how to design it. After some debate, a decision was made: on one side of the star, an icon of the Mother of God would be featured, while on the other, a five-pointed [Soviet] star.
In addition, they learned not only old carols, but also new ones. They made a plan: when they were approaching a communist’s house, they would display the five-pointed star and sing the new carols, but when they approached the house of a religious man, they would display the icon of the Mother of God, and would sing [old carols].

But such flexibility was short-lived. Pressure escalated from 1927; as urban activists met stubborn resistance from peasants, they soon found that brutal coercion was the only way of fulfilling their brief. The new wave of collectivization soon led to famine. Despite the introduction of “internal passports”, starving peasants continued their migration to urban industrial centres. The gulag system (on which, among the vast literature, Applebaum also has a definitive study) expanded massively.

Major rebellions erupting in 1930 caused Stalin to tone down the rhetoric briefly (though the title of the anthem of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, “Ukraine has not yet died”, sung by armed rebels in 1930, doesn’t seem entirely encouraging.)

At the height of the famine, as later in China, cannibalism and insanity became common. Meanwhile there were purges at all levels of the Party too.

Conquest gives a prophetic quote, further foretelling the current total surveillance in Xinjiang:

What gave the regime its advantage both in 1930–31 and even more in 1932–33 was that it was now organized and centralized as it had not been in 1921. Herzen, back in the 1860s, had said that what he most feared was a “Genghis Khan with the telegraph”.

Religion and culture
The church (in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church—currently engaged in a divorce from the Moscow Patriarchate) was both a target of and a focus for resistance—as later in China. Church bells were melted down, icons smashed. The rituals of traditional peasant life—and thus musical traditions—were disrupted.

Alongside the major branches of the church, the repression and survival of the diverse sectarian groups is a rich theme, including Protestants, Evangelicals, and the Molokans—see also Margarita Mazo, “Change as confirmation of continuity as experienced by Russian Molokans”, in Retuning culture: musical changes in central and Eastern Europe (1996).

As to expressive culture, the itinerant kobzari blind minstrels soon disappeared. Meanwhile,

The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by the central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture [sic] to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. Then they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt. (Bloodlands, p.47)

With all this background it becomes easier to understand why the blind minstrels were dying out, along with the culture of which they were part—although I wonder why they were not erased so efficiently in China under Maoism.

One member of a local concert band recalled playing for funerals of activists murdered by irate peasants:

For us it was a happy event because every time somebody was killed, they would take us to the village, give us some food and then we would play at the funeral. And we were looking forward every time to the next funeral, because that meant food for us. (Red famine, p.150)

Again, I heard similar stories in China, such as north Shanxi:

When Li Yuanmao’s father died of hunger in 1960, no-one even had the strength to dig a grave for him. In a village in nearby Tianzhen county, even the village cadres volunteered to carry the coffin just so they could get a paltry mantou steamed bread roll to eat (Daoist priests, p.119).

In Ukraine by 1933, apart from the banning of traditional funeral rites,

Nobody had the strength anymore to dig a grave, hold a ceremony, or play music. “There were no funerals,” recalled Kateryna Marchenko. “There were no priests, requiems, tears. There was no strength to cry.”

Meanwhile, cultural institutions, writers, and academics—historians, ethnographers, museum curators—were also under assault.

Talking of documenting folk-song (see here, and here), Snyder cites a children’s song (Bloodlands, p.36):

Father Stalin, look at this
Collective farming is just bliss
The hut’s in ruins, the barn’s all sagged
All the horses broken nags
And on the hut a hammer and sickle
And in the hut death and famine
No cows left, no pigs at all
Just your picture on the wall
Daddy and mommy are in the kolkhoz
The poor child cries as alone he goes
There’s no bread and there’s no fat
The party’s ended all of that
Seek not the gentle nor the mild
A father’s eaten his own child
The party man he beats and stamps
And sends us to Siberian camps.

And a collective farm song from the 1930s (Red famine p.113, cf. p.145):

Green corn waves new shoots
Though planted not long ago
Our brigadier sports new boots
While we barefoot go.

I wonder if Chinese people were singing similar songs around 1960. Still, there neither religious nor cultural life was such a blank slate under Maoism as one might suppose.

The cover-up and aftermath
Somehow, through a series of grudging concessions, the death toll fell by 1934. But with resistance broken, collectivization accelerated.

