The Fight for the History of China’s Great Famine

The Guardian’s Tania Branigan interviews former Xinhua journalist Yang Jisheng, author of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine. The book, researched in secret and still unpublished in mainland China, has nevertheless been credited with breathing new life into discussion of the Great Leap Forward and the mass starvation that followed. A decade after the Communist party took power in 1949, promising to serve the people, the greatest manmade disaster in history stalks an already impoverished land. In an unremarkable city in central Henan province, more than a million people – one in eight – are wiped out by starvation and brutality over three short years. In one area, officials commandeer more grain than the farmers have actually grown. In barely nine months, more than 12,000 people – a third of the inhabitants – die in a single commune; a tenth of its households are wiped out. Thirteen children beg officials for food and are dragged deep into the mountains, where they die from exposure and starvation. A teenage orphan kills and eats her four-year-old brother. Forty-four of a village’s 45 inhabitants die; the last remaining resident, a woman in her 60s, goes insane. Others are tortured, beaten or buried alive for declaring realistic harvests, refusing to hand over what little food they have, stealing scraps or simply angering officials. […] Page after page – even in the drastically edited English translation, there are 500 of them – his book, Tombstone, piles improbability upon terrible improbability. But Yang did not imagine these scenes. Perhaps no one could. Instead, he devoted 15 years to painstakingly documenting the catastrophe that claimed at least 36 million lives across the country, including that of his father. […] The death toll is staggering. “The most officials have admitted is 20 million,” he says, but he puts the ...
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