Nationalism and Famine: The Role of Hunger in the Tibet Conflict

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Nationalism and Famine: The Role of Hunger in the Tibet Conflict

Felix Wemheuer (University of Vienna)

This is a draft version. No quotation without the permission of the author.

“We are what we eat”. As various food studies have shown national and social identities are often constructed in terms of dietary practices. The rise of national cousins developed as a parallel process to the nation building in 18th and 19th century in Europe. However, less is known about the relation between famine and national identity. In the case of the Irish potato famine (1842-1848), the Ukrainian famine (1932-1933), Vietnamese famine (1944-1945) and the famine in Tibet (1959-1961) the experience of mass starvation under the rule of a “foreign power” play a significant role in nationalist narratives. Nationalist politicians and historians claim that the famines were produced on purpose by the “occupying power”. The struggle for independence is presented as a natural result of the famine experience. In the Irish, Ukrainian and Tibetan cases, some authors even define the famine as an act of genocide and part of a plan promoted by the “foreign” power to destroy the national culture. The term genocide allows the creation of a national identity based on collective victimhood, rather than on national heroes or achievements. The first part of this article will review nationalist narratives of the Irish, Vietnamese and Ukrainian famines. For the Irish and Ukrainian case, the central role of the Diaspora community in the development of this narrative will be highlighted.

Against this background, the second and third part of the article will focus on the role of hunger and famine in the context of the Tibet conflict. To reduce the Tibet issue to a conflict about food would be a simplification, but this article will show that in the historical narratives of Tibet promoted by the Tibetan government-in-exile and by the Chinese government, hunger in modern times has an important function. This article will compare the use of hunger and food metaphors in the arguments of both sides. In the second part, the article will outline the master narrative which the 14th Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan exile government, established in his autobiography written in 1962. The Dalai Lama has argued several times that famines never took place in Tibet before 1951. Therefore, starvation under “Chinese rule” is one focus of narratives of Tibetans in exile written after 1959. The article will show how Tibetan authors are constructing cultural differences based on food, such as the distinction between “barley eaters” and “rice eaters”.

The third part of the article will analyze the role of hunger in the official Chinese narrative. In contrast to the exile Tibetan version, the Chinese narrative describes how the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) suffered of hunger and malnutrition while they liberated Tibet peacefully in 1951. In the context of this narrative of liberation, hunger is presented as a selfless sacrifice of the soldiers in order to unify the Chinese nation. Reading the official Chinese sources, one gets the impression that the Chinese government made many efforts to feed the PLA and improve the nutrition of the Tibetans. In the context of the state-sponsored “remembering bitterness” campaigns, the Tibetan peasants had to learn to narrate the suffering and hunger in “Old Tibet”.1 Furthermore, the official data which the Chinese government published provide no proof of mass starvation in Tibet after 1959. As John Powers has shown in his study “History as propaganda,”2 for both the exiled Tibetans and the Chinese government, historical writing is used to create national identity. This article is considered as a contribution to understand the politicization of hunger under socialism and the de-mystification of Tibet.

  1. Politicization of hunger and nationalism

The historian James Vernon argues that we should not take sympathy for the victims of famines for granted. In his book “Hunger: A modern history”, he shows that in late Victorian Britain in the 19th century the idea of Malthus that famines are a natural result of population growth against the background of limited recourses was very popular. Moreover, religious narratives viewed famines as a punishment send by god for human sins. It was not an easy task to overcome the Malthusian framework. The modern media print played an important role to present starvation as “news”, especially to its readers from the English middle class. The hungry became a figure of humanitarian concern only by the last decades of the 19th century. Furthermore, nationalism contributed to the politicization of hunger. “In the hand of Irish and Indian nationalists, famine came to represent the inhumanity and incompetence of British rule: the British had promised free trade, prosperity, and civilization; they had delivered famine and pestilence […]. Famine highlighted the moral strength of those who suffered; and unnecessary colonial famines mocked the universal pretensions of classical political economy. Here the nationalist use of famine to critique colonial rule became a claim to sovereignty: they willed a new nation into existence by documenting its collective suffering.”3 However, not in every nationalist narrative, famine plays an important role. Despite the fact that Mohandas Gandhi used the technique of hunger strike, famine never occupied a central place in his critique of the British rule in India.4 These are an interesting fact against the background that 12.2-29.3 million Indians starved to death under the rule of the British Empire between 1879 and 1902.5 The historian Mike Davies even named these famines the “late Victorian holocausts” which were caused by the British lassie faire liberalism and its incompetence to deal with the climate change of the El Nino draughts in the late nineteen century.6

