"Tombstone " (2008) by Yang Jisheng, is regarded as the most authoritative account of the Great Famine of China. 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. In “Tombstone,” Yang 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; [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times Review of Books, December 20, 2010 ]

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.

Websites and Sources on the Cultural Revolution Virtual Museum of the Cultural Revolution ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Morning Sun ; Red Guards and Cannibals New York Times ; The South China Morning Post 's multimedia report on the Cultural Revolution. Cultural Revolution posters Great Leap Forward: University of Chicago Chronicle ; Wikipedia ; Industrial Planning Video You Tube ; Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article ; Death Tolls ; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party ; People’s Republic of China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Everyday Life in Maoist; Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mao Internet Library ; Paul Noll Mao site ; Mao Quotations;

Independent Chinese Historians Creating Databases and Rummaging Through Flea Markets

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Many books owe a debt to the heroic work of several US-based Chinese scholars, especially Yongyi Song, an independent historian and librarian at California State University–Los Angeles, and Guo Jian, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. Among their invaluable contributions to studies of the Cultural Revolution is The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database, which was compiled and edited by a team of seven scholars led by Song. It contains 40,000 documents, including internal papers, speeches, confessions, suicide notes, and appeals by ordinary people, with 40 million Chinese characters. Another resource by the team is The Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, written by Guo, Song, and Yuan Zhou. In June 2016, these epic works were supplemented with 13,000 more pages of classified documents that Song, Guo, and their team members recently obtained. Entitled Secret Archives of the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi, this e-book series provides the full text of an official eighteen-part report made from 1986 to 1988 under the instructions of reformist Party leader Hu Yaobang. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, October 27, 2016]

“Although some of these documents were known previously in sketchier forms, the new authoritative material shows that during the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi—a province on the Vietnam border—302 people were cannibalized and about 90,000 people (excluding missing ones) perished; there are many grotesque examples of rape and murder. Party leaders killed opponents, including students exiled to Guangxi by Mao, in some cases cutting out their livers and eating them. Such extreme behavior was relatively scarce, but it reflected a broader attitude cultivated during the Mao years that opponents were beasts, not humans.

“Obtaining this sort of material can be a laborious process, as I found when I went with a Chinese scholar of the Cultural Revolution to explore the Panjiayuan antiques market on Beijing’s east side. Most of this vast market is given over to selling reproductions of Ming vases and Chairman Mao statues, but one row of fifty or so stalls has something more valuable: old books, magazines, newspapers, and handwritten material of all kinds—diaries, notebooks, and sometimes even just loose sheets of hastily scribbled notes. We spent a Saturday morning rummaging through notebooks filled with math and physics equations, as well as a draft of an unfinished novel from the 1950s. Four hours later, the researcher had spent $500 of his own money on hundreds of sheets of paper, diaries, and jottings from government officials. He would spend the week digesting them and then come back the next Saturday for more sinological scavenging.

“All this paper was the detritus disgorged by the dying and dead men and women who won China’s civil war, founded the People’s Republic, grew up as the flowers of the nation, were persecuted, and then regained power; their scribblings are now being thrown out by their children or grandchildren. Sold mostly as scrap paper, some of them have been identified by crafty garbagemen as valuable and offered to the Panjiayuan merchants. In the past, so many diaries and notebooks were thrown out that Western libraries built entire collections based on them. Now, as the older generations fade, the flood is slower but it still casts new light.

“Best of all, local historians continue to defy the government by plowing through this material. Many cannot get their work past the censors so they self-publish online. Their work is also sometimes censored, but an amazing amount still gets through. In May, on the first day of this year’s anniversaries for the Cultural Revolution, I opened my WeChat social media account and found half a dozen unofficial articles commemorating the dead and condemning the culpable. I also found a new edition of the biweekly underground journal Remembrance, with over eighty pages of articles on Mao, his security chief, the students, and the youth.6 With much still to be learned, the period of the Cultural Revolution continues to fascinate and reveal itself as a touchstone for understanding China’s past and its present.

Some sources related to those mentioned above; “Secret Archives of the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi” edited by Yongyi Song et al (Mirror Media Group, thirty-six-volume e-book, 2016). “Historical Dictionary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Guo Jian, Yongyi Song, and Yuan Zhou (Rowman and Littlefield); “The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database” edited by Yongyi Song and others (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, third edition, CD – ROM).

