Tombstone (2008) by Yang Jisheng, is regarded as the most authoritative account of the Great Famine. Yang Jisheng is an editor of Annals of the Yellow Emperor, one of the few reform-oriented political magazines in China. Before that, the 70-year-old native of Hubei province was a national correspondent with the government-run Xinhua news service for over thirty years. [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times Review of Books, December 20, 2010 <+>]

In “Tombstone,” Yang Jisheng, showed how the 1958-62 famine was one of the worst man-made disasters in history were a result of disastrous government policies under Mao. The book, published after Mr. Yang left Xinhua in 2001, is banned in China. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 16, 2016]

From the government documents he consulted, Yang concluded that 36 million people died and 40 million children were not born as a result of the famine. Yang’s father was among the victims and Yang says this book is meant to be his tombstone. Over the past few years, foreign researchers and journalists have used demographic and anecdotal evidence to arrive at similar estimates. But Yang has gone further, using his contacts around the country to penetrate closely guarded Communist Party archives and uncover more direct proof of the number of dead, the cases of cannibalism, and the continued systematic efforts of the state to cover up this colossal tragedy. <+>

Good Websites and Sources on the Great Leap Forward: University of Chicago Chronicle ; Mt. Holyoke China Essay Series ; Wikipedia ; Industrial Planning Video You Tube Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article ; Death Tolls People’s Republic of China : Timeline ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project ; China Essay Series ; Everyday Life in Maoist; Wikipedia article on propaganda Wikipedia ; Cultural Revolution; Communist China Posters Landsberger Posters ; More Posters ; Yet more posters Ann Tompkins and Lincoln Cushing Collection Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese ; Mao Internet Library ; Paul Noll Mao site ; Mao Quotations; ; Propaganda Paintings of Mao ; New York Times; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) e-book ; Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History)

Books: Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 (Walker & Co, 2010) by Frank Dikotter is an excellent book. Tombstone by Yang Jisheng, a Xinhua reporter and Communist party member, is the first proper history of the Great Leap Forward and the famine of 1959 and 1961. Life and Death Are Wearing me Out by Mo Yan (Arcade,2008) is narrated by a series of animals that witnessed the Land Reform Movement and Great Leap Forward. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-1957" by Frank Dikotter described the Anti-Rightist period. China Witness, Voices from a Silent Generation by Xinran (Pantheon Books, 2009) is collection of oral histories from Chinese who survived the Mao period. Mao; the Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf. 2005). Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and her husband John Halliday, a British historian, portrays Mao as villain on the level of Hitler and Stalin. The book was read by U.S. President George Bush and embraced by the American right as a condemnation of Communism. It characterizes Mao as cruel, materialistic, self-centered and a leader who used terror with the aim of ruling the world. There is also a Mao biography by Jonathon Spence. Also check out: Mao's New World: Political Culture in the Early People's Republic by Chang-tai Hung (Cornell University Press, 2011) and The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui (1994). Other books: The Penguin History of Modern China by Jonathan Fenby 3) . Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow; 4) China: A New History by John K. Fairbank; 5) In Search of Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence; 6) Cambridge History of China multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

Yang Jisheng, the Author Tombstone

Yang Jisheng, deputy editor of the historical journal Yanhuang Chunqiu and a former editor at the Xinhua News Agency, is the author of “Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962.” The Economist reported: “Tombstone” is the first detailed analysis of the famine written by a Chinese author who lived through it. He picked “Tombstone” as a title chiefly to honour his father, and also the millions who died. He jokes darkly that the book could end up being his own tombstone too. Yet, despite it being banned in mainland China, Mr Yang continues to live freely in Beijing, editing a reformist magazine.

Louisa Lim reported on NPR,”It's not often that a book comes out that rewrites a country's history. But that's the case with Tombstone. For Yang Jisheng, the famine hit home while he was away. He was 18, busy preparing a newspaper for his boarding school's Communist Youth League, when a childhood friend burst into the room and said: "Your father is starving to death. Hurry back, and take some rice if you can." Yang rushed home to find a ghost town---no dogs, no chickens, even the elm tree outside his house was stripped of bark, which had been eaten. The teenager took rice for Yang Xiushen, the man he called his father, but who was really his uncle. But the elder Yang was no longer able to swallow and died three days later. [Source: Louisa Lim, NPR, November 10, 2012; Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2013 ==]

