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China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined

Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and later for Communist officials. From its peak we looked down on China’s Central Plains, which stretch six hundred miles up toward Beijing.

Over the past few decades, the region below us had become one of the centers of Christianity in China, and I asked him why. He said it was a reaction to the lawlessness and rootlessness in local society. “Henan is chaotic,” he said, “and we offer something moral amid so much immorality.”

I thought of the many scandals that have hit Henan province in recent years—the “AIDS villages” populated by locals who sold their blood to companies that reused infected needles, or the charismatic millennial movements that had sprung up. Crime is high and local officials notoriously brutal, running their districts like fiefdoms. But didn’t many other parts of China have such troubles?

“It’s different here,” he said slowly, looking at me carefully, trying to explain something very complex and painful that he wasn’t sure would be comprehensible. “Traditional life was wiped out around the time I was born, fifty years ago. Since then it has been a difficult area, with no foundation to society. Most people in China haven’t heard of this but here in Xinyang, people all know.

“It was called the Xinyang Incident. It destroyed this area like the wrath of God on Judgment Day.”

The Xinyang Incident is the subject of the first chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng’s epic account of the worst famine in history. Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mostly due to starvation but also government-instigated torture and murder of those who opposed the Communist Party’s maniacal economic plans that caused the catastrophe. Its epicenter was Xinyang County, where one in eight people died from the famine. The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later.

* * *

iconAFP/Getty Images
Chinese refugees hold out hands asking for food as they are expelled to China from Hong Kong, 1962.

Originally published in 2008, the Chinese version of Tombstone is a legendary book in China.1 It is hard to find an intellectual in Beijing who has not read it, even though it remains banned and was only published in Hong Kong. Yang’s great success is using the Communist Party’s own records to document, as he puts it, “a tragedy unprecedented in world history for tens of millions of people to starve to death and to resort to cannibalism during a period of normal climate patterns with no wars or epidemics.”

Tombstone is a landmark in the Chinese people’s own efforts to confront their history, despite the fact that the party responsible for the Great Famine is still in power. This fact is often lost on outsiders who wonder why the Chinese haven’t delved into their history as deeply as the Germans or Russians or Cambodians. In this sense, Yang is like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: someone inside the system trying to uncover its darkest secrets.

Like The Gulag Archipelago, Yang’s Tombstone is a flawed work that has benefited by being shortened in translation. The original work spun out of control, with Yang trying to incorporate everything he found and constantly recapitulating key points. This is one reason why the original was over 1,800 pages and published in two volumes. The English version is half the length and reorganized by Yang in conjunction with the translators, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, and an outside editor, the University of Wisconsin’s Edward Friedman. The result is a much more compact book with Yang’s most important work clearly showcased.

The original book started out with fourteen provincial case studies followed by six “policy” chapters and eight “analysis” chapters. The translation begins, like the original, with Yang’s powerful chapter on Xinyang but then alternates provincial case studies with the broader chapters on policy and analysis. Only four of the fourteen provincial chapters are in the English translation but from my reading of both versions it seems that they have cut almost none of Yang’s key findings, including interviews with victims and those responsible for the famine, and his best scoops from the archives. The English version retains all six policy chapters and five of the eight analysis chapters.

Yang’s travails in piecing together the book are part of its lore.2 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.

The story Yang tells is by now familiar in broad strokes thanks to the work of earlier writers, especially for foreigners, notably Jasper Becker’s 1996 book Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, but also because of the findings of demographers, local studies specialists, and Chinese memoirists and researchers who have over the years pulled together the basic facts. Yang’s contribution is to have written a large-scale history based on these works and his own pioneering research in Chinese archives.

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.

* * *

The famine grew out of Mao’s desire to speed up China’s development and force it into a utopian Communist vision that few in the Communist Party’s leadership had thought possible or desirable. When the Communists took power they had forced through a brutal land reform that killed millions of landlords and imagined enemies, but they had also redistributed property to peasants—an immensely popular measure that won Mao goodwill among many people. Then, however, Mao began to press for speedier development known as “rash advance.” Yang shows how the two other most influential leaders in the Party, Vice Chairman Liu Shaoqi and Premier Zhou Enlai, opposed “rash advance.” As early as 1951 Liu opposed collectivized agriculture as “erroneous, dangerous, fantastical.”

