Recording The Untold Stories Of China's Great Famine A famous documentary maker has inspired more than a hundred young people to take part in an oral history project to collect peasants' stories of the Great Famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s. An estimated 36 million people died during the famine, which the Chinese government blamed on natural disasters.
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Recording The Untold Stories Of China's Great Famine

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Recording The Untold Stories Of China's Great Famine

Recording The Untold Stories Of China's Great Famine

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Yesterday on WEEKEND EDITION, we heard about a book that rewrote the history China's Great Famine, which killed an estimate 36 million Chinese people in the 1950s and '60s. Today, we're going to hear about a group of young Chinese reclaiming their own history through film and performance.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, they're starting at their own doorsteps.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: A young man trudges around his village, notebook in hand, fringe flopping over his glasses.


LIM: (Foreign language spoken)

He goes from door to door, calling on the elderly. With one main question: Who died in our village during the Great Famine?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: My father, my aunt and my uncle died, an old woman says, remembering those awful years. People were starving to death, while Chairman Mao concentrated on his Great Leap Forward.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: One villager stole some grain, says this man. She cooked it, but an official caught her. That night the woman hanged herself.

This is Double Well village in Hunan Province, as filmed by 23-year-old Shu Qiao. In his documentary, Shu collects the names of the people who'd died of starvation - 4 percent of the village's population. Shu Qiao's journey has changed him.

SHU QIAO: (Through Translator) Before, I believed whatever the books said. But I discovered that was wrong. The books didn't say anyone died. But 32 people died in my village.

LIM: His quest has brought him into conflict with his family and neighbors. The young, like his cousin, tell him what he's doing is meaningless. The old fear it could cause trouble, that he's insulting the Communist Party. But Shu Qiao is hooked on the truth.

QIAO: (Through Translator) What I did is not enough. Once you open a door, you find there are many things behind it. I need to know more.

(Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Shu Qiao, in a stage performance about the famine. More than 100 people have taken part in the Folk Memory Project. This is the brainchild of Wu Wenguang, who's known as the godfather of independent film in China. But he believes this project is more important than all his documentaries because it's restoring values to young people.

WU WENGUANG: (Through Translator) This is the trouble: they didn't believe in anything. Without belief, they had nothing. So during the project, they build their own beliefs, their own way of thinking.


LIM: Here the filmmakers shuffle across the stage, flashlights trained on their faces. They're shining a light into the literal and figurative darkness. Wu describes his play as a spiritual atom bomb. He says China's historical amnesia is dangerous.

WENGUANG: (Through Translator) We're in the era of forgetting. And we're swallowing its evil consequences. For example, our high speed rail. We don't have the ability to build it. But we did so for the sake of our image, and then there was an accident. That was covered up. This is the new era of the Great Leap Forward.

LIM: In his film, Shu Qiao raised money to build a memorial for the dead. Shu finally manages to put up a tombstone engraved with the names of the dead. It's in a spot beside the school so it can't be ignored.

QIAO: (Foreign language spoken)


LIM: None of the school kids realized people died in their own village. Shu Qiao tells them the story of a local student who ate worms to survive. He admits he's dismayed with the school's history teachers.

QIAO: (Through Translator) Those teaching history classes are math teachers, grammar teachers, art teachers - just substitutes. They're not clear about history. When I go back home again, my plan is to ask if I can teach a few classes.


LIM: The young filmmakers call out the names of those who dared talk to them. It's a powerful act of truth-telling and memorial. History is written by victors the world over. But Shu Qiao and his colleagues are challenging the state's control of information by writing their own histories, the people's histories.

Louisa Lim NPR News, Beijing.


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