Reasons I'm glad not to be a farmer in late Ming-dynasty Shaanxi, #603

From Ma Maocai’s 1629 (崇祯二年) memorial report to the Chongzhen Emperor, 《备陈大饥疏》”A Narration of the Great Famine.” Translation mine; original text (courtesy of David) below the cut. Corrections/comments welcome, as my classical Chinese is rusty. (Some corrections made, thanks to the Foolish Old Man of the Granite Studio, whose recent post on Hua Guofeng filled me with delight.)

Your servant’s district is in Yan’an subprefecture, where since last year there has been no rain, and the grass and trees are parched and scorched. In September and October, the people fought amongst themselves to pick and eat the peng grasses that grow between the mountains. Peng grass resembles chaff, and has a bitter and unpleasant taste. Eating it, the people were able only to delay death.

After November the peng grass was all gone, and people began to strip the bark from trees, among which only the elm’s bark was at all palatable. People made a mash of the bark, which allowed them to postpone slightly their deaths.

By the end of the year, all of the tree bark was gone, and the people began to dig up stones from the ground to eat. The stones were cold and had a repellent, fishy taste, but by eating a few people could fill their bellies. Several days afterward, their abdomens swelled and distended, and they died. Those unwilling to eat stones and die began to turn to brigandry, and those few people who had managed to save a pittance were robbed and left with nothing.

…Most pitiable were those cases like that of Ji, to the west of Ansai, where every day one or two young children would be abandoned. Some sobbed and howled; some cried out for their mothers; some ate their own filth. By the second morning, not a one of the children would remain alive, and there would again be more children abandoned. Most astonishing were those children and single travellers who would vanish without a trace upon leaving the city. Afterwards people were seen outside the city walls, burning human bones for their fires and boiling human flesh, making food from people they had known. Those men who ate men would themselves die within a few days, their eyes swollen and reddened and their bodies burning from within.

And so the dead lay in heaps, the stench filling the air and reaching to the sky. Outside the county city, several pits were dug, each large enough to hold the remains of several hundred people. When your servant went to inspect the situation, three pits had already been filled, with more needed, while several miles outside of town unknowable numbers of people went unburied.

…Some officials, bound by severe government policies, had no choice but to levy heavy taxes, and those few left in Li who had survived the famine had no choice but to flee. From this place they would flee to that place, while the people from that place fled to this place, fleeing to and robbing from one another. These robberies are what occasioned this memorial.

臣乡延安府,自去岁一年无雨,草木枯焦。八九月间,民争采山间蓬草而食。其粒类糠皮,其味苦而涩。食之,仅可延以不死。至十月以后而蓬尽矣,则剥树皮而食。诸树惟榆皮差善,杂他树皮以为食,亦可稍缓其死。迨年终而树皮又尽矣,则又掘其山中石块而食。石性冷而味腥,少食辄饱,不数日则腹胀下坠而死。民有不甘于食石而死者,始相聚为盗,而一二稍有积伫之民遂为所劫,而抢掠无遗矣……最可悯者,如安塞城西有冀城之处,每日必弃一二婴儿。 于其中有嚎泣者,有呼其父母者,有食其粪土者。至次晨,所弃之子无一生,而又有弃子者矣。更可异者,童稚辈及独行者,一出城外便无踪迹。后见门外之人,炊人骨以为薪,煮人肉以为食,始知前之人皆为其所食。而食人之人,亦不免数日后面目赤肿,内发燥热而死矣。于是死者枕藉,臭气熏天,县城外掘数坑,每坑可容数百人,用以掩其遗骸。臣来之时已满三坑有余,而数里以外不及掩者又不知其几许矣……有司束于功令之严,不得不严为催科。仅存之遗黎,止有一逃耳。此处逃之于彼,彼处复逃之于此。转相逃则转相为盗,此盗之所以遍秦中也。

Comments (21)

  1. juhuacha wrote::


    I am *so* glad that I was not a Ming Dynasty farmer. Or anyone, for that matter, at the end of the Ming Dynasty…

    Tuesday, October 17, 2006 at 4:10 pm #
  2. Great translation, Brendan. Very well rendered, you’ve got a knack for it. I remember a prof who remarked (in a very un-PC manner) that translations of Classical Chinese into English were like women: The beautiful were seldom faithful and the faithful were seldom beautiful.

