By Tom Bannister.
The Chinese film 一九四二 (english title: ‘Back to 1942’) was released on the 30th November. It tells the story of the 1942 Henan famine in which 3 million people died. However the film’s release is creating opportunities for people to make comparisons with the more recent, more deadly, and more politically sensitive famine of 1958-1962.
With a poor population-to-fertile-land ratio China is prone to famine but the 1958-62 one, which took place during the Great Leap Forward, stands out because it was largely caused by disastrous economic policies and a closed political system. Although it has become less of a sensitive issue in recent years, the government still under-estimates the death toll and overplays the role of bad weather. One Weibo user commented, poignantly:
“Mainland China films ‘1942’ but Taiwan is able to film ‘1962’”.
Author Murong Xuecun wrote:
“If you want to write about darkness then its best to write about pre-1949 darkness; if you want to make a film about a disaster then its best to make a film about a pre-1949 disaster. We watch this film eating our popcorn and criticising the corrupt incompetence of the Kuomintang government. This is tragic. Often people ask ‘what use does art and literature have?’ The answer is that it is no ‘use’. However if art and literature cannot criticise reality then its inevitable that it will produce two evil consequences: 1. Art and literature will become increasingly terrible; 2. Reality will become increasingly terrible.”
However, another post by Weibo user @邝海炎不骂人 is indicative of the increasingly relaxed attitude of censors towards criticisms of the Mao-era state. It was posted on Saturday and compared 1942 Henan with 1962 Henan:
“Why did more people die in the 1962 famine compared to the 1942 one? One important reason was that traditional society could escape from the famine. During the really serious famines of the 1870’s only 13 million people died. But during the famine of 1962 the government was afraid of urban food shortages so it imprisoned any peasants that fled to the city. Gu Zhun [a Shanghainese academic] saw soldiers with machine guns blockading streets in Xinyang [a city in Henan] to stop peasants fleeing. When he returned to Beijing he swore that he would never set foot in the Great Hall of the People again.”
The person who posted it expected it to get ‘harmonised’ (censored) but a day later the post had been re-posted thousands of times. The author said:
“The post that I wrote yesterday ‘why did more people die in the 1962 famine compared to the 1942 one’ was re-posted loads. Just before I went to bed last night a friend gave me a call to say: “you do realise that your post will definitely get harmonised right?”. I laughed and said “20,000 people have re-posted it and it still hasn’t got deleted”. And then to my surprise, when I got up this morning it hadn’t been deleted but instead had been placed as a lead story in the “Hot Weibo” section. It had been re-posted 40,000 times. I really didn’t think that it would it be like that.”