Yang Jisheng

"The elm tree in front of our house had been reduced to a barkless trunk," he recalled, "and even its roots had been dug up." Entering his home, he found his father "half-reclined on his bed, his eyes sunken and lifeless, his face gaunt, the skin creased and flaccid . . . I was shocked with the realization that the term skin and bones referred to something so horrible and cruel." It would take years before Mr. Yang learned that what happened to his father was not an isolated incident. "I didn't think my father's death was the country's fault. I thought it was my fault. If I hadn't gone to school, but had helped him dig up his crops, he wouldn't have died," Yang remembers. "My vision was very limited. I didn't have the information." ==

Mr. Yang went on to make his career, first as a journalist and senior editor with the Xinhua News Agency, then as a historian whose unflinching scholarship has brought him into increasing conflict with the Communist Party—of which he nonetheless remains a member. He now is a resident of Beijing. "If a people cannot face their history, these people won't have a future. That was one of the purposes for me to write this book. I wrote a lot of hard facts, tragedies. I wanted people to learn a lesson, so we can be far away from the darkness, far away from tragedies, and won't repeat them." Hayek would have understood both points well. +++ [Source: Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2013 +++]

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “Yang Jisheng's father was one of the tens of millions who died of starvation. Yang's book is a delayed homage, an enduring "tombstone in my heart," from a son whose grief over his father's death did not diminish his loyalty to the Party; Yang even extolled the Great Leap Forward in a newspaper that he edited at school. Studying at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University as the Cultural Revolution began, Yang came to know about other casualties of the famine. His political education deepened during thirty-five years as a reporter for the official news agency Xinhua, when he reported covertly--a role often required of senior Chinese journalists--to leaders in Beijing on such sensitive subjects as official corruption and impunity. But, according to Yang, it was not until the killings of unarmed protesters near Tiananmen Square, in 1989, that he was cleansed "of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades." [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012 <<>>]

Yang Jisheng on the Great Famine and Beijing’s Denial of It

Yang Jisheng, the author of Tombstone , wrote in the New York Times, “Thirty-six million people in China, including my uncle, who raised me like a father, starved to death between 1958 and 1962, during the man-made calamity known as the Great Famine. In thousands of cases, desperately hungry people resorted to cannibalism.The toll was more than twice the number of fallen in World War I, and about six times the number of Ukrainians starved by Stalin in 1932-33 or the number of Jews murdered by Hitler during World War II.[Source: Yang Jisheng, New York Times, November 13, 2012 ><]

"After 50 years, the famine still cannot be freely discussed in the place where it happened. My book “Tombstone” could be published only in Hong Kong, Japan and the West. It remains banned in mainland China, where historical amnesia looms large and government control of information and expression has tightened during the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, which began last week and will conclude with a once-in-a-decade leadership transition. ><

Backyard furnaces from the Great Leap Forward

"Those who deny that the famine happened, as an executive at the state-run newspaper People’s Daily recently did, enjoy freedom of speech, despite their fatuous claims about “three years of natural disasters.” But no plague, flood or earthquake ever wrought such horror during those years. One might wonder why the Chinese government won’t allow the true tale to be told, since Mao’s economic policies were abandoned in the late 1970s in favor of liberalization, and food has been plentiful ever since. ><

"The reason is political: a full exposure of the Great Famine could undermine the legitimacy of a ruling party that clings to the political legacy of Mao, even though that legacy, a totalitarian Communist system, was the root cause of the famine. As the economist Amartya Sen has observed, no major famine has ever occurred in a democracy. In Mao’s China, the coercive power of the state penetrated every corner of national life. The rural population was brought under control by a thorough collectivization of agriculture. The state could then manage grain production, requisitioning and distributing it by decree. Those who tilled the earth were locked in place by a nationwide system of household registration, and food coupons issued to city dwellers supplanted the market. The peasants survived at the pleasure of the state. ><

"As a journalist and a scholar of contemporary history, I felt a duty to find out how the Great Famine happened and why. Starting in the 1990s, I visited more than a dozen provinces, interviewed over a hundred witnesses, and collected thousands of documents. Since the Great Famine was a forbidden topic, I could get access to archives only under the pretext of “researching agricultural policies” or ‘studying the food issue.” ><

"Communist leaders established a vast system of slavery in the name of liberating mankind. It was promoted as the “road to paradise,” but in fact it was a road to perdition. I intended my book to be a memorial to the 36 million victims, but also a literal tombstone, anticipating the ultimate demise of the totalitarian political system that caused the Great Famine. I was mindful of the risks in this endeavor: if something happens to me because I tried to preserve a truthful memory, then let the book stand as my tombstone, too. ><

Counterfeit versions of “Tombstone” are in circulation, as are photocopies and electronic versions. Yang says he doesn't care about copyright. He just wants Chinese to know their own history. "Our history is all fabricated. It's been covered up. If a country can't face its own history, then it has no future," he told NPR. "And if a regime destroys history systematically, that's a terrifying regime."

