Tombstone: A Record of the Great Chinese Famine of the 1960s1
By Yang Jisheng
1095 pages, $51.49
At the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s, a horrific famine of vast proportions took place in China. The fields were strewn with the corpses of its victims. In many places the situation was so desperate that people ate human flesh. Faced with this emergency, Liu Shaoqi,2 then charged with the day-to-day affairs of the Party Central Committee,warned Mao Zedong: “With so many people starving to death, you and I will be held responsible by history. Cannibalism is bound to end up in history books!”3 Yang Jisheng’s magnum opus Tombstone is one such book that faithfully records this tragic history—a monument to the 36 million people who starved to death during the Great Famine of the Mao era, erected to appease their hungry ghosts.Yang holds up the mirror of history as a warning to posterity.4
Yang Jisheng used to work as a senior reporter for the official Xinhua News Agency. Upon retirement, he took on the position of deputy editor at China’s most outspoken magazine, Yanhuang Chunqiu. Yang’s father starved to death in the Great Famine.
In the preface to his book,Yang enumerates the reasons he called it Tombstone. One, it is a memorial to his father. Two, it is a monument to the 36 million Chinese people who also died of starvation. Three, it is an epitaph for the system that caused the Great Famine. Four, if he himself were to meet with unexpected misfortune on account of writing this book, it could also be his own tombstone. He writes: “I have erected this tombstone to make people remember this man-made disaster, this darkness and evil, so that we may leave such man-made disasters, darkness, and evil far behind us.” In the book, the author describes in detail the scene of his father’s death by starvation. It was in late April 1959, when Yang was still attending high school, that he was informed his father had collapsed from hunger in the middle of the road.He rushed home to discover that there was not a scrap of food in the house. “My father was propped up in bed, his sunken eyes lifeless. His face, with all the flesh gone, was slack with thick wrinkles. He tried to reach out his hand to greet me but couldn’t lift it; he could only move it slightly.His hand looked very much like the one I saw on the human skeleton sample in our biology dissection class, its withered skin unable to conceal the indentations between the protruding bones.When I saw that hand, I was stunned and saddened, realizing the horror and cruelty described by that common phrase, ‘skinny as a bag of bones’!” Three days later, his father passed away.
It took Yang ten years of painstaking effort to complete Tombstone. He overcame various difficulties and traveled to more than a dozen provinces to do field research.He interviewed close to 100 people who had been involved, including cadres from various levels of government, lucky survivors, and witnesses of the famine.He consulted and collected vast amounts of material, including thousands of public and internal documents, local records,monographs, and statistical data. The end result is an exhaustive account of the historically unparalleled catastrophe that struck China in the 20th century—over 800,000 words in two volumes—which provides a panoramic overview of the horrific Great Famine.
Tombstone is a depressing, heavy read.Many detailed descriptions, words flowing like blood and tears, are unbearable to get through. The passages describing people starving to death and people eating the dead are particularly shocking; they will make your hair stand on end. In many places the shortage of food was so severe that people were dying in droves. Corpses were abandoned along the roads. Thousands of people were fleeing the affected areas for their lives. In some villages, not a soul was left behind. Edema was common, and contagious diseases were widespread. Great numbers of people and livestock perished and huge tracts of cultivated fields became wasteland. This is how the book describes it: “In some places, carts were used to transport piles of bodies to the big pits dug on the village edge. In some places, because the living were too weak to bury them properly, arms and legs remained exposed above ground. In some places, the dead fell right on the spot where they had been looking for food.Many were left in their homes for a long time and their noses and eyes were gnawed away by rats.”
Yet the hunger before death was more terrifying than death itself. The writer chronicles the unbearable hunger of common people who, after eating up all the corncobs, all the edible wild herbs, all the tree bark, filled their stomachs with bird droppings, rats, and cotton wadding. In many places the hungry had no choice but to eat a thing called “kaolin clay,” which has a high aluminum oxide content. They would scoop it up by the handful and stuff it into their mouths, but after eating their fill, they could not excrete it and died of constipation. And in quite a few places, people resorted to cannibalism to ease their hunger. A mother in Gansu Province was so hungry that she cooked and ate her own little daughter.When the older daughter realized that she would be next, she tugged at her mother’s jacket begging: “Momma, don’t eat me! When I grow up, I’ll make life comfortable for you!”5
While faithfully recording various distressing scenes of the Great Famine, Tombstone uncovers the root causes of this historically unparalleled disaster. For a long time, the Chinese government has refused to give the true reasons behind it, putting the blame on natural disasters and the former Soviet Union for breaking its agreement with China. But the writer lists all sorts of data and irrefutable facts to show that neither nature nor the Soviet Union were to blame. It was the great policy blunder of the ruling party. Mao Zedong was the ringleader, and the totalitarian system gave him an institutional platform on which to issue orders and indulge in brutalizing people.
China’s Great Famine began with Mao Zedong’s utopian fantasy. After the death of Stalin,6 Mao wanted to challenge the former Soviet Union for leadership of the socialist camp. Swollen-headed and completely violating economic laws, he showed no concern for the well-being of the common people when he formulated the general political line of overtaking Great Britain and the United States, launched the Great Leap Forward, and set up people’s communes (known at the time as the “Three Red Flags”). All of China became a testing ground for his utopian fantasy. This was the primary cause of the three years of famine.
