By Steve Tsang.

From the perspective of the Communist Party that governs China, this book is highly critical of the country’s recent history. Yet it is anything but anti-China. The author, Yang Jisheng, is a long-standing and devoted member of the Party, who clearly loves his country and its people. It was this devotion that led him to research meticulously the history of what is almost certainly the worst famine in human history. The result is powerful and moving, the first truthful and properly documented account by a citizen of the People’s Republic of China of the famine, unspeakable suffering and dehumanising consequences that were the results of Mao Zedong’s policy known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-61). It is the most authoritative available and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand China under the Communist Party or the effects of a modern totalitarian system.

The author saw his father starved to death but believed the official version of history and even joined the Party. He only found out the reality three decades later as he started his research for this book. As a senior Xinhua journalist he had privileged access to provincial archives. He cross-checked his findings against survivors’ stories to devastating effect, as he tells how at least 36 million Chinese citizens were persecuted or starved to death as the famine was sustained for over three years.

Yang’s research confirms that the official account, which blames Mother Nature and the Soviet Union, is make-believe. No unusual natural disaster or abnormal weather conditions occurred that could have caused the famine. He also proves that the withdrawal of Soviet aid during the period could not have had anything more than the most tangential impact on the food supply in China.

Once the few senior leaders who tried to advise Mao to reverse course had been brutally purged, the Party machinery toed the Maoist line. It knowingly and strenuously used its methods of totalitarian control to sustain the greatest mass murder in human history. The death toll was more than six times that of the Holocaust. The starvation of peasants to death while communist cadres feasted was horrific and indefensible. Even worse, in my view, were the dehumanising consequences that this man-made famine engendered.

Cannibalism became a widespread practice. From provincial archives Yang has documented numerous cases in which neighbours, strangers, corpses by the roadside or in shallow graves, and even family members became food – and in some cases meat for sale. Those who survived through cannibalism had to live with what they did; some went insane.

All this happened as the communist government kept millions of tons of grain in storage, and increased food exports. This was because Mao expected to see results which proved that the Great Leap Forward had dramatically increased the production of food and iron, solely on the basis of revolutionary zeal and the leadership of the Party. To meet the unrealistic targets, local cadres made up production figures. When required to deliver the grain, they starved the farmers by collecting all supplies.

If a farmer hoarded a single grain, he effectively signed his own death warrant. For millions it was little more than a choice of how and when to die: withholding food made one subject to persecution that often resulted in death; not doing so would condemn one to almost certain death by starvation. Having to choose between feeding oneself, one’s offspring or one’s parents a minuscule amount of food destroyed the very essence of humanity and morality. It was communist rule that transformed China from one of the most moralistic societies into one with a moral vacuum at its centre, which exists to this day.

How could a man-made famine of such a scale be possible? For all the sins that could be attributed to Mao for refusing to admit that he made a mistake and to reverse this murderous policy, he could not have committed them without the Leninist Party giving him totalitarian control. The likes of Premier Zhou Enlai and Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, who are still widely venerated in China and beyond, knew what was going on but did nothing to stop this tragedy.

The overwhelming majority of the victims died without realising that they were not an unlucky, exceptional few, since the Party controlled the movement of people, food and news. They had no knowledge of famine beyond their own localities. There was no scope for rebellion. Few managed to escape. Leaving a famine zone was forbidden even if one had sufficient energy to walk. Those caught trying were punished savagely. Communisation, which was part of the Great Leap Forward, meant that ownership and use of land were put under the Party’s control. Even cooking for oneself became impossible for the most part, as communal kitchens had replaced family kitchens and family-owned cooking utensils were fed to backyard furnaces to meet iron-production targets.

The title of the book is meant to stand as a memorial for those who perished, including Yang’s father. Yang hopes that it might also be a tombstone for the regime that caused their deaths. The last is little more than wishful thinking. Despite all the dramatic changes that have unfolded in China in the last three decades, the Communist Party remains in power.

Since the Maoist days the Party has changed. It no longer exercises totalitarian control as a matter of routine. It has become ‘consultative Leninist’ rather than Maoist or Stalinist, but it retains a monopoly on ‘the truth’, history and power, and exercises strong discipline wherever its vital interests are at stake. It also spends more on internal security than on national defence. The Communist Party may have taken on some corporatist features in managing the economy but it remains totally dedicated to one mission: sustaining itself in power.

The replacement of a charismatic supreme leader by a collective leadership after Mao’s death in 1976 has put an end to some of the madness that was the hallmark of the Maoist period. But one should not lose sight of the fact that the institutional base that enabled Mao to starve tens of millions to death in peacetime remains in place. The publication of Tombstone is not the start of a truth and reconciliation process, something the Party sees as a foreign idea meant to subvert China. It banned the original, substantially longer Chinese version of the book. Until the Communist Party is willing to confront history and is prepared to face up to the harm it has done during its nearly seven decades of rule, it will be too early to erect a tombstone to mark the end of the system that brought about the worst famine in history.

This book review first appeared in the current issue of the Literary Review.

