There is a well-known Chinese saying that they eat anything that has four legs other than a table, anything that flies other than an airplane, and anything that swims other than a submarine. Amidst COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese food habits, especially the bushmeat consumption, are once again in focus. An interesting bit of history connects the Chinese wet markets to the Great Chinese Famine orchestrated by Mao, when one of the greatest butchering of wild animals in history took place

In a previous article, we discussed the factors that make China and Africa more prone to be the origin places of many zoonotic viruses that cause pandemics.

The COVID-19 virus is also zoonotic, and reportedly originated in a wet market in Wuhan popular for bushmeat.

Since more than a majority of the emerging infectious diseases are caused by zoonotic pathogens, bushmeat is banned in several countries.

China, a country known for bushmeat consumption, has also banned the sale of the meat of wild animals after the COVID-19 outbreak.

There is an interesting bit of history that connects Covid-19 pandemic to Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

The Great Chinese Famine

The three years between 1959 and 1961 — coinciding with Mao’s Great Leap Forward — were characterised by widespread famine.

Scholars put the number of deaths between 16.5 to 45 million.

Xin Meng, Nancy Qian, Pierre Yared found a surprising pattern unique to the famine years - rural mortality rates were positively correlated with per capita food production.

That is, the areas that produced more food grains suffered more. Why?

Mao Zedong’s policies that accompanied the Great Leap Forward were largely responsible.

The communist party banned the cultivation of privately owned plots and farmers were forced to work in communes. The entire population had to eat in collective kitchens, and personal pots and pans were confiscated.

Mao wanted to accelerate industrialisation. Many farmers were made to leave farming and join the iron and steel production workforce.

However, food security was an issue. The soldiers and the workforce diverted away from the agriculture had to be fed. Collection targets were set up, and officials directed to fill the granaries with grains.

Yang Jisheng, a Chinese journalist and author of Tombstone, says:

People starved at the doors of the grain warehouses. As they died, they shouted, “Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us”. If the granaries had been opened, no one need have died

But even as people were dying in large numbers, officials did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfil the delivery of grain, says Jisheng.

Illusion of Superabundance

Communist doctrine holds private property as the source of all misery.

The assumption is that after collectivisation — when there is no more private property — the individuals would be self-motivated to work harder and production will increase to take care of everyone’s needs. Therefore, a communist utopia warrants a superabundance of grains.

However, the production of grain throughout China was decreasing from 1957–1961.

But the officials were under immense pressure to prove the communist doctrine right. The numbers being reported kept increasing, while the crop yields were in fact lower than average.

To match the inflated numbers, officials were seizing all the grain of a locality, leaving nothing for the local people to eat.

Anyone who disagreed was deemed a follower of 'conservative rightism' and an anti-communist. Such was the cynicism that the peasants were believed to be pretending to be hungry in order to sabotage the state grain purchase and punished.

Therefore, no one dared to question the exaggerated reports. No one could speak openly about the famine. Anyone who did so, faced harassment, incarceration or death.

Amidst this “superabundance”, the Communist party was telling people, ''Live with the utmost frugality and eat only two meals a day, one of which should be soft and liquid.''

Meanwhile, the planners further pushed the commercial crops, export of food grains to get foreign currency, and collectivisation.

Communist Pseudoscience

The Chinese government didn’t stop at this.

The agricultural methods based on Communist pseudoscience that were implemented caused excessive damage. One example would be Soviet Russia's Lysenkoism which rejected the “Western genetics” based on genes and natural selection. Lysenko laid the foundation of a communist “new biology”.

He argued that, much like the man in the Marxist theory, whose consciousness is defined by his material existence, agricultural crops can be modified by changes in their surroundings.

What followed was things like soaking seeds in the freezing water to train them for winter, and tripling the density of seedlings as the plants of the same species would cooperate, not compete with each other.

The farmers were told to plow extremely deeply into the soil (1 to 2 meters) to train the plants to develop strong roots.

The "Four Pests" campaign was introduced by Mao who called the birds “public animals of capitalism".

Citizens were called upon to destroy sparrows and other wild birds that ate crop seeds, and were rewarded for the same.

A contemporary issue of the US-based Time magazine quoted the Peking People’s Daily:

The objection to the sparrows is that, like the rest of China’s inhabitants, they are hungry. 

As a result of Mao’s campaign, the sparrow population was brought near extinction.

This resulted in ecological imbalance. Pest population exploded and crop-eating vermin swarmed the country, destroying the crops.

Eventually, China had to import 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union.

Famine And Bushmeat

The starving people sought alternative food sources like grass, sawdust, leather, seeds sifted from animal manure, or even soil. Anything, from wild herbs and tree trunks to to decomposing animal and human dead bodies, was eaten.

Dogs, cats, rats, mice and insects were all eaten, dead or alive, until there were no more.

Yu Dehong, the secretary of a party official in Xinyang in 1959 and 1960, wrote:

I went to one village and saw 100 corpses, then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.

The consumption of wild animals has a long history in China. However, the great famine spurred the indiscriminate consumption of the meat of any wild animal that could be captured.

Zhou Xun writes:

As famine escalated, anything edible was consumed. One of the greatest butchering of wild animals in history took place during this time. Even the giant panda, praised as China’s ‘national treasure’, was not spared.

Many were killed by starvation, but many others died or became sick by eating toxic herbs, plants, or poisonous and indigestibles like white clay - that gave a sensation of relief from hunger, but caused terrible constipation.

British journalist Jasper Becker, Beijing bureau chief of The South China Morning Post, notes that out of desperation, the Chinese resorted to cannibalism.

The starving people were digging up graves, killing others, and selling human flesh on the market. Rumours filled the market that eating a human heart/liver could make one strong enough to survive longer.

Becker notes that people would swap their children so they could use them for food without committing the additional sin of eating their own.

Yang Jisheng says:

People died in the family and they didn’t bury the person because they could still collect their food rations. People ate corpses and fought for the bodies. In Gansu they killed outsiders; people told me strangers passed through and they killed and ate them, and they ate their own children.

There are harrowing reports of "counterrevolutionaries” being killed in public by the communists, and then cooked and eaten. The onlookers were forced to prove their fidelity to the revolution by eating its enemies publicly.

Many scholars have explored how the deep memory of hunger, to use Charlotte Delbo's words, plays out in their own personal lives, as well as the Chinese culture, especially food.

Today, when several videos of a Chinese person finding a nest and eating alive the birds, cooking a dog alive, etc. are circulating on social media, it is important to keep in mind this deep memory of hunger - what Piotr Gibas calls “traumatic terroir”.

Contemporary China is arguably past the Great Famine days. It is world's second largest economy and an upper-middle-income country.

While bushmeat was once consumed primarily by poor and rural communities, it is now being consumed by the middle class as a luxury item.

There is a well-known Chinese saying that they have no qualms eating the meat of anything that has four legs other than a table, anything that flies other than an airplane, and anything that swims other than a submarine.

Funny, but not good for the environment, or the humanity.