The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962
Publication Date: November 19, 2013
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The much-anticipated definitive account of China’s Great Famine
An estimated thirty-six million Chinese men, women, and children starved to death during China’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early ’60s. One of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, the famine is poorly understood, and in China is still euphemistically referred to as “the three years of natural disaster.”
As a journalist with privileged access to official and unofficial sources, Yang Jisheng spent twenty years piecing together the events that led to mass nationwide starvation, including the death of his own father. Finding no natural causes, Yang attributes responsibility for the deaths to China’s totalitarian system and the refusal of officials at every level to value human life over ideology and self-interest.
Tombstone is a testament to inhumanity and occasional heroism that pits collective memory against the historical amnesia imposed by those in power. Stunning in scale and arresting in its detailed account of the staggering human cost of this tragedy, Tombstone is written both as a memorial to the lives lost—an enduring tombstone in memory of the dead—and in hopeful anticipation of the final demise of the totalitarian system. Ian Johnson, writing in The New York Review of Books, called the Chinese edition of Tombstone “groundbreaking . . . One of the most important books to come out of China in recent years.”
Edward H. Friedman (Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University) is Chancellor s Professor of Spanish and Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University. His primary field of research is early modern Spanish literature, with special emphasis on picaresque narrative, the writings of Cervantes, and the Comedia. He also has worked widely in contemporary narrative and drama. His books include "Cervantes in the Middle: Realism and Reality in the Spanish Novel" (2006), "The Unifying Concept: Approaches to the Structure of Cervantes Comedias, The Antiheroine s Voice: Narrative Discourse and Transformations of the Picaresque, Wit s End: An Adaptation of Lope de Vega s" La dama boba (performed by Vanderbilt University Theatre as part of its 2006-2007 season). He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Scholar Program, and the National Humanities Center. He is editor of the "Bulletin of the Comediantes" and has served as president of the Cervantes Society of America. Nominated by Brigham Young University, he was selected for the Sigma Delta Pi "Orden de Don Quijote" Award in 2005. The recipient of teaching awards at Arizona State University and Indiana University, he was presented the Jeffrey Nordhaus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at Vanderbilt in 2006.
Stacy Mosher learned Chinese in Hong Kong, where she lived for nearly 18 years. She is the co-translator of Yang Jisheng's "Tombstone". A long-time journalist, Mosher currently works as an editor and translator in Brooklyn.
“The best English-language account . . . [Tombstone] combines thorough statistical analysis with detailed archival research and heart-rending oral histories.” —Matthew C. Klein, Bloomberg
“Without a doubt the definitive account—for now and probably for a long time . . . One of the most important books—not just China books—of our time.” —Arthur Waldron, The New Criterion
“A vital testimony of a largely buried era.”—Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, The Independent
“Yang's discreet and well-judged pursuit of his project over more than a decade is a quietly heroic achievement.”—Roger Garside, China Rights Forum
“Tombstone easily supersedes all previous chronicles of the famine, and is one of the best insider accounts of the Party’s inner workings during this period, offering an unrivalled picture of socioeconomic engineering within a rigid ideological framework . . . meticulously researched.” —Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker
“Eye-opening . . . boldly unsparing.”—Jonathan Mirsky, The New York Times Book Review
“Beautifully written and fluidly translated, Tombstone deserves to reach as many readers as possible.”—Samuel Moyn, The Nation
“[An] epic account . . . Tombstone is a landmark in the Chinese people's own efforts to confront their history.”—Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books
“The toll is astounding, and this book is important for many reasons—difficult to stomach, but important all the same.”—Kirkus Review
“Mao’s Great Famine of the late 1950s continues to boggle the mind. No one book or even set of books could encompass the tens of millions of lives needlessly and intentionally destroyed or explain the paranoid megalomania of China’s leaders at the time. As with the Holocaust, every serious new account both renews our witness of the murdered dead and extends our understanding. Zhou Xun here selects, translates, and annotates 121 internal reports from local officials to their bosses. They form a frank, grisly, and specific portrait of hysteria defeating common sense. Zhou’s University of Hong Kong colleague, Frank Dikötter, extricated some of these documents from newly opened (and now again closed) archives in local headquarters across China for his Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958–1962, but Zhou’s book stands on its own. A useful introduction, headnotes to each chapter, a chronology, and explanatory notes frame the documents. VERDICT Accessible and appealing to assiduous readers with knowledge of Mao’s China; especially useful to specialists.”—Charles W. Hayford, Evanston, IL
“A book of great importance.”—Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and co-author of Mao: The Unknown Story
“A truly necessary book.”—Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History
“In 1989 hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese died in the June Fourth massacre in Beijing, and within hours hundreds of millions of people around the world had seen images of it on their television screens. In the late 1950s, also in Communist China, roughly the inverse happened: thirty million or more died while the world, then and now, has hardly noticed. If the cause of the Great Famine had been a natural disaster, this double standard might be more understandable. But the causes, as Yang Jisheng shows in meticulous detail, were political. How can the world not look now?”—Perry Link, Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching, Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages, University of California, Riverside
“Hard-hitting. . . It's a harrowing read, illuminating a historic watershed that's still too little known in the West.” —Publishers' Weekly
“Groundbreaking…The most authoritative account of the Great Famine…One of the most important books to come out of China in recent years.” —Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books
“The most stellar example of retrospective writing on the Mao period from any Chinese pen or computer.” —Perry Link, Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching, Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages, University of California, Riverside
“The first proper history of China's Great Famine.” —Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post
“A monumental work comparable to Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize-winning work The Gulag Archipelago.” —Xu Youyu, Chinese Academy of Social Science