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Trauma and Memory: The case of the Great Famine in the People's Republic of China (1959-1961)

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Taking the Great Famine from 1959 to 1961 in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward as an example, the article presents an inquiry into different aspects of trauma and memory in the context of culture and politics in the PRC. It shows that even in a highly politicized environment like the PRC politics in its capacity to either suppress or instigate public debate about individual or collective memories is not the only, probably not even the most important factor in making individual remembrances about events of traumatic dimensions enter the realm of communicative and possibly cultural memory. Besides psychological factors complicating communication about traumatic experiences cultural particularities have to be taken into account in order to be able to answer the question why the Great Famine could have been the subject of a taboo for such a long time and why it eventually re-emerged at the surface of public debate during the nineteen eighties and nineties. While party historians are still reluctant to discuss the disaster of the Great Famine at length, literature is serving as a forum of debate and remembrance on what peasants went through during the late nineteen fifties. Different novels are discussed in the article to show how the perspective of those who directly participated in the events differs from the next generation trying to answer the question why people in China could have gone through all these sufferings without asking any questions. The explanations they give stress cultural particularities such as ancestor worship compelling people to forget the suffering of the past if only enough people survive to preserve the continuity of the clan (Yu Hua). The repetitiveness of traumatic experiences occurring in 20th century Chinese history is seen as another reason why the Great Famine could be tabooed for more than 30 years (Mo Yan). But besides these factors stressing that trauma is dealt with differently in different cultural settings the fact that the Great Famine as part of the Great Leap Forward had been a topic of inner party debate ever since it took place has to be seen as a political factor of major importance both instrumental in this taboo and in instigating public debate on the estimated 35 million victims of what is called the greatest famine in world history.

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