Yang Jisheng's Effort to Write Tombstone

refugees in Hong Kong from the Great Famine

Yang spent 10 years researching Tombstone. Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, He "had to investigate the Great Famine undercover, posing as a researcher of the history of China's grain production. He was helped by an assortment of people--journalists with useful contacts, demographers who had taken big risks to keep accurate records, and provincial archivists keen to please an old comrade. Though the English translation is abridged, it is often overwhelming in its detail and analysis. Still, "Tombstone" easily supersedes all previous chronicles of the famine, and is one of the best insider accounts of the Party's inner workings during this period, offering an unrivalled picture of socioeconomic engineering within a rigid ideological framework. <<>>

The Economist reported: “For more than two decades, Mr Yang believed the official version of Mao Zedong’s disastrous economic experiment known as the Great Leap Forward, that it was caused by natural disasters. Even after he became a senior reporter for Xinhua, the official news agency, and learnt how the party manipulated and manufactured news, he remained a true believer. Only as China opened up in the 1980s did Mr Yang start to question what he had been told. The killing of demonstrators in Beijing in 1989 was a rude awakening. “The blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades.” And so he set out to shake off the deception and shake up the system that he had spent his life supporting. After he retired, he used his contacts to gain access to restricted documents in archives all over China, claiming he was researching the history of grain policy. Some archivists were aware of what he was doing, but chose to turn a blind eye. [Source: The Economist, October 27, 2012]

Yang spent a decade working undercover, secretly amassing official proof of China's great famine. "When you are writing history, you can't be too emotional. You need to be calm and objective," he says. "But I was angry the whole time. I'm still angry." Yang used his credentials as a reporter for the state Xinhua news agency to cajole and beg his way into provincial archives. He started gathering information on the famine in the mid-90s, and began the project in earnest in 1998. He worked undercover for a decade at immense personal risk, pretending to research official grain and rural policies, in order to put together the first detailed account of the great famine from Chinese government sources. [Ibid]

At first, Yang says, he struggled to put all of this on paper. "At first when I was writing this book, it was difficult. But then I became numb. When you are writing history, you can't be too emotional. You need to be calm and objective," he says. "But I was angry the whole time. I'm still angry."

“Tombstone” was published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2008 and in a modified, abridged English-language edition in 2012. It is banned in mainland China but has been read widely there through smuggled and bootlegged copies. he English version is less than half the length of the original two Chinese volumes.

Impact of Tombstone


Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books: Tombstone is a legendary book in China.1 It is hard to find an intellectual in Beijing who has not read it, even though it remains banned and was only published in Hong Kong. Yang’s great success is using the Communist Party’s own records to document, as he puts it, “a tragedy unprecedented in world history for tens of millions of people to starve to death and to resort to cannibalism during a period of normal climate patterns with no wars or epidemics.” Tombstone is a landmark in the Chinese people’s own efforts to confront their history, despite the fact that the party responsible for the Great Famine is still in power. This fact is often lost on outsiders who wonder why the Chinese haven’t delved into their history as deeply as the Germans or Russians or Cambodians. In this sense, Yang is like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: someone inside the system trying to uncover its darkest secrets.[Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, November 22, 2012]

Like The Gulag Archipelago, Yang’s Tombstone is a flawed work that has benefited by being shortened in translation. The original work spun out of control, with Yang trying to incorporate everything he found and constantly recapitulating key points. This is one reason why the original was over 1,800 pages and published in two volumes. The English version is half the length and reorganized by Yang in conjunction with the translators, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, and an outside editor, the University of Wisconsin’s Edward Friedman. The result is a much more compact book with Yang’s most important work clearly showcased. [Ibid]

His main point is to prove that the Party, from the village chief up to Chairman Mao, knew exactly what was going on but was too warped by ideology to change course until tens of millions had died. Like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, the book is a cry of outrage from a victim. Yang vowed to erect for his father an everlasting tombstone, one that would not crumble or fall with time, and he did so with this book. [Ibid]

