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.
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.
on 24 April 2016
A book you must read if you want to know what really happened in China after Mao and his Party took the power in 1949. The writer told us the truth of the so called natural disarster in early 60tys was a man made one and as the stories are very sad to read especially for a person like me was living in that country at that time, I was not able to finish reading it in a short period of time. This book is band in China, so we must try to read it when we are able to get it here from Amazon.
on 30 January 2014
This book is not only well researched and well written, it is also provides an insight into one of the world's worst human tragedies. Sometimes difficult to read, it paints a picture of a populace sacrificed to save their country's political face - compelling reading and almost unbelievable at times, would definitely recommend it.
I first came across this book while in Hong Kong in 2008. It was published in Chinese in two volumes and repeatedly reprinted.This superb book now published in English is the definitive account of The Great Leap Forward, one of the most horrific events of the 20th Century.
It is a very moving account, based on documents and interviews, of relentless horror inflicted on the Chinese people by one of the most evil monsters of recent times. Yang Jisheng's father died in the Mao-made famine.
Around 36 million died in the famine, that is more than three times the total casualties in WW1 or more than the population of Argentina, and almost the equivalent of Canada's population. So great was the hunger that cannibalism was common in some provinces. Mao's brutal and cynical policy resulted in many more deaths than the Stalin-made famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33 (9 million), Hitler's destruction of the Jews and others (10 million), and Pol Pot's carnage in Cambodia (3 million).
The Great Leap Forward was based on the spurious 'Theory of Productive Forces' beloved by Marxists. Mao attempted to drag socialism into communism in order to overtake the Soviet Union as the leader of international Communism. It was, in short, an attempt to put China back at the centre of the world.
Mao and his henchmen used coercion, torture, forced labour and systematic violence to pursue an ideologically fuelled policy. It was a miserable and terrible failure. Instead of economic progression the result was serious regression.
Yang explains why such an evil policy was accepted by the Chinese. They hated the communes, collectivisation and the mindless plunder yet Mao was never faced with a serious rebellion that threatened the government. There was rebellion in some provinces, for example, in Yunnan,Gansu and Tibet but these had only local impact.
Despite the horrors of The Great Leap Forward followed by the so-called 'Cultural Revolution',Mao's policy was either ignored in the West (see for example the Kissinger Memoirs) or astonishingly supported. Regarding the latter Mao sympathisers were not hard to find on certain university campuses and elsewhere. Their standard explanation for 36 million deaths was that they were due to 'natural calamities'!
In British secondary schools the few that still do History at GCSE and/or A Level
learn little save Stalin (without the nasty bits) or the Holocaust (without the really nasty bits). They leave school knowing nothing of the 1.3 billion Chinese let alone the horrors of Mao's reign. This excellent book is a timely reminder that this needs to change, and soon.
Prior to the publication of this book in 2008 Frank Dikotter's superb book:'Mao's Great Famine' was the authoritative account of the ghastly 'Leap'. Yang's book, though different, now overtakes Dikotter's. Although not easy reads both need to be read to remind us of the evil that stalks the world in many guises, and how twisted ideological blinkers can result in millions of innocent deaths.
This has to be one of the most tragic books I have ever read. The sheer scale of the starvation and deception by leaders and cadres is unimaginable. I certainly did not 'enjoy' reading this book but I have learned a tremendous amount and I have wept over man's inhumanity to man. Women, children, the elderly, the disabled and the sick did not even factor into the lack of concern for the Chinese nation. They were the first to be denied food. Their voices silenced.
The Communist ideology that motivated Mao and others to force this devastation on his own people simply falls beyond the ability of comprehension. The numbers are too large to even begin to imagine. This period has to rank as one of the most evil in our times.
Our English translation, which is flawless, is but a fraction of the original Chinese publication. Still, the material presented is more than enough to gain a better insight into this recent period in the life of the Chinese nation. Scholars and China-watchers will benefit immensely from reading and studying this important work. All those who have even a passing interest in China or who are attempting to predict where China is headed will do well to read and imbibe the lessons of history contained in these pages.
This must go down as one of the defining books about China in the twentieth century. It is not hard to see why the book is banned in Mainland China, although it is available in Hong Kong. The new leaders of China would do well to allow the people to read and reflect on the facts revealed in these pages. Surely, the people have a right to know what others around the world now know about the Great Famine of Mao.
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."
on 14 February 2013
This is not an easy, or relaxing book to read. Having read Mao's, the untold story, I was fascinated to read this, a first hand account by someone who had access to all the reports, many of which were falsified, to curry favour with Mao. The book certainly leaves one in no doubt that the famine was caused entirely by the dictator, who had little regard for human life. The author was a member of the 'elite', so was in a prime position for gathering the information, which forms the basis of this long and harrowing read. The sheer weight of the book makes it difficult to read for long stretches of time, and the atrocities described there left me in tears at times.
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.