Steve Tsang is Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. This article was important and very thought provoking, hence an enormous comment and lots of general questions.

    In terms of Army training, school history lessons and moral teaching, both educational and religious- the parts of my growing up that have involved learning “what is worth fighting for”, “the difference between right and wrong”, and “life’s value” respectively- together forming the backbone of my English upbringing- have been steeped in principles based on three influential lessons from history:

    a) Christianity- in a nutshell the story of the senseless and brutal killing of an innocent man who had a message of love and salvation for all and his subsequent resurrection, thereby proving his righteousness (if believed);

    b) Need to avoid and fight against the tragedy of the Nazi holocaust and the following of the charismatic, yet hate-filled authority that enabled merciless torture and mass genocide;

    c) A somewhat Lockean perspective along the lines that every non-criminal person is deserving of respect, dignity and liberty in their human life and that it is the duty of his/her fellow man/woman to support those basic human rights and fight for them if necessary.
    *Importantly, any government opposing such principles may incite and deserve rebellious/revolutionary overthrow, and may need to face bloody war.*

    Many of my countrymen have fought for and many have died for some of the principles engendered in the above. We’ve even got Gurkha regiments possessing no-holds-barred viciousness to help us uphold against enemies! Previously, many died fighting against the latter princple (American independence), but it is more accepted now.

    It sounds like the Party has avoided a doomsday thus far, by changing or moving away from a previous model, but the institutions & machinery remain in place and they are well-oiled. How has the Party earned partial forgiveness for the genocide by way of works, i.e. improving people’s livelihood overall? Why is it enough to be satisfied economically? I do not think it is that Chinese don’t appreciate ‘Lockean natural principles’ to the point of willingness to go to mass and bloody revolution against the CCP, it is just that the CCP have managed to put rice in everybody’s bowls and meat in their vegetable soup, while time has passed since the GLF – Great Leap Forward (Genocide of Lots of Foreigners – i.e. Chinese).

    The economic work is therefore enough to avoid bloody internal revolution for the very short term and this particular matter of the GLF will hardly generate a world war 3 after-the-facts. What combination of internal and external actions would be enough to incite Japan, the US or ASEAN or a combination though? What would have to happen to really incite the Chinese to rise against the Party in a far more intimidating and serious way? Mao said it wouldn’t matter if war with the US cost the lives of half the Chinese people. At the moment, while it seems like the Party can still do whatever it wants, there are hints that this is changing. So the Party surely need to tread extremely carefully now so as to retain legitimacy, and keep peace internally and externally. What are the limits of what the Party can get away with today? And what happens if the Party continue to refuse to accept liability for the GLF and continue to educate in the way described? Should we have an opinion, even enforce it, or should we not meddle with China’s “internal affairs”?

    1. Thank you for your comments, Sam. The Party remains Leninist, albeit in a consultative rather than orthodox form, and it continues to monopolizes ‘the truth’. When a powerful political institution can still do that it does not need to do ‘truth and reconcilation’. But this cannot be sustained forever. China is changing, and the capacity of the consultative Leninist system to side-track the pressure for confronting its history remains untested. People are the same everywhere. The Chinese are not so special that they do not share the basic human instincts and yeanings. But like other people, the Chinese can also be deceived, though not for ever.

  2. Today’s China has protests and riots everywhere. Such tactic of suppression of rebellions are still in use.

    They had no knowledge of famine beyond their own localities. There was no scope for rebellion.

  3. Why is it enough to be satisfied economically?

    Chinese people are socialized to be aware of their own economic gains. They have low incentive to join the politics or participate in it for the frightening machination and power struggle. It seems that in their subjective idea their living is not related to politics and politics is all about plotting and immoral doings. Recently, in some regions, people rebelled against unreasonable compensations for land assembly and the chemical factory that neglect the environment and the people’s lives. But they have shown and have to show their allegiance to the Party and China. It is a sign to their dare-not to challenge the Party authority. If they do, they face instant mental and physical abuse. Many of social activist disappeared after detention. The police will even robbed the body and burn it as to eliminates any traces of what they have done to the dead.

  4. Communism is evil if put into practice. It is a sociological theory instead of what could be taken as principles to rule. unrealistic and catastrophic.
    In USSR, there has been great famine also. In today’s North Korea there ARE still famine. Farmers and peasants who are in a high “constitutional” status are those who suffer. They are forced to sacrificed for the survives of the Industries and urban population. The leaders do it intentionally–kill the peasants in their millions in an exchange for better and faster industrial development.
    When China starved, there was still food and manufacturing goods exported in return for foreign exchange, including HK.

  5. A hard landing is coming. wait and see what will happen in china, touch wood if revolution break out.

    The economic work is therefore enough to avoid bloody internal revolution for the very short term

  6. Real China, see why Hong Kong people refuse to integrate into China.
    Not only in the people in the famine commit cannibalism to sate hunger, they ate their teachers and parents, anybody they found hate-able. This was very common in the Cultural Revolution. The interviewed peasants are smiling! it is hard to say that China is any kind of being “moralistic” after being ruled the communist party. People are playing nostalgia about the Republic of China.

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