June 6, 2021 | By Li Yuan
After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, Chinese novelist Mo Yan told a story from his childhood at the awards ceremony. During the Great Famine (1959–1961), his family, like countless other families at the time, ran out of food. When his mother went to the field where the grain had been harvested hoping to find a few remaining ears of wheat, a commune member slapped her in the face. The land belonged to the people’s commune, she was reminded.
Mo was a preschooler at the time and this became the most painful experience in his life. Meeting his mother’s assailant again many years later and thinking to seek revenge, however, his mother stopped him. Forgiveness from his mother, Mo said, was what he learned from the experience and it benefited him his entire life.
Although Mo did not directly criticise the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), his speech nonetheless was condemned by “little pinkies,” brainwashed youth who openly defend the CCP on the internet. Without discussing what caused the tragedy, they criticized Mo for his political incorrectness.
Although nearly 60 years have passed since the Great Famine, that man-made disaster is still a taboo for the CCP. Hardly any scholars, let alone officials, crossed the red line. Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping (1930-May 2021) was one exception. In April 2009, he said in an interview that about 40 million died in that disaster. Many officials intentionally over-reported what the land produced to please the higher-ups and almost all the grain was turned in, he added.
Very few have the courage, though. Under the totalitarian rule of the CCP, hardly anyone dares to risk their lives to speak facts. With the CCP’s constantly covering up its crimes and distorting history to fit its narratives, the younger generations, including the “little pinkies,” are often ill-informed of the truth, causing similar tragedies to happen and then be repeatedly “forgotten.”
The damage is not limited to the public. Many artists who chose to ignore facts and please the CCP not only misled the public but also faced consequences of their own.
A Misleading Painting
One example is “The Land Is So Beautiful.” It hung in the Great Hall of the People, the official venue of the National People’s Congress. Finished in April 1959 by painters Fu Baoshi and Guan Shanyue during the Great Famine, it was an exquisite political cover-up during a time of massive deaths from starvation.
The subject of the painting came from a poem composed by Mao Zedong about a snowy scene in northern China. After exhausting their wits trying to interpret Mao’s thoughts expressed in the poem, the two painters decided to focus on the beautiful scenery in southern China with a view of northern China in the background. Then-premier Zhou Enlai asked them to include a red sun to represent Mao, while general Chen Yi suggesting highlighting the beauty of the countryside.
The finished piece was 9 meters wide and 5.65 meters tall, and it took four months to paint. Thirty large pieces of antique rice paper from the Qianlong Period in the Qing Dynasty that had been stored in the Forbidden City were used. The paper alone cost 1,800 yuan, when the average monthly income was only a few yuan at the time. Brush pens, ink, and dyes came from the prestigious shop of Rong Bao Zhai. The back of the painting was coated with silk for sturdiness and it took over 10 strong men to frame it using a three-layer rack.
Nowhere in the painting was there a hint of nationwide starvation and death. By the time the painting was completed in April 1959, about 16 provinces—half of China—had reported shortages of food and a hungry population of 25 million. These figures came only from officials who dared to speak out against the political correctness. As the lies continued, more than one million people starved to death between the winter of 1959 and the spring of 1960 in Xinyang City, Henan Province, alone.
Compared to deaths from starvation, the brutality exhibited by CCP officials against their own people was equally astonishing. One document from 1961 from Shangcheng County, Xinyang City, documented 45 cases of such violence. In order to squeeze any remaining food from its inhabitants, officials hammered people’s brains with hoes, cut off their fingers, ruptured their eardrums with wires, carved letters on their faces, sewed up their mouths, burnt anuses with hot metal rods, stuffed pine branches into vaginas, burned people with kerosene, burnt babies, and buried people alive.
Mao was aware of the situation but acquiesced to the brutality, according to Ding Shu, a Chinese historian who currently lives in the U.S. Bi Kedan, a county Party secretary in Henan Province, was a strong advocate of the Party line. After figuring out problems and only then asking higher officials for grain, however, he was denied and reprimanded repeatedly, and his family of five eventually committed suicide.
Truth vs. Imagination
Fu and Guan were not alone. Many other artists also followed suit. Li Keran, another Chinese painter, exhibited in major cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai. Li openly supported the idea that the arts should be used to promote socialism and communism. Besides vision and perception, he encouraged deduction and imagination.
While Chinese citizens were starving to death, Li visited Guangxi Province and other places in 1959. He then painted “Guilin Scenery,” which depicts a scene of peace and prosperity. During that time, he also produced many works to praise the CCP, including “Mounts Liupan,” “Long March,” “Red Over Ten Thousand Mountains,” and others.
In 1960, Li painted “Cowherd in the Spring,” Considered one of his best works, he skillfully portrayed a happy shepherd boy in an idyllic rural setting. The only problem was its disconnect from real life.
Compared to that bucolic scene, writer Sha Qing described a case of cannibalism in his documentary “Memoir on Da Di Wan.”
The situation in Tongwei County, Gansu Province, was desperate. When all the food was gone, people ate almost anything they could find, including tree bark, wheat husks, and even cotton from their quilts, but that was still not enough.
