Between 1958 and 1962, an estimated 36 million Chinese died of starvation (some estimates are higher). Many of the deaths were concentrated in a six month period through the winter and into the late spring of 1960. Cities and towns were little affected; the famine and the death toll were almost exclusively a phenomenon of the countryside. Those who lived there ate everything available and turned to every possible food substitute; trees were stripped of their bark, and tree and other roots dug up. Still the people died, and the local and central authorities (always themselves well fed) for the most part continued to deny that there was a problem. Measures were implemented to ensure the starving remained in their villages and anyone who attempted to get word out on the scale of the problem was persecuted. Cannibalism, in some cases linked with murder of the not yet dead, was widespread. Whole families, even whole villages, were wiped-out, and an across-the-board mortality rate of 25 per cent was very common.
As with the Terror Famine in the Soviet Union almost 30 years earlier, the immediate reason for starvation in the countryside was excessive procurement of foodstuffs, especially grain, to feed the urban population as it rapidly expanded with industrialisation, also for export to earn foreign currency to finance industrialisation. In 1959 there was also a measure of drought, and throughout the period a number of ill-conceived and seriously damaging policies associated with The Great Leap Forward. These both cut crop production and made it very much more difficult for individual peasant families to feed themselves. Procurements were greater than they might have been in part because of ideologically driven exaggeration of reported crop yields.
It may have been a while before Chairman Mao Zedong fully appreciated that the famine was widespread throughout China, not just in localised pockets, and that the number of deaths was running into the tens of millions, but his reaction is reported at one point to have been that it would be helpful if half the people were to die, as the other half could then eat their fill. Later, he attributed the starvation to the activities of counter-revolutionary elements, and that became the official party line. The administrative structure of the Chinese Communist Party was such that Mao and the central authorities were able to disassociate themselves from negative effects - maintaining the belief among peasants that central government was wise and good and it was only the local cadres who were bad.
Yang Jisheng's foster father (in fact his uncle) died in the famine. Born in 1940, Yang is of peasant stock, but he qualified for a city education and later became a journalist. As a journalist, he sometimes had access to information not widely known, and in due course he began to systematically investigate The Great Famine. In latter years he has also gained access to archives long kept secret. His objective was to create a memorial, or tombstone, for his father and the tens of millions of others who died. This book is that memorial.
Yang's approach is very thorough - to the extent that even though this volume is an abridged version of the Chinese original published in Hong Kong, it is to be feared that many readers will find the relentless catalogue of conditions in each of the worst-hit counties and provinces heavy going. However, that is the book's only fault - if it can fairly be called a fault - and I recommend that if a chapter such as Chapter 6, Hungry Ghosts in Heaven's Pantry, becomes too much, the reader should not give up on the whole book but skip to the end of the chapter and continue with the next. Having finished the book in that way, (s)he will probably in practice return for the rest of the skipped chapter(s), for in total the book is compelling.
Besides setting out in detail the numbers who died - and, in consequence of death and infertility, the even greater number who were not born - Yang looks at food production and availability in the key years, describes the absurdities of The Great Leap Forward and its projects - at the practical as well as the macro level - and provides an overview of the political structure and its workings. In addition to those of Mao, Zhou Enlai (Prime Minister) and Liu Shaoqi (Chairman of the People's Republic of China), Yang follows the career paths of several personalities, Provincial Party Secretaries and others, not well-known in the West. He asks many pertinent questions, and provides clear answers.
Some of his questions are:
* Why, at the time of The Great Leap Forward, did no-one expose the blatant lies of the leapfrogging claims of biologically impossible crop yields?
* Why did tens of millions of people arrive at death's door without being saved?
* Why did the policies that caused starvation continue for three years?
* Why were cadres able to inflict such cruel abuse on peasants?
* Why were most of those who starved the very peasants who produced China's food?
* Why was it possible to keep the catastrophic death of tens of millions secret for half a century?
I have suggested that some readers will find some sections hard going. That being said, besides Yang's own clarity of thought and presentation, the translators and editors have done a superb job of presenting for English language readers a text that is as readable and comprehensible as the huge quantity of information permits. Between them, all concerned have produced a volume that is truly a fitting tombstone to those who died, and that is likely to remain an essential text on the subject for many years to come.
The book has one map - showing the provinces of China - many notes, an extensive bibliography, and is comprehensively indexed. The book's dust jacket design is also worthy of praise, with a back panel photograph of both relevance and arresting beauty, and a striking inside back flap picture of the author that shows him looking very well for his 72 years.