Cannibalism in China 50 years on
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This week fifty years ago the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution started in China. With the “May 16 proclamation” Mao Zedong directly attacked his political opponents.
Bypassing the heads of the existing political structure, he appealed directly to the youth of the country to “bombard the headquarters” and destroy the existing apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP].
In the period 1966-1976 between 500.000 and three million people died in an orgy of factional struggle, mass killings, and excesses that the current leadership does not want to discuss openly.
But some try to reveal the truth. Recently the following incident was brought to light:
“On July 10, 1968, a criticism rally was held in front of the Shangjiang Town hall, Sanli district. During the ensuing chaos, Liao Tianlong, Liao Jinfu, Zhong Zhenquan and Zhong Shaoting were beaten to death.
"Their bodies were stripped of flesh, which was taken back to the front of the brigade office to be boiled in two big pots. Twenty or thirty people participated in the cannibalism. Right out in the open, they boiled human flesh in front of the local government offices.”
This account is recorded in the official Cultural Revolution annals of Wuxuan County, Guangxi Autonomous Region in the South of China.
Wave of cannibalism
A wave of cannibalism swept Guangxi during a period of over a year in what is likely the most gruesome episode of the Cultural Revolution.
“It was state sponsored cannibalism,” says Song Yongyi, of the California State University.
“It is not that Chairman Mao himself instructed local [Communist Party] offices to do these kind of things. But the head of the Revolutionary Committee and directors of the local militia headquarters organized militia men to engage in this kind of animal behavior. And they represented the state and the traditional party and government establishment.”
The Cultural Revolution was essentially a factional dispute within the Chinese communist party.
“It was deliberately spread into the country as a mass movement by the supporters of Mao to attempt to bolster his position,” says Michael Dillon, author of Deng Xiaoping: The Man Who Made Modern China.
"Once that had been done, it unleashed forces that were unexpected and there was a great deal of violence throughout the country when these factional disputes became localized.”
In all provinces there are accounts of killings and chaos. But only in Guangxi, the revolutionary fervor translated into eating the class enemy. In total, 421 cases of cannibalism are recorded in 31 of the 75 counties of Guangxi Autonomous Region.
The macabre ritual took sometimes place during country fairs.
“Thousands of people participated in the fairs,” says Song Yongyi. “A fair was used as an occasion to organize struggle sessions against so-called class enemies [landlords, rich peasants, former members of the Nationalist KMT party, but also communists who did not agree with Mao’s policies.]
“And they just kill those victims and they cut their chests they prise the hearts and livers out and just eat them. At least 10.000 people participated.”
Secret Cultural Revolution
After meticulous research, Song Yongyi found a complete set of secret archives covering the time of the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi.
The documents were produced by a CCP work team that was sent to the Autonomous Region to investigate ‘excesses’ of the Cultural Revolution, once it was over, so perpetrators could be brought to justice. Over the next two months, the texts, totaling 36 volumes will be published online.
“When first I read those kind of things, I felt so surprised. Unbelievable. The second stage, when I read all of those [cases] I feel my mind is just frozen. I lost all feeling. You can't believe it, there are too many!” says Song Yongyi.
The cases of cannibalism had nothing to do with a lack of food, and recorded cases differ from those written up during the 'three years of disaster' after the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) when China had fallen into famine and starving people ate human flesh out of desperation.
Not just revolutionary
This time around, hunger did not play a role. But cannibalism was not purely “revolutionary” either, says Song Yongyi.
“The theory is that [the cannibalism was inspired by] hatred, resulting in “class struggle." But the hidden motivation is not so revolutionary. It was their personal desire. Because those people believe that when they eat other people's livers, other people's hearts, it will help them to have a long life.”
Cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution was first brought to light by dissident writer Zheng Yi in his Scarlet Memorial - Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China, published originally in Chinese in 1993 and translated in 1996.
He made two trips to Guangxi, spoke to family members of victims of cannibalism and even to some of the cannibals themselves who appeared to have gotten off with light sentences. The investigations of Song Yongyi published this month have given Zheng Yi’s descriptions scientific backup.
After the Cultural Revolution ended China’s new leadership under Deng Xiaoping covered the period in secrecy.
Publications such as Yan Jiaqi’s Ten Years History of the Cultural Revolution were quickly suppressed, and attempts by Ba Jin, one of China’s most famous writers, to open a “Museum of the Cultural Revolution” were stalled indefinitely and the topic remained largely taboo.
But on May 17, fifty years and one day after Mao’s notorious “May 16 Proclamation” the People’s Daily did publish a short commentary on the Cultural Revolution.
“It was tucked away on page 4, next to an article about a cultural exhibition in Shenzhen and how to deal with floods,” says Dillon.
“What they are effectively saying is, ‘we told you then, in 1981, that it was all a big mistake, we don't really see why there should be any further discussion about it.’
But a lot of people in China do want to discuss about it, there are lots of unanswered questions, particularly at the way the Cultural Revolution was dealt with in various different localities.”
'...it is still the communist party'
Observers agree that the reason for the silence of the CCP on the period is to protect itself.
“One of the ironies is that there has been a big rupture of course after 1978 [when Deng Xiaoping launched his policies of open door and reform, shelving Mao’s class struggle],” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Baptist University in Hong Kong.
“But at the same time there is a lot of continuity because it is still the communist party and it is the very reason why the Chinese authorities today shy away from any debate about the CR in public because they know that very quickly it can question the legitimacy of the one-party system established in 1949.”
Meanwhile, Song Yongyi continues his struggle to expose the bitter truth. “There is no clear boundary between human beings and animals. If you subvert normal social order, people could very easily cross that boundary from human being to animal.
“Let people know the truth. Let people know the horrible consequences of the Cultural Revolution. And take history as a mirror to get a lesson from history. Let all Chinese people know that we should prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again,” he says.
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