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China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined

Mubei: Zhongguo liushi niandai dajihuang jiushi [Tombstone: A True History of the Great Famine in China in the 1960s]

by Yang Jisheng
Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi, Volume 1: 636 pp., Volume 2: 1,208 pp., $30.96
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AFP/Getty Images
Chinese refugees returning to China from Hong Kong, May 1962

Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and later for Communist officials. From its peak we looked down on China’s Central Plains, which stretch six hundred miles up toward Beijing.

Over the past few decades, the region below us had become one of the centers of Christianity in China, and I asked him why. He said it was a reaction to the lawlessness and rootlessness in local society. “Henan is chaotic,” he said, “and we offer something moral amid so much immorality.”

I thought of the many scandals that have hit Henan province in recent years—the “AIDS villages” populated by locals who sold their blood to companies that reused infected needles, or the charismatic millennial movements that had sprung up. Crime is high and local officials notoriously brutal, running their districts like fiefdoms. But didn’t many other parts of China have such troubles?

“It’s different here,” he said slowly, looking at me carefully, trying to explain something very complex and painful that he wasn’t sure would be comprehensible. “Traditional life was wiped out around the time I was born, fifty years ago. Since then it has been a difficult area, with no foundation to society. Most people in China haven’t heard of this but here in Xinyang, people all know.

“It was called the Xinyang Incident. It destroyed this area like the wrath of God on Judgment Day.”

The Xinyang Incident is the subject of the first chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng’s epic account of the worst famine in history. Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mostly due to starvation but also government-instigated torture and murder of those who opposed the Communist Party’s maniacal economic plans that caused the catastrophe. Its epicenter was Xinyang County, where one in eight people died from the famine. The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later.

Originally published in 2008, the Chinese version of Tombstone is a legendary book in China.1 It is hard to find an intellectual in Beijing who has not read it, even though it remains banned and was only published in Hong Kong. Yang’s great success is using the Communist Party’s own records to document, as he puts it, “a tragedy unprecedented in world history for tens of millions of people to starve to death and to resort to cannibalism during a period of normal climate patterns with no wars or epidemics.”

Tombstone is a landmark in the Chinese people’s own efforts to confront their history, despite the fact that the party responsible for the Great Famine is still in power. This fact is often lost on outsiders who wonder why the Chinese haven’t delved into their history as deeply as the Germans or Russians or Cambodians. In this sense, Yang is like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: someone inside the system trying to uncover its darkest secrets.

Like The Gulag Archipelago, Yang’s Tombstone is a flawed work that has benefited by being shortened in translation. The original work spun out of control, with Yang trying to incorporate everything he found and constantly recapitulating key points. This is one reason why the original was over 1,800 pages and published in two volumes. The English version is half the length and reorganized by Yang in conjunction with the translators, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, and an outside editor, the University of Wisconsin’s Edward Friedman. The result is a much more compact book with Yang’s most important work clearly showcased.

The original book started out with fourteen provincial case studies followed by six “policy” chapters and eight “analysis” chapters. The translation begins, like the original, with Yang’s powerful chapter on Xinyang but then alternates provincial case studies with the broader chapters on policy and analysis. Only four of the fourteen provincial chapters are in the English translation but from my reading of both versions it seems that they have cut almost none of Yang’s key findings, including interviews with victims and those responsible for the famine, and his best scoops from the archives. The English version retains all six policy chapters and five of the eight analysis chapters.

Yang’s travails in piecing together the book are part of its lore.2 As a reporter for the government’s Xinhua news agency, he had been a blindly loyal Party member. The turning point was the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre: “The blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades.” That made him determined to write the history of the Great Famine, which had touched him directly: he had watched his father die in front of him, at the time thinking it was an isolated tragedy and only later realizing that tens of millions had also died.

The story Yang tells is by now familiar in broad strokes thanks to the work of earlier writers, especially for foreigners, notably Jasper Becker’s 1996 book Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, but also because of the findings of demographers, local studies specialists, and Chinese memoirists and researchers who have over the years pulled together the basic facts. Yang’s contribution is to have written a large-scale history based on these works and his own pioneering research in Chinese archives.

His main point is to prove that the Party, from the village chief up to Chairman Mao, knew exactly what was going on but was too warped by ideology to change course until tens of millions had died. Like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, the book is a cry of outrage from a victim. Yang vowed to erect for his father an everlasting tombstone, one that would not crumble or fall with time, and he did so with this book.

