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.”
The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962
By Yang Jisheng
Translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian
629 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.
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 monarchal 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
Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist and historian specializing in China.
- Yang Jisheng: The man who discovered 36 million dead (bbc.co.uk)
- Unnatural Disaster (nytimes.com)
- Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine by Yang Jisheng – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Pankaj Mishra: How Mao Zedong caused the Great Famine. (newyorker.com)
- China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined (nybooks.com)
- Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (chinavortex.com)
- China film broaches sensitive topic of famine (dawn.com)
- China film broaches sensitive topic of famine (sfluxe.com)