Mao Zedong in a rice field with hat, from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung

Effectively unreported by the world press at the time, the famine that swept China from 1958 to 1962 cost perhaps thirty-six million dead from starvation and related causes. In addition, because without food women cease to menstruate, perhaps another forty million babies were not born. So the total population loss was well over seventy million. The suffering was overwhelmingly rural, with farmers turning, among other things, to elm bark, wild herbs, egret droppings, and even guanyintu—a kind of fine clay—in the desperate quest for food. Impossible choices were forced on families about whom to feed and whom to let die. The living became too weak even to bury the dead. Cannibalism spread despite iron cultural taboos.

Party officials, however, did not suffer: Even cadres in areas where farmers were dying had their own well-supplied canteens, and Mao Zedong continued to dine well, rumors of his having adopting a minimal diet in solidarity to the contrary. Lavish celebrations were given by Party officials. This was also the time that some of the luxurious provincial and state guesthouses, designed for Mao’s use, were built—all sandalwood, silk embroidery, and comfort.

Astonishingly, China’s food warehouses were full during this entire period; grain, as well as pork and egg exports to the rest of the world, continued. Had even half of grain reserves been released, no one would have died.

Until recently, when mentioned in China, the period was called, using Mao’s words, “the three years of natural calamities,” implying that adverse weather conditions were to blame. In the course of his research, Yang Jisheng consulted many experts. One was Gao Suhua, who had spent thirty years at the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences. Retired, she told Yang flatly: “From 1958 to 1961, there were no large-scale droughts or floods within China, nor was there any large-scale occurrence of damagingly low temperatures. Conditions in those three years were normal.”

Tens of millions died in what was, as Yang insists, an entirely manmade disaster, brought on the Chinese people not by Heaven but by the policy ideas of the unquestioned leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976). These ideas were transmitted, wholly unmodified, to the countryside by the unprecedented power and sanction of the totalitarian Communist system, upon which Yang places the ultimate blame.

Yang Jisheng worked as a journalist for the official Xinhua News agency from January 1968 until his retirement in 2001. Now he lives with his family in Peking, serving as an editor of Yanhuang Chunchiu (Chronicles of Chinese History), “an official journal that regularly skirts censorship with articles on controversial political topics.”

In April 1959, Yang watched his father starve to death. Alerted by a classmate, he drew a three-day rice ration and returned to his home in the remote countryside. There he found “utter destitution: there was not a grain of rice, nothing edible whatsoever, and not even water in the vat. . . . 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 he couldn’t lift it, just moving it a little.” Yang boiled congee from the rice he had brought and took it to his father’s bed, “but he was no longer able to swallow. Three days later he departed this world.”

Yang grieved deeply over his father’s death, but he “never thought to blame the government.” Instead he “felt no suspicion and believed completely what had been instilled in me by the Communist Party and the Communist Youth League.” Only in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s did Yang’s faith waver. He learned that his father’s death was not a unique family tragedy, but rather that thousands had suffered the same fate in his home area alone. The Party had lied.

“The realization that I had been deceived for so long engendered a will to shake off this deception. The more the authorities concealed the truth, the more I felt compelled to pursue it.” The democracy movement and massacre of 1989 were the turning point: “the blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades. As a journalist, I strove to report the truth. As a scholar, I felt a responsibility to restore historical truth for others who had been deceived.” The result was fifteen years of research through the network of Xinhua correspondents, through visits and interviews, through archives and other sources, through the small but growing body of Chinese famine research, that has given us Tombstone.1

Tombstone is not the first book to discuss the famine. In the 1970s, writings by Edward E. Rice, the American consul-general in Hong Kong just after the famine, and Jürgen Domes, a political scientist from the University of the Saarland, provided initial documentation based primarily on careful study of the Chinese media. Refugees from starvation flooded into Hong Kong and could be interviewed. The Western academic establishment, for the most part, dismissed these reports. The break came when the demographer Ansley Coale, who had been provided computer records of the Chinese population by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which of course knew what was in them), concluded that after 1958 at least ten million Chinese had disappeared. He published these explosive findings in a pamphlet with the anodyne title Rapid Population Change in China, 1952–1982 (1984). The first full study in English was the journalist Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts: The Story of Mao’s Secret Famine (1996); recently, Professor Frank Dikötter has published an important archive-based account, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010).