In 1957, however, Mao launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, a wave of terror that wiped out or cowed much of the intelligentsia, terrifying even members of his inner circle. That allowed him to pursue collectivization, which reversed land reform by taking land from the peasants. Instead of peasants owning the land, the state did, giving it complete control over agricultural production. Enthusiasm fell, and with it production.

The problem took a deadly turn when Mao began to endorse opportunistic officials who boasted that the communes had created “Sputnik harvests.” Henan, where the first communes had been formed in 1958, later that year began claiming wildly exaggerated yields of 1,000 kilograms of wheat per mu of land (a mu is one sixth of an acre)—fanciful numbers that defied common sense and science. Local governments began to outdo one another trying to offer the biggest harvests, which they had to deliver to state granaries. Often, these were nothing more than mounds of husks covered with a thin layer of grain, but once-skeptical officials like Zhou and Liu endorsed these magical results during public inspection tours. Local officials began sending all their village’s harvests to granaries to meet these impossible targets, leaving villagers with nothing to eat.

Adding to the problem were the harmless-sounding “communal kitchens,” in which everyone ate. The kitchens took on a sinister aspect because of a nonsensical plan to boost steel production by melting down everything from hoes and plows to the family wok and meat cleaver. Families thus couldn’t cook and had to eat in the canteens, giving the state complete control over the supply of food. At first, people gorged themselves, but when food became scarce, the kitchens controlled who lived and who died:

The staff of the communal kitchens held the ladles, and therefore enjoyed the greatest power in distributing food. They could dredge a richer stew from the bottom of a pot or merely skim a few vegetable slices from the thin broth near the surface.

These posts, of course, went to the Party’s most trusted members or relatives.

By early 1959, people were dying in huge numbers and many officials were urgently recommending that the communes be disbanded. The opposition went up to the very top, with one of the most famous Communist military leaders, Peng Dehuai, leading the opposition. Mao, however, counterattacked at an important meeting at Lushan in July and August 1959 that turned what had been a contained disaster into one of history’s greatest catastrophes. At the Lushan Conference, Mao purged Peng and his supporters, accusing them of “right-opportunism.” Chastened officials returned to the provinces eager to save their careers, duplicating Mao’s attack on Peng at the local level. As Yang puts it: “In a political system such as China’s, those below imitate those above, and political struggles at the higher levels are replicated at the lower levels in an expanded and even more ruthless form.”

Officials launched campaigns to dig up grain that peasants were allegedly hiding. Of course, the grain didn’t exist, but anyone who said otherwise was tortured and often killed. That October, the famine began in earnest in Xinyang, accompanied by the murder of skeptics of Mao’s policies. Yang describes in graphic detail how Xinyang officials beat one colleague who had opposed the communes. They ripped out his hair and beat him day after day, dragging him out of his bed and standing around him, kicking until he died. One official cited by Yang estimates that 12,000 such “struggle sessions” occurred in the region. Some people were hung up by ropes and set on fire. Others had their heads smashed open. Many were put in the middle of a circle and pushed, punched, and jostled for hours until they collapsed and died.

Yang interviewed a colleague at the Xinhua news agency who had been stationed in Xinyang. During a long-distance bus ride, he said, “I could see one corpse after another in the ditches along the roadway, but no one on the bus dared to talk about the starvation.” The reporter found out that a third of the population in some areas had died while “the leading cadres continued to stuff themselves.” But “after I personally witnessed how people who spoke the truth were brought to ruin, how could I dare to write an internal reference report?”

The starvation led to the destruction of human relations. In one case, an official heard about a teenage girl whose parents had died. Near death, she killed her four-year-old brother and ate him. Filled with pity and a sense of helplessness, the official finally arrested the girl, reasoning that at least in jail she might get something to eat.

