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Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine

It’s not too early to tell who is to blame for the unnecessary death of millions, says Kerry Brown

This is one of the most important works of history written this century. Yang Jisheng, who retired in 2001 from a journalism post at the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, laboured in the archives of provincial China for more than a decade to produce his account of the great famine that blighted China from 1959 to 1962. His title is symbolic of the fact that this book is a memorial - to his foster father, who was one of the victims of the famine, to the other many millions who died then, and of the system that allowed such large-scale suffering to happen. We can also add that this book lays a more powerful tombstone on the reputation of Mao Zedong than any of the other denunciations of his time in power from 1949 to 1976. The most shocking fact that comes out of the hundreds of pages of this magisterial work is that every single one of these deaths was avoidable.

Yang starts with highly detailed information concerning how the famine came about at the most basic unit of social and political life in China - the village. He names the victims and the officials who they suffered under, with specifics of how they died. Multitudes met their end at the hands of violent officials, many of whom were enforcing state-proclaimed edicts about the amount of food they should produce and how much they needed to give to the centre for redistribution to the cities. As Yang says towards the end of his work, the very people who were producing the food for the country were those who died in the greatest numbers. The brute fact is that the countryside starved from 1959 in order to feed the cities.

Calculating the number of famine victims is notoriously difficult. Arguments have raged for a number of years about how many died as a direct result of the lack of grain and low calorie intake over this period. Some argue that the figure could be as high as 55 million. Yang goes through a number of different experts’ calculations from within China, with the lowest estimate putting the figure at under 20 million. His own argument is that more than 70 million perished. In the countryside, almost every single family was affected. The famine haunts the collective memory of the country to this day and, if Yang is right, led to the deaths of more Chinese than any of the wars of the 20th century.

What caused the catastrophe takes up the latter sections of his work. Here it is the culpability of a system, and an all-powerful leader at the top of that system, that is brought to the forefront. The Communist Party tried hard to cover up the full impact of the famines: the public statements leaders made, then and subsequently, pointed the finger primarily at bad weather and the withdrawal of Soviet aid after a falling-out between the countries in the late 1950s. Neither excuse, in Yang’s account, stands up to much scrutiny. Meteorological records show that 1960 (when the highest number of fatalities occurred) was no worse or better for rainfall than other years in the early 1950s and late 1960s when there was no famine. As for the Soviets, they withdrew their technical help in areas unrelated to agriculture. Making them the fall guy won’t wash.

The most guilty, for Yang, were the bureaucrats in the system, the elite leaders and the figures at the top who had allowed immense power to be concentrated in the hands of one man, Mao Zedong, creating a monarchial system in which it was almost impossible to oppose his diktats. There were policy and ideological causes for this great tragedy: the policy issue being the continuation of class struggle and a sort of internal warfare right down to the village level that led to officials frequently being pitted against citizens; the ideological issue was the commitment, made after the Great Leap Forward in 1957, to push China towards autarkic control, with a rapid programme of urbanisation before the country had the infrastructure to sustain it, and shifts towards communes as the main production unit, with all the inefficiencies that brought. Perhaps the most hated element of this system was the communal kitchens, something imposed in 1959 that caused widespread opposition and had to be phased out in the 1960s.

The idea that Mao did not know what was happening at the grass-roots level was a convenient excuse made to salvage his reputation, and it runs counter to much of the evidence assembled here. Mao made visits to Anhui and other areas that were affected and was sceptical of the highly optimistic harvest targets presented to him. He also had the testimony of other leaders (most famously Peng Dehuai) who were opposed to the policies that had been introduced and wanted freedom to be given to farmers to allow them to manage their own affairs. Peng was to be one of the highest-level victims of the period, removed from office as minister of defence after a particularly bruising meeting of the elite in 1959 and then savagely persecuted in the Cultural Revolution eight years later.

This is not an easy book to read - but then, confronting the immensity of suffering that it records would never be a calm experience. The shocking stories of families pushed to such extremes that they ate their own children has been described by one US scholar of the period, Ralph Thaxton, as a “whispered history” that is only now beginning to be spoken aloud. In its English translation, this exhaustive book runs to almost twice the length of the original Chinese version, and while it has been available in Hong Kong and in samizdat versions in China, it remains banned on the mainland.

This sensitivity is because so much of the story of the famines, as more comes to be known about it, runs counter to the officially sponsored narrative of Communist Party history since 1949. It shows a system at the mercy of utopian but utterly impractical ideals, in which immense power was concentrated in the hands of one man, a system that showed almost complete contempt for the very people in whose name the 1949 revolution had been fought and for whom it had ostensibly been set up to help. Mao Zedong’s privileged place in this story has been slowly eroded over the years since his death in 1976. The current orthodoxy is that without the campaigns for socialistic education, for the cleansing of society of its historical contradictions and the final turmoil of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, there would have been no progress to the Opening Up and Reform Period that started in 1978. This is a comfortable teleology, in which everything, no matter what its social and human cost, finally makes sense. Yang, in this immense work of history, throws plenty of evidence from across China at this neat narrative. For him, the final point is a simple one. Not only was this tragedy man-made, it was also made by one man - and his historic reckoning, with the wider publication of this book, is coming ever closer to hand.

The Author

Born in 1940 in Hubei province, Yang Jisheng graduated from Tsinghua University in 1966. He worked for more than three decades as a journalist for the state news agency Xinhua and is now a fellow of the China Media Project in the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

Asked why he wrote Tombstone, he says: “From 1958 to 1962, in normal weather conditions and without war or epidemic disease, 36 million people starved to death and thousands of cases of cannibalism were docu-mented. This figure is equivalent to 450 times the number of people killed by the atomic bomb in Nagasaki and to 150 times the death toll of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. It exceeds the number of deaths in the First World War.

“The Nazis slaughtered millions of Jews, thousands of people were killed in the 9/11 attacks, 3 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge; but in China, many more people were killed by the Great Famine than by these major tragedies. Such tragedy is not only rare in the history of China but also rare in the history of humanity.

“This event was the target of a cover-up. For decades afterwards, all books, periodicals, newspapers and other official documents in China have tried their best to evade and cover up this massive human tragedy. Cadres at all levels keep silent and pretend to have forgotten it.

“If I avoid talking about it, as a professional journalist and a scholar of contemporary Chinese history, it would prey on my conscience and I would be sorry to the ghosts of the 36 million and, of course, I would be sorry to my profession. Further still, my father starved to death during the Great Famine, so how could I turn a blind eye?”

Of the risks he took in researching and writing about these events, Yang says: “I have prepared for the consequences. As I wrote in the book, the risk involved in undertaking this project might yet justify its serving as my own tombstone.”

Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine

By Yang Jisheng

Allen Lane, 656pp, £30.00

ISBN 9781846145186 and 9780141972855

Published 1 November 2012

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