Tombstone, however, is without a doubt the definitive account—for now and probably for a long time. The Chinese original is two volumes and banned in that country. In Hong Kong it has sold out eight printings. The English version has been most skillfully shortened, edited, and rearranged by a team of Western and Chinese scholars, with an eye to making what is very much a massive compilation of statistics and reportage into a volume more accessible to the English-speaking reader

This is a book whose importance must be compared with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973) in that it documents beyond the possibility of refutation ghastly horrors that were first rumored, then denied, then written about a bit, but only with Solzhenitsyn and Yang were so thoroughly documented and analyzed as to place them beyond question.

For the Western reader, Tombstone presents four distinct sets of questions: Where did the ideas come from that, when implemented with the full police power of the state, led to a peacetime loss of Chinese life greater than that of the eight-year war with Japan? (More even than total deaths in World War I.) Then: How was it possible for this famine to continue for three full years, without the grain warehouses ever being opened? Following that: What does Yang add that is novel to his account, the outlines of which have been suspected for a long time? Finally, the most difficult question of all: How is it that for decades the West almost completely ignored already substantial evidence of the disaster? How was it that this reviewer, an undergraduate at Harvard College from 1967 to 1971 (and then a graduate student), never heard a word about the famine from any of his teachers, among them some of the most celebrated scholars in the field of Chinese studies?

The story goes back to Stalin. Unlike many of his fellow Communist Party members, Mao Zedong never traveled as a student. But in December 1949, two months after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, Mao made the eleven-day train trip to Moscow, where he remained nearly two months, and met Stalin. Mao unhesitatingly aligned his new country with the Soviet original. Stalin’s image, often alongside that of Mao, was common in Chinese iconography of the time.

Stalin, however, was not so long-lived as many dictators: He died on March 5, 1953 at the age of seventy-four (Mao himself died in 1976 at eighty-two; Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 at eighty-seven). No sooner had Mao imported the Stalin cult than the great man expired. What was worse, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s eventual successor, delivered in 1956 the so-called “secret speech,” “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences.” This confirmed the worst of what many had long suspected of Stalin—that he was the author of numberless atrocities—and thus removed him from the world pantheon of giants of Marxism–Leninism. At least to himself, Mao’s credentials as successor to Stalin as the leader of world Communism seemed far better than those of Khrushchev, whose succession he resented. The way for Mao to achieve such global status was to show that his Maoist Chinese Communism was superior to the Soviet version.

Such was the background to the new economic policy launched by Mao in 1958, a year after Sputnik, the Soviet achievement that propelled Communism as a system to perhaps its greatest world prestige ever. Mao wanted China to grow faster: He spoke of “overtaking Britain in fifteen years” and even beginning to challenge the United States. Largely unspoken was his primary goal, which was to outshine the USSR. China had little capital but a huge population. If labor could somehow be substituted for capital, then more rapid growth would be possible. Thus, instead of spending vast amounts on modern steel mills, China could use its abundant labor to smelt steel in labor-intensive backyard furnaces. Furthermore, “experiments” were conducted that seemed to show that the yield of a rice paddy could be greatly increased simply by planting the rice seedlings closer together. Photographs were published of “Sputnik” paddies, thick with mature rice plants, something never before seen. (In fact, mature plants from many paddies had been gathered and transferred to one).

