Frank Dikötter


On his book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962

Cover Interview of October 20, 2010

A close-up

Thanks to extraordinarily rich archives, the reader can get much closer to every aspect of life and death during Mao’s Great Famine than ever before.  But nothing illustrates the desperation for food quite as well as the eating of mud by starving villagers. Here is what happened in a county in Sichuan province, where close to ten million people died unnecessarily from 1958 to 1962:

When nothing else was left, people turned to a soft mud called Guanyin soil – named after the Goddess of Mercy.  A work team sent by Li Jingquan was taken aback by what they saw in Liangxian county, Sichuan.  It was a vision of hell, as serried ranks of ghostly villagers queued up in front of deep pits, their shrivelled bodies pouring with sweat under the glare of the sun, waiting for their turn to scramble down the hole and carve out a few handfuls of the porcelain-white mud.  Children, their ribs starting through the skin, fainted from exhaustion, their grimy bodies looking like mud sculptures shadowing the earth.  Old women in ragged clothes burned paper charms and bowed, hands folded, mumbling strange incantations.  A quarter of a million tonnes were dug out by more than 10,000 people. In one village alone 214 families out of a total of 262 had eaten mud, several kilos per person.  Some of the villagers filled their mouths with mud as they were digging in the pit.  But most of them added water and kneaded the soil after mixing it with chaff, flowers and weeds, baking mud cakes that were filling, even if they provided little sustenance.  Once eaten the soil acted like cement, drying out the stomach and absorbing all the moisture inside the intestinal tract.  Defecation became impossible.  In every village several people died a painful death, their colons blocked up with soil.