A review of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, by Yang Jisheng

What can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? …Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose falsehood as his principle. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies…. In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
       Nobel Lecture, 1970

It took Mao Zedong's New China about four years to carry out the "Great Leap Famine," the greatest single crime in the history of the world. The term itself, now widely used, derives sardonically from the Great Leap Forward, a campaign begun in 1958 to transform Communist China into a modern industrialized state in less than a decade. Central to this campaign was a massive reordering of China's countryside, especially the forced movement of the hundreds of millions who lived there into so-called People's Communes. Mao's agricultural policies mirrored those of his inspiration and mentor, Joseph Stalin, whose ruthless rural collectivization campaign in the 1930s caused more than 10 million deaths in the Soviet Union. In the People's Republic of China, over the decades, historians and demographers have come to estimate the deaths caused by Mao's collectivization campaign at about 40 million. But there is still spirited debate. Some, bent on preserving Mao's reputation, argue for a lower number, say, 20 million. And just as there are Holocaust deniers and Rape of Nanking deniers, there are also Great Leap Famine deniers who attribute the fuss to anti-China racist sentiments or anti-Communist political machinations. The Communist Party of China has its own position. In 1981, its Central Committee, prodded by new paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, adopted a long resolution. The product of careful deliberation and drafting, its overall judgment was that

Comrade Mao Zedong was a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist…. [H]is contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary. He rendered indelible meritorious service…. He made major contributions to the liberation of the oppressed nations of the world and to the progress of mankind.

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In Deng's own pithy encapsulation, Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong. This remains the official view today. Historians have not yet established precisely how much Mao knew and when he knew it, but he knew more than enough and his smug indifference to widespread suffering is well-documented. His more-than-willing courtiers and collaborators—men like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping—also knew, though their own reputations have survived their complicity. Indeed, these days, some even see them as "good guys" in China's post-1949 history, as if they were anything other than enthusiastic agents of Mao's criminality.

No one has ever been called to account for the deaths of these tens of millions. The portrait of the famine's main architect hangs in honor in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and his face can also be seen on the country's currency. Marking the 110th anniversary of Mao's birth in December 2003, party head Hu Jintao delivered a long and praising speech. Then, as described in an official account, "Hu and other top officials paid tribute at the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square, in central Beijing, where they each bowed three times to a statue of Mao." Recent observations have been more subdued. The government chose December 26, 2012, Mao's birthday, as the official opening date of the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed railway (the world's longest), a low-key commemoration by previous Chinese standards. Meanwhile, the government had also organized anti-Japanese demonstrations in dozens of Chinese cities, notable for the many portraits of Mao Zedong held aloft by the marchers.

We should not assume that the Chinese Communist Party's continuing embrace of Mao as its main mascot is sentimental. It reflects the party's assessment that, on balance, its legitimacy is enhanced by keeping Mao front and center. But this also means that Mao's crimes can never finally rest in peace, for even a claim of only "30% wrong" will always present an irresistible opening—a dare if you will—for honest historians and courageous writers.

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Yang Jisheng, 73, has been a member of the Chinese Communist Party for over 40 years and was a long-time writer for Xinhua, China's government-run "news" agency. Not atypically, he lost family members in the calamities of the 1950s and 1960s which, in turn, led him to want to learn more about the catastrophe's origins and causes. As an industrious, well-connected reporter, he traveled widely and conducted interviews; as a tireless historian, he searched for archives to comb through. The result of his decades of effort was Tombstone (Mubei, in Chinese), a two-volume, 1200-page tour de force, which appeared in its original Chinese version in 2008, and now appears in an English version for the first time.

