Back to 1942 - when dogs ate owners'corpses

What is memorable about the year 1942?

People may remember something about the World War II, but certainly not the great famine of Henan province located in the central part of China. After 70 years, the major reasons why the famine is brought back to memory are the publication of Chinese writer Liu Zhenyun’s book Back to 1942(温故1942) and the release of popular movie “1942” directed by Feng Xiaogang, as well as a special issue “1942” published by Henan Business Daily. As a result, more people are getting to know about what happened in Henan in 1942: three to five million people starved to death and "hungry dogs ate their owners" corpses.

Poster of the movie  “1942” directed by Feng Xiaogang. Photo: Douban

Drought is actually more horrible than flood. In the history of China, drought has caused the largest number of deaths among all natural disasters, for it is less noticeable than floods and is easy to ignore, intentionally or otherwise.

In 1942, Henan experienced severe drought with cracks in the earth. In the autumn that year, the only crops that survived were invaded by locust plague. What the government should have done was to provide timely disaster relief. But in 1942, the Kuomintang troops and the Japanese were engaged in a confrontation in Henan. The top priority for both Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing and the Kuomintang commanders stationed right in Henan was military victory rather than disaster relief. On the political chessboard of Chiang Kai-shek, the victims were but a dispensable pawn.

"The fact that some victims starved to death does not matter. The land is still in China. We will be subjugated by Japanese if the soldiers are killed by hunger" - this was the top-down consensus of the ruling officials at that time. As a result, they chose to ignore the disaster and later implemented the policy of “no cuts in Food Tax”.

The traditional practice of waiving taxes for disaster areas was turned into exhausting all means to contribute to the country, which is the real reason behind the tragic scene of land paved with corpses.

Scene in the movie "1942". Photo:

Helpless refugees could only flee the famine area and move lifelessly all the way west along the railway line. After running out of food, they ate bark, and when there was no bark left, they put dry wood and even soil into their mouths; finally, they had to sell their families, their children, and their wives . Attempting to take an overly crowded train to get out of Henan, many refugees were killed by Japanese bombers and run over by trains.

Some conscientious reporters wrote about the disaster. Zhang Gaofeng of Ta Kung Pao wrote an article headlined "Henan disaster record" (left) and Wang Yunsheng, the paper’s chief editor, also wrote an editorial, "Look to Chongqing, worry about Zhongyuan”. Chiang later got angry at the articles not because the media did not truthfully report the disaster but Ta Kung Pao had brought the disaster to light.

Ta Kung Pao was ordered to cease publication for three days. Zhang was arrested by the western Henan Guard Command of KMT on the ground of being a communist suspect.

As Amartya Sen pointed out in his book Poverty and Famine, the reason for great famines, though looks like natural disasters, in fact, is the “poverty of rights”.

Chiang dealt with Ta Kung Pao while the victims in Henan were still struggling in despair. Then came another "savior" - Time Magazine reporter Theodore White. He visited the disaster area and wrote news articles and revealed pictures of "dogs eating corpse” to Chiang.

Thanks to Theodore White, the whole world got to know about the disaster in Henan. Chiang could no longer pretend not to know, and he ordered the government to start relief. Government officials finally provided relief but not because of love, but only because of the orders. The campaign was intended not just to offer relief, but also to get benefit from the relief fund.

Compared with the inefficiency and corruption of the government, foreigners’ relief measures appeared to be more successful. As soon as a missionary got out of a church yard, he would be surrounded by starving crowds. At that moment, people had no patriotic enthusiasm like they had during the Yihetuan Movement (an anti-imperialist armed struggle in 1900, also known as Boxer Movement); instead they cried "Father" for help.

The film 1942 by Feng may not be suitable for everyone to watch, because it not only exposes the scars of history, but also easy to associate with other things. In a sense, this is an adult movie, a horror movie – it has no tender touching love scenes, but only cold and tragic disaster.

The scene that struck me most was one related to "dogs eating corpse". Domesticated dogs are meant to serve their masters. During the great famine, they turned into wolves with red light in their hungry eyes and ate anyone’s flesh.

However, the victims’ suffering and stories got lost in the dust of history. Even textbooks did not mention them.

I think what Liu and Feng as well Henan Business Daily have done is like what Yang Jisheng, author of Tombstone (墓碑Mùbēi), had done by providing a comprehensive account of the great Chinese famine during China’s Great Leap Forward period in the 1960s - to build an invisible tombstone for those who lost their lives in the great famine of 1942. 

Scene in the movie "1942". Photo: Douban

Scene in the movie "1942". Photo: Douban

The article is translated and edited by Carol WU of

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