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.