Tombstone is, first of all, immensely important for being the work of a Chinese. The story of the Great Leap Famine, though it has never been as well-known in the West as it deserves to be, has been told before in our own language—for example, by Jasper Becker in his pioneering study, Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (1996), and by Frank Dikötter in Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 (2010). Ralph Thaxton's chilling work, Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village (2008), looked intensely at one village, leaving us to our own devices to grasp how the cruelty and pain he describes in that one place were experienced in thousands upon thousands of other places. We know that Chinese translations, or at least summaries, of these books have found their way into the Sinophone world. But the original Chinese version of Yang's book possesses a unique authority in that world, which is the world that really counts. Though Tombstone is officially banned in China, it has already gone through many Chinese printings. Although it is not the first book in Chinese to deal with the famine, it is the first literary masterpiece to do so. Through its artistry, Yang Jisheng has made this decisive episode the property of the entire Chinese-speaking world, definitively and indelibly. In this respect alone, Tombstone is rightly compared to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago (1973). Solzhenitsyn's book had a powerful effect on Western opinions of the Soviet Union but, in the end, it was its effect on opinion inside the Soviet Union that mattered most, and it played a part all its own in the Soviet system's collapse.

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We should thus think of Yang's book as existing in two worlds. Its role outside of China has now been assured by a brilliant English translation, accomplished jointly by Stacy Mosher, a long-time Hong Kong resident and human rights activist, and Guo Jian, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin who was once a professor of Chinese language and literature in Beijing. Edward Friedman, a distinguished China-focused professor of political science, also at Wisconsin, aided in the editing and formatting of the work. Their English version is about half the length of the Chinese original and yet they have re-organized the work in a way that amplifies its power. In the original, the first volume viewed things from the bottom up. It is a vivid account of the brutality and cruelty that result when a demonic social vision is relentlessly imposed by a ruthless totalitarian regime. Western readers, by now so familiar with the genre as to be at risk of "atrocity fatigue syndrome," will still be overwhelmed by the cumulative effect of Yang's presentation. The second part of Yang's account viewed things from the top down. His personal multi-year Long March through archives and documents lays out the deliberations of the Communist hierarchs as they discuss the consequences of their handiwork.

In their condensation and reorganization of Yang's original, Mosher, Guo, and Friedman effectively weave together these two parts of the story. Thus, even as we are immersed in the rapidly deteriorating circumstances of millions of real people, we eavesdrop on conversations of the small number of men who have created the disaster. Their contrived language, both spoken and written—"New China Newspeak," the Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé has named this other-worldly argot—seems absurd, but their surreal lingo is no less murderous for that. We sense that there were some doubters, but they held their tongues except, of course, for their extravagant praise of Mao. One wonders whether any began to regret having enlisted in the enterprise whose commanding heights they now occupied, but which had become a grotesquery of mass murder in which they were now trapped. In the short term, there was no escape except exile, imprisonment, or death. In this respect, of course, they were as one with their powerless peasant countrymen and some shared their fate; like Stalin before him, Mao turned on many of his enablers. In the longer term, many of Mao's other henchmen landed on their feet in the post-Mao dispensation. Some of their sons have fared exceptionally well in it.

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One should hope that Tombstone will finally put an end to any remaining Western fantasies about the mores and modus operandi of the regime that is the People's Republic of China. But there will always be a corps of incorrigibles. And this is not unimportant, for opinion outside of China will certainly influence the evolution of the world's stance toward the country, and Western opinions about China will continue to have great influence inside China. But whatever Tombstonecomes to mean for the West, at the end of the day it is what Mubei means for China that will be decisive.

What, then, will the Chinese people conclude about their own experiences? Mubei is now an important voice in China's ongoing effort to make sense of the country's breathtakingly violent modern history. What is the Communist regime's role in it? What can the people expect of a ruling party that still lionizes Mao Zedong? How can the country escape this legacy? How convincingly can the regime in Beijing claim that it seeks a "Peaceful Rise" for itself in the world while, at the same time, it lauds the history of its violent rule at home?

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Over the past 150 years, the amount of violence in the country has been truly stunning. Though the Communist Party talks a lot about what happened before 1949, it steadfastly refuses to discuss its own blood-soaked history in any way that would suggest it wishes definitively and finally for violence to end. During the 19th century China was, at one time or another, at war with Britain, France, Japan, and Russia singularly and sometimes with all of the "Powers" collectively. These foreign wars, not especially devastating in and of themselves, were the outward manifestation of far greater domestic violence and upheaval that claimed tens of millions of lives and caused incalculable collateral damage. The first two decades of the 20th century were a period of ceaseless internal war and widespread misery. There were then eight years of war between China and Japan-July 1937 until September 1945—an underappreciated theater of World War II, but a ferocious one, comparable only to the German-Soviet front in Europe. Millions died.

