Is there any point in putting up yet another post about the Great Leap Forward. Obviously I think there is or I wouldn’t be writing this. But I will keep it brief. There is a beautiful review of the recently released English translation of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, Yang Jisheng’s epic retelling of the history of the Great Leap Forward and the horrors that it wrought. Not that we don’t already know a lot about these horrors, but this book is in a class by itself thanks to the resources that were made available to Yang, a Xinhua journalist and once a loyal member of the CCP.
Reviewer and China scholar Ian Johnson starts by telling us of his trip to the city of Xinyang in Henan province, where he talks with a pastor about what happened there fifty years ago.
“Traditional life [the pastor said] was wiped out around the time I was born, fifty years ago. Since then it has been a difficult area, with no foundation to society. Most people in China haven’t heard of this but here in Xinyang, people all know.
“It was called the Xinyang Incident. It destroyed this area like the wrath of God on Judgment Day.”
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.
Officials launched campaigns to dig up grain that peasants were allegedly hiding. Of course, the grain didn’t exist, but anyone who said otherwise was tortured and often killed. That October, the famine began in earnest in Xinyang, accompanied by the murder of skeptics of Mao’s policies. Yang describes in graphic detail how Xinyang officials beat one colleague who had opposed the communes. They ripped out his hair and beat him day after day, dragging him out of his bed and standing around him, kicking until he died. One official cited by Yang estimates that 12,000 such “struggle sessions” occurred in the region. Some people were hung up by ropes and set on fire. Others had their heads smashed open. Many were put in the middle of a circle and pushed, punched, and jostled for hours until they collapsed and died.
….Yang interviewed a colleague at the Xinhua news agency who had been stationed in Xinyang. During a long-distance bus ride, he said, “I could see one corpse after another in the ditches along the roadway, but no one on the bus dared to talk about the starvation.” The reporter found out that a third of the population in some areas had died while “the leading cadres continued to stuff themselves.” But “after I personally witnessed how people who spoke the truth were brought to ruin, how could I dare to write an internal reference report?”
Just as appalling is Mao’s irrational reaction to the “Xinyang incident,” which only made things there worse. If the GLF was failing to reap the results Mao expected, it had to be the fault of local officials or rightists, and even stricter order would have to be imposed. And so we have a vicious circle of death and devastation.
Please read the entire review, which makes clear why Tombstone is such an important contribution to the body of works on the GLF, and contrasts it with Dikoetter’s Mao’s Great Famine. The latter puts more blame on Mao than does Tombstone, which, Johnson says, “lays the blame firmly on the top leaders — not just Mao but also supposed moderates like Liu and Zhou.”
So to answer my opening question about why I’d put up another post on the Great Leap Forward: Tombstone is the most important, most exhaustive work ever written about the tragedy. It opens a new window on what happened with research we’ve never had access to, bolstered by first-hand accounts by Chinese memoirists. Its availability in English is big news (I wish the Kindle version were a little less expensive but I’m buying it anyway).
The GLF is a topic I have endless curiosity about. Maybe it’s the pointlessness of the man-made calamity that makes me want to understand it better, and the fact that so many people you’d think would know better followed Mao blindly into the mouth of hell. Based on Johnson’s review, and other articles I’ve read over the past, there’s no doubt this is the most definitive, most groundbreaking exploration of Mao’s doomed utopian experiment. The English version is big news.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.