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Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine,…

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (original 2008; edition 2013)

by Yang Jisheng (Author), Edward Friedman (Editor), Stacy Mosher (Editor), Jian Guo (Editor), Roderick MacFarquhar (Introduction)

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201592,288 (3.96)6
An account of the famine that killed roughly thirty-six million Chinese during the Great Leap Forward examines how the communist ideologies and collectivization campaigns perpetuated by the country's leaders caused the catastrophe.
Title:Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962
Authors:Yang Jisheng (Author)
Other authors:Edward Friedman (Editor), Stacy Mosher (Editor), Jian Guo (Editor), Roderick MacFarquhar (Introduction)
Info:Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2013), Edition: Reprint, 656 pages
Collections:Your library

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Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng (2008)



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The investigative reporter Yang Jisheng memorializes in his exhaustive book the thirty-six million Chinese peasants who were the agrarian powerhouse for grain, livestock and progeny. They died of starvation during the years 1958 to 1962 as Chairman Mao pushed forward his plan to turn China into a Communist nation as quickly as possible. Mao brooked no criticism and pragmatic party officials learned not to comment on the realities in the countryside. Land and tools were collectivized, communal kitchens were established destroying the family unit’s ability to survive. Rough and rudely idealistic cadre became the local enforcers searching for every bit of grain when once collected would lie in warehouses while local people stripped the bark off trees, gathered weeds and turned to cannibalism, feeding off the bodies lying along the roads or eating the dead in their own households. Manpower was reassigned to dig ditches or smelt steel leaving women and children to till the fields but they became too weak to do anything. Meanwhile party officials sent phony statistics exaggerating their production quotas. Party leaders who dared to tell the truth were punished. All who were in some kind of position of power never starved or went without.
The gruesome calamities were all man made by leaders in a totalitarian system and as the author says were and are prone to “historical amnesia” to the brutality of the deaths of so many to achieve the Party’s ideals. This book is a must read as a reminder of what did happen when a nation switch to “rightist” thinking and control. China as a miracle economic power celebrating forty years of progress must not forget the sacrifice of so many. ( )
  mcdenis | Dec 30, 2018 |
I had no knowledge of these horrific events until I read this book. About 36 million people died in China in a famine due entirely to politics. Pure arrogance made leaders believe that socialism would increase crop yields. Toadyism led cadre members to grossly overestimate agriculture output. When harvests were diverted to the urban centers based on ridiculous grain targets, the farmers were left to starve. The starving masses were prevented from fleeing the countryside to cover up the crimes of the bureaucracy. It is an infuriating and heart-breaking book. The upper echelons of the Communist party were willfully blind or intentionally misinformed. In some cases, the mismanagement is almost comical. When Mao suggests "close planting", some fields were planted with rulers spacing out the crops, overturning centuries of farming wisdom. The end of the book focuses on the totalitarian system that was Communist China during the time of Mao. Yang argues that Mao simply copied the old imperial system with himself in place of the emperor. The book contains wider lessons on the dangers of "yes men", arrogance and stubbornness that can translate into any organization. After reading this, I wanted to see every statue of Mao covered with piles of this book. ( )
  theageofsilt | Apr 11, 2013 |
Edit: Nothing to do with the book, but everything to do with the subject, political famine, read this about North Korea and cannibalism. In 2013. Beyond wicked. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2269094/North-Korean-parents-eat-childre...

What to say about the most terrible book I've ever read? It's a five-star read without doubt but how can I say I enjoyed a book that documents the demise by starvation, by purely political starvation, of 36,000,000 people. It won't surprise you to know that this book is banned in China.

The book wasn't brief. It detailed each political step that led down to the hell where people died where they fell, where there wasn't anyone strong enough to bury them, where a train chuffing through miles of countryside would pass corpse after corpse after corpse. It detailed what the people ate when all their food had been taken from them to meet 'targets', how they ate bark, how they ate vermin, how they ate bugs and how some, a lot, even ate each other. And meanwhile those who could have distributed them food, stole it. Stole it ever on higher up the political chain right up to the obese Mao Zedong and his cohorts' snouts snuffling in their golden troughs.

What is the philosophy of Communism? Didn't Marx say, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." I've never thought that once a communist entity outgrows the stage where each person knows every other (as in a kibbutz) it remains communist, after that it becomes a left-wing dictatorship where the people at the top think they are entitled to live off the fruits those beneath them produce. And this attitude filters down right through the cadres until it reaches the bottom level and they aren't entitled to anything, they must hand over everything they produce. Shades of Animal Farm, a book also banned in China.

