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