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. 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. [

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.

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]

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.

Great Leap Forward Famine Deniers

Great Leap Forward poster

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. 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. |^|

Great Leap Forward poster

Man Wrote About the Massacre in Dao County

In summer 1967, a rumor began to circulate around Hunan Province’s Dao County that there was going to be an invasion of mainland China by Taiwan by The Kuomintang, Taiwan’s ruling party and the former rulers of China from 1928 until 1949. They allegedly were going to cooperate with antirevolutionaries in the area to take seize the mainland from the Communists. It was said, the antirevolutionaries were also planning to conduct a massive purge in the county, killing all the members of the Communist Party and the peasant leaders in the local government. Although the "invasion" had no basis in reality the county government said it was true. A preemptive strike against the perceived antirevolutionaries claimed the lives of over 4,500 people in only two months. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, June 24, 2016]

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: “That we know the truth about Dao County is due to one person: a garrulous, stubborn, and emotional editor who stumbled over the story thirty years ago and decided that it was his fate to tell it. His name is Tan Hecheng and” I went to southern China to meet him...As we stood there examining the tombstone” of the Zhou family, “a change came over Tan. During the previous two days we had traveled tirelessly through the county as he tried to show us every major killing field and talk to as many survivors as possible. A boisterous sixty-seven-year-old with soft features and an unruly cowlick, he had an irrepressible gallows humor. Sometimes when we drove by a village, he would start to recount the details of who was bludgeoned or shot, but then cut himself short by shouting out: “Fuck, in this place they killed a lot of people!”

“But on this ridge, in front of this tombstone, he suddenly slowed down as the memories of the past overcame him. He had been thirty-seven when he came here in 1986, a man who had lost his youth to Mao and his Cultural Revolution, and who finally had the assignment of a lifetime. He had been sent by a magazine to write about Dao County. A thirteen-hundred-person secret government commission had just investigated the killings and he had full access to its findings. But his article had been declared too pessimistic—the editors had wanted an upbeat piece on how the Communist Party had dealt with the past swiftly and fairly. In fact, he had realized that the truth had been buried. Justice had not been done. Only a tiny fraction of the killers had served jail time. And he knew then that his article would probably be killed.

“Still he wrote it and gave it the name Xue zhi Shenhua, or Blood Myths. That title irritated me—these weren’t myths but facts that he had carefully reconstructed based on the commission’s thousands of pages of findings and documents, as well as his own months in the region. The English title, The Killing Wind, made more sense to me. People here still spoke of a “killing wind” that had blown through during the Cultural Revolution. I had asked him about the Chinese title a day or two earlier, but he only began to explain it here, in front of the tombstone.

““The title is not a way to soften the truth. The title doesn’t mean a myth in the sense of something half-true or rumored. What I meant was that some stories hit me with such force that they became mythic.” He pointed to the stone, crudely hewn from rock, the characters so cheaply and shallowly carved that they were already becoming illegible just four years after the monument was erected. “I cried only three times in the years I spent researching the massacre. One time was when I realized what had happened to Zhou Qun.”

“Along the way up toward the dam, Tan described what happened after his article was not published. He remained an editor at a state-run literary magazine but was kept on the margins. He was never promoted or allowed to attend conferences or become involved in competitions. But he kept at the subject of the killings, returning to Dao County and working on a definitive history. Eventually, he published his book in 2011 in Hong Kong and now we have the English version, abridged but not in a way that detracts from the overall story. It is masterfully translated by the team of Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian—the same who abridged and translated Yang Jisheng’s classic account of the Great Leap famine, Tombstone. “You know, I can kiss ass as well as anyone,” Tan said as we made our way through the mountains. “I’m really good at it. In fact, I’m an excellent ass-kisser! I can tell people what they want to hear, and I can write an article in the way you want it. But I have a minimum moral standard: I can’t turn black into white. Somehow I just can’t do that. “So when they said they wouldn’t publish it, I thought, ‘Okay, that’s your problem,’ but my life had changed and so I thought, ‘This is it. One way or another I will publish this.’”

