A “Tombstone” for 36 Million

Journalist Yang Jisheng, deputy editor of the historical journal “Yanhuang Chunqiu,” has spent ten years researching the famine in China from 1958-62, which killed his father and 36 million others. The tragedy cannot be publicly discussed in China and Yang’s book is banned. The official explanation for the famine is “three years of natural disasters,” but research by Yang and others shows that Mao Zedong’s misguided economic policies were a major cause. NPR reports (Listen to Louisa Lim’s report):

As an adult, Yang used his credentials as a reporter for the state Xinhua news agency to cajole and beg his way into provincial archives. He started gathering information on the famine in the mid-90s, and began the project in earnest in 1998.

He worked undercover for a decade at immense personal risk, pretending to research official grain and rural policies, in order to put together the first detailed account of the great famine from Chinese government sources.

From his research, Yang estimates that 36 million died during the famine. Most deaths were caused by starvation, but the figure also includes killing during ideological campaigns. Some Western scholars have put the toll as high as 45 million.

Unbearable hunger made people behave in inhuman ways. Even government records reported cases where people ate human flesh from dead bodies.

In the New York Times, Yang explains his motivation for taking the risk of publishing the book:

As a journalist and a scholar of contemporary history, I felt a duty to find out how the Great Famine happened and why. Starting in the 1990s, I visited more than a dozen provinces, interviewed over a hundred witnesses, and collected thousands of documents. Since the Great Famine was a forbidden topic, I could get access to archives only under the pretext of “researching agricultural policies” or “studying the food issue.”

Communist leaders established a vast system of slavery in the name of liberating mankind. It was promoted as the “road to paradise,” but in fact it was a road to perdition.

I intended my book to be a memorial to the 36 million victims, but also a literal tombstone, anticipating the ultimate demise of the totalitarian political system that caused the Great Famine. I was mindful of the risks in this endeavor: if something happens to me because I tried to preserve a truthful memory, then let the book stand as my tombstone, too.

Read an excerpt of “Tombstone” via NPR. See also a review of the book by Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books, as well as more about Yang Jisheng and the Great Leap Forward, via CDT.