In one family, only the father, son, and daughter were left. One day the father, who had been waiting for death, got out of bed and told his daughter to go outside. When she came back in, her younger brother, who had been in bed, was nowhere to be found. But she saw oily stuff in the boiling water and white bones next to the wok. Frightened, the girl went out and dared not to return.
Several days later, her father waving to her and said in a voice she had never heard before, “Come, come…”
Terrified, the girl cowered outside the door. As the father continued to call her, the girl wept. “Daddy, please do not eat me. I can collect firewood and cook for you,” she said. “If you eat me, there will be no one will help you.”
According to Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng, about 931,000 people died in the Great Famine, about 4.6% of the total population of Guangxi Province, he wrote in the documentary Tombstone.
During the Second Meeting of the Eighth National Congress in May 1958, Mao said wars were about death and he had seen lots of them. “There were many times in history that the population was wiped out by half. We do not have experience with atomic wars—who knows how many could survive? Probably one half would survive or one-third. There are over two billion people in the world. If even more than half of them died, the number would be restored in a few decades.”
When imperial artists produced elegant works to promote the CCP, they might never have realised the endless tears, blood, and sorrow in the background.
An Elite Group
In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx wrote, “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.” Ironically, once in power, the new elite group would fiercely suppress ordinary citizens and is not bothered by painful cries.
When Fu and Guan were working on “The Land Is So Beautiful” in 1959, they asked Zhou for wine. Zhou gave them cases of Maotai, a premier wine exclusively reserved for high-ranking officials at the time. Hotel staff later said they found 120 empty Moutai bottles in Fu’s room during those four months he was working on the painting.
Also during the Great Famine, Fu, then vice president of the Chinese Artists Association, led 12 artists in September 1960 on a three-month Long March of Art to find more ideas to promote the CCP.
On the road, the artists traveled first class, stayed in the best hotels, and enjoyed the best food and entertainment. The standard was the same as that for representatives of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
When these artists visited Sichuan Province, the Propaganda Department director treated them to all kinds of great food, including over 20 types of cuisines. “We all liked everything and gorged ourselves initially,” one artist wrote. “Later on we rubbed our stomachs, saying we couldn’t eat anymore. But the dishes continued to come…”
Well-fed and living lives of luxury, these artists wasted no time producing many works that praised the “prosperity” of the CCP, such as “Free Food in the People’s Commune,” “People’s Dining Hall on Mount Emei,” and others.
It was not that these artists had no clue about what was going on in the country, they just chose to ignore it. “At Mount Lingyun in Leshan City (also in Sichuan Province), we saw an old woman’s body by the side of the road. She was dressed in rags and her face was pale, apparently dead due to long-time starvation and malnutrition,” one artist wrote. “We just lowered our heads and walked by.”
While these artists enjoyed their wonderful three months on the Long March of Art, in Sichuan Province where they passed, its inhabitants were starving from the winter of 1958 to the winter of 1962. About 7.97 million people died of hunger in Sichuan Province alone, wrote Yang.
Victims of the Red Terror
Although these artists had devoted their talents—and consciences—to the communist regime, they could not escape the dire consequences afterwards.
Guan was attacked soon after the Cultural Revolution started in 1966. Because some of the plum branches he’d painted pointed downward (dao mei, which has the same pronunciation as “bad luck”), he was targeted for “cursing socialism.” He was forced to painting and sent to forced labor camps. After being allowed to work again when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, he made certain all the plum branches he painted pointed upward to avoid further attacks.
Fu died of a stroke right before the Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, he was attacked: his tomb was destroyed, his home ransacked, and his children targeted. His peers believed that, if he hadn’t died, he would have suffered the same fate.
Right after the Cultural Revolution started, Li was also detained, personal belongings confiscated, and house occupied. His artworks—including those that praised the CCP—were attacked as counter-revolutionary. Some called him “timid like a frightened sparrow.”
Other artists met similar fates. Ye Qianyu, Luo Gongliu, and Huang Yongyu from the Central Academy of Fine Arts were all attacked. “The Great Unity of the Chinese People” that Ye had painted in 1953 and that praised the CCP was targeted. Red Guards referred to the painting as “a group of monsters surrounding Chairman Mao.” They whipped him with belts with metal ends until he ended up on the floor, bleeding.
In his memoir, Ye wrote that he and three other artists (Li Keran, Li Kuchan, and Guo Weiqu) were assigned to clean bathrooms. Huang Zhou, a military artist famous for drawing a donkey, painted “Lotus Flower Dance” during the Great Famine. Although it glossed over that tragic era, he was one of the first artists targeted after the Cultural Revolution started when Red Guards referred to him as a “counter-revolutionary dark artist.”
Shi Lu became famous because of his piece titled “Moving to Northern Shaanxi,” which highlighted Mao and the Long March. However, his movie, titled “Liu Zhidan,” was denounced in 1964 as was “Moving to Northern Shaanxi” in 1966. Later on, he was almost executed but survived because of his mental disorder.
Several decades have passed, but the CCP’s brutality and lies still continue. As the regime advances its communist agenda around the world, many people have misread the CCP, leading them down a path of uncertainty. It is hoped that this article will help us to be clear and to make the right decisions at this crossroads of history.
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