The Economist reported: “Tombstone” is meticulous in its research and exhaustive in the detail it accumulates for the reader: of villages strewn with corpses, of widespread cannibalism, and of the violence that exploded as one man’s millennial vision was unleashed. It also stands as a warning to modern supporters of the one-party state, who praise the ability of an autocracy to get things done. Even if today’s policies are less harsh, Mr Yang shows, the possibility of unchecked brutality is ever present. Nowadays the Communist Party is not causing widespread famine. But the same kiss-up, kick-down hierarchy persists, where every official is slave to his immediate superior and a dictator to his subordinates. Targets of the one-child policy, for instance, must be met, regardless of the human toll and future danger. Conversely, the truth about big problems around the country, such as the environment or corruption or food safety, must be covered up. [Source: The Economist, October 27, 2012]

How much longer can this last? The government’s monopoly on information once afforded it a monopoly on truth. But information now floods in, especially via the internet. Mr Yang’s book is part of a broader attempt at last in China to discuss the history of the 1950s and 1960s. Chinese newspapers have begun publishing articles about the Great Leap Forward. Chinese microblogs have discussed openly what happened, though none as frankly as Mr Yang. History is slowly becoming a topic of discussion and an issue on which ordinary Chinese do not have to follow official propaganda slavishly. During recent anti-Japanese riots, a surprising number of people went against decades of government propaganda to complain about the crudity and stupidity of the protests. If the party can no longer control the past, who knows if it can still control the future?

Yang Jisheng Forbidden from Traveling to Accept Prize

Great Leap Forward poster

In February 2016, Yang Jisheng was forbidden from traveling to the United States to accept the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism by the Nieman fellows at Harvard University. Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times: “The author of a landmark book documenting the millions of deaths from China’s Great Famine said on Tuesday that his former employer, the official Xinhua News Agency, had forbidden him from traveling to Harvard University next month to receive an award honoring his courage and integrity.”[Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 16, 2016 <<<]

In December 2015, Mr. Yang, “75, was awarded the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism by the Nieman Fellows at Harvard, a group of professional journalists spending an academic year at the university’s campus in Cambridge, Mass. The fellows said Mr. Yang was “a role model to all who seek to document the dark and difficult struggles of humankind.” He had been scheduled to receive the award in person in early March.” <<<

Mr. Yang “may have fallen victim to new rules on what retired Communist Party cadres can say, and specifying that their public opinions must have “a high level of consistency with the Party Central under comrade General Secretary Xi Jinping.” As a senior reporter for China’s government-owned official news service for many decades, Mr. Yang was a longtime party member. But he has also been highly critical of the government, dealing a devastating blow to the official account of the famine and Mao’s legacy in his book, and speaking out in public forums around the world. <<<

“Until now, he was allowed to travel internationally to receive accolades for his work. Last year, Mr. Yang went to Sweden to receive the Stieg Larsson prize, an award established in memory of the crime writer and journalist, who died in 2004, and given to people working in his spirit. In 2013, he traveled to the United States to receive the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize, named after the economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. There, he delivered a scathing indictment of modern China under the Communists, who he said had created a society in which “only the already powerful can acquire wealth.” “China’s path to harmony and stability is to reject this system and instead to heed Hayek’s call to avoid government coercion, respect individual freedom and allow further economic and political liberalization,” Mr. Yang said. <<<

Although Mr. Yang said that he had his passport, leaving the country against the wishes of Xinhua, a powerful arm of the government and Communist Party, might jeopardize any plans he might have to publish future works. Calls during working hours to Xinhua’s main office in Beijing went unanswered.

Speech Yang Jisheng Would Have Given at Harvard

Great Leap Forward poster

The following are excerpts from the speech Yang Jisheng would have given had he been present to receive the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism at Harvard, translated from Chinese by Stacy Mosher, who was a translator of “Tombstone”: “I thank the Nieman class of 2016 for giving me the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. I feel overwhelmed by the weight of the words “conscience” and “integrity,” but they serve to encourage and spur me on....I fervently love the profession of journalism.... This is a profession that is despicable and noble, banal and sacred, shallow and profound, all depending on the conscience, character and values of the individual journalist. The truly professional journalist will choose the noble, sacred, profound and perilous, and remain aloof from the despicable, mundane, shallow and comfortable.[Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 16, 2016 <=>]

“Insisting on being a journalist with conscience and integrity carries risks. When giving a lecture to a class of journalism students, I passed along a tip for avoiding danger: “Ask for nothing and fear nothing, and position yourself between heaven and earth.” By asking for nothing, I mean not hoping for promotion or wealth; by fearing nothing, I mean examining one’s own behavior and not exposing a pigtail for anyone to grab. Don’t rely on the powerful, but rather on your own character and professional independence. <=>

