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Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine

Robert Bickers applauds an account that casts new light on one of the darkest episodes in China's recent past

Published: February 6, 2013 at 2:42 pm
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Reviewed by: Robert Bickers
Author: Yang Jisheng
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30


In January 1958 Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, a campaign to accelerate China’s industrialisation, aiming to surpass the British economy within 15 years. The initiative was designed to reinforce his own power within the Communist party, and to show China’s independence from the Soviet Union and its model of development. Within four years, at least 36 million people had starved to death. Some persuasive estimates place the figure at least a third higher. This famine was the greatest single man-made catastrophe in China’s history, but it remains in the shadows of China’s memory, let alone ours.

But we knew. As early as late summer 1959 the press overseas was reporting a disastrous harvest in China and for three years there were consistent and accurate reports about bad harvests, shortages and malnutrition. A half-penny rise in the price of bread in Britain in January 1962 was blamed partly on ‘the famine in China’, as it imported grain from overseas. The message was sent to every British high street.

A small but significant proportion of those who died were killed for ‘resisting’ the campaign, or for ‘subverting’ it. Reports made their way through Hong Kong about this turbulence. Trials and executions of party officials and local leaders, a February 1961 report noted, had been witnessed by visitors from Hong Kong. The flow of people into the British colony was itself an indication of a crisis in process. By early 1962 up to 100,000 a month managed to make their way over the border: they walked and then they talked.

But who really listened? For many the country was indelibly inscribed in the foreign imagination as a ‘land of famine’ (the sub-title of a well-known 1926 book) and because of devastating disasters in 1877–78, 1920–21, and 1928–29. Chinese famine was hardly news. There were also many overseas who would see no wrong in the actions of the Communists. In February 1960 even The Times ran a leader that asked readers to set current reports of strife and discontent with the Communist regime and its millenarian schemes into the wider context of “the welter of blood and suffering from which China has emerged”. If even the conservative press was so ready to set events against such a background, how much readier then was the political and academic left, which for years largely denied that there had been any problems.

The Great Leap was intoxicating, a seemingly entirely new model for growth. Communes were established, and all agricultural activity, even cooking and eating, was communalised. Farmers were set to smelting iron in “backyard steel furnaces”,` and to work on massive public works schemes. Fields were left unattended. Desperate to meet and surpass production targets, officials drove those they governed harder and harder. The entire economy came unstuck, but the statistics reported upwards showed bumper harvests and overfilled quotas, so the state procurement apparatus extracted higher and higher amounts of food from scarcer and scarcer rural supplies. Millions died, and millions more lives were never lived, as statistically-expected births never happened.

One of those who died was the foster-father of Tombstone’s author, Yang Jisheng and this important book is a memorial to him, as much as it is a journey of discovery by a veteran Chinese journalist. Yang notes wryly that he had a career-long insider’s-view of how news served political power and he began privately in the early 1990s to investigate the famine, a personal disaster for his family and a national catastrophe for China.

What has been translated is only part of a much larger text published in Chinese in 2008, but it adds significantly to Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts (1996) and Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine (2010).

Today China looks to its future. Its leadership transition filled the world’s press in November 2012, as delegates attended the Party Congress in the Great Hall of the People on the west side of Tiananmen Square. Facing it is the country’s National Museum. You will look in vain for the famine in its permanent display on modern history, for there is but a tiny 100-word section devoted to those backyard furnaces and barely half a sentence acknowledging ‘serious’ disruption to socialist development.

On the square’s south side is the building in which Mao’s embalmed body lies in state. There is no memorial to the lost millions, who as Yang reminds us, were individuals, friends, family and relations, parts of China’s living history, and not simple constituents of the numbing statistics of a suppressed past.


Robert Bickers is the author of The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (Allen Lane, 2011)


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