In 1958 Mao Zedong instigated The Great Leap Forward, a program across the newly founded People’s Republic of China in an attempt to catch up to the economies of the Western world. According to historian Frank Dikötter in The Independent, “at least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over those four years”. To put that into perspective, “the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million.” Yan Lianke’s The Four Books is a fictionalised account of the re-education camps where professionals were forced to labour in order to meet staggering manufacturing and agricultural targets. The result is a searing satire that crescendos to a point of gut wrenching desperation and pain.
The Four Books takes its name from the narrative device used by Lianke to tell the story. There are four different ‘books’ quoted within the narration, each told from a different perspective. The main source of material comes from The Author, who is ordered to spy and keep record of his fellow prisoner’s behaviours, in what becomes Criminal Records, which is balanced against a ‘real’ documentation of events, The Old Course.
After returning home, I hoped to write a book about re-education through labor. That would be a true book, not like the instalments of Criminal Records that I secretly gave the Child every month. I wanted to write an utterly sincere book—writing it not for the Child, not for my country, and not even for the People or for my readers, but rather just for myself. I had already begun jotting down some fragments for this truly honest book in the margins of the journal that I kept for the Child. All I wanted to take with me were some field rations and these fragments for a truly honest book. I was prepared to leave all else behind.
The isolationist policy of The Great Leap Forward moves from outlandish displays of imperialism to famine and effective genocide in months. In trying to overtake the industrial and agricultural output of the West, China managed to destroy much of the land, bringing simultaneous drought and flooding to the country, leading to widespread famine.
“The world has been turned upside down by this steel smelting, and this has happened on a nationwide scale. It took the strength of the whole nation. In the process of smelting steel, people have chopped down all the trees in all of the mountains, along the rivers, and in all of the villages. There is nowhere that trees have been chopped down that has not suffered either flooding or drought. And of the areas that suffered flooding or drought, there is not one that has not subsequently suffered from famine. Everyone receives two liang of grain a day, but by winter it is quite possible that we won’t even receive that much. No one cares any longer whether we live or die. Everyone receives two liang of grain a day, and it is up to them to figure out how to eat.”
Lianke tells of a period in history where the country rushed to innovate and push past the West, but in many ways these practices remain the same today. Agriculture was replaced by manufacturing, consumption by consumerism, land clearing to greenhouse emissions. The desperation of the prisoners of Re-Ed is heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. At one point a prisoner drains his own blood in order to fertilise crops, hoping to grow wheat big enough to be an example to the nation, and most importantly, it’s his best shot at leaving Re-Ed and going home. As I read The Four Books I wondered how China’s manufacturing sector - the all-powerful economy that drives so much of the world’s markets - is still reminiscent at least in part of these historical policies. Are sweatshops the modern day equivalent of labour camps? Is air pollution and it’s contribution to climate change pushing us toward more drought and famine? (Turns out yes it is - according to Zheng Guogang, the head of China's meteorological administration, quoted here by NPR in his interview with the Xinhua news agency, “China is already experiencing temperature increases that outpace those in other parts of the world.”) Is the West turning a blind eye and is China helping to do so by shielding information from foreigners as well as it’s own people? According to Yang Jisheng, author of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, in this interview for NPR:
At the epicenter of the famine, Xinyang in China's central Henan province, the post office confiscated 1,200 letters sent begging for help. The level of energy expended on covering up what was happening is chilling.
Reaching the conclusion to Lianke’s The Four Books, as the story becomes increasingly harrowing and the desperation more graphic, it is easy to see why this book has not been published in China. But like all stories of oppression, it is an important one to tell and to share. We need to be reminded of our worst in order to avoid retreading such dangerous ground. We need to be reminded that these atrocities begin with small plans, little decisions that grow to change the course of history. We owe it to those who suffered and who continue to suffer, to strive to be better. To really listen. But Lianke also warns of the devastation possible if we are too trusting, too shy to stand up for ourselves, too scared to act. As the prisoners at Re-Ed faced increasing famine and desperation, they were instructed:
“Everyone must live . . . The higher-ups will not forget us. As soon as the snow melts and the roads open, the higher-ups will send someone to bring us grain . . . Because, at the end of the day, the country still needs scholars!”
