Sunday, November 11, 2012

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962

I have Argentine friends living in China, who still don´t have too much access to public social nets. I always wonder how it is to live in China, beautiful country from which I know some stories through Chinese co-workers.
Today, the review by Ian Johnson of the book ¨Tombstone. The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962¨ has caught my attention:

¨The Xinyang Incident is the subject of the first chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng’s epic account of the worst famine in history. Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mostly due to starvation but also government-instigated torture and murder of those who opposed the Communist Party’s maniacal economic plans that caused the catastrophe. Its epicenter was Xinyang County, where one in eight people died from the famine. The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later.

Originally published in 2008, the Chinese version ofTombstone 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.
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.
The original book started out with fourteen provincial case studies followed by six “policy” chapters and eight “analysis” chapters. The translation begins, like the original, with Yang’s powerful chapter on Xinyang but then alternates provincial case studies with the broader chapters on policy and analysis. Only four of the fourteen provincial chapters are in the English translation but from my reading of both versions it seems that they have cut almost none of Yang’s key findings, including interviews with victims and those responsible for the famine, and his best scoops from the archives. The English version retains all six policy chapters and five of the eight analysis chapters.¨
Keep on reading:
Picture from
A propaganda poster during the "Great Leap Forward" movement. The words are translated as "A fat pig is like an elephant with a shorter nose, can feed the whole village's people for half a year."
Chinese refugees returning to China from Hong Kong, May 1962. Getty images
Photo downloaded from


  1. La China siempre oscura, enigmática, legendaria y ruin. Ha sido un misterio para mi su cultura y sus atrocidades; las actuales y las remotas.

    Abrazos recordando a la dinastía Ming

    1. Gracias SErgio por tu visita, me gustaría leer este libro, esa foto grupal de gente hambrienta me afectó profundamente. Un beso,


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