“Since China embarked on Reform and Opening, many journalists of conscience and integrity have emerged. In the face of enormous impediments, they’ve reported the truth, chastised evil and moved Chinese society forward. They aren’t attending this ceremony tonight, but they should share in its honor. <=>

“I’ve retired now and can no longer work as a journalist, so I write historical works as a journalist of past events. Yesterday’s news is today’s history. What news and history have in common is that both must be true and credible. Credibility is the lifeblood of both news and history. China’s historians have always put an emphasis on the ethics of history: fidelity to unvarnished historical fact, both positive and negative. Every age has included historians who consider it their responsibility to provide an honest record, and who consider distortion a disgrace. Many historians have preserved their moral integrity at the cost of their lives. Influenced by the spirit of China’s historians, I’ve recorded major events that I personally experienced: the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, Reform and Opening. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; not only the brightness, but also the darkness. I want people to remember man-made disaster, darkness and evil so they will distance themselves from man-made disaster, darkness and evil from now on. <=>

“My book “Tombstone” recorded a horrific man-made disaster that lasted for several years. Although it could only be published in Hong Kong and remains banned in China, truth-loving people have found various means and channels to distribute it throughout mainland China. Pirated editions of “Tombstone” are being sold from the hinterlands of the Central Plains to the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau to the Xinjiang frontier. I’ve received letters from readers all over China expressing their fervent and unwavering support. This shows the power of truth to break through the bronze walls and iron ramparts constructed by the government.Fact is a powerful bomb that blasts lies to smithereens. Fact is a beacon in the night that lights the road of progress. Fact is the touchstone of truth; there can be no truth without facts. Journalists are the recorders, excavators and defenders of truth.” <=>

Great Famine and What It Means Today

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “Yang's meticulously researched book brings to light many such revealing details; they confirm his description of the Chinese Communist Party as being marked, from the fifties onward, by a battle between pragmatists and idealists (or, more accurately, ideologues), the latter represented by Mao's faction. For Yang, this rough distinction also provides a useful way of explaining China's post-Mao evolution. "The pragmatists salvaged the situation after Mao's death," he writes, "by pushing China into the road of 'reform and opening.' " [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012 <<>>]

“Since the Maoist generation of Deng Xiaoping, a new generation of technocrats, almost all with engineering degrees, has come to the fore. Determined to avoid the "unscientific approach" of their predecessors and greatly influenced by the example of Singapore, these leaders have helped build the gigantic infrastructure--airports, highways, high-speed railroads--underpinning the country's rapid economic growth. The rise of these technocrats and the corresponding eclipse of ideologues complicate the popular notion that China is a "totalitarian" state with no alternative but to transform itself into a democracy. "Tombstone" shows that, even during a catastrophe caused by a profoundly undemocratic system and a fanatical ideologue, the Party accommodated a degree of dissent, improvisation, and pragmatism. It makes you wonder about the opaque and little-understood one-party state now run by Mao's heirs. How has it absorbed the lessons of Mao's disasters? Yang's account of the Chinese Communist Party (of which he remains a member) raises even more vital questions: How has China managed to retain many of the features of Mao's regime--coercive public security, control of strategic industries, censorship and state propaganda mechanisms--while nonetheless transitioning to a market economy? And how long can a nominally Communist party maintain its right to rule over a largely capitalist country? <<>>

“Certainly, the Party seems to have broken with Maoist mass campaigns and ideological indoctrination. Since the nineteen-eighties, it has sought to rebuild its legitimacy among a restless Chinese population by promising to bring prosperity through a market-driven economy. The Communist Party, once the domain of peasants and factory workers, now attracts rich businessmen and middle-class professionals, and it has suffered a corresponding loss of ideological coherence. Its leaders periodically announce, as they did in 2006, such grandiose projects as "building a socialist countryside." But such old-fashioned rhetoric sounds hollow in a state where corrupt "princelings," or sons of senior Party leaders, such as Bo Xilai, enrich themselves with impunity, while protests by the urban working classes and dispossessed peasants erupt across the country. The Chinese scholar Minxin Pei, in "China's Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy" (2006), summed up the orthodox wisdom, declaring that the technocratic regime now running China can "no longer build broad-based social coalitions to pursue its policies and defend itself." <<>>

