But despite months of patient work sifting through mountains of yellowing folders, I never came across a single photograph of the catastrophe in those archives.
Historians in Beijing explained away the lack of photographic evidence by telling me that party cadres at the time did not have any cameras, as China was still a poor country. It's not a convincing explanation: The archives are replete with criminal investigations that contain exhaustive photographic evidence from the 1950s and 1960s -- mug shots of criminals, photos of crime scenes, even rolls of film documenting land disputes between collective farms. Certainly the state propaganda machine never lacked for photographic equipment. Today, it's easy to find online black-and-white photos from 1958 to 1962 showing peasants cheerfully driving the latest tractor model through the fields; rosy-cheeked children gathering around tables laden with fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat in collective canteens; and Chairman Mao plodding through the fields in a straw hat and cotton shoes, or marveling at a bumper harvest. There are even photos of Mao's nemesis, head of state Liu Shaoqi, investigating the famine in his home district in Hunan province in 1961.
So what happened to the visual evidence of one of the world's most horrifying atrocities?
The Red Guards, Mao's armed revolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution, probably destroyed it. Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, in part to eliminate senior officials who criticized his reckless economic experiments that had led to the famine. As Red Guards started seizing state institutions by force in 1967, government servants destroyed records and any visual material en masse -- anything that could have discredited Mao's Great Leap Forward. Individuals with photos of the brutal starvation acted with the same impulse. Rae Yang, the daughter of a family of diplomats who had served abroad, saw her parents burn all the letters they had kept, as well as some old photographs, flushing the ash down the toilet.
But not all the evidence was reduced to ashes. It's a pretty good guess that photographs of the famine are still locked away deep inside party vaults. After all, some of the most sensitive material on the Great Leap Forward remains classified. Entire collections -- most of the central archives in Beijing, for instance -- remain beyond the reach of even highly accredited party historians. In their acclaimed biography of the chairman, Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday report that during the Cultural Revolution, when senior officials like Liu were tortured to death, security personnel took photographs and sent them to Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. These, too, are probably filed away in some secret gallery of horrors.
For four years, I studied Mao's famine, and only once have I seen a visual illustration of its awfulness. In 2009, I visited a historian in a drab concrete building in the suburbs of Beijing. He, too, had been working on the history of the Great Leap Forward, burrowing in archives for more than a decade and obsessively documenting the starvation that had decimated the region of his birth, a county barely 100 miles north of Mao's hometown in Hunan. Stacks of photocopied archival material bulged out of filing cabinets in his sparse office. I asked him whether he had ever seen a photograph of the famine. He frowned and reluctantly pulled out a folder with a reproduction of the only picture he had discovered. It came from the files of the party committee in his home county and was from a police investigation into a case of cannibalism. The small, fading picture showed a young man standing against a brick wall, peering straight into the camera, seemingly emotionless. By his feet stood a large pot containing the parts of a young boy, his head and limbs severed from his body.