Li Zhensheng: Photographer of the Cultural Revolution

Li Zhensheng (1940-2020) was a Chinese photographer who documented the Cultural Revolution at great personal risk. His powerful black-and-white images have brought to light the “brutality of that tumultuous period” in a way no other person has. Mr. Li was a young photographer at a local newspaper in Heilongjiang in northeastern China when the Cultural Revolution started in May 1966. Dressed as a Red Guard, wearing a red arm band that said, “Red-Color News Soldier,” he was given extraordinary access to official events. “I was excited like everyone else,” he told the New York Times in 2003. “The happiness was real. We felt lucky to be living the moment.” [Source: Amy Qin, New York Times, June 25, 2020]

Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times: ““But his excitement quickly gave way to anxiety. Countless historical sites and relics were destroyed in the name of stamping out China’s “feudal” and “bourgeois” culture. Mr. Li began to have doubts after witnessing Red Guards in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang ransacking churches and temples, burning scriptures and criticizing monks. “I realized that I had to document this tumultuous period,” he wrote. “I didn’t really know whether I was doing it for the sake of the revolution, for myself or for the future, but I knew I had to use a camera as a tool to document it.”

“Mr. Li took not just the propaganda photos — the raised fists, the revolutionary fervor, the mass assemblies — that were required by his newspaper, but also less flattering ones. He amassed about 100,000 photos during that period, stashing many of the negatives under the parquet floorboards in his home in Harbin, the capital of China’s northernmost province, where they remained undeveloped for years. His collection remains one of the most complete and nuanced visual chronicles of how the Cultural Revolution upended daily life far away from the capital, Beijing. Among the photos are numerous ones of “struggle sessions,” in which people were criticized, abused and made to stand for hours with their heads bowed before a sea of accusers.

Captions of some of the photographs he took:1) “Eight criminals and counterrevolutionaries were forced to kneel on the outskirts of Harbin on April 5, 1968. In the moment before their execution, a guard tried to separate two condemned lovers. 2) Three men are paraded through the streets of Harbin on Sept. 12, 1966, with their names and the crimes they are charged with — black gang element, local despot, counterrevolutionary — displayed on placards. 3) “A rebel group forced the leaders of a rival group to kneel and be criticized outside Harbin’s North Plaza Hotel on Jan. 17, 1967. The steps were the site of numerous “struggle sessions.”

“At times Mr. Li participated in the criticisms, too, shouting slogans to get a crowd going so that he could take photos. During these sessions, many people were forced to wear placards around their necks detailing their supposed crimes: “big property owner,” “black gang element,” “counterrevolutionary revisionist element.” Some were sentenced to hard labor or death. Mr. Li documented the executions.

“Though he had only one chance to photograph Mao, the “great helmsman” is omnipresent, seen in portraits, busts and badges. In one photo, people shouted praises to Mao as they swam in the Songhua River. In another, a newlywed couple decorated their bedroom with photos and quotations of the chairman. According to the official caption, the couple were later criticized for making love under Mao’s eyes, but they defended themselves by saying that they had always turned out the lights first.

“No other political movement in China’s recent history lasted as long, was as widespread in its impact, and as deep in its trauma as the Cultural Revolution,” Mr. Li said in a 2018 interview with The Times. “Li Zhensheng gave a face, an image and a texture to the horrors of a period of incredible importance in modern Chinese history,” said Geremie R. Barmé, an Australian Sinologist. “He is part of a large body of men and women of conscience in China who have pushed to remember and reflect on a period of history that the authorities would rather distort or silence.”

Obstacles to Researching the Cultural Revolution

In a review of “The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” by Ji Xianlin, Zha Jianying wrote in the New York Review of Books: The Chinese government has a “quiet ban on any deep probing of the subject, a policy still in effect today. First and foremost is the question of Mao. Everyone knows that Mao is the chief culprit of the Cultural Revolution. Well-known historical data points to a tangle of factors behind Mao’s motivation for launching it: subtle tension among the top leadership of the CCP since the Great Leap Forward, which led to a famine with an estimated thirty to forty million deaths; his desire to reassert supremacy and crush any perceived challenge to his personal power by reaching down directly to the masses; his radical, increasingly lunatic vision of permanent revolution; his deep anti-intellectualism and paranoid jealousy. But, from the viewpoint of the Party, allowing a full investigation and exposure of Mao’s manipulations would threaten the Party’s legitimacy. If the great helmsman gets debunked, the whole ship may go down. Mao as a symbol is therefore crucial: it is tied to the survival of the Party state. [Source: Zha Jianying, New York Review of Books, January 26, 2016 *]

