‘Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine’ Reviewed

At The New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson reviews the new English version of Yang Jisheng’s Great Famine history, Tombstone, comparing it with other books on the subject by Zhou Xun and Frank Dikötter. The review includes a grisly summary of the famine’s causes, course and consequences.

Yang’s travails in piecing together the book are part of its lore. As a reporter for the government’s Xinhua news agency, he had been a blindly loyal Party member. The turning point was the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre: “The blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades.” That made him determined to write the history of the Great Famine, which had touched him directly: he had watched his father die in front of him, at the time thinking it was an isolated tragedy and only later realizing that tens of millions had also died.

[…] His main point is to prove that the Party, from the village chief up to Chairman Mao, knew exactly what was going on but was too warped by ideology to change course until tens of millions had died. Like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, the book is a cry of outrage from a victim. Yang vowed to erect for his father an everlasting tombstone, one that would not crumble or fall with time, and he did so with this book.

[… E]arlier this year a national newspaper ran a multipage supplement on the famine—an unprecedented recognition of this disaster. When I asked an editor at a leading Party newspaper why this was, he had a one-word answer: “Tombstone.”

It would be simplistic to say Tombstone alone has set off this rethinking of Chinese history. Instead, like any great book it is part of something bigger, in this case a desire by many Chinese people to reconsider their society’s future by clarifying its past.

See also Michael Fathers’ review at The Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Popoff’s at The Boston Globe, and more on Yang Jisheng and the Great Leap Forward via CDT.


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