    You’ve managed to do both. Bravo.

    If you’ll permit me some suggestions:

    1) 八九月 probably doesn’t mean August and September. In the 2nd year of Chongzhen’s reign, the first day of the 8th month corresponds to September 17, 1629. Which would make the 9th month sometime in October of that same year.

    2) Chaff or 糠皮, I’ve also seen this written in other documents as 糠秕/粃. Same word?

    3) The term 司, I should check Hucker’s dictionary of Chinese official titles, but I’ve also seen this rendered as ‘official.’

    Great post.

    Wednesday, October 18, 2006 at 12:38 pm #
  3. Thanks, J — I’m a big fan of your blog. My own knowledge of Chinese history is embarrassingly far from what it should be, so it’s always nice to learn something new.

    1 — You’re quite right. I plead laziness here. How did you look up the dates?

    2 — Will have to check my copy of the Cihai when I get back home. I only remember encountering 糠皮 before.

    3 — “Officials” makes a lot more sense there, actually. Thanks.

    Also, that’s an awesome line that your professor had re: the fidelity of translations. I’ll have to make sure that my Evil Un-P.C. Twin remembers it.

    Wednesday, October 18, 2006 at 2:11 pm #
  4. Converting dates used to drive historians crazy but these days it’s a bit easier. Academica Sinica has an online converter. Very convenient.

    Wednesday, October 18, 2006 at 8:53 pm #
  5. nausicaa wrote::

    Plaudite to both of you. Brendan for being such a great one with the translations and J for being so deliciously anal (in a good way!)

    Thursday, October 19, 2006 at 4:31 am #
  6. Jeff wrote::

    Sounds like it would suck to be anyone living there at the time.
    For some reason it seems like the guy is exaggerating when he gets to the eating rocks part, but who knows.

    Also, could 黎 also refer to common people? i forget…

    Thursday, October 19, 2006 at 11:01 am #
  7. Jeff — that had been my initial guess, based on 黎’s meaning of “many,” but there was a 黎 city in Shaanxi, and so I ended up guessing that it was probably that.

    Thursday, October 19, 2006 at 11:46 am #
  8. trevelyan wrote::

    @花崗齋之愚公 –> tremendously useful link, doubly so as it is near impossible to find paper-based almanacs that stretch back earlier than 1800 these days. Looks like it is simply dating things from the lunar calendar though, not Imperial accession.

    Friday, October 20, 2006 at 9:59 pm #
  9. Feifei wrote::

    Fyi, I spent the first ten minutes after reading your response on my blog jumping up and down, running around the apartment and waving my arms excitedly. There was probably some high-pitched squealing involved as well. This was at 8.30 AM, providing a wake-up call for my poor flatmate, whether she wanted it or not.
    Then I calmed down and realized you must think I’m some sort of freaky stalker, posting links to around ten of your blog posts without even contacting you for permission. I’m really sorry about that – I would’ve asked, but somehow I reasoned you’d find it even weirder if I requested permission to write that I think your writing is amazing, and I’m impressed by what you’ve accomplished by the age of 23.
    It was late and I had an essay due about my feelings on our second 汉语课,“那年那月那狗”。 It’s a brilliant piece about a sadistic grandgrandpa and a dog so loyal it’s bordering on stupidity. Does it sound familiar?
    Anyhow, thank you for your comments. I’m curious though – how did you find out I had linked to your blog?

    Saturday, October 21, 2006 at 12:56 am #
  10. Hey, no worries — I’m always surprised that people are reading the site at all. Thanks again for the links. I found out about it in the “Dashboard” page of WordPress, which auto-scans Technorati for incoming links.

