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I often see the quote attributed to John Steinbeck, "It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving ...", when explaining the difference between sympathy and empathy, e.g. from Virtual Enterprise or Time.com.

As John Steinbeck wrote: “It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.”

But I can't find the exact source of this quote. I am not an expert on John Steinbeck, but from I what know his works talked very little about China/Chinese people so I have a bit of doubt that he actually said that and wonder under what circumstance did he say that (if he did)?

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    Sounds like a variety of the old saying "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic", which is commonly attributed to Joseph Stalin.
    – Philipp
    Oct 5, 2023 at 8:25
  • @Philipp: there is also a Polish poet (I forgot their name) who said "a million and one is still a million", this was about the casualties in a war IIRC
    – WoJ
    Oct 5, 2023 at 13:18
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    "...from I what know his works talked very little about China/Chinese people..." - East of Eden features a main character who is Chinese, and through his eyes, Steinbeck sympathetically portrays the plight of Chinese individuals who came to the US (sometimes unwillingly) in the early 20th century. It does not feature this exact quote, but seems relevant to research on Steinbeck's view of the matter.
    – Tim M.
    Oct 5, 2023 at 17:20

1 Answer 1

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Yes, Steinbeck wrote the 1941 film The Forgotten Village and then published a book version with 136 photos from the film.

The preface of the book version has the quote:

A great many documentary films have used the generalized method, that is, the showing of a condition or an event as it affects a group of people. The audience can then have a personalized reaction from imagining one member of that group. I have felt that this is the more difficult observation from the audience's viewpoint. It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving. In The Forgotten Village we reversed the usual process. Our story centered on one family in one small village...

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    @Qiulang The 1928-1930 famine in China was a very well known event in the United States. Americans donated through the China International Famine Relief Commission, tried to help.
    – DavePhD
    Oct 4, 2023 at 14:13
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    When talking about Chinese Famine the instinct reaction is Mao's Famine, then I realized we had several greate famines in 20th century.
    – Qiulang
    Oct 4, 2023 at 14:28
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    For those who may be interested in this charity, its Chinese name is 华洋义赈会. It was shutdown after Japanese invasion.
    – Qiulang
    Oct 4, 2023 at 14:56
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    "Why would he write such a "obscure" words then?" What does that mean? What words are obscure? Oct 5, 2023 at 0:19
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    When I was growing up in the 60's I think the proverbial starving kids were in Africa. That's when we started seeing PSAs on TV for sending relief money to the Third World.
    – Barmar
    Oct 5, 2023 at 15:01

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