Academic journal article China Perspectives

Erecting a Tombstone for 36 Million Famine Victims

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Erecting a Tombstone for 36 Million Famine Victims

Article excerpt

Erecting a Tombstone for 36 Million Famine Victims Yang Jisheng, Mubei. Zhongguo liushi niandai da jihuang jishi (Tombstone: A Record of the Great Famine in China in the 1960s), Hong Kong, Cosmos Books, 2008, 2 vol., 1096 pp.

Starting in the 1990s, the author of Tombstone, Yang Jisheng, began using his position as a Xinhua reporter to gather information on the Great Famine [of 1959-1961]. The resulting massive compendium of data and inside information provides details on the severity of the famine and its causes in each province, and powerfully refutes official prevarication over the disaster. (Kaifang)

A scholar and senior reporter with the Xinhua News Agency, Yang Jisheng garnered considerable interest in China and overseas when he published his book Tombstone: A Record of the Great Famine in China in the 1960s in Hong Kong in 2008. Although a number of books on the famine have been published in China and the West, Yang's book is notable for the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the information presented, the startling and previously unknown inside information he provides, his detailed and closely reasoned evidence, and the authority and credibility of his conclusions.

I feel this is a monumental work comparable to Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize-winning work The Gulag Archipelago. Although Chinese authors have exposed the truth behind the Chinese gulag to a large extent, if we say that Russia's Gulag symbolised the Stalinist era, the death of tens of millions of people in China's Great Famine must be considered similarly emblematic of the Mao Zedong era. I have previously lamented that the victims and survivors of China's repeated political movements have not benefited from a single-minded devotion to restoring history on the same scale as Solzhenitsyn's obsessively and tenaciously compiled record of evil. Tombstone embodies a conscience, sense of national responsibility, and historical insight similar to Solzhenitsyn's, and in its compilation and analysis of historical records and disclosure of inside information, it actually surpasses The Gulag Archipelago. Of course it can be said that Yang Jisheng's identity and circumstances were more conducive to the project than Solzhenitsyn's, but as a rule, advantages of position and circumstances can actually bring their own baggage and concerns. There have been others like Yang Jisheng who as insiders to the system have placed themselves at great personal risk for the sake of justice - Gu Zhun and Li Shenzhi(l) come to mind - but they have been few and far between.

Part of the motivation behind Tombstone is deeply personal. The author's father, a good and upri^it ordinary peasant, starved to death during the famine in 1959, and half a century later, his father's miserable last days and the unbearable conditions in his home village remain stark before the author's eyes. In his preface, the author says that the book is his means of erecting a tombstone for his father and for the other 36 million victims of the famine.

An authentic panoramic account of the famine

Starting in the 1990s, the author used his position and opportunity to travel around the country as a Xinhua reporter to gain access to relevant documents and interview people who had experienced the famine. With the help of colleagues and friends, he was able to talk with former officials who were familiar with the situation, and also to read hi^ily confidential files and documents. All of this helps make Tombstone a comprehensive and authentic record of the famine.

When China's Great Famine is mentioned, the first place that comes to mind is Henan Province, especially the Xinyang area. Focusing on Xinyang, Tombstone provides detailed records that drill down to the county and village level, as well as examining the situation at the provincial level, in the Central South Bureau, and in the central government. After comparing and analysing the various data and methods, the author concludes that at least 3 million people starved to death in Henan Province, with 1 million dying in the Xinyang area alone, more than one out of every eight inhabitants. …

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