Let us now go into detail and the cases of the Irish, Vietnamese and Ukraine famine and nationalist narratives:

Ireland: The case of the Irish famine (1845-1848) shows a rapid rise and fall of its place in nationalist narratives. The Irish famine was caused by several years of potato blight and crop failure. At that time, large parts of the Irish laboring population lived almost exclusively on a diet of potato. Like in many other cases, the response of the government is the key factor determining whether or not a famine will result in mass starvation and death of thousands. By the time of the famine, Ireland was ruled by the British government in Westminster and had lost its own parliament. During the famine food was exported from Ireland to England. At the same time, the British government imported Indian corn to Ireland to relief the starving population. However, many Irish peasants who were used to a potato diet did not know how to make the best use of the Indian corn. Wrong preparation of the corn with an extremely hard shell caused severe stomach problems which become known as “Peel’s brimstone”, named after the British Prime Minster Sir Robert Peel who was in office between 1841 and 1846.7 The British government relief program focused on public work to provide employment. The infamous workhouses served as a place to nourish and “educate” the poor. After this institution proved ineffective, in order to prevent mass starvation the British government under Sir John Russell established soup kitchens in March of 1847, which provided food to over 3 million people. In autumn, the government declared that the famine already had reached its peak and closed the soup kitchens. At that time, infectious diseases were already widespread. Especially the English print media presented the famine relief as a bottomless black hole. Senior government officials blamed the famine on the laziness of the Irish peasants and the unwillingness of the Irish landlords to modernize their estates. Ireland was supposed to share the main burden of the famine relief by itself.8 The British government did not ignore the famine, but the relief program was not on its top priority list. Westminster spent a net amount on the famine relief about 7 Million pounds. In contrast to the hungry Irish people, the slave owners in West Indian received 20 Million pounds compensation for the abolishment of slavery in the 1830.9 As a result of the famine, the population of Ireland was reduced by 20 to 25 percent. Approximately between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died and another 2.1 million people emigrated oversees between 1845 and 1851. 10

Studies of the Irish folklore have shown that many country people and catholic clergymen interpreted the famine as an “act of god” in the aftermath of the event.11 However, Irish nationalism politicized the famine and the event played a prominent role in its narratives.12 For example, in 1861 the famous Irish nationalist John Mitchell wrote the book “The last conquest of Ireland (perhaps)” in exile in the US. Mitchell portrayed the British government as ignorant and incompetent. According to his view, the famine was use as a weapon to conquer the Irish nation. While cattle and wheat as exported, the British government imported the Indian corn only in order to blind the people to the fact that England was exacting her tribute as usual. Mitchell estimated the death toll on one and a half million. He came to the famous conclusion. “They died of hunger in the midst of abundance, which their own hands created […]. Furthermore, I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more […]. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”13 This emotional narrative became popular, because it could make sense of suffering. The Irish nationalists could focus their attention on an outside force as the perpetrator, instead of remembering the breakdown of the social order in Ireland and all its catastrophic results such as increasing crime rates, prostitution, cannibalism and deprivation. The narrative could draw the line between the victim, catholic Ireland, and the perpetrator, protestant England, instead of acknowledging the facts that also many catholic landlords and head tenants took advantage of the famine by dispossessing land of weaker Irish peasants. Furthermore, the protestant areas around Ulster were hid by the famine as well. Despite of these contradictions, the narrative of the artificial famine “served the deep psychological and political need of the post-Famine generations”, as Peter Gray points out.14 Especially for the Irish famine refugees in the US, the nationalist narrative could provide a framework to maintain the Irish and catholic identity in a hostile environment. The nationalists blamed “protestant” England for forcing them to leave their home country.15 Popular songs and ballads called for revenge for the mass starvation in form of the struggle against England under the green flag.16 All future Irish nationalist movements were heavenly depend on Irish-American approval and funds. Although by the eve of World War I most eyewitness of the famine had passed away, songs, ballads and newspaper articles kept the collective memory of the famine within the Irish population of 4.5 million people in the US Diaspora alive.17

However, since the early 20th century the memory of the famine lost its importance in collective memory in Ireland. Things changed around the 150th anniversary in 1995 when the Irish government funded a National Famine Commemoration Committee. Christine Kinealy points out the new boom of literature that occurred in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the famine: from 1900 to the 1980s only two major publications were produced by Irish historians; while between 1995 and 1997 more books were published on the famine than in previous 150 years.18 However, the pro-British parties in Northern Ireland and conservatives in England still feared that the memories of the famines could help the IRA (Irish Republican Army). An official acknowledge and express of regret for the role of the British government during the famine by Prime Minister Tony Blair was widely criticized in England and Ireland for being unnecessary.19 In contrast to these concerns, the president of Ireland Mary Robison did not draw an anti-British lesson from the famine, but emphasis the solidarity with starving people and refuges in the developing countries in her address of 150th anniversary.20 However, the nationalist narrative which was developed by Mitchell is still alive. For example, a Famine Genocide Committee was established in New York (see also the wall painting on page 1). Moreover, the Irish Pop star Sinead O’Connor wrote the song “famine”21 in 1995:

