BEIJING — On Thursday, China released Feng Xiaogang’s “Back to 1942,” a blockbuster film about the 1942-43 Henan famine, during which roughly three million people starved to death following a drought exacerbated by the Japanese invasion. The film made over $480,000 on its first day and is tipped to break box-office records.
Critics have already panned the historical epic for its hammy acting and heavy-handed message. But they are giving it kudos for unveiling a dark and largely forgotten era of Chinese history.
The buzz exposes China’s selective and self-serving approach to history: the censors allow “Back to 1942” but hardly tolerate any account of the largely manmade Great Famine that took place under Mao in 1958-62 and left tens of millions dead.
The Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.), as the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng has masterfully shown in “Tombstone,” is terrified to confront its past. First published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2008, “Tombstone” became available in English in late October, but it is banned here. The C.C.P., which presided over the Great Famine — and still lionizes Mao — has yet to apologize for or officially acknowledge the disaster.
Feng’s movie plays into this propaganda. It depicts a people torn between the brutal Japanese and the cowardly Nationalists: it shows Chiang Kai-shek’s government callously ignoring the starving. It is allowed in the cinemas because in effect it legitimizes C.C.P. rule by showing just how terrible the world was before the Communist takeover in 1949.
Yang’s book, by contrast, is a shocking indictment of the C.C.P.’s disregard for its own people. He estimates that the death toll during the Great Famine was about 36 million. (The Dutch historian Frank Dikötter, who won the Samuel Johnson Prize for “Mao’s Great Famine” — available in Chinese only in Hong Kong — puts the figure at 45 million.)
The Great Famine occurred even though there was no war or epidemic or unusual weather, according to Yang. It was a result of Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, a wild attempt to turn China into a first-world economy through rapid industrialization and collectivized farming.
One of Yang’s key discoveries was that starvation was not the only cause of death. Violence also played a key role: many people were tortured, beaten or deliberately denied food in collectivized canteens. Officials ate while peasants went hungry. Millions resorted to consuming tree bark. Some turned to cannibalism. What’s more, Yang claims, Mao ignored what was going on in the name of what he perceived to be a greater cause: glory for China.
Today, many young Chinese do not know the Great Famine even occurred. In the summer of 2011 I visited a revolutionary-themed “red” restaurant in Beijing during the week celebrating the C.C.P.’s 90th anniversary. I asked our young waitress — she wore a Red Guard armband and performed Red Guard dances — what she knew about life under Mao. She had barely heard of the famine.
Zhou Xun, the author of “The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962” (in English only and not available in China), told me this week that many of her students at The University of Hong Kong who come from the Chinese mainland also know nothing about that period.
Zhou calls the famine “mass murder.” But in China, when the calamity is discussed at all, it is called the “three years of natural disasters.”
The Great Famine is not taught in history lessons. During the four years that Zhou spent scouring mainland China for archival evidence and talking to witnesses, she came across just one memorial to it: two stones inscribed with the names of the dead in the middle of a field. And the police, Zhou told me, constantly harassed the farmer who had placed it there.
This week, when I met the gentle 72-year-old Yang for coffee in Beijing, he told me why he had spent a decade writing and researching “Tombstone”: In the absence of official mourning, he wanted to erect his own memorial to the uncle who had raised him and died of starvation in 1959.
“I respect the bravery and wisdom of the way the Germans face their history,” Yang told me, decrying the prevailing attitude in China.
That said, things are changing. Yang might have being jailed or even killed for his work in the past. Today, he hardly is hassled by the authorities. “Tombstone” is banned in China, but it can be downloaded from the Internet, if with great difficulty.
As long as the very same party that presided over the Great Famine is in power, it will try to whitewash history. But how much longer will it manage to? In May, the Chinese national newspaper Southern People Weekly ran several pages on the famine: an unprecedented acknowledgment.
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore