on 19 April 2013
You wonder why Chairman Mao has escaped the vilification accorded to other mass murdering dictators, and why you can buy t-shirts and kitsch items with his face on them...
An incredible 36-44 million Chinese died in just 4 years, and this superbly-researched book is a powerful testament to the evil of the Communist system, where this horrendous state-caused famine was ignored and covered-up.
It has reams of statistics - but necessary ones, as the story would otherwise be incredible - allied to the personal stories that also beggar belief, like the many cases of cannibalism.
You might also want to read Jung Chang's 'Mao - The Unknown Story', and Frank Dikotter's 'Mao's Great Famine'.
on 16 August 2013
I didnt exactly get what i expected from this book. It's a very tough and deep read and focuses more on the historical and political overview rather than specific sections of the Chinese story.
If you are after something to really push your knowledge and make you an expert on this history topic, then this is the book for you. If you are after an easier to read non-fiction book, this may not be the one for you.
Review of the book 'Tombstone' in hardback. Originally to be titled 'The road to paradise', the author Yang Jisheng eventually settled on naming this book `Tombstone', as that is 'A memory made concrete' and also because the book is to be a lasting memorial to his foster father who starved to death in 1959 when Yang was aged 19. Yang states that in order to understand how China descended into this catastrophic famine and mass starvation, it is necessary to understand the `Three Red Banners' of the Chinese Communist Party at that time - The General Line (the ideas), The Great Leap Forward (the actions resulting from these ideas), and the many Peoples Communes set up within Chinese society. Given the poverty and backwardness of China over Russia, and China's short time as a communist state, the Chinese communist leadership felt they had an even more pressing need for radical change, which they started in 1958. Those locally in charge of the economy and food production were often more practical than central government, but if they pursued sensible standard accepted practices they stood accused of `right deviational thinking'. In the great famine that followed the changes instigated by `The Great Leap Forward' up to 50 million people died between 1958 and 1963, and the Chinese populace generally felt only 3/10th was due to natural disaster and that 7/10th was due to mismanagement by those in charge.
The translators have considerably reduced the volume of text in Tombstone from two volumes of 1,200 pages to the 629 pages here. Yang's book starts off with an informative 'Chronology of the great famine' that covers the years from 1949 to 1976. I have to say the book is very informative and an incredible archive of facts and insights that add considerable weight to what is being said. However it's been translated in a slightly clipped style and the chapters jump around with a lot of Party rhetoric, unfamiliar places/names, poetic Chinese phrases, and disrupted time-lines. This makes it all a bit difficult to get the entire picture in your mind, although it is always easy to understand exactly what is going on at any point in the book (i.e. A is doing this to B). I found if I jumped around in the book, concentrating on chapters that discussed The Party's major conferences and thinking at the time, I could understand more how these events came to pass, and then the lists of the Cadres actions and administrative failures within the different states of China made more sense - some areas of China fared much better than others, so the failings were as much on a local level (thus Mao and the central government can't be held entirely responsible).
Overall a very authoritative tome, and worth owning as it's such fascinating book, although it can be quite expensive. It's not a harrowing read, as the events are reported in a very neutral matter-of-fact way, with no coloured judgements (it doesn't need them, the facts speak for themselves). I was in Primary School in British Hong Kong during the 1960s when Mao's later Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (The Cultural Revolution) was occurring across the closed border - this was Mao's response to being sidelined after the disaster of The Great Leap Forward. At this later time, I remember crowds in the streets of Hong Kong shouting and waving Mao's little red book as the Chinese cult of his personality became ever stronger, so I particularly related to this book, and rate it 5*. Sadly there can be few if any photos from the period to liven up the 629 pages of text in 'Tombstone', as Mao's Cultural Revolution in 1966 lead to the wholesale destruction of such historical artifacts under the banner "Destroy the old world; Forge the new world."
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.
This is a remarkable book on a part of history that although being notorious is not known in any great detail Yang Jisheng was a functionary during what became known as Mao's `Great Leap Forward'. In 1959 he was told of the imminent death of his father, he rushed home and arrived only just in time to see his emaciated father die of starvation. This then is a sort of testament to the totally preventable deaths, not only of his father but of the estimated 36 million other souls who died either of starvation, beatings or victims of `struggle' or even `self criticism' as some of the euphemisms for ritual beatings were sometimes called.
This is a pains taking piece of work that tries to chronicle the whole unvarnished truth of the tragedy that lasted three torturous years from 1958 to 1961, but the legacy of collectivism that led to so many deaths would last for decades. We get the lead up to the famine, the imposed quotas from the Party centre that led to ever inflated output estimates. This meant that the amount of produce that the State demanded could never ever be produced and handed over as it simply did not exist. Anyone who tried to question things was labelled a counter revolutionary or worse and the consequences were always Draconian. The entire Party system seemed to sleep walk in a self imposed can't see won't see mode.
Jisheng chronicles all of the major and even minor incidents, citing source material and references where ever possible. It took him years to amass all of this information and he travelled extensively, carrying out interviews with survivors and digging up evidence. This is truly a monumental piece of historical literature.