It started simply enough. It was the year after the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. A commune was asked what target they would set for their next harvest of grain. The representative replied and the official thinking this was a very high estimate, asked him again what his commune could produce. The representative thinking that what he had said wasn't high enough, named a higher figure. And it all started from that.

One girl, starving, killed her own four-year brother to eat him. She was jailed, but only because the police (well-fed - otherwise they wouldn't enforce the entrapment of villagers in their foodless villages and the arrest and punishment of those caught eating the food they had produced but should have handed over) thought she would get some food in prison if nowhere else.

Mao Zedong had a policy of, say seven fingers good and only three fingers bad, that's still four fingers going forward. Applicable for production maybe, but for an agricultural policy that was killing tens of millions of people?

This spoiler is a long extract from the Boston Globe's review of the book. It says it much better than I do.

"An admirer of Stalin, Mao imposed collectivization and industrialization on backward China, emphasizing high production targets and speed. But unlike Stalin, he mobilized peasants to work in both agriculture and industry, turning the entire country into a vast gulag. Millions of private farms across China were forcibly consolidated into gigantic communes, the state seizing private land and assets without compensation; opponents were beaten and killed. Private property was seen as an impediment to communism; about 40 percent of all housing was destroyed. The regime sanctioned an unprecedented persecution of peasants across China, their lives sacrificed to unworkable goals dictated by the supreme leader.

“The masses are slaves,” a party cadre was quoted as saying, “and they won’t do anything unless beaten, berated, or deprived of food.” Local cadres had unlimited power to rape, ransack homes, deny food, beat and kill those who stole out of hunger or those not blindly obeying. The draconian system generated waste and destruction. Peasants received inflexible commands about plowing depth for seeding and planting density, directives that lead to crop failure.

Mao promoted people’s communes, which allowed for an extraordinary concentration of state power. By putting every aspect of peasant lives under the party’s control the system created conditions for the famine. By the end of 1958, 90 percent of the rural population was forced to take meals in communal canteens; cooking implements were confiscated. When supplies ran out and kitchens closed, peasants were left without the means to survive.

Unrealistically high production targets and procurement quotas were the key elements that generated the famine. Faced with political pressure, the cadres exaggerated crop yields. When the myth of peasants hiding grain was created, army detachments were sent to extort every kernel.

At the Lushan Conference of 1959 Mao was made aware that his economic policies had “descended into chaos,” causing starvation. Instead of changing direction, Mao defeated “the anti-party clique” and purged his prominent critic, China’s defense minister Peng Duhai. After the conference Mao’s policies were intensified, extending the impact of the Great Famine.

Party secretaries never traveled to the countryside where desperation was total and cannibalism rampant. To cover up evidence of the famine local cadres had mass graves stomped flat and crops planted on top. With millions dying, the cadres entertained at lavish feasts and had meals delivered to luxury hotels. Survivors remember: “We were swollen with starvation, while the cadres were swollen with overeating.” Officials responsible for millions of deaths were merely transferred to other bureaucracies — unfairly, as some of them judged, since they merely acted on party orders."

I recently read Messages from an Unknown Chinese Mother about State-sponsored murder of baby girls. If a boy is born, the family got an extra portion of land and an extra ration of food, if a girl is born nada, nothing, and the ancestors would be displeased with a lowly girl too and the mother's status in the community as a woman without a son might be so bad that she would be forced to leave the village. So what do you do, a poor peasant with only one child allowed and no means of getting extra food? You murder it. And what does the State do about this murder? Nothing. It was expected.

China was wrong on agricultural policies and reaped famine as a reward, wrong on one-child families and reaped boys without hope of girlfriends forming violent and drunken gangs, kidnap of young women and worse, who is to pay the pensions of the increasingly aging population of this vast country?

China has an interesting culture, but I find very little admirable about it's political system and wonder what group of people the next Great Leap Forward will end up killing in vast numbers?

This review does turn into a bit of a diatribe, but I felt very strongly about this book. ( )
  Petra.Xs | Apr 2, 2013 |
I just picked up this book a couple days ago. This book impressed me as a very thoughtful, reflective, and analytical look at the totalitarian system in China the late 1950's and early 1960's and how that system resulted in the worst famine in China. This seems pretty well researched. From introduction it looks like some material wasn't able to be included in the English translation, but there is a substantial amount here. I have to say the translation is excellent and reads well.

I just started this so will have to update this review later when I've finished it.
  peter_spangler | Feb 18, 2013 |
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