“Then there is the thorny issue of the people’s participation in the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards were only the best-known of the radical organizations. At the height of madness, millions of ordinary Chinese took part in various forms of lawless actions and rampant violence. The estimated death toll of those who committed suicide, were tortured to death, were publicly executed, or were killed in armed factional battles runs from hundreds of thousands to millions. This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to bring all of the perpetrators to account. *\

“Consequently, the situation has been handled in a manner that reflects both cynical and pragmatic calculations: After arresting and blaming it all on the ultra-leftist Gang of Four, the government officially condemned the period as a “ten-year disaster,” tolerated a short period of limited public ventilation, then moved to contain the damage. It’s one of those noiseless bans done through internal control; investigation, discussion, and publication have been variously forbidden, discouraged, or marginalized. Over time, the topic has faded away as though it all happened quite naturally. *\

“This situation is especially unsatisfying and unfair to those who suffered untold atrocities. Most of the teachers who were beaten up by their Red Guard students never received an apology. Most of the scholars who were tortured in the countless cowsheds continued, as Ji did, to live and work among their former persecutors. Some of the former perpetrators thrived in the new era, building successful careers and lives. *\

destroyed temple

“Ji himself worried about “stepping on people’s toes.” After writing the first draft of his memoir in 1988, he kept it in a drawer for years, for fear it might be viewed as a personal vendetta. He then revised it heavily, toning down his prose and keeping most of the persecutors unnamed. He said he wanted no revenge, just to write a honest historical document, so that young Chinese would know the past and would not let it happen again. He sounded apologetic about letting his emotions get the better of him in the earlier draft. Still, the reader can probably catch a strange tone of sarcasm and self-mockery in the narrator’s voice. *\

“I found Ji’s tone odd and puzzling at first until it occurred to me that this is not an uncommon rhetorical device in Chinese writing or talking: to control seething anger or to deflect unbearable pain, one often turns to black humor or sarcastic hyperbole. A Chinese elementary school teacher who was tortured and jeered at in public struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution told me that the sense of physical and psychological violation was so ferocious it felt like being gang-raped. He had nightmares about it for years. Later, a friend pointed out that he would adopt a facetious tone whenever he spoke about the experience. “I hadn’t noticed the tone myself,” he told me. “I think I turned it all into a joke because I can’t bear the pain and the shame with a straight face.”“ *\

Whitewashing the Cultural Revolution

Kwan Hing-ling wrote in the South China Morning Post, “Attempts to whitewash the Cultural Revolution have surfaced” during the presidency of Xi Jinping “even though a party document, the 1981 “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of the Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic”, had long ago laid down the official line. It was “a period of civil strife plotted by the leaders and exploited by counter-revolutionary groups, bringing about disaster for the party, the state and the people”, it said. [Source: Kwan Hing-ling, South China Morning Post, May 28, 2016 ]

“Despite this, some people have been doing everything possible to reverse the verdict. The internet has been full of chatter distorting history, including praise for the Gang of Four. Strangely enough, such absurdities which defied Beijing’s verdict were allowed to spread. By contrast, articles critical of the Cultural Revolution, especially those commenting on errors made by Mao Zedong in his twilight years, were labelled “improper discussion of central government policy”. Even senior officials have jumped on the bandwagon: the head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences recently published a lengthy commentary affirming Mao’s doctrine of “continuing revolution under the dictatorship of proletariat”, the theoretical basis for launching the Cultural Revolution.”

The revisionist movement appeared have reached fever pitch in May 2016 during the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution. “Commemorative activities looking fondly back on the national disaster have been held across the country. Participants not only criticised reforms and the open-door policy, but also denounced reform-minded state leaders as “capitalist traitors”. Some even called for another Cultural Revolution.”