The only criticism, if it be called that, is that this is quite hard going. It was never meant to be a `pot boiler' but the narrative can be a bit of a slog. This led me to regard it more as a reference book. I was reminded of `The Spanish Civil War' by Hugh Thomas (I have two copies) which is the most complete work on the subject but jeez it can be hard going rather like an `official' history can be where it chronicles every detail possible. Compare that with Anthony Beevor's Spanish Civil War and the latter is a cracking read whilst also being informative. So for the serious scholar this is a must, for a beginner it will not be a good introduction because of its sheer breadth and complexity. I still found it really rewarding, but it has taken me a while to get through it, but this was never meant to be a thrill ride, it is a remarkable testament to one man's dedication and one countries collective grief.
This large volume is somewhat off-putting at first glance, but a reward is there for the brave person who turns the pages and reads it.
I was born in 1959, and that year a great famine hit China, one which was caused by the ruling communist party and was reinforced by the fear of them and their cruel tactics.
As I was an infant during this 4 year famine, and very vulnerable, it somehow brought home to me that "there but for the grace of God go I". This was of course not very well known in the west at the time, because of the repressive nature of the Chinese regime and their control on the movement of information.
The author goes into great detail (some of which has been edited out in the English translation)into the evidence for famine in each area of China. However laborious they may look, these sections are vital to the understanding of the situation that a generation of Chinese found themselves in.
The book is a testament to the loss of millions of Chinese lives due to politics; hence the title of the book - 'Tombstone'.
You cannot help but admire the tireless research and the creative talent of this writer who has broken through the barriers that surrounded him to tell this story to the world. This is a story of catastrophe that all should read and hear off.
The reality is that the size of this work will put many off, but this is a time at the centre of modern history, when a great world power was in the melting pot. Hopefully one day this matter will be something we teach children at school, but until then the book is on the shelf!
The appendices/endnotes are complete and rigorous.
This is bound to be considered a great work of historical writing in the years that come. I cannot do anything other than recommend it without reservation.
Having recently become interested in recent Chinese history following the order of two books detailing crucial chapters in the country's post-30s period (China's War with Japan, and Very Short Introductions: Mao), I found Tombstone to be an altogether different, more sobering account of what was one of the titanic failures of Mao Zhedong's period of leadership. Whereas those other books had historical, and even cultural distance, Tombstone offers up the vivid, personal account of somehow who lived through the ordeal. As such, Yang Jisheng evinces a greater sense of anger and regret than those other books I've read and although there is the occasional sense that his personal investment in the story somewhat distorts his historical perspective (and, considering the realities of the Famine, how could it not?), it is a weighty, densely-packed book that burns itself in your mind like a Pulitzer Prize Winning photograph. This is not to overstate the book's success or to agree that reading it is essential to forming an understanding of one of the great human tragedies of the past century (frankly, I'm not sure it is essential), it is to state what I think is most appealing and rewarding about the book: its naked, brutal effect. A fine history book that's at least worth a shot for anyone wanting to think beyond the current stereotypes, cliches and disdain being peddled about China in the wake of its definite arrival as one of the world's superpowers.
I found this book incredibly hard work to read. It covers the horrors of the great famine which are really much worse than I could of imagined, this can make for difficult reading. I don't read about history and politics very often, and this was the main reason I found this book so difficult to read. It is very detailed and obviously full of Chinese names and details. I'm not sure how to pronounce most of those names and with so many similar names, it did make for slow going. This is not a criticism of the book in any way, as a book about China has to include the names and places of China, it is purely a note for those who are not familiar with Chinese history, politics and pronunciation. This is not an introductory text and it may be better for the novice to read something more general about China first; at least I wish I had read something more introductory first, to have a better context and understanding to base this important work upon for my own reading experience.
Tombstone is an important work of great detail, it's message needs to be heard by a wider audience.
I have read `Wild Swans' and believed that gave small insights into what Mao and the communist party were capable of, and yet this book came as a complete shock to the system. It is very clear that while a few party cadres tried to help their districts the rest were happy to be `enablers' and buy into Mao's fantasies. The very people who `fed' the country were the very same that were utterly betrayed by the system.
Yes this book is piled with statistical information, and while some may say too much, you have to remember there are always deniers and revisionists out there, and whatever their agenda - when you claim that tens of millions died of neglect and starvation than you better have the facts to back up your assertions. Let us be clear this is not a pleasant read, quite the opposite in fact. This is an important work and was put together at great risk by the author. Will humanity learn from what happened here I am not sure, and as far as I am concerned this was genocide, the then government did not herd people into cattle cars but the results were just the same.
on 15 August 2013
I'd just tackled Anne Applebaum's superb 'Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-65' and was still reeling from the shock effect of that volume before coming onto this almost equally brilliant book.
The three real monsters of the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao; each one wishing to control and subjugate huge populations and effectively eliminate anyone at odds with their particular ideologies.
This is the personal, angry account of a man living through the years 1958-1961 when Mao effectively starved to death between 35 and 40 million Chinese.
Think on this figure and consider that it would've been close to the entire population of the UK during that period.
This book describes the nightmare of the times; the despair and complete lack of hope of the citizens. And it's another sharp shock to those who romanticise the benefits of communistic rule.