Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962

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.

The Discussion: 25 Comments

I found “Mao’s Great Famine” captivating and equally terrifying, I look forward to reading this.

November 6, 2012 @ 3:26 pm | Comment

Just as appalling is Mao’s irrational reaction to the “Xinyang incident,” which only made things there worse.

Was it irrational? Maybe he saw this as a good opportunity to feed the loyal and starve those that questioned him. All quite logical in Mao’s twisted mind.

November 6, 2012 @ 4:04 pm | Comment

Two definitions of Starvation

What is death starvation? If one stops eating, and dies directly as a result, that’s death by starvation.

Does the ’30 million dead during GLF’ meet above defintion of death by starvation? If it does, give me one example, just one single example of someone who died meeting that criterion. No, what you read in a book does not count. Who do you know personally, or their direct relative who died like that during GLF?

What, I’m splitting hairs with the definition, playing semantics?
Fine. let’s say: if one stops eating but gets hit by a car 10 days later because he was too hungry to walk properly and see clearly, let’s be call that ‘death by starvation’ too. Happy?

With the 2nd definition, perhaps most people in China in those years were in a state of hunger, and most died indirectly as a result.

If you go with the 2nd criterion, then you have to be consistent: a third world, a poor nation, with its food supply issue not fully resolved, naturally will have most of its citiznes living in hunger and poverty, and the average life span is short as a result. It’s pretty natural and unsurprising to conclude then, that in any third world poor nation, most seniors’ deaths were indirectly as result of hunger, so most senior citizens in poor third world countries starved to deaths (going with the 2nd defintion).

So, going with this defintion, ever since the founding of People’s Republic in ’49, before Chinese economic reforms in early 80′s, most of Chinese seniors’ starved to death.

So statisically, we can claim that from 1940 to 1980, several hundred million people starved to death. Surely, the that number will delight many of you here, come on, go write another instant best seller.

Going along with this definition, during the reign of KMT, during the reign of Qing Dynasty, the average life span of a Chinese man was 40 years, and was called ‘Sick Man of the East’, why ‘Sick Man’, well the Chinese man back then was thin, short, scrawny, weak, due to lack of nutrition. Then, we can claim that most seniors starved to death during the entire reign of KMT and Qing.

Most of today’s Indian senior citizens in poor provinces starve to death too then.

Today’s world population is 5,6 billion, 3/2 of them live in poor places with malnutrition and lack of food. That is, 4 billion people will starve to death, again, going by the 2nd definition.
Going by the 2nd defintion, my dad starved to death too, even though he died only 5 years ago. Well when he was young, food was not abundant, he ate rice with pickeld cucmbers for years, causing malnutirtion, which led to his short life span when he died. So he also starved to death, otherwise he could’ve lived till 90 years old.

All in all, if use the 2nd definition, we have to be consistent and rigorous.

But then, with the 2nd definition, how is death rate in GLF any different from death rate in any deaths in any poor third world country? How is the death rate any different from any other period in China’s own history? Why selectively choose a 3 year window of a specific country, if by the 2nd defintion, we already established that the data in that window is completely unremarkable compared to the universe of data?

November 7, 2012 @ 10:47 am | Comment

Wow, Clock, that was quite a coiled turd. Y’know what? I’m just gonna stick with the definitions that sane people use.

November 7, 2012 @ 11:31 am | Comment

1: I don’t know anyone who was raped or knows anyone who was raped during the so-called “Massacre of Nanjing” Therefore, using Clock’s logic, the massacre never happened.

2: I (especially) don’t know anyone who died during the so-called “Massacre of Nanjing” Again, using Clock’s logic, the massacre in Nanjing never happened.

3: When people are shot by American soldiers in war, they usually die due to massive internal bleeding because their blood does not clot at a sufficient rate. Therefore, American soldiers kill very few people – the problem is that the people who get shot just can’t seem top get their blood to clot quickly enough.

4: I don’t know a single person who outright and genuinely agrees with or supports the CCP, therefore, the CCP enjoys zero popular support. Again, your logic Clock.

November 7, 2012 @ 12:27 pm | Comment

It’s a Math re-post.

November 7, 2012 @ 2:08 pm | Comment


When the economy stumbles, it’s always the Paid Propagandists that get hit first. Shame.

November 7, 2012 @ 2:30 pm | Comment

Actually it’s not a Math re-post, but it sure sounds like one. Math wasn’t quite as acerbic and mean-spirited.

November 7, 2012 @ 3:03 pm | Comment

Congrats to Team Obama – 4 more years!

