Designer: Ding Hao, 1958
"Exterminate the four pests!"
On my Wyoming land, House Sparrows, specifically males, are “actively managed.” I speak of this not only in the evasive passive voice, but with a euphemism, and I hate euphemisms. I am uneasy about what I am doing to the birds, although no one forces me to do it. My approach to the sparrows reminds me—every day—of the Destroy the Four Pests campaign.
I was living in Beijing when I learned of the Chinese war against sparrows. It was a brief explosion of human energy, directed at a common enemy—the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus, a smaller, gentler cousin of the House Sparrow, P. domesticus—that was broadly successful. The Tree Sparrow was nearly exterminated. Of course, there were unintended consequences.
When I lived in China, failures of any sort, even events that had occurred decades earlier, were discussed guardedly. In my apartment in state-owned housing, with video cameras in the halls and elevators and, we all assumed, microphones everywhere—everyone lowered his voice to talk about disasters, natural or man-made. No one said “June” aloud, for example, because the Tiananmen Square massacre had, historically speaking, just occurred, on June 4, 1989; but no one said “Tangshan” aloud either, because the 1976 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people was a disaster somehow connected with regime change, the ousting of the Gang of Four and the end of the Great Cultural Revolution. The war against the birds was hardly a secret—millions of Chinese had participated in the slaughter—but 35 years later it was still dangerous news, still discussed in whispers.
Mao Zedong promoted the "Destroy the Four Pests" campaign in 1958 as part of the Great Leap Forward that was to simultaneously collectivize and revolutionize agriculture, produce 10 million tons of steel in backyard smelters (melting, for example, all the woks no longer needed because collective kitchens ended home cooking), and mobilize and unify Chinese people of all ages, but especially children aged 5 years and older, in productive, patriotic activity. All the nation’s sparrows (grain-eating pests) along with all rats, flies, and mosquitoes, were to be killed. All the usual lethal methods were used (trapping; shooting; slingshotting; poisoning; destroying nests, eggs and young) as well as a unique, collective effort—the making of noise—to deprive the little birds of rest. All across China, people gathered at roosts at the appointed hour (after the 1949 revolution, China’s five time zones were collapsed into one, Beijing Standard Time) and raised a ruckus until the exhausted creatures dropped out of the sky.
Traditional Beijing bird trap
“My mother said, People who kill sparrows are bad people, they bring bad luck,” explained Wong Ayi, who was a toddler when the Four Pests campaign began. Her elder brother, she whispered emphatically, enjoyed it. School was closed, he learned to make traps, he was armed with a slingshot, he got to go out all day with friends and kill birds—it was great fun. He wanted to cook them, but their mother refused—at first. “Later, we had to eat them, we ate them and black flour. But it was bad luck, my mother was right. Soon, we had only black flour.”
“Terrible, terrible,” whispered Gao Laoshi, a retired diplomat. He said that “we”—his fellow university students—knew nothing of what was happening in the countryside. He was not allowed to go home, he received no mail. All the newspapers reported victory after victory in the steel campaign, in the war against the Four Pests, the new rice-planting scheme: everything was a great success. But in fact, “people were eating bark off trees, they were eating grass. My uncle ate raw cottonseed, he died a terrible death. So many died.” Gao felt that the Four Pests war was a crucial element in the famine, which killed tens of millions of rural Chinese, his uncle among them. The pseudo-scientific agricultural policies of the Great Leap surely were a root cause, but the extermination of the birds, and a concomitant irruption of locusts, contributed.
Designer: Shen Nan, 1959
"Eliminating the last sparrow"
In January 1997, a European Union customs officer in Antwerp confiscated a Chinese export container destined for the Netherlands, a transit point on the way to Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Inside were 1,236,000 plucked and frozen P. montanus, a protected species in the EU, some of the 6,000,000 Chinese birds illegally imported that year to be “traded at high prices as a delicacy and placed on the menus of restaurants.”