And no less telling is the story of the cover-up, suggesting further Chinese parallels. The findings of the Soviet census of 1937 were suppressed, and the responsible demographers executed. During the Great Terror of 1937–8,

Mass graves of famine victims were covered up and hidden, and it became dangerous even to know where they were located. In 1938 all the staff of Lukianivske cemetery in Kyiv were arrested, tried, and shot as counter-revolutionary insurgents, probably to prevent them from revealing what they knew.


There were plenty of outside witnesses too, such as Vasily Grossman, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Andrew Cairns, Rhea Clyman—and Gareth Jones, to whom I devote a separate post. The photos of Alexander Wienerberger also provided firm evidence. The influential Walter Duranty knew well, but chose to deny. On the left, pundits like the Webbs averted their gaze in the interests of the greater cause. And diplomatic silence reigned, already aware of the impending need for an alliance with the Soviets against Hitler. Conquest describes the apologists—a large and influential body of Western thought—as “the lobby of the blind and blindfold”. With bitter irony, it was only the Nazis who were prepared to publicize the 1933 famine.


Emerging evidence gave pause to left-leaning scholars like Eric Hobsbawm. But the whole topic still remains highly charged ideologically, as shown by some agitated reviews from both left and right. But exposing the iniquities of state socialism shouldn’t be reduced to a blunt implement monopolized by those on the right to bludgeon the left.

Here’s a trailer for Hunger for truth: the Rhea Clyman story:

And Grossman (cited in Harvest of sorrow, 286) observed:

And the children! Have you ever seen the newspaper photographs of the children in the German camps? They were just like that: their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each bone of their arms and legs protruding from beneath the skin, how bones joined, and the entire skeleton was stretched over with skin that was like yellow gauze. And the children’s faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old. And by spring they no longer had faces at all. Instead, they had birdlike heads with beaks, or frog heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open. Not human faces.

He compares this directly with the Jewish children in the gas chambers and comments, “these were Soviet children and those putting them to death were Soviet people.”

The Holodomor and Great Terror were soon followed by yet more devastating atrocities in World War Two. The population had been decimated and brutalized long before the Nazis invaded. In desperation, many hoped for an invasion to rid them of tyranny.

Ukraine was further devastated by the famine that struck the USSR in 1947—this time alleviated by foreign aid. Applebaum also places the complex interpretations of the famine within the context of Ukraine’s troubled recent history.

Other minorities
The populations of Ukraine (also including Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans) were certainly the worst casualties of the famine: Stalin was waging war not just on recalcitrant peasant individualism but on Ukrainian nationalism. But other minorities also suffered—like the Kazakhs (Harvest of sorrow, ch.9) and Kyrghyz, who, when not being deported, were desperately migrating to and from Xinjiang as conditions changed. Bashkirs, Buryats, Khalkas, Chuvash, and Kalmyks were also hard hit (and the efforts of ethnographers to study the cultures of such peoples were frustrated by censorship and imprisonment). Conquest’s ch.14 on Kuban, Don, and Volga—Cossacks of Ukrainian origin, German minorities, and the North Caucasus—leads to further disturbing stories.

Famine in China
Again, the so-called “three years of difficulty” from 1959 to 1961 were not an isolated tragedy: food shortages in the wake of coercive collectivization were long-term. For many in the countryside, it was a case not of three years of famine but of thirty years of hunger. So I’m impatient with any diachronic ethnography of the lives of rural Chinese dwellers that fails to recognize hunger and malnutrition. I’ve cited some basic sources for the Chinese famine here.

LPS 27

Ghost king, Li Peisen collection.

In Yanggao county, home of the Li family Daoists, I recall the satirical couplet posted during the Cultural Revolution, deploring the lack of clothing and food. But even official sources offer clues. While many county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s may be cautious, that for Yanggao contains impressively candid material (pp.66–72, 26–31; see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.118–22).

While appearing to recognize the impact of natural disasters, the gazetteer hints at the deeper political problems, with sections on the “Communist wind”, the “wind of exaggeration”, the Great Leap Backward, and the short-lived communal canteens. Indeed, it offers alternative insights on the whole Maoist era—such as its account of the model commune of Greater Quanshan, where in the summer of 1958, amidst a flurry of visits by bigwigs, the brutal exactions of a militarized railroad project goaded five hundred peasants to flee (Daoist priests, pp.122–3). Inner Mongolia, a traditional refuge in times of adversity, was a common destination until travel restrictions were enforced. Yanggao dwellers were still hungry for some years after Li Manshan married in 1971 (see here, under “Yao Xiulian”).

