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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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