The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962

by Yang Jisheng


Paperback, 629 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $17 | purchase


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Book Summary

During The Great Leap Forward, an estimated 36 million Chinese starved to death in less than four years. The famine was among the worst the world has known — but the disaster was man-made. In Tombstone, Yang Jisheng offers an extensive account of those tragic years, drawing on a decade of undercover investigation to expose the role of Communist agricultural reform — and political violence — in exacerbating the harsh conditions. Banned in China and only recently translated into English, this history revises what once was recorded as truth.

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Chinese villagers welcome the arrival of tractors purchased by a farmers' cooperative in April 1958, during the Great Leap Forward campaign. The disastrous modernization program ended in China's great famine and tens of millions of deaths.

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Tombstone

An Everlasting Tombstone

I originally intended to title this book The Road to Paradise, but eventually changed it to Tombstone. I had four reasons for choosing this title: the first is to erect a tombstone for my father, who died of starvation in 1959; the second is to erect a tombstone for the thirty- six million Chinese who died of starvation; and the third is to erect a tombstone for the system that brought about the Great Famine. The fourth came to me while I was halfway through writing this book, when a temporary health scare spurred me to complete the book as a tombstone for myself. Although my health concerns were subsequently put to rest, the risk involved in undertaking this project might yet justify its serving as my own tombstone. But, of course, my main intentions are the first three.

A tombstone is memory made concrete. Human memory is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; the bright spots, but also the darkness. The authorities in a totalitarian system strive to conceal their faults and extol their merits, gloss over their errors and forcibly eradicate all memory of man-made calamity, darkness, and evil. For that reason, the Chinese are prone to historical amnesia imposed by those in power. I erect this tombstone so that people will remember and henceforth renounce manmade calamity, darkness, and evil.


At the end of April 1959, I was spending my after-school hours assembling a May Fourth Youth Day wall newspaper for my school's Communist Youth League. My childhood friend Zhang Zhibai suddenly arrived from our home village of Wanli and told me, "Your father is starving to death! Hurry back, and take some rice if you can." He said, "Your father doesn't even have the strength to strip bark from the trees — he's starved beyond helping himself. He was headed to Jiangjiayan to buy salt to make salt-water, but he collapsed on the way, and some people from Wanli carried him home."

I dropped what I was doing and requested leave from our league secretary and head teacher. Then I collected a three-day meal ration of 1.5 kilos of rice from the school canteen and rushed home. Upon reaching Wanli, I found things radically changed. The elm tree in front of our house had been reduced to a barkless trunk, and even its roots had been dug up and stripped, leaving only a ragged hole in the earth. The pond was dry; neighbors said it had been drained to dredge for rank- tasting mollusks that had never been eaten in the past. There was no sound of dogs barking, no chickens running about; even the children who used to scamper through the lanes remained at home. Wanli was like a ghost town.

Upon entering our home, I found utter destitution; there was not a grain of rice, nothing edible whatsoever, and not even water in the vat. Immobilized by starvation, how would my father have had the strength to fetch water?

My father was half-reclined on his bed, his eyes sunken and lifeless, his face gaunt, the skin creased and flaccid. He tried to extend his hand to greet me, but couldn't lift it, just moving it a little. That hand reminded me of the human skeleton in my anatomy class; although it was covered with a layer of withered skin, nothing concealed the protrusions and hollows of the bone structure. I was shocked with the realization that the term skin and bones referred to something so horrible and cruel. A murmur escaped from his lips, his voice faint as he told me to go quickly, go quickly back to school.

My father had seemed fine just two months earlier — in fact, his legs had already shown signs of edema at the time, but I didn't know it was from malnutrition. He had been in charge of grazing his production team's buffalo. That buffalo was a lovely beast, robust and clean under my father's painstaking care. Although this little buffalo could not speak, its eyes were expressive, by turns intimate, worried, longing, or angry. It was able to communicate with my father through those eyes, and even I understood some of its expressions. Whenever I came back from school, I would ride the buffalo up the hill. Two months earlier my father had sent for me to come home. The production team had secretly slaughtered the buffalo and given our family half a kilo of the meat. Knowing my life was hard at school, my father had called me home to eat the buffalo meat. As soon as I entered the house, I smelled an alluring odor. But my father ate none of the meat. He said he had been too close to the buffalo, there had been an understanding between them, and he couldn't eat the meat. In fact, he was just making an excuse to let me eat all of it. I wolfed it down as he watched, his eyes glowing with kindness. Now I wondered had he eaten that buffalo meat whether his condition might not be so desperate.

I kneaded my father's hand, then hurried off with buckets on a shoulder pole to fill the water vat. Then I grabbed a hoe and went to dig up sprouts from where we had planted peanuts the year before. (The peanut sprouts from the year before had, during the spring, pushed out shoots that were much coarser than bean sprouts. It was said that they contained toxins and were inedible, but even so, they had been almost completely dug up by others.) I dug and dug some more, my heart full of remorse and guilt. Why had I not come back earlier and harvested some wild herbs? Why hadn't I come back earlier with some rice?

But all my self-blame was useless. I boiled congee from the rice I'd brought and took it to my father's bed, but he was no longer able to swallow. Three days later he departed this world.

From Tombstone by Yang Jisheng. Copyright 2012 by Yang Jisheng. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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