Under the totalitarian system, Mao Zedong was the incarnation of truth. His fantasies mobilized the entire population into action, launching an era of fanaticism. The country resonated with grandiose slogans like “the land will bear what the people dare” and “blood, sweat, and tears will turn a harsh winter and a cold spring into a warm summer.” Pandering to Mao, various regions vied to launch “satellite yields” of 10,000 jin per mu [13,400 pounds per 0.16 acres].7 In the “race toward communism,” the farmers were driven to work in the fields by torchlight at night, and to sleep outdoors on the cold, damp ground for months at a time. Women were no exception, resulting in a wide-spread increase in gynecological diseases. The author describes many women whose normal menstrual cycles stopped,who experienced pain and swelling of the waist and abdomen, and became sickly and emaciated. In the worst cases, they ended up with uterine prolapse, a condition the locals called “drooped gut.” The resulting long-term chafing, infections, and ulcerations were unbearably painful.
When local reports of massive death from starvation reached the Central Committee, Mao Zedong was unmoved, refusing to issue an “imperial edict admitting fault.” He thought the matter trivial and stressed that “morale must be raised, not dampened,” that people dying of hunger was only “one finger out of ten” and must not be allowed to expunge the [correctness of the] “Three Red Flags,” nor hurt “the other nine fingers.” Soon after, at the Lushan Conference,8 he launched the campaign “against rightist tendencies” and charged Peng Dehuai,9 who spoke frankly on behalf of the people, with high crime. This meant that not only was wide-spread death from starvation not promptly stopped, it continued to grow in scope.
What pleases the superiors, the underlings must exceed. Local officials went to great lengths to cover up the truth. It was obvious that people were dying of starvation, but they were not allowed to tell the truth, and instead had to call it “an epidemic.” As the word starvation could not be spoken, the officials might say that the landlords and rich farmers were stirring up trouble and deliberately fabricating artificial circumstances to make the Party look bad. In some localities “four prohibitions” were imposed following a person’s death: 1) no shallow graves, and crops must be planted on top; 2) no weeping; 3) no burial along the road; and 4) no mourning clothes. Leaders in Meitan County, Guizhou Province, withheld on their own authority material from famine victims who wanted to report on the conditions to higher authorities or to press charges, and they investigated and persecuted everyone who told the truth. Some went even further.When the provincial party committee sent a working group to investigate, local officials, in the name of “protecting the senior official,” drove the villagers into the mountains, and rounded up and locked up the seriously ill and the orphans. Thirty-six people died locked up in a tobacco curing house. They also organized people to dump dead bodies, several hundred of them, into an earthen pit. Some of the bodies they threw in the pit were still breathing. The locals called it the “pit of 10,000 corpses.”
In the end, how many people died in the Great Famine? The Chinese government has kept it a closely-guarded secret, while outside opinion is widely divided. The author discloses that Zhou Baiping, who was at the time the deputy head of the Food Ministry in charge of statistics on grain supply and demographic change, personally told him that in 1961 he was one of three men, along with Chen Guodong of the Food Ministry and Jia Qiyun of the National Bureau of Statistics, who were instructed that each province should fill out a statistical chart on grain supply and population change. After they compiled the data, they discovered that the population of the country had declined by several tens of millions. This report was given to only two people: Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. As soon as Zhou saw it, he promptly ordered it destroyed, so that it could not get circulated. This is why today we can no longer find the statistical data on mortality during the Great Famine. The author provides a great many statistical tables and all manner of charts, and uses statistics produced by government experts to compare population numbers and birth and death rates before and after the famine. After careful analysis and calculation, he has given us a fairly credible number: between 1958 and 1961, about 36 million people died of starvation, and births were reduced by over 40 million.
The astronomical number of deaths from starvation during the Great Famine is unprecedented in both Chinese history and world history. The figure is equal to the population of a medium sized country; it is six times the number of Jews massacred by Nazi Germany, and close to the total number of deaths in World War II. But this occurred during normal time, not under conditions of war, an enormous natural disaster, or an epidemic outbreak. If we for a moment set aside Mao Zedong’s other historical contributions and blunders, just based on this alone, Mao Zedong is a criminal against the Chinese people, who should be forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame.And bringing this to light is the strength of Tombstone.
1. Unofficial English translation of the title Mubei: Zhongguo liushi niandai da jihuang jishi [墓碑：中國六十年代大饑荒紀實]. This book is currently available only in Chinese. ^
2. Chairman of the People’s Republic of China (1959–1968). ^
3. Guo Jiakuan, ed. [郭家宽编],Ni suo buzhidao de Liu Shaoqi [你所不知道的刘少奇] (Henan: Henan Renmin Chuban She, 2000 [河南:河南人民出版社, 2000]). ^
4. A reference to the credo of traditional Chinese history, established by the compilation of one of China’s greatest history books, Sima Guang’s Zizhi Tongjian (“A ComprehensiveMirror to Aid in Government”), which was completed in 1084. Emperor Shenzong of the Northern Song dynasty honored the compilation of “comprehensive records”with the title “comprehensivemirror,” indicating that he accepted Sima as hismentor in the science of history and its application to government. ^
5. Literally: “I’ll tend to the fire in your brick bed.” The heated brick bed“kang” is a synonymfor comfort in northern China. ^
6. March 5, 1953. ^
7. 1 jin equals 1.34 pounds; 1 mu equals 0.16 acres. ^
8. The Eighth Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China was held during July 1959, at Lushan in Jiangxi Province, as an informal conference of China’s top leaders about the Great Leap Forward. ^
9. Peng Dehuai was Defense Minister, 1954–1959. ^