    “那年那月那狗” doesn’t sound all that familiar, but to be honest, the only parts of my early Chinese education that have stuck with me were the wacky adventures of Gubo and Palanka, the two China-lovin’ Foreign Friends whose antics (along with those of token Chinese pal Ding Yun and “Mister Brown”) made up the old Practical Chinese Reader. One of my first textbooks, and hands-down the best, as you can name-drop “Palanka” into conversation with fellow Chinese students and instantly separate the cool kids from the ones who studied using textbooks written after 1985.

    Saturday, October 21, 2006 at 5:02 am #
  11. Feifei wrote::

    Technorati, cool. And you shouldn’t be surprised people are reading your blog – how many sites have the words shit-baby and 鬻 in it at the same time? Also, it’s mentioned in an article in City Weekend, which is how I found it.

    It’s one of the texts from my classes at Beida, but I think they must’ve changed the system since you were here, because now the highest class is 32 in 口语 and 30 in 汉语, not 20 like in your days.
    And Palanka and Gubo must be cool, there wasn’t even any article in Wikipedia on them. Now that’s something in my eyes (I’m slightly addicted to Wikipedia, and felt like half of my brain was shut down when it was banned in China).

    Saturday, October 21, 2006 at 11:53 am #
  12. JamesP wrote::

    There’s a certain formula in Chinese descriptions of famines, don’t you think? Stripping the bark from the trees always comes up, for instance, and so does cannibalism. I mean, of course it’s partially because that’s what tended to happen, I’m sure, but I wonder if there isn’t almost a literary pattern that’s being followed as well.

    Sunday, October 22, 2006 at 11:50 pm #
  13. James,

    I agree. Currently, I’m reading a lot of memorials describing urban riots in the late Qing and there are definitely tropes that you see repeated again and again. It wouldn’t surprise me if the same were true of other memorials reporting bad news, such as famine.

    Monday, October 23, 2006 at 12:15 am #
  14. JamesP wrote::

    Carries on a long time, too. I’ve been reading (slowly, since my Chinese is shite) Wu Han’s biography of Zhu Yuanzhang, and the tropes are very evident there in his description of the famine in Zhu’s childhood village. (Though again, I suspect they’re partially drawn from personal experience of the GLF famine.)

    Monday, October 23, 2006 at 6:14 am #
  15. Beyond sobering.

    Thursday, October 26, 2006 at 10:07 pm #
  16. J B wrote::

    Hi Brendan,

    Nice translation. I just wanted to say, and this might sound strange coming from one american to another, your english is really good (your chinese blog is just awesome, but I don’t need to say that). I like to read your chinese blog as well as your english one, I think you really got a writer’s talent. I know how much 退步 your english can have while in china, so to be able to write such amazing english is no small feat. In fact, I am now looking to 恢复 my english a little bit, haha.

    Keep up the good work yo!

    Friday, October 27, 2006 at 4:05 pm #
  17. Bevan wrote::

    Great to see someone else covering this subject. I wrote on this subject of cannibalism for my BA Chinese.

    Thursday, November 2, 2006 at 7:24 am #
  18. Nic wrote::

    in chinese, 黎 means “common and many”. i always have a feeling that when the governers saying “黎明”is like human beings talking about ants. they are both poor weak animals.

    and Bevan, i really want to read your project about cannibalism! that must be very interesting, well, not cannibalism itself, but your writing (hope i made myself clear).

    Monday, October 8, 2007 at 11:06 am #
  19. Nic wrote::

    is 黎民 not 黎明……

    Monday, October 8, 2007 at 11:07 am #
  20. W Hamilton wrote::

    Wow. Classical Chinese is simplified characters. Surreal.

    Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 12:48 pm #
  21. Soong Li wrote::

    @W Hamilton — Of course, there are some traditional characters that can’t be simplified — but show me one example of a character in this post whose simplified form causes misunderstanding.

    Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 6:22 pm #