Yang Jisheng's Tombstone, the Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, is not the kind of book I could rate based on nothing more than how much I did or did not like it. The subject matter is much too deep for that and the dangers the author endured to write this phenomenal work far too real.
Jisheng's account as presented to us in the English-language edition of Tombstone is a single-volume 629-page condensed version of the original Chinese-language 1,200-page 2-volume set first published in Hong Kong a decade ago. There's no need to question what may or may not have been lost in translation because Jisheng provided so much fact-based data with which to work in the original publication.
Moreover, Tombstone is much more than just a triumph of historical writing. It represents in many ways the triumph of a movement to shed light on "the worst famine in human history." As an integral part of that movement: "Yang got people who experienced the famine to describe it in their own words. He found local journalists who'd witnessed and reported on murders and starvation and got them to write their memoirs. He located and interviewed local implementers of the fatal policies. He got surviving resisters to recount their experiences" (pp. X-XI).
Magnitude of the Horror
It took a while for me to adjust my brain to magnitude of the fact that the horror described actually occurred less than 70 years ago. In that hellish avoidable atrocity an estimated 30 to 45 million people died within a four-year period basically because of authoritarian arrogance and a total disregard for the freedom of individuals. Yet my shocked incredulity as a reader is nothing compared to the painful awakening Jisheng experienced as a member of the Communist Youth League proudly committed to promoting the policies of Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" initiative only to discover those very policies in 1959 caused his father's death.
Ironically, it was while working in the late 1960s as an official journalist that he learned "how 'news' was manufactured, and how news organs served as the mouthpiece of political power." (Very different dynamics from what U.S. President Donald Trump's so often proclaims as "fake news.") However, it was not until the late 1970s that the awful deadly scope of the great famine became apparent:
"Now we knew that it was a man-made disaster that had caused tens of millions of people to starve to death... In my effort to shake off deception, I came to understand the social background of my father's death and to reflect more profoundly on his life..." (pp. 11-12).
That "deception" has remained hard for a lot of Chinese to shake off in part because of many official's refusal to acknowledge the famine for what it was and insist on referring to it in such euphemistic terms as "the three years of natural disaster," or "the years of difficulties." Another seems to be to avoid the appearance of discrediting the legacy of People's Republic of China founder Zedong.
Tombstone is not easy reading by any means. Where Jisheng narrates the actions leading up to the abuses of power, and fear of the same, which led up to the famine, he is straightforward and factually dense. That is a quality hardcore historians relish but average readers might find less entertaining. And in a way that is the point.
Jisheng's objective as a journalist is to share awareness of an event which it would seem impossible for the entire world not to know about already, but which it appears relatively few actually do. As a human being and the son of foster-parents who gave all they had to raise him and support his education goals, he is determined to honor those parents and the dozens of millions who lost their lives to the famine. Therefore, the title selected for the book: "A tombstone is a memory made concrete." (p. 3)
The result his investigative labors is indispensible documentation of officials' motives for allowing the tragedy to occur; and, how many hypocritically gorged themselves on the good life while entire villages literally starved to death. Yet such documentation is balanced with reports difficult to read for a very different reason. In short, Jisheng does not censor the stories of people describing acts of cannibalism which they either witnessed or committed themselves.
We learn about: people in villages who wait for strangers to come along so they can kill and eat them, an adolescent sister who kills and eats her younger brother after their parents have died, people who wait a few hours after funerals so they can dig up corpses and consume them. These and other actions seem too extreme to believe they really occurred in a civilized nation. But we are aware now that they did. Some people even describe which parts of the human body they found most delectable.
If you're a fan of the movie Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell, Lili Simmons, and Patrick Wilson, and you did not flinch watching the scene where "Troglodytes" split a man in half to eat him, then the above accounts of cannibalism might not bother you too much. Anyone who did flinch, throw up, scream, or faint, can empathize to some meaningful degree with those who survived the horror of the Great Famine and with Jisheng's determination to tell their collective story.
The Record of This Particular Memory
The importance of the history provided in Tombstone is evident enough in its own right, or at least it should be. "Human memory," the author tells us, "is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; the bright spots, but also the darkness" (p. 3).
The record of this particular memory is a significant indicator of the dangers that can befall populations which opt for authoritarian rule by a single individual, or small group of individuals, versus government by a robust engaged citizenry exercising some form of democracy. Even more than pitting one political ideology against another, it is about accepting some share of communal responsibility that automatically comes with living in any society hoping to make great strides forward, or just to maintain for its citizens peace, security, and decently-stocked refrigerators.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
To read part 1 of this article please CLICK HERE. Part 2 begins now:
One measure of Dick Gregory’s commitment to eradicating the blight of racial injustice from America’s potential democratic paradise was a marked willingness to risk nearly everything he valued in pursuit of it. Prospective employers and audiences alike could easily turn their backs on a comedian specializing in his brand of in-your-face political satire, not to mention “blackball” someone increasingly identified with freedom marchers.
In fact, the political component expressed in the pages of Nigger was not something in which publisher E.P Dutton, according to Gregory, was interested at all. As explained in conversation with the late Dr. Marable Manning (1950-2011, author of the biography Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention) just before receiving the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute's 2006 Paul Robeson "Here I Stand" award, the publisher expected the comic to deliver a manuscript showcasing his ethnic “wit and wisdom” with minimal focus on the racial realities of the time. What they wanted, essentially, was a joke book which left no room for expansions of consciousness.
However, having already received an advance of $200,000 for the proposed work, Gregory opted to partner with white author Robert Lipsyte to produce a book which could simultaneously: 1) help raise people’s awareness about the effects of racial disparity in the United States; 2) share humor based on the human condition as he lived it; and 3) inspire participation in the Civil Rights Movement. This unexpected gamble at first stunned both the publisher and the public but ultimately yielded across-the-board rewards for all stakeholders involved.
Partners in the Struggle
Further evidence of the humanitarian’s unyielding commitment came early on when he insisted on sharing his battle for civil and human rights with his beloved wife, Lillian. Living with that decision proved difficult more than once. As her husband, for example, struggled to observe principles of nonviolent conflict resolution while policemen in the South spat in his face and white supremacists tossed a grenade into a church where he gathered with other activists, Lillian found herself alone when their infant son, Richard Jr., died.
Sometime later, she took Gregory’s place on the front lines of a protest in Selma, Alabama. There, she was arrested and spent a week in jail while pregnant with twins.
Over the years, as their family continued to grow and racial oppression remained a deadly reality, the activist-entertainer made it clear to his children that their personal time and enjoyments as a family would have to come second to the demands of “the movement.” It was the same kind of bitter, but possibly unavoidable, pill of historical destiny which the children of other iconic leaders (again, consider King and Malcolm X) had to swallow.
People who laughed at Gregory’s famously racially-tinged monologues, as well as protesters who marched alongside him at various rallies around the country (through the South, yes, but also in Chicago, Washington, DC, and elsewhere) recognized within his personality characteristics associated with prophets.
That specific aspect of his demeanor is particularly noticeable in chapter seven of Nigger . The section contains a transcript of his response to a startling discovery. Preparing to address activists gathered in a church in Selma to coordinate the registration of Black voters, Gregory observed that the front row of the church had been “filled that night with policemen pretending to be newspaper reporters and taking notes” (p. 200). Rather than becoming dismayed or frightened, he used this development to address the infiltrators directly:
“…What do you think would happen to Christ tonight if He arrived in this town a black man and wanted to register to vote on Monday? What do you think would happen? Would you be there? You would? Then how come you’re not out there with these kids, because He said that whatever happens to the least, happens to us all… Let’s analyze the situation…” (p. 202).