Meet Yang Jisheng: China's Chronicler of Past Horrors

The author of the award-winning book Tombstone discusses how Chinese authoritarianism caused the greatest famine in human history—and continues to cause social problems today.
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Workers build backyard steel furnaces in Xinyang, Henan Province, China during the Great Leap Forward in 1959. By 1961, the resulting famine had killed an estimated 35 million people. (Wikimedia Commons)

BEIJING—When Yang Jisheng’s study of China’s Great Leap Forward was first published in 2008, it quickly established itself as the most thorough and comprehensive account of a tragedy that many people worldwide had never heard of.

The book tells the story of Mao Zedong's failed industrialization scheme that, by its conclusion in 1961, had caused the greatest famine in world history. Ever since, the Chinese Communist Party has neglected to confront this event, even scrubbing it from school history textbooks. Yang’s own interest in the famine began when realized that his father’s starvation was not the isolated event he’d always believed it was. When he began investigating the truth about China’s great famine, he uncovered a story much bigger than one he could have imagined.

As a reporter for Xinhua, China’s largest state-run news service, Yang was able to access records never intended for public consumption, resulting in a book whose depth of information is coupled with harrowing firsthand accounts of the disaster.

Five years after its publication in Hong Kong, the book, entitled Tombstone, is now thought to be the most authoritative text about the Great Leap Forward ever published. Tombstone has become a best-seller worldwide and, despite being banned in mainland China, has been translated into several languages. For his work in exposing the deadly famine, Yang was recently awarded The Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize for Literature.

Tombstone is more than just a story of how, during a three-year period free from war or natural disaster, at least 36 million people died unnatural deaths. It’s also the story of how the political and social environment helmed by Chairman Mao upended the livelihood of China’s rural population, punished individuals who didn’t echo the party line, and turned a blind eye to the millions who cried out for help.

In the past, such a blunt critique of the government would have ensured that Yang, who lives in Beijing, would face imprisonment or worse. But in fact, the Tombstone author goes about his life without undue trouble. “The book is about things that happened decades ago,” he explains, noting that talking about contemporary politics would be a different story altogether. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that publication of his book within China would be next to impossible.

As a young high school graduate in early 1960’s China, Yang Jisheng, like all young people in China, lacked the means to challenge the Communist Party’s interpretation of history. But after he took a job as a reporter for Xinhua, he realized how far his “news” stories were from the truth. Looking back, Yang is displeased with his writing. “I should have burned those articles. I am ashamed of them.”

But this shame also shaped Yang’s future. “I’d known the words shi shi qiu shi [a Chinese aphorism meaning to “seek truth from facts”] since I was very young, but it took ten years of my life to really understand them. These words have become my guide.”

Yang’s research took him across China, where he encountered many local officials and keepers of provincial archives who risked their careers to give him access to their records. He even interviewed an unprecedented number of officials who had committed crimes themselves, or incriminated others with their lies. “[Today] they admit that they were responsible for creating tragedies,” Yang observed. “But their superiors had more responsibility.”

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“The communist ideology made them believe that stepping into communism was an inevitable movement of history, and that nothing should hinder that process. They thought communism would be as beautiful as heaven, so they took punishing and wiping out whoever stood between them and communism for granted. They felt no guilt.”

The resulting cost in human lives was immense. Yang believes that a great majority of officials have now gained perspective on the past, though a few still hold onto their original faith. “The left-wingers who still believe in Mao like to abuse me,” Yang says with a dry chuckle.

Victims that Yang interviewed were either anxious to talk or very hesitant; 50 years later, the experience for many remains too bitter to discuss. The depth of the famine was horrifying: The lack of food was so severe in places that people consumed everything from tree bark to clay to bird droppings. Most troubling was the cannibalism, a phenomenon Yang details with a mix of sympathy and detachment. Cases where family members murdered and ate each other were common during the worst depths of the famine.

But the political climate at the time was so overbearing that even acknowledging a food shortage was discouraged as “casting doubt” on communist ideals, and those who spoke out could be demoted or even beaten to death. Yang describes how one party official took a train to visit a township and was shocked to see numerous dead bodies lying on the side of the road—and how every passenger was too frightened, or careful, to react to the sight.

***

Throughout the book, Yang recounts incidents where decisions by individual politicians had extraordinary costs to human life. Yet he places the real blame for the famine on the autocratic political system that allowed such a situation to develop; a system where every individual within it is powerless to affect those above, while completely dominant over those below. This power relationship has persisted in China, and Yang believes is a leading cause of the country’s corruption problems today:

“Traditional morality was destroyed during the [1966-1976] Cultural Revolution, so people’s minds are no longer restrained by the old morality. China has been developing very fast economically. It has already become the second biggest economy in the world, but the reformation of the political system is not proceeding like it should. The political system is almost the same as it was in Mao’s time. All the corruption today is corruption of power, and that leads to social problems.”

Reestablishing a sense of common moral purpose in a country of 1.3 billion will not happen overnight, but Yang thinks that China has decisively turned the corner from the country’s ideological past.

“The government,” he says, ”is still emphasizing the Marxism stuff. It is the base of their political power, but it’s impractical. Communism will not rise again in China.”

On the subject of democracy, Yang acknowledges that the system is not without its complications. But for him, its ability to revise and restrict power are crucial. And today, even as the general Chinese population grows in prosperity, and as Xi Jinping’s government has rhetorically vowed to tackle corruption, Yang insists that the Communist system remains fatally flawed. “The problem is not about whether Mao was crazy or not,” Yang begins. “It’s all about the system. The system at that time made Mao almighty, a God. In this system there were no rules for him. The situation is much better today, but the system is still powerless to supervise its own powers. Hence the social problems.”

Will democracy ever come to China? Yang believes that it will eventually, guessing that 30 years may be enough. In the meantime, he hopes that the Communist Party will change itself from within. “A self-conscious and gradual reformation will have far less risk and cost than a fierce coup.”

I asked Yang if that would truly be the end of Communism in China.

“Communism is something like utopia,” he sighs. “It’s never existed, so there is no ‘end.’”

After his years of investigating tragedy in writing Tombstone, as well as a book he is currently writing about the Cultural Revolution, utopia is the farthest thing from Yang’s mind.

Pan Yixing contributed translation to the article.

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William Wang is a writer based in Beijing.

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