When that war ended, the Chinese civil war resumed. Millions fought on both sides, and millions more died, with North China feeling most of the effects. In 1950, the new People's Republic of China sent its forces into Tibet, and met armed resistance that continued into the early 1960s. Turkic peoples in the northwest of the country also offered sporadic resistance against Chinese rule, but they, too, were brutally put down. The new government then plotted the Korean War in 1950, causing the deaths of about a million of its own soldiers during its intervention to save the North Korean regime. The new government next turned against the Chinese people themselves, first in the 1950s and early 1960s as we have seen, and then again in the late 1960s, this time with its Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Overall, the history of this violence is a story of abrupt, dramatic, and unpredicted changes—from a dynasty to a republic, from a republic to a people's republic. We do not, perhaps cannot, appreciate the combined horror of it all.

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Inside China, the Communist Party is engaged in yet another "struggle" to control this story. The party has long had its own official version, buttressed by obedient writers who churned out reams of literature designed to extol the Party's heroic deeds. But such "socialist realist" kitsch is no longer Chinese literature's main stock-in-trade. To one degree or another, writers—and most other creative people for that matter—are now part of an adversary culture. Beijing still punishes "dissident" writers when the rest of the world is not looking; but the regime can no longer call into being the literary adulation it once routinely received. Moreover, the regime has no control at all over the vast literature that is being created in the parts of Greater China that are beyond Beijing's reach and that it cannot blockade. Even a Mainland Chinese writer-in-exile can still reach a huge audience at home, despite the regime's war—more like a rearguard action really—against the internet.

More interesting still is the persistent outlook of hundreds of millions of Chinese who live well outside the rarified world of the urban intelligentsia. One of the important conclusions of Thaxton's extraordinary study is that memories of the Great Leap Famine abide, and that these are embedded in a kind of pre-existing folk culture. In this mental world, there is a connection between past and present and between the living and the dead. In this respect, Becker's metaphor of the hungry ghost is well chosen because, for hundreds of millions of Chinese, evildoers can be haunted not only metaphorically but literally, and there are tens of millions of scores to settle.

The Chinese Communist Party is now scrambling to keep up with all of this. Most recently, it has decided to focus on China's "century of humiliation" at the hands of foreigners and to recount in loving detail, and also to highlight in museums, the atrocities committed in China by foreigners, especially by the Japanese. Thus, in the West, we read much about how the regime is stoking "nationalist" sentiments, but the creative world is not responding. The regime has therefore been reduced to taking what it can get.

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In fact, it probably reached its high-water mark on October 12, 2012, when the Swedish Academy announced that the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature would be awarded to the Chinese writer, Mo Yan, who, said the Academy, "with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary." The announcement set off controversy about Mo's suitability, given that he is a vice president of the China Writers Association (and thus, presumably, a member in good standing of the Communist Party) and an apologist for censorship. Nonetheless, Mo Yan is hardly a cheerleader for the New China the Communist Party has wrought. His penchant is to view things from the perspective of the brutalities and crudities of the elemental, rural, peasant, and village China; he does not try to rally his readers to the support of the party's grand national projects.

Even so, as Kenyon College sociology professor Anna Sun describes it, "Mo Yan's prose is an example of a prevailing disease that has been plaguing writers who came of age in what can be called the era of 'Mao-ti,' a particular language and sensibility of writing promoted by Mao in the beginning of the revolution."

It is unfortunate that the Swedish Academy, in dignifying Mo Yan's "hallucinatory realism," passed up an opportunity to honor Yang Jisheng's masterpiece of realism. Tombstone is in every respect deserving of a Nobel Prize for Literature—though not since 1953, when Winston Churchill won for his history of the Second World War, has non-fiction been honored as "literature." Fortunately, the influence of Yang's great work continues to grow inside China, and we now have a version of it in English that instructs us why.