The much-anticipated definitive account of China's Great Famine
An estimated thirty-six million Chinese men, women, and children starved to death during China's Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early '60s. One of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, the famine is poorly understood, and in China is still euphemistically referred to as "the three years of natural disaster."
As a journalist with privileged access to official and unofficial sources, Yang Jisheng spent twenty years piecing together the events that led to mass nationwide starvation, including the death of his own father. Finding no natural causes, Yang attributes responsibility for the deaths to China's totalitarian system and the refusal of officials at every level to value human life over ideology and self-interest.
Tombstone is a testament to inhumanity and occasional heroism that pits collective memory against the historical amnesia imposed by those in power. Stunning in scale and arresting in its detailed account of the staggering human cost of this tragedy, Tombstone is written both as a memorial to the lives lost—an enduring tombstone in memory of the dead—and in hopeful anticipation of the final demise of the totalitarian system. Ian Johnson, writing in The New York Review of Books, called the Chinese edition of Tombstone "groundbreaking . . . One of the most important books to come out of China in recent years."
One of the 20th century's worst catastrophes is a monument to Maoist tyranny and mismanagement, argues this hard-hitting study of China's Great Famine. Chinese journalist Yang, whose father died in the famine, compiles grim statistics he estimates that 36 million people perished and heartrending scenes of mass starvation and familial cannibalism. Even more shocking is his account of China's Great Leap Forward economic campaign, which caused the famine by pulling peasants from fields to work on ill-conceived industrial projects, melting down farming tools in backyard steel mills, and crippling agricultural productivity with collectivization schemes. Yang meticulously analyzes the delusional Communist ideology that nurtured the calamity: terrified of bearing bad news, party officials offered fantastic tales of bumper harvests to their superiors, who then exacerbated the hunger by hiking grain requisition quotas and exporting food while Mao's sycophantic personality cult prevented moderate leaders from challenging his disastrous economic experiments. This condensed English version of Yang's two-volume Chinese original suffers from disorganization; the outlines of the famine emerge only fitfully from his fragmented and repetitive accounts of its progress in individual provinces. Still, it's a harrowing read, illuminating a historic watershed that's too little known in the West. Map.
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A rewarding read
Tombstone is a challenging read, but a worthwhile one. The story of China's Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), it is told from both the top down and the bottom up. The top down is an overview of the politics of the PRC and the CCP, of Mao's utopian Communism, and of the idealists' inability to see or unwillingness to comprehend the tragic effect of their unquestioned and unquestionable authority. The bottom up is the tragedy of history's greatest famine, in which tens of millions died, caused not by natural disaster but by a political disaster. The tragedy is told not only as statistics but most importantly as a human story, individual, honest, and heartbreaking.
Reading Tombstone is not easy. It is long, even if abridged from the original Chinese edition. It has been edited for Western audiences in a way about which I am conflicted. And it requires learning much about the history, people, and systems of China that takes some work - I used the notes a lot and kept my search engine open almost the entire read. But encountering Tombstone is, as the author intended, to raise a tombstone to honor those dead. And honoring the dead includes understanding the politics of dogmatic, utopian, inhuman, totalitarian idealism. Sadly, it was a story repeated all too often in the 20th century. Let's hope we can learn.