Local granaries were rarely opened, with officials who dared to do so punished, often with death. Meanwhile, farmers couldn’t leave their villages. A Central Committee “urgent communiqué” declared anyone leaving rural areas to be a vagrant. Local officials enforced the travel ban brutally, beating thousands to death. Police controlled all train stations. Long-distance buses were driven only by Party members. Postal service was so heavily monitored that it essentially shut down. Rural China had become a gulag without food. “The peasants could only stay home and await death,” Yang writes.

* * *

When Mao finally heard about the Xinyang Incident in 1960, he acted delusionally, declaring that landlords had retaken control and wrecked his utopian experiment. One main culprit he identified was the daughters of landlords, whom he accused of marrying Communist Party officials and ruining them. An inspection team headed by a senior Party member arrived in Xinyang and concluded that local officials were responsible for failing to follow Beijing’s orders. Of course they had been following Beijing’s orders, which is why the starvation had taken place. No matter, several thousand were arrested and beaten, and hundreds were killed. That meant an even further hardening of local officials against any sort of rational response. The famine continued, spreading nationally and claiming tens of millions.

In subsequent chapters, Yang shows how hastily conceived dams and canals contributed to the famine. In some areas, peasants weren’t allowed to plant crops; instead, they were ordered to dig ditches and haul dirt. That resulted in starvation and useless projects, most of which collapsed or washed away. In one telling example, peasants were told they couldn’t use shoulder poles to carry dirt because this method looked backward. Instead, they were ordered to build carts. For that they needed ball bearings, which they were told to make at home. Naturally, none of the primitive bearings worked.

Despite his personal loss, Yang remains sober and balanced throughout the book. He lays the blame firmly on the top leaders—not just Mao but also supposed moderates like Liu and Zhou. In imperial China, Yang says, power was centered in the Confucian bureaucracy but the truth lay in religion and philosophical texts, such as the Confucian classics. In Maoist China, by contrast, the leader was the sage, meaning there was no ideological alternative to Mao. “China’s government became a secular theocracy that united the center of power with the center of truth” is Yang’s pithy but telling analysis.

Yang doesn’t spare Mao, Liu, or Zhou, but he also blames Chinese society for wanting to believe that leaders had a quick and easy solution to China’s backwardness. Mostly, he blames the Communist political system for allowing such a leader as Mao to take power—a far more damning indictment of today’s China than simply blaming Mao:

The problem lay in arbitrary and dictatorial decision making at the expense of good practice, and coercive implementation that deprived people of their rights and property. Both flaws were rooted in the political system.

* * *

At this point, it is impossible not to mention the Dutch historian Frank Dikötter and his 2010 book, Mao’s Great Famine.3 Dikötter is a talented historian at Hong Kong University who has a nose for hot topics; his previous books have discussed race, sex, eugenics, crime, and opium. Most of them have a strongly contrarian streak, sometimes presenting ideas in new, startling ways. Chinese have troubling ideas of race. Opium wasn’t really such a problem. The Republican era that preceded the Communist one was far better than its reputation. All of these are worthwhile ideas and it’s fair to say that Dikötter’s 1992 book, The Discourse of Race in Modern China, is a classic that is as vital today as it was twenty years ago.

His book on famine was rightly hailed as a valuable history and it’s little wonder that it won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize, which is awarded to English-language nonfiction books. It differs from Yang’s book by putting most of the blame on Mao; on the first page we’re told he is comparable to Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. For Dikötter, it is essential that the reader accept Mao’s full culpability, much in the same way that Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Mao aims to put him in the pantheon of twentieth-century monsters.4

This is certainly a defensible position. Still, a confusing preface makes it seem that his book is a pathbreaking work, rather than one whose primary contribution is to have been written in English, and in a conventional, linear narrative. Dikötter hails a new official archival law, which he curiously claims is “fundamentally changing the way one can study the Maoist era,” when in fact it only allowed a brief window of access in the early 2000s that was all but closed for sensitive topics by 2007. The documents he accumulated, he says, form a “massive and detailed dossier [that] transforms our understanding of the Great Leap Forward.”

