During my first year in China (1984), I lived in the city of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province. Before getting my assignment to teach there, I don’t think I had ever heard of the place and pre-internet, it wasn’t easy finding out information. I remember, though, stumbling across a book about the city that had been produced in the 1970’s by the Provincial Tourist Office. It featured pictures of broad (and empty) streets, squeaky clean parks, smiling people. Doctors, students, factory workers, peasants — all smiling! A true worker’s paradise!
Once there, I was able to learn a fair amount about the history of Henan. The city of Zhengzhou had been a dynastic capital 5000 years ago. The nearby city of Kaifeng had been a capital during the Song Dynasty, 1000 years ago. A temple in the mountains to the southwest of the city was the birthplace of martial arts.
But it was hard to come by good information on Henan’s more recent history.
When I returned to the US for the summer, I set about trying to learn more. One of the key books I discovered was “Thunder Out of China,” by Theodore White. It was based on his reporting of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. One particular event that he also chronicled was the 1942 Famine that ravaged the province. I was horrified to read that the city I now called home had once been the center of a famine that killed 40 million people, and that during the famine, the streets were littered with dead bodies. The Zhengzhou that I lived in was by no means prosperous, but what he was chronicling was unimaginable.
I recently came across a website that cataloged 30 dramatic images of the famine in Henan. (warning: many of the photos are graphic and disturbing)
In a China that now has an abundance of food, it is good to remember that just 70 years ago this was not the case.