The brilliant scientist Qian Xuesen, a founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, who, after his security clearances were removed, ceased to work for the U.S. space program and returned to China where his contributions were inestimable, endorsed the veracity of these reports: “Is there an upper limit to the amount of food the earth can produce for humanity? Scientific calculations say that this upper limit is not even close to being reached! In the years to come, the efforts of peasants and agricultural scientists will bring about bumper crops that far exceed present levels.” The great scientist’s endorsement convinced many waverers, including Mao himself, who told his secretary Li Rui that Qian’s essay had convinced him that reports containing techniques to vastly increase crop yield were true.

Believing such things, deceptions or sycophancy created in part to please him, Mao fundamentally changed the direction of Chinese economic policy. The relatively orderly Soviet methods, with their five-year plans and so forth, were discarded in favor of the far more exciting “Great Leap Forward”—the term was first used in the People’s Daily in 1957—which would see the country transformed economically and socially in a matter of a few years.

Along with economic policies went social policies. Starting in 1959, the small collectives that had already been imposed on the unwilling farmers were to be expanded to “communes”—all property was held in common, cooking by household was abolished, and central communal dining halls provided meals free of charge to everyone. Full Communism was to be achieved, ahead of schedule. In enthusiastic utopian mode, Chairman Mao spoke of “Three no’s: no government, no country, no family.”

These policies were imposed through the administrative and repressive apparatus of the Communist Party. Opponents were cruelly tortured or killed. False reports worked their way up the information pyramid suggesting huge increases in agricultural production. This had the disastrous effect of leading the center, which thought there was much more food, to take great quantities from the countryside to feed the growing number of urban industrial workers. In fact, the actual amount of food then remaining for the farmers who had raised it was not enough to feed them. The first reports of starvation were not slow to emerge. These, however, were suppressed. The People’s Daily enthused that “whereas in previous years we sold grain with a basket; last year with a boat; this year not even a truck can contain it; next year a train will be scorned as too small.”

Yang documents the famine with detailed accounts of a series of provinces, giving each its own chapter. The cities by and large escaped: The policy was “better that people should starve to death in [the rich, southwestern province of] Sichuan than in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai.” Throughout rural China, however, death by starvation became commonplace. Yang makes this clear with hundreds of examples. One that is typical: “[In Sichuan,] some villages were left without a single living inhabitant, and residents of other villages had to be sent over to bury the dead. The villagers so assigned had to perform this arduous labor on empty stomachs, and some died in the process, requiring peasants from yet another village to come over and bury them.”

At a certain point, the spirit of human civilization is broken—morals, taboos, and family ties are forgotten. People began to eat people. “Cannibalism reached a peak in the spring of 1960. Human flesh was consumed cooked or raw; it was sliced from the bodies of the dead, or the living were killed to obtain it. Some bought it at the market (already cooked) passed off as pork by vendors. About 40 percent of those who ate human flesh subsequently suffered attacks of diarrhea and died.”

Officials began arrests: “One woman was apprehended as she was ladling cooked meat into a big bowl and she was immediately taken with her illicit meal to a mass criticism. Those attending were tantalized by the aroma of cooked flesh. Someone said, ‘I want to try some,’ and grabbed a piece of the meat and wolfed it down. Others immediately snatched pieces of the cooked meat, and the meeting devolved into chaos, with all the cooked human flesh disappearing in the blink of an eye.”

From the point of view of the specialist, Yang makes two particularly important points. In 1959, a conference was held at the cool mountain resort of Lushan in Jiangxi province. The famine was on the minds of the delegates. The Minister of Defense, Peng Dehuai, a military hero since the 1930s, wrote a letter to Mao expressing his concerns. Peng was polite, respectful, and measured. But he knew whereof he spoke, for the military was the only part of the bureaucracy that was constantly in touch with the villages, from which the soldiers came. Peng’s letter did not please Mao. Eventually, catastrophe came when Mao decided that Peng was part of a plot to overthrow him.

