China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
During major late-Qing and Republican-era famines, observers identified starvation and epidemic disease as the primary causes of excess mortality. Conversely, during the Great Leap Famine of 1958-62 county-level reports on “unnatural deaths” blamed soaring mortality rates largely on the sudden prevalence of “fuzhongbing” (edema, literally “swelling disease”). This paper examines how the Chinese Communist Party’s construction of a new vocabulary of disaster, in this case the ubiquitous use of the term fuzhongbing, played an important role in enabling the PRC state to conceal or deny the existence of widespread starvation. In Europe, a type of edema called “nutritional edema,” or the accumulation of excess fluid in the body caused by insufficient protein and calories in the diet, became a popular topic for medical research after it was observed in Germany in World War I and during the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. A Chinese translation of edema, fuzhongbing, began to appear in Chinese-language medical publications and newspapers in the 1930s, but received little attention in Republican-era famine accounts. In contrast, during the Great Leap Famine county reports regularly attributed rising death rates to fuzhongbing, thus treating edema as an independent disease rather than a symptom of extreme malnutrition. The resulting exhaustive focus on determining the cause of edema and devising myriad medical treatments for it, I argue, gave Party leaders and local cadres a way to appear to take action during a time of crisis without either acknowledging famine conditions or lowering unrealistically high grain quotas.