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…


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