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By Yang Su

(Cambridge University Press 320pp £55 hbk/£17.99 pbk)

WHEN YANG SU was a boy, growing up in a Hakka village in Guangdong, he once watched buffalos being butchered. After one of the animals was trapped in the fields, a group of men with large hammers moved in and struck the buffalo until it sank to its haunches and finally collapsed, covered in blood. The term used in Hakka dialect to describe the killing was bol, meaning ‘strikes that produce a dull sound’. The same word was used to convey how victims were bludgeoned to death with hardwood clubs in the villages of south China during the Cultural Revolution. Even when rifles were available, local farmers were reluctant to waste bullets, so they resorted to primitive farming tools instead.

Sha Kaichu, for instance, was rounded up in 1967 and denounced at a rally in the local town square. His father had been killed dur ing the land reform of 1952 for being a landlord; Sha left the village that same year and volunteered to fight in the Korean War. After his discharge from the army he came home to work as a tractor driver. His only crime was that he was the son of a landlord. The morning after the rally Sha and several other descendants of landlords were marched to the militia headquarters, but they never reached their destination. The militia decided to kill all of them by a dusty roadside. Sha Kaichu was hammered to death by Zheng Mengxu. The Shas and the Zhengs had been next-door neighbours since the land refor m, when landlord Sha’s house had been confiscated and handed over to Zheng, a drifter from another village. Zheng was delighted with the murder, joyfully yelling out ‘Tai hao le! Tai hao le!’ (‘This is great! This is great!’) as he returned to the village.

As Yang Su explains in his important study, there were many similar stor ies of collective murder all over the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, as villagers turned against villagers, slaughtering each other in the hundreds of thousands. The highest figure the author ventures is three million violent deaths. His estimates lack precision because the government has buried most of the evidence about the depth and the scale of violence during the Cultural Revolution. But although he was prevented from gaining access to the relevant files in county archives, he did manage to obtain several unpublished documents that describe the atrocities in great detail, including details of the victims, locations and perpetrators, as well as the manner in which people were killed. In all cases the violence was communal. In Daoxian county, Hunan, where 4,950 people were eliminated within two months, participants voted to decide who should be killed. In a meeting that lasted hours, the names of potential victims were read out, one by one, and tallied.

Su also interviewed some of the key protagonists of these pogroms. When asked why villagers could inflict such violence on each other, the answer was always the same: if you beat someone in a struggle rally and the victim survived, he would know exactly where you lived. ‘That is why when you beat someone, you better kill him; even if you kill him, his brothers or sons may come at you another time in a different campaign.’ So children were killed too. In Quanzhou county, Guangxi, militia l eader Huang Tianhui took the l ead on 3 October 1967 in a massacre of seventy-six people, most of them former landlords, rich farmers and their children: all were pushed off a cliff into a canyon. Even babies were eliminated. In Scarlet Memorial, a horrific account of Cultural Revolution violence published in 1996, Zheng Yi explained how in parts of Guangxi the killers identified infant boys for murder by first touching their crotch.

As Collective Killings in Rural China during the Cultural Revolution shows, a divide ran between perpetrators and victims, one which was entirely created by the communist regime after 1949. Its name was ‘class’, and it was new to ordinar y people who more often than not defined relationships in ter ms of clan and l ineage. Revolution was not only about land redistribution, it was also a political project in which designated landlords and r ich peasants were labelled as ‘class enemies’. Although most of them were killed in the first few years of communism, their descendants were constantly exposed to discr imination, abuse and violence. They eked out a marginal existence under tight surveillance. They became the scapegoats of the reg ime, a focal point for every subsequent political campaign. Their miserable fate served as a yardstick and a mirror to all the other villagers.

Time and again, these outcasts were blamed for everything that went wrong on the road to communism. Al t hough t he au t hor’s f ocus i s on t he Cultural Revolution, historians have recently started to unearth archival evidence that shows how during Mao’s Great Famine from 1958 to 1962, hundreds of thousands of ‘class enemies’ were routinely tortured and beaten to death. Millions more were banned from the collective canteens and deliberately starved to death. As the head of Chishui county, Guizhou, warned in 1959: ‘Poor and Rich Peasants, This Struggle is to the Death!’ In the following seven months, 24,000 people died – more than