Jonathan Mirsky: Review of Yang Jisheng's "Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962"





Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist and historian specializing in China.

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.”

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.”...



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