November 7, 2012 @ 3:52 pm | Comment

@Richard – Sorry, you’re correct. It’s a repost of this comment:

Clock, if you’re going to repost your old stuff, why not repost that bizarre homophobic rant where you admitted to engaging in behaviour which was, to say the least, weird, so we can all have another laugh?

November 7, 2012 @ 10:46 pm | Comment

Hmm looks like Fa Lun Gong is now Wen Jiabao’s biggest ally, accusing the New York times of being used a political tool to benefit Wen’s enemies in the politbureau:

It is incredulus the report was independent:

‘To conduct an almost one-year-long investigation of one of the most powerful men in China without the authorities noticing or interfering—this can only be the result of a miracle or the help of the security forces at the top level.’

It is accusing the CCP’s hardline faction of using the NYTimes to smear Wen:

‘CCP leaders have often used foreign journalists, either to help the Party or for their own personal gain. When the Red Army was still living in caves of northern China during the war against Japan, Edgar Snow wrote his biography of Mao, Red Star Over China, and Agnes Smedley wrote the biography of the army’s commander-in-chief, The Great Road: The Life and Times of Chu Teh. These books were effective public relations for the CCP.’

November 8, 2012 @ 8:50 am | Comment

Gosh, Tickers, must be hard being you. You love the CCP but can’t go back to China as your FG allegiance will result in your persecution, hence your continued residence in the US….

Sucks to be you, old boy…

November 8, 2012 @ 11:39 am | Comment

Clock, please learn to troll.

November 8, 2012 @ 1:08 pm | Comment

@Clock. I know most weblords frown upon threats of physical violence, but I suspect a liberal dose of the horse whip would improve your commenting standards.

As I said before, there is something pyscho-sexual with you, but we won’t lower our standards and go down that path.

In fact, I withdraw the horse whip comment as I think it would give you some sort of religious epiphany and then we would have to ship you off to the rubber room.

November 8, 2012 @ 1:40 pm | Comment

As I mentioned some time earlier – bytheclock referred to Falun Gong in a previous thread, too -, Falun Gong media people apparently decided early this year that Wen Jiabao is indeed kind of an “ally”. That’s not a very credible idea, but it’s become one of their leitmotifs.

November 8, 2012 @ 2:02 pm | Comment

To #3,
how very lame to simply re-post a previous comment. Once again, completely typical of you people. Pathetic.

Here’s the logic for you: yes, historically, many people have starved to death. The point with the GLF is that those people did not need to starve and death, and would not have starved to death, BUT FOR Mao’s GLF policies. So Mao isn’t being villified because people starved to death; he’s being villified because those people starved to death as a result of his idiotic policies, without which many of those people would have survived. Time to engage your brain.

The person who is fasting and gets hit by a car would have survived BUT FOR being run over by a car. So he was killed by the car, not starvation. Seriously dude, do you have anything between your ears?

November 9, 2012 @ 5:22 am | Comment

I think the ‘L’ in ‘The Clock’ is a silent one.

November 23, 2012 @ 9:09 am | Comment


The Second Sino-Japanese War? That’s ancient history, you silly Chinese should stop being angry at Great Japan.

November 23, 2012 @ 2:36 pm | Comment

Dude, talk about a pathetic false dichotomy. Remembering GLF doesn’t mean you have to forget other stuff…or are you capable of only one thing at a time?

November 23, 2012 @ 3:23 pm | Comment

SKC, obviously he’s not.

November 23, 2012 @ 4:08 pm | Comment

Seems like Xi has absorbed the twin lessons of both the GLF and Japanese wartime atrocities.

1) Rebalance Chinese economic policy
2) Lever that strength into making sure no enemy, near or far, can ever threaten China’s maritime flank

November 23, 2012 @ 4:31 pm | Comment

3) Take a healthy percentage of everything

4) ????????

5) Profit!

November 23, 2012 @ 7:35 pm | Comment


ROFL nice

November 24, 2012 @ 4:42 am | Comment

[…] the famine of 1942 killed approximately 3 million people. But from 1958-1962 approximately 36 million Chinese died, “mostly due to starvation but also government instigated torture and murder of those who […]

December 3, 2012 @ 2:31 am | Pingback

[…] way: the famine of 1942 killed approximately 3 million people. But from 1958-1962 approximately 36 million Chinese died, “mostly due to starvation but also government instigated torture and murder of those who […]

December 3, 2012 @ 6:17 am | Pingback

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