Book reviews - ‘Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962,’ by Yang Jisheng

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 - by Yang Jisheng
Reviewed by Jonathan Mirsky

'I call this book Tombstone. It is a tombstone for my father who died of starvation in 1959, for the thirty-six million Chinese who also starved to death, for the system that brought about their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book.' : Yang Jisheng

In the summer of 1962, China’s president, Liu Shaoqi, warned Mao Zedong that “history will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people, and the cannibalism will also be memorialized!” Liu had visited Hunan, his home province as well as Mao’s, where almost a million people died of hunger. Some of the survivors had eaten dead bodies or had killed and eaten their comrades. In “Tombstone,” an eye-­opening study of the worst famine in history, Yang Jisheng concludes that 36 million Chinese starved to death in the years between 1958 and 1962, while 40 million others failed to be born, which means that “China’s total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million.”

There are good earlier studies of the famine and one excellent recent one, “Mao’s Great Famine” by Frank Dikötter, but Yang’s is significant because he lives in China and is boldly unsparing. Mao’s rule, he writes, “became a secular theocracy. . . . Divergence from Mao’s views was heresy. . . . Dread and falsehood were thus both the result and the lifeblood of totalitarianism.” This political system, he argues, “caused the degeneration of the national character of the Chinese people.”

Yang, who was born in 1940, is a well-known veteran journalist and a Communist Party member. Before I quote the following sentence, remember that a huge portrait of Chairman Mao still hangs over the main gate into Beijing’s Forbidden City and can be seen from every corner of Tiananmen Square, where his embalmed body lies in an elaborate mausoleum. Despite this continued public veneration, Yang looks squarely at the real chairman: “In power, Mao became immersed in China’s traditional monarchical culture and Lenin and Stalin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ . . . When Mao was provided with a list of slogans for his approval, he personally added one: ‘Long Live Chairman Mao.’ ” Two years ago, in an interview with the journalist Ian Johnson, Yang remarked that he views the famine “as part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time. The chief culprit was Mao.”
From the early 1990s, Yang writes, he began combing normally closed official archives containing confidential reports of the ravages of the famine, and reading accounts of the official killing of protesters. He found references to cannibalism and interviewed men and women who survived by eating human flesh. Chinese statistics are always overwhelming, so Yang helps us to conceptualize what 36 million deaths actually means. It is, he writes, “450 times the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki” and “greater than the number of people killed in World War I.” It also, he insists, “outstripped the ravages of World War II.” While 40 to 50 million died in that war, it stretched over seven or eight years, while most deaths in the great Chinese famine, he notes, were “concentrated in a six-month period.” The famine occurred neither during a war nor in a period of natural calamity. When mentioned in China, which is rarely, bad weather or Russian treachery are usually blamed for this disaster, and both are knowledgeably dismissed by Yang.

The most staggering and detailed chapter in Yang’s narrative relates what happened in Xinyang Prefecture, in Henan Province. A lush region, it was “the economic engine of the province,” with a population in 1958 of 8.5 million. Mao’s policies had driven the peasants from their individual small holdings; working communally, they were now forced to yield almost everything to the state, either to feed the cities or — crazily — to increase exports. The peasants were allotted enough grain for just a few months. In Xinyang alone, Yang calculates, over a million people died.

Mao had pronounced that the family, in the new order of collective farming and eating, was no longer necessary. Liu Shaoqi, reliably sycophantic, agreed: “The family is a historically produced phenomenon and will be eliminated.” Grain production plummeted, the communal kitchens collapsed. As yields dived, Zhou Enlai and other leaders, “the falcons and hounds of evil,” as Yang describes them, assured Mao that agricultural production had in fact soared. Mao himself proclaimed that under the new dispensation yields could be exponentially higher. “Tell the peasants to resume eating chaff and herbs for half the year,” he said, “and after some hardship for one or two or three years things will turn around.”

A journalist reporting on Xinyang at the time saw the desperation of ordinary people. Years later, he told Yang that he had witnessed a Party secretary — during the famine, cadres were well fed — treating his guests to a local delicacy. But he knew what happened to people who recorded the truth, so he said nothing: “How could I dare to write an internal reference report?” Indeed. Liu Shaoqi confronted Mao, who remembered all slights, and during the Cultural Revolution he was accused of being a traitor and an enemy agent. Expelled from the Party, he died alone, uncared for, anonymous.

Of course, “Tombstone” has been banned in China, but in 2008 it was published in Hong Kong in two mighty volumes. Pirated texts and Internet summaries soon slipped over the border. This English version, although substantial, is roughly half the size of the original. Its eloquent translators, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, say their aim, like the author’s, is to “present the tragedy in all its horror” and to render Yang’s searching analysis in a manner that is both accessible to general readers and informative for specialists. There is much in this readable “Tombstone” I needed to know.

Yang writes that one reason for the book’s title is to establish a memorial for the uncle who raised him like a son and starved to death in 1959. At the time a devout believer in the Party and ignorant of the extent of what was going on in the country at large, Yang felt that everything, no matter how difficult, was part of China’s battle for a new socialist order. Discovering official secrets during his work as a young journalist, he began to lose his faith. His real “awakening,” however, came after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre: “The blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades.” This is brave talk. Words and phrases associated with “Tiananmen” remain blocked on China’s Internet.

Nowadays, Yang asserts, “rulers and ordinary citizens alike know in their hearts that the totalitarian system has reached its end.” He hopes “Tombstone” will help banish the “historical amnesia imposed by those in power” and spur his countrymen to “renounce man-made calamity, darkness and evil.” While guardedly hopeful about the rise of democracy, Yang is ultimately a realist. Despite China’s economic and social transformation, this courageous man concludes, “the political system remains unchanged.” “Tombstone” doesn’t directly challenge China’s current regime, nor is its author part of an organized movement. And so, unlike the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, Yang Jisheng is not serving a long prison sentence. But he has driven a stake through the hearts of Mao Zedong and the party he helped found.

