This is the Folk Memory Project, which has sent 108 young interviewers out to 130 rural villages to gather oral histories. So far, nine of them have completed documentary films about the death toll during the Great Famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s in their own villages.
Through film and stage performances, these young people are reclaiming history, telling for the first time these personal stories of some of the millions who starved to death as a result of Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward.
Under the reform policies, agriculture was collectivized, and villages set up communal kitchens, forcing villagers to hand over their cooking implements — even their ladles — to the commune.
When exaggerated grain yields were reported, the state set unrealistic procurement quotas and the communes ran out of food, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 36 million people, though Western scholars have put the figure as high as 45 million.
Hooked On The Truth
In his notebook, 23-year-old Shu Qiao collected stories and lists of names, which he cross-checked for verification. In his village, Shuangjing — or Double Well — in Hunan province, he discovered the famine had claimed 32 lives, 4 percent of the population.
"My father, my aunt and my uncle died," one old woman told him.
Another man remembered the evening that a villager stole some grain and cooked it. Before she could eat anything, an official discovered what she had done and confiscated her pot. Terrified about the consequences of disobedience, she hanged herself that night.
"Before, I believed whatever the books said," says Shu, whose own great-grandfather was a victim of the famine. "But I discovered that was wrong. The books didn't say anyone died. But 32 people died in my village. The books blamed the famine on natural disasters and our debt to the Soviet Union. But I found no natural disaster."
His quest has brought him into conflict with his family and neighbors.
The young, like his cousin, tell him what he's doing is meaningless. One group of mah jongg players can barely be bothered to lift their eyes from their mah jongg tiles to hear his explanations. The older villagers, including his own grandfather, fear his questions could cause trouble or that he's insulting the Communist Party.
But Shu is now hooked on finding out what happened.
"What I did is not enough," he says. "Once you open a door, you find there are many things behind it. I need to know more."
A Communal Project
He and the other participants in the Folk Memory Project started off asking about the Great Famine, but now they have moved on to talk about villagers' experiences of other historical events, including land reform and the Cultural Revolution.
Before, I believed whatever the books said, but I discovered that was wrong. The books didn't say anyone died, but 32 people died in my village. The books blamed the famine on natural disasters and our debt to the Soviet Union, but I found no natural disaster.
- Shu Qiao
This is the brainchild of Wu Wenguang, who's known as the godfather of independent film in China. He believes this project is more important than all his documentaries because it's a communal project in a country that lacks community.
Wu also believes it's restoring values to young people.
"This is the trouble: They didn't believe in anything," Wu says. "So during the project, they build their own beliefs, their own way of thinking."
Wu has also encouraged the young filmmakers to devise stage performances, which he describes as a "spiritual atom bomb" that often moves audiences to tears.
Against the backdrop of the state-run propaganda of that era, the young filmmakers call out the names of those who dared talk to them. It's a powerful act of truth-telling and memorial. They also shuffle across the stage, flashlights trained on their faces — shining a light into the literal and figurative darkness.
Wu warns of the dangers of China's historical amnesia.
"We are in the era of forgetting. And we're swallowing its evil consequences," he says.
Documentary maker Wu Wenguang started the Folk Memory Project, and believes it's the most important work he's been involved in. "We are in the era of forgetting," he says. He's just returned from a speaking tour to three U.S. universities.
Louisa Lim/NPR Documentary maker Wu Wenguang started the Folk Memory Project, and believes it's the most important work he's been involved in. "We are in the era of forgetting," he says. He's just returned from a speaking tour to three U.S. universities.
Wu draws parallels between Mao's headlong rush to catch up with the West and the current rush to modernize. As an example, he cites the fatal crash of a brand new high-speed rail train last year, which authorities handled by initially attempting to bury the wrecked train carriages.
"We don't have the ability to build [high-speed rail]," he explains. "But we did so for the sake of our image, and then there was an accident. That was covered up. This is the new era of the Great Leap Forward."
In his film, Shu raises money to build memorials for the dead. It's a slow process, with dozens of households donating tiny sums of money — a few cents here, a dollar there. Plenty of other villagers oppose the project altogether.
Shu finally manages to put up a tombstone engraved with the names of the dead in a spot beside the school where students will pass it every day and villagers will see it on their way to tend their crops.
The day he erects the memorial, Shu invites some high school students to see his work. None had realized people had died of hunger in their own village. They shriek with horror and disgust as he tells the story of a local student who ate worms to survive.
Shu is dismayed with the way that history is taught at the school.
"Those teaching history classes are math teachers, grammar teachers, art teachers, just substitutes," he says. "They don't know anything about history. When I go back home again, my plan is to ask if I can teach a few classes."
History is written by victors the world over, but Shu Qiao and his colleagues are challenging the state's control of information by writing their own histories — the people's histories.