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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much Needed History
There was one statement in this book that really captured everything - quite simply it is said that there are no famines in countries that have a free press. It's a shocking thought but it stands up and sent shivers through me as I read it. The implication is that our leaders will steal from us, torture us, starve us and kill us if they think they can do it out of the...
Published 10 months ago by Donald Lush

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8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Vital, but almost unreadable
Yang Jisheng was a bright young communist functionary during Mao's Great Leap Forward, and he was shocked when he was told his father was dying of starvation. He rushed home, and barely had time to see his father before he died. Only later did he realise that his father was one of millions who were destroyed by the cult he was serving. This book is his penance. Yang...
Published 19 months ago by T. Burkard


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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much Needed History, 7 Sep 2013
By 
Donald Lush "lushd" (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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There was one statement in this book that really captured everything - quite simply it is said that there are no famines in countries that have a free press. It's a shocking thought but it stands up and sent shivers through me as I read it. The implication is that our leaders will steal from us, torture us, starve us and kill us if they think they can do it out of the public eye. Which is exactly what this book is about - the Chinese famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s is arguably the greatest disaster ever visited by humans on each other with a death toll of 30 million. And yet in the West, Hitler and Stalin are more famous villains than Mao who has an arguable claim to be the most prolific mass murderer in our history. And this in the country that gave humanity so much.

It's a heartbreaking read, recited without passion, the ever (fully documented) increasing horror hits home powerfully. And the political leaders do not come out of it well. Perhaps unlike Stalin (and I know this is highly arguable) Mao's disasters were caused by stupidity and vanity where Stalin's were mainly driven by a desire for power at any price, with at least some (perverted) rationality. Mao lounged by the pool certain that he had done nothing wrong while his people died from his ill informed economic and agricultural programmes. He even found a way to blame his and his governments deeds and failures on imagined rightists, persecuting them thoroughly and adding to the pile of corpses.

Almost any book that draws attention to this terrible and important story would be worthwhile but this really does the events it describes full justice. If you care at all about the possibility of a better world you should read it. I'm left quite shaken by how simple and fragile our defences from a Mao style nightmare are - a moribund and bullied journalism in the west is letting governments get away with too much at the moment. This book demonstrates just how much they will try to get away with if they think they have the chance. Highly, highly recommended and likely to motivate you defending your freedoms.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but hard going, 16 Aug 2013
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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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, horrifying, 19 April 2013
By 
George Rodger - See all my reviews
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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'.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Likely to remain an essential text for many years to come, 2 Jan 2013
By 
Lost John (Devon, England) - See all my reviews
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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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book that needed to be written, 17 Oct 2013
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The Great Famine was the greatest loss of life in the shortest time in history. The fact that it was an almost purely man-made disaster is laid bare in this book. With information taken from the government archives the author systematically describes what happened, why it happened, and how the authorities reacted to it's terrible progression. This is a disturbing read; the accounts of murder and cannibalism on such a massive scale are not as shocking as the indifferent attitude of the communist leadership once the full horror became obvious. A lot of the book is about the history of the politics that led to the famine and why that system was incapable (or unwilling) to provide relief.

Hopefully this will be published in mainland China in the near future; if not, I'm sure thousands of copies have already made it in from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shocking, 12 Oct 2013
By 
B. Bello (Stourton) - See all my reviews
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You must prepare yourself before reading the book. Almost 40 million Chinese people died because of one man and his drive to reshape one of the oldest if not the oldest culture in existence. I was not prepared for the stark reality of what this one man put his country through. In comparison 6 million Russians died in WWI and another 8.7 million in WWII. SO, this is a shocking book, it's also not an easy casual read, but if you want to learn the background to the modern Chinese state this is the place to start, just don't expect to have the same view of the world when you finish.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Sobering, Personal Account of China's Darkest Hours, 19 Sep 2013
By 
Thomas Elce (Nottinghamshire, England) - See all my reviews
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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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another vision of Hell under Communism, 15 Aug 2013
By 
G. J. Oxley "Gaz" (Tyne & Wear, England) - See all my reviews
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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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impressive work, 5 Aug 2013
By 
Alison "runninggirlcycling" (Derbyshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very authoritative tome, and a fascinating book worth owning - not an easy read, but a worthwhile one, 15 May 2013
By 
Keith_Joseph (West Berkshire, England) - See all my reviews
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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 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 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."
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