The history of the Great Leap Forward," one of my teaching colleagues used to begin a lecture, "is the history of Chinese accountancy." The lack of excitement on his students' faces was palpable, but his less than enticing opening does sum up this bizarre and desolate period in modern Chinese history. For with its tales of exaggerated grain production and ever-more fanciful industrial targets, the Leap was indeed a demonstration of how dubious statistics and lack of transparency could culminate in the deaths of millions.

In 1958, China was a state still nervous about its place in the world – isolated from the capitalist countries and with its USSR alliance starting to fray. Mao Zedong pushed hard for a new programme that would boost China's economy at a stroke. His colleagues supported him in a drive that would become known as the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to increase agricultural and industrial production to levels never before seen in human history. Within a year, however, it became clear that the plans were going horribly wrong. In China's countryside, food became ever scarcer. Hugely exaggerated reports of grain harvests were taken seriously at high levels, and food was moved from the countryside to the cities while millions of farmers started to die of starvation and its associated diseases. The death toll has never been fully calculated, but Frank Dikötter's powerful Mao's Great Famine puts the number of dead at some 45 million between 1958 and 1962. The picture that Dikötter draws is devastating; but do we really need another long and detailed book on the famine?

The answer is yes. Tombstone is not just a history but a political sensation. Its author, Yang Jisheng, was a longstanding journalist at China's Xinhua news agency. His own father died of starvation in 1959, and the "tombstone" of the title is in part a tribute to a dead parent who was never acknowledged as a victim of the state's policies. Over the years, Yang used his access to collect materials from restricted archives detailing the famine. He was denied permission to publish on the mainland, but the book came out in Hong Kong in 2008 and went into eight reprints. This translation is an adapted version of the two-volume Chinese original. The editors and translators, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, have done a skilful job in reducing and recasting the book so that its chapters alternate between an examination of high politics and the details of the famine on the ground.

What Yang found is worth knowing. One of the most devastated provinces was Henan, in central China. Henan had known famine before; the province was at the centre of the horrific hunger that struck during the second world war in 1942-43, killing some 3 to 4 million people. The policies of the Great Leap led to a new desolation in the province. Reports uncovered by Yang make evident a cycle of starvation and violence: a file from 1959 tells of one farmer who was "harshly beaten" because a small piece of beef was found in his home; he died six days later. A woman who was found cooking grain was "subjected to group struggle" for stealing; bound up and soaked in cold water, she too died shortly afterwards.

For a while, it was possible to think that the leadership had not understood the full level of the catastrophe in the countryside. The shattering of such illusions came at the Lushan conference of 1959. Peng Dehuai, one of the great marshals of the Chinese civil war against the nationalists, was a strong supporter of the Leap. But the discovery that people from his own home area were starving to death prompted him to write to Mao to ask for the policies to be adapted. Mao was furious, reading the letter out in public and demanding that his colleagues in the leadership line up either behind him or Peng. Almost to a man, they supported Mao, with his security chief Kang Sheng declaring of the letter: "I make bold to suggest that this cannot be handled with lenience." Peng was sent off into political obscurity. While there were minor adjustments to the Leap policies, the fundamental flaws were not addressed, and millions more continued to die until the formal abandonment of the programme in 1962.

Yang's book is rich with details and statistics, but his is not an academic treatment. In its intent, it has been compared with Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. The comparison is not quite apt: although the book is banned in China, Yang has not been arrested or made to disappear. But there is no doubting his immense political courage in compiling and writing it: Chinese official attitudes toward the disasters of Mao's rule continue to be ambivalent. The Great Leap Forward may not be sensitive in the same way as Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei's scholarly and artistic challenges to the present leadership. There are plenty of books on sale in Beijing bookshops that detail the darker side of Mao's rule. But writers still need to tread carefully when they get close to chairman.

A debate has grown up on the nuances of interpreting the Great Leap Forward famine. One view is that while Mao must take clear responsibility for the policy, his fellow members of the Politburo were also complicit in its implementation. The accounts of high-level leadership meetings such as the Lushan conference bear this out dismally. Nor did leadership style improve after the famine; Roderick Macfarquhar and Michael Schoenhals's devastating Mao's Last Revolution (2006) makes it clear that all the leading figures in China were behind Mao's Cultural Revolution policies – at least until Mao turned against them. Another important element when considering the famine is that not all of China suffered equally badly. In some provinces, local officials and the wider population found ways to relieve the horrors of famine, opening up grain reserves or simply moving to other areas. In addition, there was never another famine: after 1962, the party-state learned how to prevent it recurring.

Yet these qualifications should not obscure the main indictment. Famines are political, from the Irish potato famine to the Bengal famine of 1943 to Ethiopia in the 1980s. As Amartya Sen has argued, the problem is not absolute lack of food but the systemic flaws or decisions that prevent food getting to the people. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao and his leadership colleagues took specific decisions that led to mass starvation. They perpetuated a system that encouraged people to tell lies about grain production and discouraged transparency, making starvation worse. 

When the whole leadership (not just Mao) was confronted with Peng's criticisms, they rounded on the critic and allowed the policy to continue for another two years. That was the moment at which the leadership lurched into criminal irresponsibility. It may not have been murder or genocide but it was an unconscionable decision nonetheless, because – unlike, say, the Henan famine, which took place in the middle of a war – there were no external circumstances that could be used to excuse it. Yang Jisheng's book is not just a tombstone for his father and other famine victims, but for the reputation of the Communist party's leadership at a time when they should have acted – and failed to do so.

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