On the New York Review of Books blog, Ian Johnson interviews Yang Jisheng, whose book Tombstone has been called the most thorough accounting yet of the “Great Famine” from 1958-1961:
Ian Johnson: I wondered when reading Tombstone why officials didn’t destroy the files. Why did they preserve all this evidence?
Yang Jisheng: Destroying files isn’t up to one person. As long as a file or document has made it into the archives you can’t so easily destroy it. Before it is in the archives, it can be destroyed, but afterwards, only a directive from a high-ranking official can cause it to be destroyed. I found that on the Great Famine the documentation is basically is intact—how many people died of hunger, cannibalism, the grain situation; all of this was recorded and still exists.
How many files did you end up amassing?
I consulted twelve provincial archives and the central archives. On average I copied 300 folders per archive, so I have over 3,600 folders of information. They fill up my apartment and some are in the countryside at a friend’s house for safekeeping.
As a Xinhua reporter did you have more latitude to explore the archives?
When I started I didn’t say I was writing about the Great Famine. I said I wanted to understand the history of China’s rural economic policies and grain policy. If I had said I was researching the Great Famine, for sure they wouldn’t have let me look in the archives. There were some documents that were marked “restricted” (“kongzhi” in Chinese)—for example, anything related to public security or the military. But then I asked friends for help and we got signatures of provincial party officials and it was okay.
Read more about Yang Jisheng and the Great Famine via CDT.