His main claims, he says, are to offer a higher death toll—45 million—and to show the violence used to enforce Mao’s policies. He also claims to link for the first time the horror in the villages with the decisions made in Beijing. Dikötter’s number of deaths is a guesstimate, but a good one, and he deserves respect and a serious hearing. He and his researchers also made valuable finds in the archives, which solidify what is already known. He is also a gifted narrative writer. But he can’t present his claims as entirely original except by ignoring Tombstone.

Dikötter doesn’t exactly ignore Tombstone. Instead, in a self-serving essay on sources at the end of his book, he spends half a page criticizing the Chinese version of Yang’s work (which came out two years before his own). Dikötter credits Yang with being one of the first to use provincial archives, and especially for his work in the Henan provincial archives. But he then goes on to say the book has “serious shortcomings,” at times looking “like a hotchpotch which simply strings together large chunks of text, some lifted from the Web.” The material is so uneven, Dikötter says, that it’s hard for the reader “to see the wood for the trees.” Dikötter goes further in a Chinese-language interview in Asia Weekly, in which he claims that Yang’s province-by-province analysis is “boring” and, incredibly, that Yang only blames Mao and not the system.5

Without specific citations from Dikötter it’s hard to know exactly what he means when he accuses Yang of lifting information from the Internet. It is true that in the Chinese edition Yang cited survivor memoirs published online, a common practice in China, where the publishing industry is in state hands. (Some of these memoirs were later published in Hong Kong and the English version cites these published versions.)

As for Yang’s prose, a more generous view would be that he simply was trying to get on paper everything he could because so little is known. It’s clear that Yang wouldn’t have been awarded a doctorate from a Western university for the Chinese version of Tombstone. He wrote the book under trying circumstances, not from the perch of a university, aided by editors, graduate students, and associates to do some of his research. But it’s Dikötter who misses the forest for the trees in not seeing the historic value of this work.

Tombstone is not perfect. It lacks an adequate discussion of Mao’s rural industrialization and foreign policy. It could also have used more forward-looking conclusions about how the famine led to the Cultural Revolution and, ultimately, today’s reform period. Even the slimmed-down English version lacks, as Dikötter notes of the Chinese version, a clear historical line. A chronology at the start helps, but it’s not as easily digestible as a traditional historical narrative starting in the 1950s and ending in the 1960s. Still, the English version solves most of this by leading with Yang’s best account—the Xinyang episode—and following that with a chapter on the historic roots of the crisis. That’s followed by another provincial chapter with vivid description followed by the next step in the narrative, and so on.

* * *

A more interesting companion to Tombstone is the work of Dikötter’s research collaborator at Hong Kong University, the mainland Chinese archival and oral historian Zhou Xun. As we learn from her acknowledgements, she and Dikötter shared two research grants to seek material on the famine and they also shared their findings. Her book, The Great Famine in China, is a selected compilation of these documents, mostly from archives in her native Sichuan and neighboring Guizhou provinces. As Zhou makes clear in her introduction, most of these documents would be unobtainable today because of the newly restrictive policies.

Her book is an invaluable resource, providing a look at the disaster in the Party’s own words. The documents are ordered roughly chronologically, and take the reader through the Great Leap Forward from beginning to end, and then tackle various effects of the famine. One section has reports on cannibalism with a series of horrifyingly matter-of-fact accounts:

Date: February 1960. Location: Zhangzigou backside village in Hanji commune. Culprit’s name: Yi Wucheng. Culprit’s status: Poor peasant. Number of victims: 4. Manner of crime: Exhumed the victims’ corpses and consumed the flesh. Reason: To survive.

Zhou also has an intriguing section on religion, with reports on the desperate turn to faith by people whose secular God—Mao—had failed them. In one, the Sichuan Province Public Security Bureau worriedly notes a saying going around a village: “The heavenly army is coming soon, and Chairman Mao will not last long.”

This lack of belief is something that Yang discusses in his analysis of the famine’s legacy:

Repeated self-abasement led people continuously to trample upon those things they most cherished and flatter those things they had always most despised. In this way the totalitarian system caused the degeneration of the national character of the Chinese people.