So that’s the background behind my internet session with Li Manshan, when I showed him the surprisingly candid Chinese wiki article on the Holodomor.

Comparisons, figures
In China the whole process of collectivization, and the famine, make the most appalling instance of wilfully ignoring the lessons of history; both Chinese and Soviet regimes were in denial.

Several scholars have attempted comparisons with the Soviet famines. Ian Johnson has written an important article “Who killed more: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?“, which I’ll discuss in my next post. Note also

  • Felix Wemheuer, Famine politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (2014)

and review essays by Lucien Bianco (also a major author on peasant uprisings under Maoism):

  • “From the great Chinese famine to the Communist famines”, China perspectives 2013.3, here
  • “Comparing the Soviet and Chinese famines: their perpetrators, actors, and victims”, East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 3.2 (2016), here, with many further refs.

It’s ironic that the official story in China, still often parroted there today, was that food shortages were caused by China’s need to repay the Soviet debt (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.14). And it puts in a chilling perspective my fine lunch at the “1958” restaurant on the People’s University campus in Beijing earlier this year.

In Ukraine and China there was a similar time-lull between famine and renewed terror: in Ukraine from 1933 to 1937, in China from 1960 to 1964. Ukraine suffered a severe post-war famine in 1947, but hunger in China was longer lasting.

Before the famines, rural poverty seems to have been significantly worse in China than in Russia. And (allowing for impressionistic statistics) even in 1926, the literacy rate in Russia was c56%; in China it was still only c20% by 1950. As to life expectancy at birth, for China in 1950, I find a single figure of 35–40 years—lower than that for Ukraine before 1932, for which Applebaum cites: urban men 40–46, urban women 47–52; rural men 42–44 years, rural women 45–48.

By contrast, Ukrainian men born in 1932, in either the city or the countryside, had an average life expectancy of about 30. Women born in that year could expect to live on average to 40. For those born in 1933, the numbers are even starker. Females born in Ukraine in that year lived, on average, to be eight years old. Males born in 1933 could expect to live to the age of five. (Red famine, p.285)

Applebaum cites around 3.9 million excess deaths, plus 0.6 million lost births—around 13% of the Ukrainian population of 31 million. She goes on to delve into regional variations, concluding that

The regions “normally” most affected by drought and famine were less affected in 1932–3 because the famine of those years was not “normal”. It was a political famine, created for the express purpose of weakening peasant resistance, and thus national identity. And in this, it succeeded.

In China from 1959 to 1962 there may have been over 40 million excess deaths (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.37—Wemhauer and Bianco provide important further nuance); even by percentage of population, that gives a very rough estimate of around 16%, still greater than that for Ukraine. In many villages in both Ukraine and China virtually the whole population was wiped out.

Besides, deaths don’t tell the whole story; even for survivors, lives are ruined by malnutrition, desperation, and trauma.

In China, though extreme violence was also endemic, there was less mass murder, and less pervasive use of the secret police. Other patterns were distressingly similar: resistance to collectivization, raids on non-existent hoards, war on markets, travel restrictions—and denial, then and now. Thaws, retrenchments, strategic retreats were all brief. Warnings were sent all the way up the hierarchy; those given to Mao by Peng Dehuai and the Panchen Lama echo those given by senior Party leaders like Hryhorii Petrovskyi and Martemyan Ryutin to Stalin in 1932. All spoke out in vain, and at great personal cost.

While Ukraine was a specific target of Stalin, under Maoist China Tibetan areas were gravely affected, but Han Chinese suffered just as badly (though note Wemhauer).

While studies such as those of Applebaum and Dikötter inevitably use a broad brush to paint the wider tragedy, the kind of detail afforded by ethnographies of a particular community, like those of ThaxtonFriedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, or Guo Yuhua, is also valuable.

Worldwide, with humane values and truthful reporting under renewed assault, and incitements to hatred ever more common, these histories matter. And for China, I expect such social and political discussions to form an intrinsic part of our studies of expressive culture and ritual, all the more since the topic is still suppressed in public memory. Even as we document the ritual manuals of household ritual specialists, or the melodies of shawm bands, it seems like a basic human duty to record their life stories. All this suffering is deep in the hearts and bones of those who survived.