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”

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One Response to A “Tombstone” for 36 Million

  1. Astrid says:

    I saw a review of this on NPR, and immediately bought it. It came in 2 days, and I’m 3/4 through. I’m shocked, flabbergasted, angry, saddened. I knew of the Famine associated with the Great Leap Forward…back when I started paying attention to China in 1974. I accepted that it was, like many historical famines in China, due to weather, as the official word seemed to be. It has come up again and again in my contemporary readings, but I generally dismissed the anti-communist hyperbole, since those exaggerations have a political motive. But this book is definitive, extensively documented from historical Chinese sources. The nails are in the coffin for the number of 36 million. For millions, their only tombstones were the trees that were planted over their mass graves.

    Now, reading the famine causation and political surroundings, I can see so much more clearly how the Cultural Revolution was also able to take hold.