“The logical way out of China's impasse seems to be electoral democracy, and Yang, echoing the axioms of modernization theory, is convinced that the country's market economy furnishes a solid basis for a "democratic political system." But it is far from clear that either the Chinese beneficiaries of economic growth or its victims (displaced peasants and exploited urban workers) are ready to launch the political movement necessary for a shift to representative government. Yang Jisheng himself is deeply ambivalent about the prospects for democracy in China. He starts "Tombstone" by confidently declaring that the day of its arrival in China "will not be long in coming." Five hundred pages later, he has changed his mind, asserting that "it will take a very long time." Yang seems to be echoing the post-Mao Chinese elite's wariness of impatient patriotic engineers in China; he warns that "the very people who are most radical and hasty in their opposition to autocracy may be the very ones who facilitate the rise of a new autocratic power." <<>>

“Yang has in mind the fate of Russia, where Boris Yeltsin, the nemesis of Soviet Communism, tried to rush an entire society toward democracy and the free market, only to pave the way for years of general impoverishment and suffering and for the return of authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin. For many Chinese, the former Soviet Union embodies the perils of rash, top-down Westernization. And, as European and American leaders struggle to emerge from the free-market dogmas of recent years, the ostensibly Communist Chinese regime shuts down a radical Maoist challenger. Such are the ironies of the cautionary tales we tell ourselves about socioeconomic engineering. No doubt there will be more in our intensely ideological age.

Great Leap Forward Famine Deniers

Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times, “The famine that gripped China from 1958 to 1962 is widely judged to be the deadliest in recorded history, killing 20 to 30 million people or more, and is one of the defining calamities of Mao Zedong’s rule. Ever since, the party has shrouded that disaster in censorship and euphemisms, seeking to maintain an aura of reverence around the founding leader of the Communist state. But with the approach of celebrations of the 120th anniversary Mao’s birth on Dec. 26, some of his supporters and party polemicists are stepping beyond the longstanding official reticence about the famine to argue for their own, much milder version of the disaster and to assail historians who disagree. [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, October 16, 2013 |^|]

“They deny that tens of millions died in the famine — it was at most a few million, some of them say — and they accuse scholars who support higher estimates of fanning anti-party sentiment. “The big rumor that 30 million people starved to death in the three years of hardship,” said a headline in September in The Global Times, an influential party-run tabloid. The headline accompanied a commentary by a mathematician, Sun Jingxian, who has won publicity for his claim that at most 2.5 million people died of “nutritional fatalities” during the Great Leap Forward. He argues that bigger estimates are an illusion based on flawed statistics. Mr. Sun asserts that most of the apparent deaths were a mirage of chaotic statistics: people moved from villages and were presumed dead, because they failed to register in their new homes. |^|

“A new book, “Someone Must Finally Speak the Truth,” has become a touchstone for supporters of Mao, who deny that the famine killed tens of millions. The author, Yang Songlin, a retired official, maintains that at most four million “abnormal fatalities” occurred during the famine. That was indeed a tragedy, he acknowledges, but one for which he mostly blames bad weather, not bad policies. He and other like-minded revisionists accuse rival researchers of inflating the magnitude of the famine to discredit Mao and the party. “Some people think they have an opportunity, that as long as they can prove that tens of millions of people died in the Great Leap Forward, then the Communist Party, the ruling party, will never be able to clear itself,” Mr. Yang said by telephone from his home in Zhengzhou, a city in central China. |^|

“China’s leaders have not publicly commented on the controversy. But Mao’s reputation remains important for a party that continues to stake its claims to power on its revolutionary origins, even as it has cast aside the remnants of his revolutionary policies. And Xi Jinping, the party leader installed in November, has been especially avid in defending that legacy, even though his family suffered more under Mao than did the families of his recent predecessors. |^|

“Scholars disagree, but whether their estimate is somewhat higher or lower, that doesn’t affect the fact that the Great Leap Forward created a massive disaster,” Lin Yunhui, a retired party historian at the National Defense University in Beijing who has spent much of his career studying Mao’s time, said by telephone. “My own estimate is that there were about 30 million abnormal deaths.” |^|

“Few if any mainstream historians place any credence in the revisionists’ claims, but they express alarm that the party, which in recent decades has tolerated more open research into the period, seems to be encouraging a retreat into deceptive orthodoxies. “I’ve long been maligned and attacked for my research, but now there are these people who basically deny that there was ever a mass famine,” Yang Jisheng, the historian said.“To defend the ruling status of the Communist Party, they must deny that tens of millions died of starvation,” Mr. Yang said. “There’s a sense of social crisis in the party leadership, and protecting its status has become more urgent, and so it’s become even more necessary to avoid confronting the truth about the past.” |^|