The famine grew out of Mao’s desire to speed up China’s development and force it into a utopian Communist vision that few in the Communist Party’s leadership had thought possible or desirable. When the Communists took power they had forced through a brutal land reform that killed millions of landlords and imagined enemies, but they had also redistributed property to peasants—an immensely popular measure that won Mao goodwill among many people. Then, however, Mao began to press for speedier development known as “rash advance.” Yang shows how the two other most influential leaders in the Party, Vice Chairman Liu Shaoqi and Premier Zhou Enlai, opposed “rash advance.” As early as 1951 Liu opposed collectivized agriculture as “erroneous, dangerous, fantastical.”

In 1957, however, Mao launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, a wave of terror that wiped out or cowed much of the intelligentsia, terrifying even members of his inner circle. That allowed him to pursue collectivization, which reversed land reform by taking land from the peasants. Instead of peasants owning the land, the state did, giving it complete control over agricultural production. Enthusiasm fell, and with it production.

The problem took a deadly turn when Mao began to endorse opportunistic officials who boasted that the communes had created “Sputnik harvests.” Henan, where the first communes had been formed in 1958, later that year began claiming wildly exaggerated yields of 1,000 kilograms of wheat per mu of land (a mu is one sixth of an acre)—fanciful numbers that defied common sense and science. Local governments began to outdo one another trying to offer the biggest harvests, which they had to deliver to state granaries. Often, these were nothing more than mounds of husks covered with a thin layer of grain, but once-skeptical officials like Zhou and Liu endorsed these magical results during public inspection tours. Local officials began sending all their village’s harvests to granaries to meet these impossible targets, leaving villagers with nothing to eat.

Adding to the problem were the harmless-sounding “communal kitchens,” in which everyone ate. The kitchens took on a sinister aspect because of a nonsensical plan to boost steel production by melting down everything from hoes and plows to the family wok and meat cleaver. Families thus couldn’t cook and had to eat in the canteens, giving the state complete control over the supply of food. At first, people gorged themselves, but when food became scarce, the kitchens controlled who lived and who died:

The staff of the communal kitchens held the ladles, and therefore enjoyed the greatest power in distributing food. They could dredge a richer stew from the bottom of a pot or merely skim a few vegetable slices from the thin broth near the surface.

These posts, of course, went to the Party’s most trusted members or relatives.

By early 1959, people were dying in huge numbers and many officials were urgently recommending that the communes be disbanded. The opposition went up to the very top, with one of the most famous Communist military leaders, Peng Dehuai, leading the opposition. Mao, however, counterattacked at an important meeting at Lushan in July and August 1959 that turned what had been a contained disaster into one of history’s greatest catastrophes. At the Lushan Conference, Mao purged Peng and his supporters, accusing them of “right-opportunism.” Chastened officials returned to the provinces eager to save their careers, duplicating Mao’s attack on Peng at the local level. As Yang puts it: “In a political system such as China’s, those below imitate those above, and political struggles at the higher levels are replicated at the lower levels in an expanded and even more ruthless form.”

Officials launched campaigns to dig up grain that peasants were allegedly hiding. Of course, the grain didn’t exist, but anyone who said otherwise was tortured and often killed. That October, the famine began in earnest in Xinyang, accompanied by the murder of skeptics of Mao’s policies. Yang describes in graphic detail how Xinyang officials beat one colleague who had opposed the communes. They ripped out his hair and beat him day after day, dragging him out of his bed and standing around him, kicking until he died. One official cited by Yang estimates that 12,000 such “struggle sessions” occurred in the region. Some people were hung up by ropes and set on fire. Others had their heads smashed open. Many were put in the middle of a circle and pushed, punched, and jostled for hours until they collapsed and died.

Yang interviewed a colleague at the Xinhua news agency who had been stationed in Xinyang. During a long-distance bus ride, he said, “I could see one corpse after another in the ditches along the roadway, but no one on the bus dared to talk about the starvation.” The reporter found out that a third of the population in some areas had died while “the leading cadres continued to stuff themselves.” But “after I personally witnessed how people who spoke the truth were brought to ruin, how could I dare to write an internal reference report?”

  1. 1

    Reviewed in these pages by Perry Link, January 13, 2011. 

  2. 2

    See my interview with Yang, “ Finding the Facts About Mao’s Victims,” NYR blog, December 20, 2010. 

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