But just as China is undergoing a spiritual revival today, its people are also beginning to revive history. Xinyang is now home to two tiny memorials to the famine.6 More striking, earlier this year a national newspaper ran a multipage supplement on the famine—an unprecedented recognition of this disaster.7 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.


  1. Reviewed in these pages by Perry Link, January 13, 2011.
  2. See my interview with Yang, “Finding the Facts About Mao’s Victims,” NYR blog, December 20, 2010.
  3. Reviewed in these pages by Roderick MacFarquhar, February 10, 2011.
  4. Mao: The Unknown Story (Knopf, 2005).
  5. Jiang Xun, “Questioning the Systemic Causes of the Holocaust,” Asia Weekly, October 30, 2011. Yang issued a reply on the Independent Chinese PEN Center site, www.chinesepen.org/Article/srsh/201111/Article_20111116040440.shtml.
  6. See Zhang Zhilong. “Starved of Memories,” Global Times, September 6, 2012.
  7. See Liu Yang Shuo, “A Farmer’s Memorial to the ‘Grain Stoppage,’” Southern People Weekly, May 18, 2012.
Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture, and religion. For thirteen years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer...
Reviewed in This Article

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962
by Yang Jisheng, translated from the Chinese by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 629 pp.

The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962: A Documentary History
edited by Zhou Xun
Yale University Press, 204 pp.

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962
by Frank Dikötter
Walker, 420 pp.

Mubei: Zhongguo liushi niandai dajihuang jiushi [Tombstone: A True History of the Great Famine in China in the 1960s]
by Yang Jisheng
Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi, Volume 1: 636 pp., Volume 2: 1,208 pp.

Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine
by Jasper Becker
Holt, 325 pp.

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This article was first published in the November 22, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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Who Killed Pamela in Peking?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing

IAN JOHNSON

The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven

IAN JOHNSON

In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?

PERRY LINK

On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

Who Was Mao Zedong?

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China

IAN JOHNSON

A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade

IAN JOHNSON

It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama

JONATHAN MIRSKY

“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions

PERRY LINK

The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor

RICHARD BERNSTEIN

A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots

IAN JOHNSON

The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare

JONATHAN MIRSKY

Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?

IAN JOHNSON

Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)

PERRY LINK

Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing

IAN JOHNSON

The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi...

PERRY LINK

The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star

IAN JOHNSON

In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!

RICHARD BERNSTEIN

The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny

SIMON LEYS

Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

China Gets Religion!

IAN JOHNSON

This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds

IAN BURUMA

Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing

IAN JOHNSON

One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future

FANG LIZHI

Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?

JONATHAN MIRSKY

On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China

AMARTYA SEN

1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo

PERRY LINK

1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds

JONATHAN MIRSKY

July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful

IAN JOHNSON

In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers

ORVILLE SCHELL

It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics

ORVILLE SCHELL

The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Casting a Lifeline

FRANCINE PROSE

Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Mission to Mao

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a...

PU ZHIQIANG

The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)

PERRY LINK

Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

A Little Leap Forward

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...

AsiaWorld

IAN BURUMA

1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

Found Horizon

IAN BURUMA

1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West

IAN BURUMA

Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer

IAN BURUMA

“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace

IAN BURUMA

1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery

ORVILLE SCHELL

1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan

IAN BURUMA

Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment

JONATHAN MIRSKY

The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End

IAN BURUMA

Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster

JONATHAN MIRSKY

In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing

JOHN K. FAIRBANK

Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping

JOHN K. FAIRBANK

When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.” —Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People...

Keeping the Faith

FANG LIZHI

On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age

JONATHAN MIRSKY

Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy

JOHN K. FAIRBANK

To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan

NATHAN GARDELS

Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Rules of the Game

JOHN GITTINGS

On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards

JOHN GITTINGS

Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier

JOHN GITTINGS

In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a...

A Mao for All Seasons

MARTIN BERNAL

A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...