“China’s leader, Mr. Xi, is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a colleague of Mao who was purged in 1962 and endured 16 years of imprisonment and political ignominy. Mr. Xi’s handling of the past, however, is driven by political imperatives, not family memories, said Edward Friedman, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was an editor of the English version of Mr. Yang’s book “Tombstone.” Mr. Xi told officials in January that they should not belittle or doubt Mao’s achievements. He has repeatedly cited the collapse of the Soviet Union as a warning of the costs of political laxity. Mr. Xi approved a directive issued in April that identified seven main ideological threats to party rule, including “historical nihilism” — defined as attempts to “negate the legitimacy of the long-term rule of the Chinese Communist Party” by maligning the party’s record. “They need their great leader to be pure,” Mr. Friedman said. “They need to have a vision of the past that’s worth being nostalgic about.” |^|

Famine Denial Ignites Fury

During the May Day holiday in 2012, Lin Zhibo, Head of People’s Daily Gansu Branch, posted a few weibo posts on Sina and denied the Great Famine from 1959 to 1961.Though he apologized after receiving waves of criticism, he was unable to put off Chinese netizens’ anger. In addition to criticism of Lin Zhibo, a probably unexpected result of the incidence is that numerous weibo users started to share their family stories during the period, which has long been a taboo topic in China. [Source: Offbeat China, May 3, 2012]

On April 29, 2012, Lin posted the following weibo: “To bash Chairman Mao, some people even fabricated lies about the death of tens of millions of people during 1960 to 1962. To confirm the number, some visited those Henan villages which experiences the worst famine at the time. It turned out that the truth didn’t match their lies. Many villagers have heard of people starving to death but never personally saw one themselves, which is direct evidence that very few people died of starvation at the time.” [Ibid]

“The post soon got shared thousands of times on Sina Weibo, and together with reposts came criticism. During the next few hours, Lin tried to defend his point of view by attacking netizens who left angry comments to his original post, “Nowadays in China, slaves of the West are everywhere. It’s not uncommon to see people who see the US as God.” [Ibid]

“I haven’t done much research about the history of the Great Famine and didn’t know much of it. In the past few days, I received a lot of messages from netizens describing their traumas at the time. I’m deeply shocked at what I’ve learned. My inappropriate words have triggered many people’s painful memories and hurt many people’s feelings. I feel very sorry and hereby apologize to everybody! Thanks netizens for pointing out my mistakes. I wish we can work together to prevent the tragedy from happening again.” [Ibid]

“Did netizens accept his apology? Absolutely not. “As a stooge, no one cares whether you apologize or not. We people keep that piece of history very well in our hearts. For someone at your position, telling lies is as common as eating meals,” commented even labeled Lin as “Pretend to be patriotic---that’s his job. A traitor at heart---that’s his life.” Many more netizens called for Lin’s resignation. [Ibid]

Memory Project on the Great Famine of China

Wu Wenguang is considered by many to be the godfather of Chinese independent cinema. He is the driving force behind the “Memory Project” — a grass-roots effort to build a historical archive of firsthand stories some of the darkest periods of the Chinese Communist Party's rule. Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Since 2010, the project's 200 or so volunteers have filmed more than 1,300 interviews with elderly villagers across the country, seeking to record their voices before they die. The project's interviews are raw and personal, captured on front porches and in living rooms and kitchens, full of lengthy digressions and background noise. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, October 14,2105 ><]

"The Memory Project has greatly influenced me — it's even changed me," Wu says, sipping oolong tea in his spacious, glass-walled courtyard home on Beijing's rural fringes. "Now when I talk about the famine period, I no longer talk about figures, like how many people died. I've been really touched by the lives of these individuals, how they'd survive on very little food, how they'd try their best to stave off death." The Memory Project's focal point is the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, during which a combination of natural disasters and misguided policies caused millions to starve; official accounts claim that 15 million died, but independent historians have put the toll at more than 40 million. ><

J.P. Sniadecki, a film professor at Northwestern University who has worked closely with Chinese independent filmmakers, says that the Memory Project's small scale and diffuse nature may protect it from official retaliation. "I'd ask him about this all the time, and he would never complain about censorship or problems. He's been storing independent documentaries for years and trying to distribute them," he says. "Maybe [the Memory Project] is just too small, and it's already sort of ghettoized within small art and academic circles, so it doesn't raise eyebrows in the same way." ><

