Renditions no. 68 (Autumn 2007)​

Leaping to Diaster: Village Literature and the Great Leap Forward
Guest Editor: Richard King

This collection presents opposing pictures of rural China during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960), the grand delusion that led to the worst famine of the 20th century. Stories and poems written at the time express boundless, if ill-founded, optimism for a communist utopia. Two decades later, fiction about its aftermath reveals its tragic impact on the peasantry. Set against the backdrop of inflated propaganda and immense hardships are tales of heroism, romance and disillusionment.

146 pages


Table of Contents

Editor’s Page 5
Richard King The Great Leap Forward and Chinese Literature 7
Poems and Stories from 1959
———— New Folk Songs 14
Here I Come
Translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang
At the Well-head
Translated by Richard King
A Girl’s Singing Voice
Translated by Audrey J. Heijns and David Lunde
Hao Ran Dawn Clouds Red as Flame
Translated by Haydn Shook and Richard King
Li Zhun A Brief Biography of Li Shuangshuang: excerpts
Translated by Johanna Hood and Robert Mackie
———— A Lone Voice of Protest
Translated by Richard King
Post-Cultural Revolution Writing on the Great Leap Forward
Zhang Yigong The Story of the Criminal Li Tongzhong: excerpts
Translated by John Shook, Carmen So, Aaron Ward and Richard King
Zhiliang Hungry Mountain Village: excerpts
Translated by Andrew Endrey
Song Xiaoxian 1958
Translated by Simon Patton
Notes on Authors 144
Notes on Contributors 145

Sample Reading

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A lone voice of protest
Translated by Richard King

Millet scattered on the ground

Potato leaves withering,

The young and strong gone to smelt iron

Leaving women and children

to gather the harvest.

How will we survive the years to come?

I beg you to denounce this for the people’s sake.







The Story of the Criminal Li Tongzhong: excerpts
By Zhang Yigong
Translated by John Shook, Carmen So, Aaron Ward and Richard King

Yang Wenxiu said to Li Tongzhong: ‘At the meeting we just had at the County Party Committee, they passed on an idea from the District Committee, calling on all communes and brigades that are short of grain to make a big push for grain substitutes. I came straight back before the meeting had ended to conduct some experiments. They’ve been highly successful and they provide us with a way to resolve the grain shortage problem.’ He pointed to the objects on the dishes, and announced several foodstuffs never before seen in the world; ‘One Bite Crisp’, a cake made of flour ground from corn husks, ‘Can’t Pull Apart’ noodles, made of flour ground from sweet potato shoots, ‘General’s Helmet’, a bun made of flour ground from straw, and others. He went through the substitute foods one by one, introducing the ingredients, characteristics and advantage of each, the agitations and irritations brought on by Li Tongzhong’s ‘Emergency Report’ being banished from the universe by these important nutritional discoveries.

Li Tongzhong felt as if miracles were occurring before his eyes, but his Rightist ideology caused him to have some slight doubts about those miracles, so he asked: ‘Are these really made with sweet potato leaves and corn husks?’

‘You don’t believe me?’ Yang Wenxiu picked up a ‘One Bite Crisp’, held it up to Li Tongzhong’s mouth and said: ‘Let me invite you to a meal, no grain ration coupons required, the great thing about it is that no ration coupons are needed.’

Li Tongzhong broke off a piece and savoured it carefully. His sense of taste told him that, though it was slightly bitter, it didn’t taste that odd: his sense of touch told him that, though it was a bit on the chewy side, it should still be possible to swallow it; his sense of hearing told him that it crackled when you bit into it, but it was made of corn husks, after all, and you couldn’t expect it to be as good as standard-grade flour. He felt annoyed with himself for chopping up the corn husks to put in the pigpens.

At Yang Wenxiu’s direction, Li Tongzhong sampled each of the substitute foodstuffs. He felt that the taste of the ‘Can’t Pull Apart’ noodles was closer to the ones made with real wheat, and he secretly congratulated the three brigades for keeping their sweet potato leaves.

‘Comrade Tongzhong,’ Yang Wenxiu said sternly: ‘The only solution for Li Family Stockade is to go in for substitute foods in a big way. If you seize this opportunity, a losing game will be converted to a winning one.’ Noting that Li Tongzhong’s face was still clouded with doubt, he added: ‘There’s no mystery to it: boil up the corn husks or the sweet potato leaves, mash them, soak them, steam them to bring about a chemical change and there you are.’ Finally his voice turned more serious still: ‘The spirit of the moment is still opposing Rightism, and we must absolutely reject the kind of lazy and cowardly thinking that there is nothing that can be done to deal with the problem of grain shortage, and speedily set in motion a mass movement to produce lots of substitute foods. Tongzhong, facts prove that opposing Rightism can produce grain, can produce foods! It’s a marvel!’

Li Tongzhong didn’t catch the profundity of this remark, as he was completely captivated by these extraordinary substitute foods. He made a request: ‘The best thing would be for one of the advanced brigades to send someone to Li Family Stockade, so we can all get to eat this “One Bite Crisp” tomorrow.’

Yang Wenxiu gestured to the party secretary of Willow Corners: ‘Shitou, I’ll leave this to you.’

Liu Shitou and Li Tongzhong were old friends. The previous fall, both of them had ridden the ‘tortoise’ together and served time in the commune lock-up. Liu Shitou was all agreement: ‘No problem, I promise you’ll be able to do it as soon as I teach you.’

‘So let’s get down to details right now.’ Li Tongzhong led Liu Shitou out of the meeting room and into the party secretary’s office. He pulled out his notebook, twisted the top off his fountain pen, and said: ‘We’ve got lots of sweet potato leaves in our brigade, tell me how we can make noodles out of them.’

Liu Shitou stared at him: ‘How d’you make noodles? You use a starch mixture.’

‘You can make a starch mix out of sweet potato leaves?’

‘Why not? Everyone’s fooling everyone else these days. Not only can you make noodles out of sweet potato leaves, you can make meatballs with pig’s bristles as well. That’s chemistry for you!’

Li Tongzhong felt as though a ladle of cold water had been dumped on his head, but he hadn’t lost hope completely. ‘How about the “One Bite Crisp”?’ he asked.

‘They’re mixed in cornstarch fifty-fifty.’

‘And the “General’s Helmet”?’

‘There’s no nourishment in it at all, all you’re doing is wasting animal feed.’