But the price they must pay for this makes Lianke’s The Four Books an important and powerful work, as well as a gripping read.
Sometimes I panic that our trip is coming up too soon. I’m not ready. There’s too much to do in not enough time. Other times I’m just impatient and June can’t come soon enough. I hate the feeling that I’m pushing myself through for the sake of being able to go away, that feeling that everyday life is getting in the way of the big things ahead. Because that’s a pretty crappy way to live. I am nervous about going to Germany but also crazily excited. I’ve wanted to go to Berlin for a long time and I’m not only going, but I’m spending time there. I’m going to be able to visit places I’ve dreamed about seeing, make sense of history, open my eyes. I’m going to have time to write - real, dedicated time, not just fitting it in when I can. That’s incredibly empowering and I’m desperate to just get started.
A few months ago my partner and I lost a friend to leukaemia. I’ll write more about it another time, but for now our way of coping with the grief is by focussing on Germany. On getting on that plane and having adventures, because our friend lost his chance to control his life and we want to honour him by living our lives to their fullest. He was also focussed on things up ahead, pushing through the day to day to get to those big milestones, but he wasn’t given the chance to get there. Being able to take chances like going overseas for a year is a privilege, one that we’ve worked hard to achieve but don’t take lightly. I worry that in concentrating so hard on one date in the calendar we’re missing little things in between. I’ve been thinking about our friend a lot. I miss him.
I don’t want to take the every day for granted because you never know when things will change. The characters in The Four Books were professionals going about their every day. Teaching, learning, building lives for themselves and their families. Then, slowly, everything was swept away. Life became out of their control and all of a sudden they were struggling to hold on to the most basic underpinnings of human existence. But these aren’t just characters in a book—this is history. This is real. This happened. We can’t take the every day for granted, because people who have come before us have turned around and wished they could go back to these little details, these moments that seem inconsequential but are actually privileges. We owe it to the victims of The Great Leap Forward to share their stories and learn from their loss. My partner and I owe it to our friend to take time every day to be grateful for where we are and what we have. Just because something great lurks in the future, doesn’t mean we should take for granted the every day.
As we edge closer to leaving Melbourne and therefore leaving our apartment, I am on a mission to use up everything in the pantry. I hate wasting food. It comes from my Yorkshire lineage not to throw food away, and I learnt from watching my Mum as a kid how to cook up wilting vegetables or use up every last bit in the jar before opening a new one. But as well as minimising waste, it’s also a great money saver and forces me to think twice about whether I actually need to buy something, or whether I have something on hand that can act as a substitute. So in needing something to cheer me up and keep me going through a busy week ahead, I grated the floppy zucchinis at the bottom of the crisper and made these Zucchini Cupcakes (another recipe from Green Kitchen Stories). I pulled the jar of rice flour from the depths of the cupboard, used extra allspice instead of the ground cloves I didn’t have, and didn’t ice the cupcakes until I was ready to eat them in case they didn’t get eaten quickly enough and I had to store some of them in the freezer. The scarcity of the food in the Re-Education camps acts as a reminder that we should treat our resources as a privilege, not a right. We owe it to ourselves and to the planet not to waste food or throw it away, just as we shouldn’t treat days like something we just cross off a list. Time, food, friends, loved ones are all precious. Every day is a privilege worth savouring, not just the big ones.
Melbourne loves a food craze, particularly one inherited from San Francisco or Brooklyn. Next month will see the opening of Melbourne’s first toast cafe, following on from staggeringly niche offerings such as a cereal cafe and a place that just sells scrolls. Recently I was listening to an archived episode of one of my favourite podcasts This American Life, when I heard a story about the toast cafes of San Francisco. What started as a puff-piece about the ridiculousness of the trend, became a truly beautiful story about the first toast cafe in San Francisco. I don’t want to give away too much because the story deserves to be listened to with fresh ears, so you can listen to the segment here, or the whole episode, ‘No Place Like Home’ which is quite wonderful.