In 1959, Yang Jisheng watched the uncle who raised him starve to death during Mao’s Great Famine. In 2008, he published Tombstone in Chinese in Hong Kong. The tome took him over a decade to research and acts as an exhaustive monument to the tens of millions who died during the worst famine recorded in world history. Yang begins the story by attempting to make sense of his own childhood tragedy.
He was a schoolboy in the late 1950s and editor of his school newspaper, Young Communist. Like the majority of his generation bought up on a diet of propaganda, he was an ardent believer in Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In spring 1959, Yang returned to his home village from school to discover his uncle on his deathbed. Anything edible had long since being consumed: the dogs had been cooked, the elm tree in their yard stripped for bark to boil, the pond dredged for molluscs. Yang came bearing rice, but it was too late.
Some 36 million died during the Great Famine, according to the author. (The Dutch historian Frank Dikötter has gone further, calculating that 45 million died in his book Mao’s Great Famine.) Yang points out that the famine occurred during a period of normal climate patterns with no wars or epidemics. Yet its death toll was greater than the First World War.
Famines, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues, are political: no large famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic leadership and free press. The Great Famine was a result of Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward in which he extolled rapid industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation. Yet when the polices went wrong, there was no one to correct them. The Party controlled every outlet of information. For his part, Yang believed for years that his uncle’s demise was an isolated tragedy rather than directly caused by the state’s actions.
Tombstone is therefore a bold plea for China to take responsibility. So far, it has gone unheeded. The Great Famine is still referred to erroneously as the “three years of natural disasters” in the mainland. Any official acknowledgement of the tragedy is unforthcoming, largely because the Party which oversaw the disaster remains in power today. Tellingly, Tombstone is banned in mainland China and no full account of the famine has ever been published there.
For this reason, Tombstone is a vital testament of a largely buried era. Wisely, Yang’s superb translators Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian have cut the book to one volume for the English edition. It is not a Western-style historical narrative. Rather, Yang has provided an exhaustive, unrelenting log of abuses. Key to the book is uncovering the role of violence, which added to the toll.
Officials falsified data to meet procurement quotas. Peasants were forced to hand over grain and rely on communal kitchens. Those who objected, or who tried to hide grain, were tortured or starved to death. Some were hung upside down and beaten; others had bamboo driven into their hands or had their ears cut off. Ideology more often than not trumped common sense. Parts of Tombstone are particularly sobering because of Yang’s non-sensationalist presentation of data. Survival techniques are no less shocking. Many of the starving turned to cannibalism, digging up dead bodies to cook.
Why did China’s leaders allow such erroneous policies to continue? Mao, and other leaders, knew what was going on but refused to change their course. Yang is, above all, at pains to blame the system of totalitarianism. Democracy, he concludes, is the only solution which will prevent further catastrophes.