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  • On Sparrows
  • Sally Wen Mao (bio)

God keep his oath to sparrows,Who of little loveKnow how to starve!

—Emily Dickinson

My father was born on New Year's Day in 1960. When he was an infant, my grandmother fed him grass in the parched, high mountains of Hubei. Nothing nourished my father in the womb; nothing nourished him as he left. My infant father didn't have enough milk: five months of mother's milk, and then my great-grandmother made him an artificial milk from rice. She ground rice until it was a fine powder and mixed it with water, and that's what fed my father. During the famine, the family lived on the rural mountainside and gathered what they could: wild herbs, roots, grass, shoots, tree bark. They boiled the bark and ate. The taste was their survival.


When I think of hunger, I think of the phrase that describes hardship: chi ku, to eat bitterness. The irony is that in this conversation my mother describes a situation where there is nothing to swallow.

It's the winter of 2018, and we are in Sunnyvale, California, eating a meal my grandmother has just prepared: green peppers, sea bass, bean curds swimming in chili oil. My mother is translating my grandmother's story for me, and it is a story I've never heard before.

In 1959, when my grandmother was pregnant with my father, she had nothing to eat. At home, all the pots and pans had been confiscated. She went to the commune to collect rations, but often there were none. For long stretches of time she went hungry, and the only foodstuffs offered were the diluted broth of yams or a couple of soybeans. There [End Page 77] was no salt. No eggs, no grain, no leafy greens, no milk, no oil, certainly no meat. One day she was so dizzy with hunger she saw a man leaving aged rotten vegetables behind in her commune. She boiled the turnip in water and tried to chew through it, but it was too tough for her teeth to grind. It was like eating wood, my grandmother said. Hunger made splinters in her mouth.

In 1958, the state had ordered civilians to participate in the Four Pests Campaign, a proposed systematic extermination of sparrows, rats, mosquitoes, and flies. The sparrows ate too much grain and seed; they were getting in the way of China's modernization, so they had to be eliminated. Sparrows panicked at noise. Knowing them, citizens were advised to make as much noise as possible. My grandmother said that she participated in this extermination as a sort of patriotic ritual. At night, the whole county of Tongcheng ignited with noise. A din of firecrackers and hammers, metal pails, a discordant orchestra. The sparrows flew and flew in panic until they dropped dead from exhaustion. All night into the dawn, she would bang the empty pots before they were confiscated for the communes, hoping that the deaths of these sparrows promised a future for my father.


The sparrow is a symbol of worthlessness. In the Bible, Jesus says, "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?" and later adds, "Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:29–31).


The "old world sparrows" include the Eurasian tree sparrow and the common house sparrow. The Eurasian tree sparrows were the primary targets for Mao's Great Sparrow Campaign.

According to Cornell's ornithology lab and David Irving of the Macaulay Library, the adult tree sparrow is "a chunky sparrow with a chestnut crown, black throat, and black ear patch." Tree sparrows have full throats that chirp metallically. When I listen to its song on my computer, it sounds like a bell ringing from a tiny throat.


By the time my father was born, the Four Pests Campaign had failed. The sparrows died by the millions—their corpses collected in barrels. [End Page 78] Birds strung together with rope, bundled and burned. Without sparrows as predators, the populations of locusts surged. Locusts swarmed the crops, a plague laying to waste the grain supply. The trees webbed...


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