In late 1959, Chinese officials in the provinces began to investigate wild rumors that people were eating one another. Most of the officials must have already known that Mao Zedong’s call for a “Great Leap Forward,” a planned modernization meant to catapult the country into global economic leadership, had gone horribly wrong.
In the vast countryside regions of China, and with an eye to pleasing their bureaucratic masters, Communist Party functionaries had been inflating estimates of the amounts of food that peasants were producing for transfer to the industrial zones or for export sales. They also concealed that these transfers left hungry—and often for dead—the very peasants who had done all the farming, from cultivation to harvest. The horrifying reports of cannibalism sometimes involved peasants digging up the corpses of the recently deceased, among the millions who had already died of starvation. Other times, officials investigating unrelated matters came across disturbing evidence of murder and the butchering of people for meat. In Gansu province, according to one document in a new translation of source material, The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962, a person named Meng was found in his home with meat in a jar, which also contained a clump of hair “alongside a floral-patterned hair band.”
The worst human tragedies of the twentieth century were certainly most deadly when sponsored or at least unleashed by totalitarian regimes, and food was a crucial element of their politics. Several years ago, the German journalist and scholar Götz Aly showed in books such as Architects of Annihilation (2003) the role of food in the horrors of National Socialist imperialism. More recently, Timothy Snyder has made the conquest of more productive agricultural territory—especially the Ukrainian “breadbasket”—an essential factor in the episodes of mass death occurring in what he calls the “bloodlands.” Soviet and Nazi planners both sought to occupy the region for the sake of food, and their macabre policies dictated that those on the home front would eat before the occupants of the newly conquered territory, who were deemed too numerous to feed with limited resources. In The Taste of War (2011), Lizzie Collingham has offered an accessible survey of how deeply the origins and course of World War II followed from the difficulty—real or perceived—of provisioning humanity. Even Americans soon became aware that the fight against totalitarianism in postwar Asia depended on filling empty stomachs at least as much as on winning hearts and minds, a policy that Nick Cullather, author of The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (2010), has elsewhere called “the foreign policy of the calorie.”
But the famines caused by totalitarian regimes can easily become a sensationalized distraction from considering the other causes of mass starvation. After all, mass hunger is older than totalitarianism, and in the most ancient records of human hunger, cannibalism is a depressingly common response to famine. In his already classic book Famine: A Short History (2009), Cormac Ó Gráda, the greatest contemporary historian of the topic, cites a Chinese woodblock from an 1870s famine that tells of a man who sells his daughter to avoid eating her; and many cases of cannibalism were reported in prior and later famines in China, under the rule of emperors and republicans alike.