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It's not often that a book comes out that rewrites a country's history, but that was the case with the book by retired a Chinese reporter who spent 10 years secretly collecting official evidence about the country's great famine. NPR's Louise Lim met the 72-year-old author in Beijing and has our report. But first, a warning: some of the content in this story is very disturbing and it may not be appropriate for younger listeners.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: In 1958, China launched its Great Leap Forward. It was a political movement where the population was forced to drop everything to make steel in backyard furnaces. The goal? To catch up with the U.S. Farm work stopped. Then millions starved. One victim was the man Yang Jisheng called father, the uncle who'd brought him up. Yang, just 18 years old, was at boarding school. He rushed home, but arrived too late to save him. For years, he blamed himself.

YANG JISHENG: (Through Translator) I didn't think my father's death was the country's fault. I thought it was my fault. If I hadn't gone to school and had helped him dig up his crops, he wouldn't have died. My vision was very limited. I didn't have the information.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Provinces were reporting record grain hauls, but the figures were falsified. And all the time people were dying. Yang estimates 36 million died in total. And famine made people behave in inhuman ways.

JISHENG: (Through Translator) Documents report several thousand cases where people ate other people. And we couldn't have imagined there was still grain in the warehouses. At the worst time, the government was still exporting grain.

LIM: At the epicenter of the famine, Xinyang in Henan, the post office confiscated more than a thousand letters sent begging for help. Those who tried to leave the area were sent to labor camp. Ideological campaigns continued. In one district alone, a thousand people were beaten to death for political reasons. Yang struggled to put this on paper.

JISHENG: (Through Translator) At first when I was writing this book, it was difficult. But then I became numb. When you're writing history, you can't be too emotional. You need to be calm and objective. But I was angry the whole time. I'm still angry.

LIM: Yang used his official credentials to cajole and beg his way into provincial archives. He worked undercover for a decade, pretending to be researching official grain policy at immense personal risk. The result is "Tombstone," a monumental history of the famine.

STACY MOSHER: It's an extremely important book. What Mr. Yang has done is groundbreaking. And it's just something that will live forever, as he hoped.

LIM: That's Stacy Mosher, the co-translator of the English version, which has just been published. She says the book honors the dead, as well as the unsung heroes.

MOSHER: There were certain, you know, officials who within their own local parameters were able to save lives because they were in a position to ignore the central government's directives. They had the moxie, they had the guts and they saved lives. I think that is a lesson to take home from this. That, yes, a system can be diabolical, it can be lethal, but the individual can make a difference.

LIM: The book is banned in China. Official histories partially blame the famine on bad weather and the withdrawal of Soviet experts. Yang says these excuses don't hold any water. Counterfeit versions of his book are in circulation, as are photocopies and electronic versions. Yang doesn't care about copyright. He just wants Chinese to know their own history.

JISHENG: (Through Translator) Our history is all fabricated. It's been covered up. If a country can't face its own history, then it has no future. And if a regime destroys history systematically, that's a terrifying regime.

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LIM: As China prepares to unveil its new leaders, Yang, a lifelong Communist party member, hopes they'll push for change. He called his book "Tombstone" as a memorial to his father and other famine victims.

For years, he feared the book might be his own tombstone. Now he hopes his book will be a tombstone for a political system that allowed mass deaths. China is at a crossroads, he says, and it can only move forward by telling the truth about its own history.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

SIMON: And tomorrow, tune in to hear how a group of young Chinese are reclaiming their own history using film.

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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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