Book Review: Tombstone, The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng

I had been hunting for this book for long, and was delighted to have finally laid my hand on it. A highly disturbing book, it describes and analyses the worst man made famine in human history during the period 1958-62 that was inflicted by the rulers of their own country over its own people in China, a complete rarity in the world; but then that is what Communism and Communists are capable of.  Frankly, I never underestimate the capacity of a Communist to be a willing participant in murder!

Author Yang Jisheng, investigated and wrote this book to ‘erect a tombstone for my father, who died of starvation in 1959’. Using his authority as a distinguished journalist working with Xinhua news agency, in the 1990s he began researching the famine, using his reporting trips to access archives, collecting secret party records and interviewing people who had survived the famine. His research revealed that 3.6 crore (36 million) people starved to death in China from 1958 to 1962. Starvation also caused a sharp drop in birth rate leading to an estimated shortfall of 40 million births during those years in China. Seen in context 3.6 crore (36 million) was 450 times more than the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki and greater than the number of people killed in World War 1. Further research showed Yang’s estimate to be an underestimation, for an official fact-finding mission in early 1980s estimated that 4.2 crore (42 million) to 4.3 crore (43 million) people had starved to death in the famine. Objectively speaking the Chinese Communist leadership killed more Chinese that what the brutal Imperial Japanese Army had managed to do. So much for Communists as liberators and nationalists!

Yang’s book remains banned in China for it clearly holds Mao, his colleagues and Communist party responsible for the death of crores in China. The authoritativeness of the documentation that he carried out seems to have further appalled the Communist leadership. The 2 volume masterpiece running into 1200 was first published in Chinese Mandarin in Hong Kong in 2008, and ran into 8 reprints within two years. The English translation that I got my hand on is an abridged version, running into 582 pages excluding appendices.

The book starts with young Yang being informed by his school mate that his father was about to die due to starvation and that he should rush home from his boarding school. He reaches home to see his famished father breathe his last. The house had nothing to eat, the trees around the house reduced to barkless trunk with even its root dug up and eaten leaving only a dry hole. No dogs, chicken, fish even bird droppings were available. Deeply brainwashed as a young Communist, he thought of his father’s death initially as a personal tragedy.  It was only later that he became aware that the tragedy had not only befallen on him and his family but on the whole country. It was the Cultural revolution which made him question the views of the Communist establishment when much to his astonishment, many revolutionaries whom he revered, were now being branded as corrupt and debased. ‘I began to lose faith in authority and officialdom’ he argues.

He blames Communist totalitarianism for the millions of death that happened during the famine. ‘The CCP’s dictatorship of the proletariat made Mao the most powerful emperor that ever ruled China….In 1955, in accordance with Mao’s wishes, economic policy took on a ‘rash advance’ marked by high production targets at high speed that burdened the national economy…The regime considered no cost or coercion too great in making the realization of the Communist ideals the supreme goal of the entire population. The peasants bore the chief burden of realizing these ideals; they shouldered the cost of industrialization, of collectivization, of subsidizing the cities, and of the extravagant habits of the officials at every level. Most of the cost was imposed through the state monopoly for purchasing and marketing. With official priority placed on feeding the burgeoning urban population and importing machinery in exchange for grain exports, grain was all but snatched from the peasants’ mouth…The inadequacy of the grain left after the peasants sold their ‘surplus’ to the government was one of the reasons so many starved to death.’

The collectivization of agriculture deprived the peasants the power to decide what would be planted over how much area and by what means. All agricultural products including food stuff were procured and marketed by the state and all goods of daily life were supplied through a system of state issued ration coupons and could be exchanged only in the locality in which the households were registered (hukou). Further under the hukou systems the peasants could engage only in agricultural labour and could leave their villages only with the permission of production heads of the collectives. In case the collective failed to supply the daily necessities the peasants had no recourse but to starve.

Further, communal kitchens were established which forcibly replaced home kitchens. Home stoves were dismantled and the Communists forced common people to hand over all cooking equipment’s, table chairs food stuffs etc. to the communal kitchens. These communal kitchens initially wasted food believing in Mao’s pronouncements that there was ‘too much food’ (all based on inflated and false figures of production reported from provinces and prefectures), but when no replenishments came after the initial stocks were exhausted, starvation set in amongst common folks. These communal kitchens became bastions of privilege for communist cadres. Yang writes, ‘By controlling the communal kitchens, cadres were able to impose the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ on every individual stomach, as anyone who proved disobedient could be deprived of food.’

The book details the brutal punishments meted out on villagers for extracting food grains from them as well as on those conscientious officials who saw figures of production being fudged or who were truthful in highlighting the plight of peasants. They were tortured, brutally and repeatedly beaten, publicly humiliated and accused of rightwing tendencies. Many paid with their lives and careers.  

The most poignant and disturbing part of the book is the horrific survival choices that people made to survive; many keep one child alive by starving others to death, deserted one’s family fleeing to another province knowing that this would lead the local CCP to kill their family members, protected themselves by informing on one’s neighbor, selling themselves to an official for few morsels of food (for the officials always had plenty to eat).

The most gut wrenching stuff that Yang’s investigation reveals is the extent to which cannibalism was resorted to by people to survive. Not only did people eat dead relatives to survive, they also dug up corpses to eat. In Liuchangying village when the adult members of a family died, their three surviving children stayed alive by eating the corpses over several months. In their interview with Yang, they informed him that the heels and the palms tasted the best! In Panggwang village, an 18-year-old girl drowned her 5-year-old cousin and ate him. Another girl aged 14, was also driven by hunger to eat her brother’s flesh.

While reading the book I could not get over the fact that this was only the part one of the death and destruction that Communists and that destructive ideology of Communism had imposed on China through the Great Leap Forward. The part two of the death and destruction was still to come in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution was unleashed. But then such mass killings are child plays for the Communists, they revel in them. The common factor amongst all Communists be it Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Che, East European leaders, North Korean leaders etc. is the ease with which they have murdered millions. But since their murder apologist followers have complete hegemony over academia and media, sadly their crimes against humanity have never been called out. No Communist has ever faced a Nuremberg kind of trial, or is condemned for believing in this ideology. Surprisingly, (s)he holds it like a badge of honour. Isn’t it surprising that one can still proudly call oneself a Communist though the number of deaths that the followers of that ideology have been responsible for exceeds the abominable fascists by millions? It is for this reason why books like these and ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ should be made compulsory reading for all. This is what Communism looks like/operates when it is put to practice. All the ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains’ and ‘to each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ is as fictitious as the Indian traditionalists fetishizing about the existence of Pushpak Vimana in Treta Yug.

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