History of the Memory Project on the Great Famine of China

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In 2005, a European Union fund recruited Wu to record a film about villagers as part of a Beijing-backed initiative to bolster local election processes in China's vast, largely impoverished countryside. Wu decided he would try something new: He would put the cameras in the hands of villagers. He placed a recruitment ad in a Guangzhou newspaper and selected 10 volunteers from the applicant pool of farmers and migrant workers in villages across the country. With EU backing, he gave them inexpensive digital camcorders, a brief primer on filming techniques and instructions to return to their villages and shoot whatever they found worthwhile. "The villagers shot some very interesting stuff; their technique, their dialogues, their choices about what to film, were completely different from what we so-called professional filmmakers would do," he says. "Also, they were very familiar with the local villagers. They could shoot people going to meetings, or arguing … so a lot of their material, you'd think it was all kind of weird, but very fresh." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, October 14,2105 ><]

“The Memory Project grew out of this idea. The Great Famine happened so long ago, at such a remove from major cities, that it has fallen victim to the near-total historical amnesia within China, reduced to a few lines about droughts and flooding in history textbooks. Wu wanted to better understand the individual stories behind the numbers. "He has lots of connections, he's been doing this for a very long time," says Sniadecki, the film professor. "He's a very provocative, visionary figure. There's a reason that people are drawn towards him. He's very strong and charismatic." ><

“In 2010, Wu was teaching at a university in Beijing and running an experimental event space with some fellow artists and intellectuals. He instructed 12 of his students and six acolytes at the performance space to return to their home villages, scattered across the country, and interview elders about their experiences growing up. Zhang Mengqi, a 28-year-old dancer at the event space, began interviewing elderly residents in her father's hometown in 2010. She recalled being overwhelmed by the intricate details of their stories. One elderly villager told her that she'd passed a starving man on the street and noticed that he was wearing brand new shoes; when she passed the man soon afterward, his shoes were gone. ><

“Zhang returned to the village six times and recorded more than 40 interviews. The stories "really changed me, they changed my recognition of history," she said. "These are the details that strike me the most. History isn't about big numbers and statistics. It's about these details. That made me think." Since 2010, the project has continued to grow. Wu has formed a partnership with Duke University, which secured a $40,000 grant from the Assn. for Asian Studies to organize, reformat and eventually digitize his archives.

Why Study of the Great Leap Forward Matters

Ilya Somin wrote in the Washington Post: “For both Chinese and westerners, failure to acknowledge the true nature of the Great Leap Forward carries serious costs. Some survivors of the Great Leap Forward are still alive today. They deserve far greater recognition of the horrible injustice they suffered. They also deserve compensation for their losses, and the infliction of appropriate punishment on the remaining perpetrators. [Source: Ilya Somin, Washington Post August 3, 2016 <>]

“In addition, our continuing historical blind spot about the crimes of Mao and other communist rulers, leads us to underestimate the horrors of such policies, and makes it more likely that they might be revived in the future. The horrendous history of China, the USSR, and their imitators, should have permanently discredited socialism as completely as fascism was discredited by the Nazis. But it has not – so far – fully done so. <>

“Just recently, the socialist government of Venezuela imposed forced labor on much of its population. Yet most of the media coverage of this injustice fails to note the connection to socialism, or that the policy has parallels in the history of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and other similar regimes. One analysis even claims that the real problem is not so much “socialism qua socialism,” but rather Venezuela’s “particular brand of socialism, which fuses bad economic ideas with a distinctive brand of strongman bullying,” and is prone to authoritarianism and “mismanagement.” The author simply ignores the fact that “strongman bullying” and “mismanagement” are typical of socialist states around the world. The Scandinavian nations – sometimes cited as examples of successful socialism- are not actually socialist at all, because they do not feature government ownership of the means of production, and in many ways have freer markets than most other western nations.” <>

Novelistic Treatments of the Great Leap Forward

Yang Xianhui’s 2007 book Dingxi gu’eryuan jishi (The Dingxi Orphanage Chronicles) is a fictionalized memoir which also narrates the stories of a group of orphans growing up in Gansu in the years of the Great Leap Forward. [Source: MCLC List]

Yan Geling's "The Ninth Widow" is about a rural woman who hides her landowner father-in-law through the campaigns of the 50's and 60's. Although it is not entirely about the famine, there are many pages devoted to it.

A collection of short stories by Yang Xianhui, “Dingxi gueryuan jishi” is a collection about the Great Famine, and like Jiabiangou jishi, the stories are also based on Yang's investigations and interviews of survivors.

An early full-length novel on the Great Leap Forward is Zhiliang''s “Hungry Mountain Village.” Wang Zhiliang was a Professor at East China Normal University, and his novel was first serialized in a newspaper in Malaysia. A partial translation can be found in Renditions 68, with other fiction and poetry from the Great Leap period and later retrospectives.

Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters; Photographs, Ohio State University and Wikicommons, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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