Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962

In This Review

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962
By Yang Jisheng
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
656 pp. $35.00

A growing scholarly literature has left no doubt that the greatest famine in history, with a death toll of around 36 million Chinese, was caused not by natural disasters but by excessive state levies ordered by Chairman Mao Zedong. But in China, these facts remain officially taboo. For Yang, a journalist and one-time believer in Mao’s utopian vision, discovering the truth was a personal quest. This long book is an abridgement of an even longer work in Chinese that Yang intended as a memorial for his father and other victims. He fills it with hundreds of names of victims that he discovered in local archives during years of travel and research and with the stories of how they died. His painful account reveals the cruelties ordinary people are capable of when they are pitted against one another for survival. Yang discovers that among famished Chinese in extremis, cannibalism was more widespread than previously known. He also demonstrates Mao’s direct responsibility for the disaster; the slavish refusal of Mao’s chief aide, Zhou Enlai, to challenge Mao; and the complicity of local officials who launched misconceived construction projects that exacerbated the grain shortage by taking peasants away from farm work.

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