“OK, I want to talk about Ireland
Specifically I want to talk about the "famine"
About the fact that there never really was one
There was no "famine"
See Irish people were only allowed to eat potatoes
All of the other food
Meat fish vegetables
Were shipped out of the country under armed guard
To England while the Irish people starved
And then on the middle of all this
They gave us money not to teach our children Irish
And so we lost our history.”

The song combines the narrative of an artificial famine with the popular rhetoric of trauma. According to O’ Connor, the Irish nation could only rediscover its Christian roots and overcome the “post traumatic stress disorder” through commemorating the famine. The line “There was no famine” reflects the debate about how to label the event. While the word famine emphasis the natural disaster and decline in production, nationalist authors preferred the term “The Great Starvation” or the traditional Irish designation for “The Great Hunger” (An Gorta Mor).22 Despite the reasonable criticism of the role of the British government, one must acknowledge that the event could hardly be described as a “procurement famine”. In 1847, the potato harvest was only a quarter of normal and in 1848 only one-third of usual crop could be saved.23 Even if no cattle and wheat were exported, mass starvation and death would still have occurred. In the context of this paper, the raise of the nationalist narrative “They starved us on purpose” is important and will also be analyzed in other cases.


In the case of Vietnam, the famine of 1944-45 was linked to the founding of a new independent nation state. The history of modern Vietnam before 1944 is known for starvation, but not for famines that caused the death of millions.24 Since 1887, Tonkin, the northern part of Vietnam, was under French protectorate and the south, French Indochina, under direct colonial rule. In 1940, the Japanese army took over the control over Vietnam and forced the French colonial administration to collaborate. Since than large quantity of Tonkin rice land was converted to production of industrial crops, particular castor oil seed and jute. French Indochina severed as the largest supplier of rice to Japan from 1940 to 1943.25 Meanwhile the population had increased by 36 percent. In 1942 the French colonial administration had signed agreement to supply Japan with the entire “exportable surplus” of the rice harvest.26 Furthermore, natural disasters had reduced the spring rice harvest in Tonkin of 1944 by 19 percent.27 These factors would not have naturally created a large-scale famine. However, after the harvest in autumn of 1944, a terrible famine took place. Bui Minh Dung argues that the most important factor was the procurement policy of the Japanese with French assistance. In late 1944, the French and the Japanese army decided to hoard up large amounts of rice in order to store it for their armies. Both colonial powers ignored the fact that millions of Vietnamese were starving. In Tonkin, the Viet Minh guerrilla forces could increase its popularity by organizing famine relief and attacking granaries.28 With the strategy “seizing the granaries, to solve the famine”, the Viet Minh combined famine relief with political mobilization. Many party members starved to death, because they stayed close to the masses. Some authors have seen this campaign against famine was “largely responsible” for the raise to power of the Viet Minh in Tonkin and northern Annam.29 During that time, the Viet Minh presented itself mainly as a patriotic and anti-colonial force. The united front strategy emphasized the alliance of all patriotic Vietnamese against the foreign occupation, not class struggle or communism.

When Ho Chih Min declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2 of 1945, he did not only make reference to the US declaration of Independent and the French declaration of Human Rights, but also to the famine. “In the autumn of 1940, when the Japanese fascists violated Indo-China’s territory to establish new bases in their fight against the Allies, the French imperialists went down on their bended knees and handed over our country to them. Thus, from that date, our people were subjected to the double yoke of the French and the Japanese. Their sufferings and miseries increased. The result was that from the end of last year to the beginning of this year, from Quang Tri province to the North of Viet Nam, more than two million of our fellow-citizens died from starvation.”30 The figure of two million deaths was later enshrined in official history books.31 David Marr believes that the figure of one million is more credible. This figure implies that about 10 percent of the population in the affected region perished over a five-year period.32 However, in the context of this article, the role of the famine in the declaration of independence is more important than the exact number of victims. The famine served as an argument that France had lost any legitimacy to rule Vietnam. Furthermore, the human rights of the Vietnamese people and the development of the country could only be guaranteed by independence. In October of 1945, Ho appealed to his compatriots to do without a meal every ten days to help the poor to escape from death.33 In an open letter, he encouraged the peasants to extensive planting in order to save the North from starvation and support the fight against the enemy, the French army, in the south.34 The new government celebrated the elimination of the famine as the “first great victory” of the people. The organization of famine relief for the effected province in the north served as a part of nation building.