Recognizing the Cultural Revolution in China

According to the New York Times” “While the Communist Party disavows the Cultural Revolution’s 10 years of turmoil, it also bans free public debate about it. Instead it seeks to uphold its own judgment, from 1981, that Mao made “gross mistakes” in the Cultural Revolution, but that “his merits are primary and his errors secondary.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, October 2, 2016]

The Art Newspaper reports: Art of the Cultural Revolution can be shown in China today, although it rarely is as institutions usually censor themselves. The artist Zhang Dali says that art about the era can be made and displayed at galleries but only the government may address the subject in the mass media. The rules regulating the film industry are stricter, says the Shanghai filmmaker Peng Xiaolian, who has had several scripts set during the Cultural Revolution rejected by the film bureau. Her 2004 film Shanghai Story included a family talking about the period. “I didn’t visualise it, so that it might help me to pass the censors,” she says. “People don’t like to remember the Cultural Revolution because the memories are so heavy, and also we never got a real report from the government.” [Source:The Art Newspaper, July 18, 2016]

Cultural Revolution book criticizing Confucius

In China the Cultural Revolution is sometimes referred to simply as “The Decade.” In January 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping, described the Cultural Revolution as “the ten-year calamity” and the Chinese state newspaper Global Times wrote that the country needs to “conduct a radical rethink” of the decade. In May 2016, the Communist Party commemorated the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution with two more articles in state-run newspapers criticising the decade. It was a “civil disorder, launched inappropriately by state leaders and exploited by counter-revolutionaries which was disastrous for the Communist Party, the nation and Chinese people of all ethnic groups”, wrote the People’s Daily. In addition, some posts published on the social media site WeChat were not immediately removed by censors.

In May 2016, China barely recognized the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: “ The milestone was largely ignored Monday in the Chinese media, reflecting continuing sensitivities about a period that was later declared a "catastrophe." Authorities have generally suppressed discussion of the violent events, now a couple of generations removed from the lives of young Chinese focused on pursuing their own interests in an increasingly capitalistic society. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, May 16, 2016 =]

Shantou and Its Now Closed Cultural Revolution Museum

Shantou (near Fujian border, 370 kilometers northeast of Hong Kong)was the home of a Cultural Revolution museum that took a critical look at the period. Opened in 2005 by a local Communist Party official but closed in 2016, it featured a number photographs and drawings of events from the period. The sign out front read: “The Great Cultural Revolution was a mistake., put in motion by leaders, used by counterrevolutionary groups for their interests, causing turmoil that brought a serious disaster to the party, the country and the people."

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in New York Times: The idea to build China’s first museum dedicated to the Cultural Revolution was always risky. Amid yellow pagodas pointing heavenward... a small group of volunteers built memorial arches across the park’s steep roads and paths lined with riotous subtropical vegetation. The site, in the Chenghai district of Shantou, was an appropriate place for memory — Buddhist pagodas are associated with the dead, and many local victims of the Cultural Revolution lie here, many buried in mass graves. They raised a statue of Liu Shaoqi, a former state president persecuted by Mao who died in prison in 1969, and of Marshal Ye Jianying, a military leader from Guangdong Province, where Shantou is situated. Scholars and relatives of victims across China donated stones engraved with stories and admonitions. “The 10 years of hardship alarm the ghosts and gods,” ran one inscription on a wall. The museum’s centerpiece, a stately building of green, red and yellow tiles, described the brutality of the campaign in documents and photographs. Shantou lies more than 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles south) of Beijing. Until 2016, that distance seemed to offer protection. “The sky is high and the emperor far away” runs a popular saying. Thousands of Chinese came to learn, to remember and to publicly mourn the victims, the only significant spot in the country where they could do so. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, October 2, 2016]

Then “Signs appeared in late April 2016, a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution: “Because of the need to adjust the function of the park, repairs will be carried out.” Workers arrived bearing concrete, propaganda banners and metal scaffolding. They smoothed concrete over the names of victims, wrapped “Socialist Core Values” banners around the main exhibition hall, placed red-and-yellow propaganda posters over stone memorials to the terror, and raised scaffolding around statues of critics of Mao.

Red Guard map of Beijing

Memory Project on the Maoist Era

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."

Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters; Photographs, Ohio State University and Wikicommons, YouTube; : Everyday Life in Maoist

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 August 2021

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