In 1958, Mao Zedong declared war on the sparrows. Sparrows ate grain while it ripened in the fields, depriving the people of the fruits of their labor. For this reason they were one of four species, along with rats, mosquitoes, and flies, targeted for elimination. The campaign against them was massive and total. Sparrows were shot out of the air by the thousands. Their nests were smashed, eggs broken, and chicks killed. Children helped by hunting them with slings. In coordinated attempts to scare the sparrows from descending from the air, whole towns marched into the countryside banging gongs, beating drums, and setting off fireworks. Exhausted, eventually they dropped dead from the sky.
Soon, breathless statistics about the campaign’s success were sent to Mao’s retreat in the Forbidden City. In one day, the people of Shanghai killed 194,432 sparrows. Over the course of the year, they killed more than a million. Across #China, sparrows were driven nearly to extinction. Only then did the scope of Mao’s mistake become clear, for sparrows ate insects as well as grain. When locusts started devastating crops in 1960, the sparrows were pardoned for their crimes. Bedbugs took their place on the list of people’s enemies.
With its utopian ambition, mass enthusiasm, sudden reversals, and deluded goals, the Anti-Sparrow campaign captured the madness of the Great Leap Forward in miniature. The sparrow campaign doesn’t explicitly feature in The Four #Books, Yan Lianke’s new novel about Mao’s attempt to transform his country from an agrarian one into a socialist one, but sparrows do—their appearance serving as a kind of harbinger for a new stage in an escalating calamity.
The book is set among a group of disgraced intellectuals interred in a re-education camp called the 99th district. Located in an arid part of Henan Province in central China, the camp doesn’t need walls to contain the inmates, since all the surrounding communities are also camps, full of watchful inmates who have been promised freedom if they catch an escapee. As The Four Books progresses, the intellectuals, who are identified only by the names of their former professions (Musician, Scholar, Author, Technician, Theologian), are made to participate in every successive campaign of the Great Leap Forward.
I gazed up at those sparrows that were circling, crazed with hunger. I sat down next to the Musician’s body. I took her head and placed it on my leg, letting her long hair flow through my fingers like water. A sense of conjugal warmth seemed to emanate from her dead body and entered through my thigh into my own body. At this point, the sky began to turn dark, and the furnace became shrouded in a dusklike glow. When a few sparrows boldly flew in, I kicked them away with my foot, then gently caressed the Musician’s face. In the dark furnace, her face appeared the color of mud, and it felt like a frozen piece of silk.