However, in the official history of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the famine played no central role later on.35 The reason might be that the anti-imperialist wars against France (1946-1954) and the US (1965-1973) could better serve the purpose of the patriotic narrative, according to which the Vietnamese nation could only be saved under the leadership of the communist party. War heroes and revolutionaries might be better characters in this narrative than victims of famine. Furthermore, rural Vietnam had a strong traditional of millenarianism which considered famine as act of heaven rather than as a result of government policies.

Ukraine: After the foundation of the independent Ukrainian nation state in 1991, the memory of the famine of 1932/33 (holodomor) under Soviet rule became the core of the official nationalist narrative.36 According to the version of the Ukrainian government, Stalin organized the famine in order to committed genocide against the Ukrainian nation. The success story of this narrative started with Robert Conquest’s book “The harvest of sorrow”37 in 1986 and the establishment of an investigation commission of the US congress. It finally became the founding myth of the Ukrainian nation state after 1991. The official term “Holodomor” was developed in the Ukrainian diaspora in the US and Canada in order to emphasis the “artificial” character of the famine. Like in the Irish case, the impact of the diaspora played a grave role in setting up this narrative.

The Ukrainian government has launched several campaigns to archive support for the definition of the famine as genocide on the international level. It provides large funding for museums, exhibitions and official memorial celebrations since the mid nineties. While Russian historians and politicians insist that this tragedy was part of the Soviet famine in the aftermath of the collectivization of agriculture, Ukrainian historians and supporter of the genocide thesis in the western academia try to cut out the event from Soviet history and integrate it into a national Ukrainian history. They argue that the Soviet government enforced the punishments, such as food boycotts in response to underfulfilment of grain quotas and the blockade of regions, but only in places that were populated with Ukrainians, especially the Kuban region which was part of the Russian Soviet Republic and belongs to Russia today. The facts that Russian, Germans and Poles also starved to death in the Ukraine and perpetrator on the local level were mainly Ukrainians are hardly mentioned.38 The Ukrainian nationalists are constructing the nation as a community of victims that includes the Ukrainians beyond the borders of the nation state (see map on page 35 and 36). The government in Kiev tries to rewrite the histories of the Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, Lithuanian borderlands as Ukrainian national history. The “holodomor” plays an important role in this context.

The genocide thesis was widely rejected in the western academia.39 The fact that the Soviet government harshly exploded the peasant for industrialization by stetting too high grain quotas after collectivization is undisputed, but many scholars question the thesis that Stalin organized the famine on purpose. After the famine broke out in 1932, the Soviet government lowered the grain quotas for the Ukraine several times. While the current Ukrainian President, Viktor Yushchenko, promotes 10 million as the official numbers of deaths, the French demographer Valin estimates the victims of the famine on 2.6 million. Valin is criticized by Ukrainian historians because his number does not include the Ukrainians who died in the Kuban region outside the Ukrainian Soviet republic. (The link between the tally of victims and the definition of the nation is also important in the Tibetan context, as we will see below. One reason that the number of deaths caused by the “Chinese occupation” of the Tibetan exile government is much higher than the Chinese figure is that the exile Tibetan side includes the Tibetans which lived outside the Tibet Autonomous Region.) In the Ukrainian case, the official memory of the famine serves the purpose to justify the independence from Russia, because “they starved us to death on purpose”. Like in the Irish case, the nationalists consider the famine as part of a plan to wipe out the national culture by the occupier. In the early thirties, the Soviet government also attacked the church which is viewed was one backbone of the nation by the Ukrainian nationalists. Furthermore, Stalin stopped the policy of “Ukrainization” in 1932, which had promoted the development of the Ukrainian language and local cadres.

The term genocide in the context of famine is highly controversial. According to the definition of the UN, the standard for genocide is only met, if a government intends to exterminate a population or group as a whole.40 David Marcus argued that the existing international law is not flexible enough to deal with famine crimes. Concrete prohibitions for starving civilians exist only in the context of warfare and the Geneva Conventions since 1977. As a result, Marcus calls for a reform of international law. To sum up, government and large parts of the academia in the Ukraine and diaspora outside the country seem to be immune of any criticism of the genocide thesis. They want to believe that Stalin and the “Russian government” committed genocide against them. This “collective trauma” serves as the foundation of the new national identity.

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