China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death. One evening when I was a young boy, not long after the catastrophe, I followed my mother as she went to dump garbage outside the wall that surrounded our village, a poor and isolated town in central China.
Holding my hand, my mother pointed to the white clay and yellow earth of the wall, and said, “Son, you must always remember, when people are starving to death they may eat this white clay and elm tree bark, but if they try to eat that yellow earth or the bark of any other kind of tree they will die even faster.”
Mother went back inside our house to cook and left behind a long shadow. I stood in front of the edible clay gazing out at the sunset, the village and the fields, and an enormous sheet of darkness gradually approached.
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