The tale of two famines

Alia | December 1st, 2012 - 7:36 pm

Back to 1942, popular Chinese comedy director Feng Xiaogang’s second catastrophe production, is on show in cinemas across China since November 29. The film depicted a less-known famine back in the year of 1942 during war-time China when the Japan-invaded province of Henan was hit hard by a record drought. The Japanese were there to occupy, the Chinese government lead by Kuomintang at the time was too overwhelmed by the war to take care of an enemy-occupied zone. As a result, millions of people in Henan were fleeing from a land with no food, among then, about 5 million starved to death. There were even cases of cannibalism.

The 1942 famine in Henan was a result of both natural and man-made disaster, which, inevitably, reminds many Chinese of another avoidable catastrophe, the Great Famine of Mao which ravaged China from 1958 to 1961 and caused millions of death. Before the movie premiere, director Feng Xiaogang urged people to not to over interpret the movie in an interview: “No over-interpretation is to show kindness.”

Indeed, it’s almost a miracle that the Chinese government approved the production of such a movie (All movies need to be approved by China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television before production). It’s imaginable that this movie may have already cost Feng and his team enough trouble, they surely don’t want to get into more or even be banned. But in a country where its darkest histories are intentionally left forgotten, this movie is bound to be controversial. Ever since its premiere, talks have never stopped, and most of the talks used this movie as a platform to discuss the other famine, a topic that is not always allowed to be discussed openly in China.

Director Feng Xiaogang and his Back to 1942

Two famines, one tale:

In the eyes of many Chinese, the famines in 1942 and in 1959-1962 are not very different from each other except for death toll numbers. They are both more of a man-made disaster caused by a government that turned a blind eye to its people’s sufferings.

张鹤慈, famous Chinese liberal intellectual, commented: “How similar is the famine in 1942 to the famine in 1959. In both cases, local governments reported only good news in order to please the central government. The central government knew only about taxing more and refused to admit disasters that already happened. Even worse, those who dared to expose disasters were suppressed. In the face of disasters, politics, instead of people’s lives, were set as the priority. You know, we don’t always learn from the past.”

Many netizens concluded that the Great Famine of Mao was much worse, not only because of a 30-million death toll (unofficial number), but also because of what lead to the deaths. Netizen 远山的雪人explained: “In 1942, Japan was invading China. 1962, it wasn’t war time any more. In 1942, China was ruled by Kuomintang. In 1962, it was the Communist Party of China. In 1942, less people died. In 1962, more. Put these together, 1942 can be made into a movie, but 1962 cannot.”  思想汇聚人生, when explain why the Great Famine in the 50s lead to more deaths, said: “In old times, people can flee. An even worst famine during Emperor Guangxu years (Qing Dynasty) only caused about 13 million deaths. But in 1962, the government was afraid that fleeing people from the country would cause extreme food shortage in the cities. As a result, fleeing farmers to the cities were all arrested.” For netizen jialu的空间, however, it’s a simple deal: “The worst one is the one after 1949.”

Even media that are considered to be mouthpiece of the Chinese government jumped into the discussion. In a Weibo post, People.com quoted a commertary by China Youth Daily: “For those who luckily survived the famine, revisiting that period of  history and their traumas is to revive the disaster in people’s shared memory. It’s a duty that has to be paid to those who died and a responsibility that has to be paid to those who are living. It’s to restore history. Back to 1942 is an apology to those who died in that disaster on behalf of history and of people who are living now.” People’s Daily, the official voice of the Chinese government, quoted Feng Xiaogang in one Weibo post: “To avoid histories, to avoid talking about disasters, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. The alarm is ever ringing. To learn from the past is the best way to prevent the same catastrophe from happening again.”

But netizens are asking, “What about 1962?” Like 虫蛀花生米 asked: “Who apologized for 1962?” 老多2010 shared the same question: “When can we expect a movie called ‘Back to 1962’?” 佩佳 went even further: “1942 is an apology? How about 1959? 1989? In my opinion, the most horrible catastrophe movie should be ‘Back to 1949’ [The year the PRC was founded].” 血泪文革 commented: “China, as a nation, won’t be rejuvenated until its people can watch movies that truefully depict the years in the Great Famine and the Culture Revolution.” Netizen 龙行天天下 spoke from his own experiences: “I don’t care about 1942. What about 1959 to 1962? My grandparents, my uncle and aunts all died in 1960. In fact, half of my entire village died. About 40 people. But that was a harvest year. It was a 100% man-made disaster.”

At the end of the day, the Chinese netizens, once again, turn to dark humor to make sense of what cannot be easily made sense of in modern China: “There is an old saying in China that goes ’20 years later, I’m a new man.’ For those who died in 1942, unfortunately, they were no new men in 1962.”

Back to 1942 is by all means a daring movie from Feng Xiaogang. Its biggest contribution may be outside of theaters – the people in China need an opportunity to openly revisit what’s been hidden and lost in memory.

The old lady in the picture shown below said to a theater staff after watching Back to 1942: “I was there. I fled out of Henan in 1942. The movie feels very real.”

More pictures from 1942 Henan famine

 

 

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4 Responses to “The tale of two famines”

  1. Richard says:

    this movie “back to 1942″ is about a famine in henan- not the great leap forward, i dont know why you have such a hard on about the great leap forward but this movie is not about that, when there is a movie about the great leap forward then what you wrote would be ok, but again this movie is about the famine in 1942.

    you should honestly quit blogging, in fact, quit writing.

  2. John Koster says:

    The Chinese films I have seen or read about since the 21st Century began impress me both with their quality and with their honesty. Chinese media of the past had a reputation for generating propaganda and little else. These new films will help restore the respect of the world to the greatness of Chinese art and culture.

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