Yu Xiantang 余先堂



Yu Xiantang is one of the oldest people interviewed by Zhang Mengqi. Born in 1926, she was over 80 years old when being interviewed, but she had a good memory and told many stories of starvation and foraging for food. What struck me most about her experience was the fact that, during the Great Famine, she was working at the village clinic as a so-called “barefoot doctor”—someone with very basic medical training and treated patients in rural China. Such experience is rare among other interviewees, which makes her interview especially important.

As a barefoot doctor, she met with and helped many starving villagers. There were surreal stories such as when she used a spoon to help a little girl with constipation to defecate; and there were tragedies such as the patient passed away while she was preparing glucose for injection. Once, to thank her, a villager wanted to give her an oil coupon, but she refused, because at that time “taking her coupon would be equal to killing her.” In her interview, one cannot only witness the cruelty of the Great Famine, but also the warm mutual-aid among the villagers and women’s bravery and resourcefulness when it comes to their families’ survival.

— Ling Jin

See full bilingual transcript for Yu Xiantang’s interview.