The upshot was that “the lack of food was taken as an ideological, not an actual problem.” The problem in the countryside was not really that food was scarce. It was that formerly rich farmers, Nationalist sympathizers, and so forth were conspiring against the middle and poor farmers, who supported the Leap, to undermine its success. The answer was not policy change but political struggle. Soon Peng was ousted and disgraced (he later died in the Cultural Revolution).

Yang’s second important point is that the rush to create communes, particularly communal dining facilities, in the countryside led to a great increase in the number of lives lost. All property was to be held in common. Cooking in family units was forbidden and, moreover, impossible since any metal pots and cooking implements had most likely been contributed to the worthless and wasteful backyard steel furnaces. Rural residents, including the old and infirm, had to hike miles in some cases to reach the communal dining room to eat. Initially, these seemed successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams: serving, free of charge, meals that ordinary farmers could not dream of even on major holidays. But the allotted food was soon used up by such extravagance. Then there was, simply, no more. Soon many communal dining rooms were closed. How to fill the gap? Farmers had no food of their own—it was all locked in government warehouses—and no means to cook: So, they starved.

True information was, moreover, impossible to obtain at the top. “Statisticians received orders from above that ‘whatever statistical data the party leadership needs, we will provide it; our statistical work will follow in whatever direction the political campaigns and production campaigns lead.’ ” Only when some of the highest leaders began to send their own investigators into the countryside did the full scale of the horror began to be understood.

A complex retreat began. Policies had to be changed, but Mao could not be blamed, though he briefly lost administrative power. He was not accustomed to wielding anything but supreme power, however, so he began planning a comeback—which took the form of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). This massive internal struggle, in which the Party and its leaders themselves came under attack, brought Mao back in 1969 as the unquestioned leader, which he remained until his death.

Scholars unaware of the famine, Mao’s partial removal from power, and his desire to reclaim power interpreted the Cultural Revolution at the time as it was presented. Mao believed the revolution in the USSR had failed because the Party had become stagnant and sclerotic. To avoid this, he proclaimed that periodic revolutions had to be launched even after the victory of the Great Revolution to keep the movement healthy. Some saw this as an important addition to Marxist thought.

Why, though, were these scholars unaware of the real events? The government in Peking spoke of “natural calamities” but avoided mention of famine. Western scholars often take their cue from Peking, so until official confirmation was provided, in the 1980s, most but not all steered clear of the topic. The few visitors seemed to see nothing: “British journalist Felix Greene wrote in his 1964 work A Curtain of Ignorance that he had traveled throughout China in 1960 without seeing any signs of mass starvation. The American journalist Edgar Snow was another who passed his deception on to others.” Translated into Chinese, such reports were circulated at a high level as foreign confirmation of the wisdom of the policy.

Who was to blame? The temptation, of course, is to say that it was Mao. Yang explicitly repudiates this conclusion. Quoting Friedrich Hayek and others, Yang argues that, ultimately, the totalitarian Communist system, without checks or balances or reliable information, was at fault. In a more open system, the famine would have become known immediately. Leaders would have been in place to rein in and modify mistaken policies. China in those days, however, lacked all such mechanisms. Even his closest colleagues trembled lest they anger Mao. Those who did paid for it.

Yang ends on an equivocal note. He is one hundred percent in favor of democracy, freedom of information, and responsibility. But he questions how soon these can come to China, for the transformation to them from the present system is an enormous and daunting task that flies in the face of long traditions of authoritarianism, hierarchy, and deference.

Tombstone is a challenging book. In effect it is a comprehensive legal brief that seeks to prove its case in every detail with masses of evidence that readers not already familiar with Chinese history of the time may sometimes find difficult to follow. I would urge them to look initially at the analytical chapters, then the documentation: Indeed, perhaps read the first and then the concluding chapter to start, in order to feel the full force not only of Yang’s evidence but also the strength of his exacting intellectual analysis. However you read it, though, Tombstone is one of the most important books—not just China books—of our time.

1Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958–1962; by Yang Jisheng; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 656 pages, $35.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 9, on page 4
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