A recently released movie in China that focuses on a devastating famine the country experienced before the Communist Party came to power is triggering discussions online about a more recent tragedy.
Back to 1942, a grim film by Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, tells the story of a terrible drought in Henan province during the WWII that occurred at a time when the Japanese army was closing in to conquer central China.
Released in theaters around the country last week, the movie follows the hopeless march of millions of Henan residents as they flee their homes in search of shelter and food.
Although the movie focuses on how refugees from Henan were abandoned by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and betrayed by corrupt local officials, many on China’s Twitter-like microblogging service Weibo are focusing on another famine, one that occurred when China’s Mao Zedong was in power.
Murong Xuecun (pen name of Hao Qun), a popular Chinese writer and active blogger, draws a parallel between the events depicted in the movie and another famine, more severe but not as documented within China.
“We all know that the famine in 1942 was not the most severe [in recent times], the most severe was the 1959-1962 years," he says, "but I can understand very well why Feng Xiaogang did not portray the famine of the 1960s.”
In the 1950s Mao Zedong launched a campaign, known as the "Great Leap Forward", which brutally collectivized agriculture and largely halted farm work, in an effort to industrialize the country and raise China up to join the ranks of other developed nations.
The results were disastrous for hundreds of millions of people in the countryside, who had to give up the little grain they had to city dwellers. The famine, which within China is explained as caused by a combination of factors including “political errors,” killed an estimated 36 million people. But Mao is still revered as modern China's founding father and so the famine remains a taboo subject for books of modern history, let alone movies.
Murong says that if Feng were to set his movie during what is remembered as the “great famine,” it would not have passed the test of censors.
“I believe that if this were a free and open environment he would have definitely chosen to make a movie about 1959-1962,” says Murong.
Chinese books, movies and news publications must undergo a strict screening by the State Administration for Radio Film and Television, and the General Administration for Press Publication, that are the main enactors of media censorship and often ban work whose content does not conform with the Communist party's line.
Censors have clamped down on various attempts to publicly debate sensitive times in China's history, but online, where people tend to share more candid views about their country, many users caught the opportunity of this movie to talk about the famine caused by Mao Zedong's economic policies.
“Why did so many more people die in 1962 as compared to 1942” read a thread on Weibo, China’s most popular twitter like service.
“The famine in 1942 was a natural disaster, the one in 1962 was man-made,” said one user named “Old Brother Zhang.”
Journalists and popular online commentator Li Yong, who goes by the name “Ten Years Chopping Wood” and has more than 200,000 followers on Weibo, remarked that all governments must be criticized and monitored.
“The nationalist government cannot use the excuse that Henan was situated in a war zone to avoid responsibility for the problems in relief efforts,” Li writes on his account. “For the same reason, and even more so, people should look back at the great famine of 1959-1962 that took place in the central plains, as well as in the entire country, during times of peace.”
Some on Weibo followed up their comments with reading suggestions about the Great Leap Forward.
“I watched the movie and, as a result, I went and downloaded the book about the 1959 famine Tombstone,” a user from Xian wrote on Weibo that after reading one chapter of the book it was almost too hard for her to continue, given the horrible conditions people faced.
Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng's book Tombstone is the most detailed account to date of what happened in China's rural areas during the Great Leap Forward. Although Yang used official Communist party archives and documents for his research, the book is banned in China.
Yang was a child during the "Great Leap Forward" and a personal witness to the tragedy.
Despite the connections made online between the movie Back to 1942 and the more deadly famine of the 1960s, it is unclear when the party will allow a more open discussion on its own history.
Earlier this year, a senior journalist at a state news agency angered many netizens after he denied the gravity of the great famine in a post on his Weibo account.
Lin Zhibo, head of the Gansu branch of the party's mouthpiece People's Daily, had to apologize for his comment that “very few people died of starvation at the time.”
As a result of Lin's comment, many people started to post memories online, including accounts and photographs of their families' sufferings, breaking a taboo on what memories people in China are allowed to share in public.
In the last few minutes of Back to 1942 the narrator reveals that a little girl depicted at the end of the movie is his mother.
“Years later, because of an interview that I was preparing about the famine, I asked her questions about 1942,” the narrator explains. “I do not remember,” the mother responds, “why do you keep asking?”