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By Dawn Wiseman
In our contemporary context of instant, pervasive communication, it’s almost impossible to imagine 15-to-30 million people dying of famine and the world continuing on unaware of the tragedy; this is precisely what happened in China between 1959 and 1961.
In fact, as Kimberley Manning (Political Science) explained it, there was so little information traveling within China itself at the time, that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) only became aware of the scope of the disaster over a period of months.
Manning had her initial introduction to China in 1988 when she spent a year in the country courtesy of a Pacific Rim Scholarship from the Government of B.C. She left 10 days before student uprisings calling for democratic reform were quashed by tanks in Tiananmen Square.
“To find myself as a 19 year-old in the midst of these gigantic demonstrations was extremely powerful,” she said, “and a little frightening.”
Now when she returns to China, Manning finds it strange how the young people she meets have “no memory of, and no interest in” a movement in which a previous generation had invested so much.
“The 1989 protests have been sublimated in the national consciousness. There is a taboo on studying it, a taboo on talking of it publicly,” and much the same has occurred with respect to the Maoist period.
This summer’s Olympic celebrations offered no acknowledgement of Mao Zedong, and Manning spoke of history text books in Shanghai which make little mention of him or the CCP’s Great Leap Forward which ultimately led to the famine.
Until recently, Manning’s focus was not the Chinese famine but the interplay of gender and politics that occurred in China during the 1950s.
Communist China emerged in 1949 after nearly 30 years of internal and external war. Among the sweeping changes implemented by the CCP was a massive project focused on women’s liberation.
“Women had been very involved in the CCP, and they now turned their attention to the development of a maternalist welfare state focused on a socialist democratic family,” explained Manning.
Through interviews and archival research conducted over the past decade she has developed a picture of how this movement was built by women with long-standing (pre-1949) ties to organizations like the YWCA and the Christian Temperance Union, and how it resulted in new bodies such as the Chinese Women’s Federation.
“The CCP leadership was very intent, not only on women’s right and protections, but on defining women as the centre of the Chinese home. There was a huge – and successful - focus on midwifery and public health reform in which women were instructed to play a leading role in improving sanitation and economizing household resources,” she said.
At the same time, the women’s movement in China, although well in advance of that in the West, was not without its tensions.
As Manning pointed out, many women at the grassroots — and some higher up like Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing — were not fully on board, “They sought to live out an egalitarian form of equality, not maternal, and in that way contribute to the revolution.”
In addition, while many women were involved in the government, the senior level of the CCP was made up almost exclusively of men. Moreover, Mao Zedong, the most powerful leader in the party, lashed out against those who criticized his policies, “And so senior women officials, like many men officials, felt powerless to do anything about the famine even when its proportions became clear.”
The lack of power and climate of fear led women’s organizations to focus on symptoms of the famine — cessation of menstruation, prolapsed uteri — rather than its causes.
“The womb became a site of government intervention, rather than the stomach,” said Manning, and the scope of the disaster grew.
To build understanding of this period, Manning is working with Felix Wemheuer (University of Vienna) and a group of authors from North America, Europe and China on New Perspectives on China’s Great Leap Forward and Great Famine (UBC Press, in review).
Because the work cannot – for the moment – be published or distributed in Mainland China they see it as a “bit of a political intervention that is providing a space” for some voices that would otherwise not be heard.
“The Chinese scholars in particular provide new and very interesting arguments about the period,” she said. “Hopefully one day we can have it translated and published in their homeland.”