December 12, 2012 – Unnatural Disaster, Tombstone, The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, by 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.” Pictured above, A rice field in what is now Guangdong Province, 1958.
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 relate 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. (Credits – Jonathan Mirsky for The New York Times).
The Master of Disaster