MRI Forum 47

"Cultures of Survival, 1958-1962"

by Frank Dikötter


Summary of the Presentation

The whole of China's countryside was swept into a communal maw during the Great Leap Forward, with fatal consequences for tens of millions of farmers. We know a good deal about the grand plans on paper for building communism, but a lot less about the real people behind the façade of the people's communes created by government propagandists at the time. While the role of the state is undeniable, setting the parameters within which collectivisation unfolded, the full repertoire of everyday interaction between ordinary people and state officials in times of collectivisation – ranging from enthusiastic participation and passive conformity to supplication, manipulation, stealthy resistance or even active opposition  – is a key issue that we will explore in this talk. We will look at a range of survival practices people in the countryside developed during collectivisation: among these were hoarding, slaughtering of animals, flight to the cities, open or concealed resistance, scapegoating, denouncing, sabotaging, spreading rumours and black marketeering. The purpose of the talk is to offer a counterpoint to ideological formulations, enabling us better to understand the many intricate encounters, alterations, misunderstandings, negotiations and conflicts which took place at the level of everyday life: how did farmers survive famine?

Profile of the Speaker

Frank Dikötter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. He is a key proponent of studying the history of China in global perspective and has published a series of innovative books, from The Discourse of Race in Modern China (1992) to the more recent The Age of Openness: China before Mao (2008). He is currently writing a book for Bloomsbury on everyday lives during the Great Leap Forward.