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.”
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Yang Jisheng was born in 1940, joined the Communist Party in 1964, and worked for the Xinhua News Agency from January 1968 until his retirement in 2001. He is now a deputy editor at Yanhuang Chunqiu (Chronicles of History), an official journal that regularly skirts censorship with articles on controversial political topics. A leading liberal voice, he published the Chinese version of Tombstone in Hong Kong in May 2008. Eight editions have been issued since then.Yang Jisheng lives in Beijing with his wife and two children.
Stacy Mosher learned Chinese in Hong Kong, where she lived for nearly 18 years. A long-time journalist, Mosher currently works as an editor and translator in Brooklyn.
Guo Jian is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Originally trained in Chinese language and literature, Guo was on the Chinese faculty of Beijing Normal University until he came to the United States to study for his PhD in English in the mid-1980’s.
1 THE EPICENTER OF THE DISASTER
Henan is a rural province north of Shanghai and south of Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party’s “Three Red Banners” waved highest here, and the famine likewise hit hardest. Political movements set off the famine in Henan. Some seventy thousand Henan residents were labeled “rightists” in 1957—nearly 13 percent of those targeted in the Anti-Rightist Movement nationwide, and 15 percent of the province’s cadres.1 In 1958 a new campaign was launched against the “Pan, Yang, Wang rightist anti-party clique” within the party, which will be detailed later in this chapter.2 These two campaigns combined to create dread and fanaticism that led to wild exaggeration and horrendous brutality that in turn brought about a series of catastrophes—among which the “Xinyang Incident” is the most notable.
PART I: THE XINYANG INCIDENT
Xinyang Prefecture lies in the southeast of Henan, bordering the provinces of Hubei and Anhui. In 1958 the prefecture administered eighteen counties, the city of Xinyang, and the town of Zhumadian. It was home to 8.5 million people. Most of the prefecture consisted of mountain ranges that had served as bases for China’s revolutionary forces, and where hundreds of thousands of lives had been sacrificed in the civil war with the Kuomintang. Elderly residents say, “Even the trees and grasses of the Dabie Mountains served the Communist Party.” This lush region was the province’s main producer of grain and cotton and an abundant source of tea leaves, timber, bamboo, tung oil, and medicinal herbs. Scenic Jigong Shan (Rooster Mountain) is located here. In short, Xinyang, along with nearby Nanyang and Luoyang, was the economic engine of the province. Yet from the winter of 1959 to the spring of 1960, at least one million people starved to death here—one out of every eight residents.
Li Jian, an official of the CCP Central Control Commission (the precursor of the Discipline and Inspection Commission) sent to Henan in the wake of the famine, found that the largest number of starvation deaths occurred in Xinyang and two other prefectures: Nanyang and Xuchang. The most horrific situation became known as the “Xinyang Incident.”3
In September 1999, I went to Xinyang, accompanied by a senior reporter from Xinhua’s Henan branch, Gu Yuezhong, and a former Xinhua reporter who had been stationed in Xinyang during the famine, Lu Baoguo. Gu had excellent relations with local officials, but the Xinyang municipal party committee was clearly disconcerted by the purpose of our visit, and arranged a scenic tour of Rooster Mountain. Nonetheless, we managed to interview a number of cadres and villagers who had lived through the famine, and gained access to a number of documents that shed light on the Xinyang Incident.
POLITICAL PRESSURE BREEDS EXAGGERATION
In a political system such as China’s, those below imitate those above, and political struggles at the higher levels are replicated at the lower levels in an expanded and even more ruthless form. This is what happened in Xinyang.
Following the provincial-level campaign against the “Pan, Yang, Wang” clique and the campaign against right deviation, Xinyang’s Guangshan County on November 11, 1959, conducted a criticism, or “struggle,” session against the secretary of the CCP county secretariat, Zhang Fuhong, who was labeled a “right deviationist” and a “degenerate element.” During the struggle session, county party secretary Ma Longshan took the lead by kicking Zhang, after which others set upon him with fists and feet. Other struggle sessions were conducted by county-level cadres on November 13 and 14, during which Zhang was beaten bloody, his hair ripped out in patches, and his uniform torn to shreds, leaving him barely able to walk.
On November 15, Zhang was handed over to commune cadres, by which time he could only lie on the floor while he was kicked and punched and had what remained of his hair torn out. Another struggle session by commune cadres on November 16 left Zhang near death; by the time he was dragged home that day, he had lost control of his bodily functions and could no longer eat or drink. On November 17 he was accused of malingering and attacked again. On November 18 he was accused of pining for the return of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and was dragged from his bed for more struggle. When he asked for water, he was refused. Around noon on November 19, Zhang Fuhong died.4
Xinyang’s deputy party secretary and prefectural commissioner, Zhang Shufan, subsequently related in his memoirs why Zhang Fuhong was targeted. In the spring of 1959, in order to alleviate famine conditions among the peasants, Ma Longshan sent Zhang Fuhong to a production team to launch a pilot project in which output quotas were assigned to each household. Other localities were doing the same, but following the political reversals of the Central Committee’s Lushan Conference,5 household output quotas were labeled right opportunism. Ma denied responsibility, saying Zhang Fuhong had initiated the use of quotas. Although Zhang insisted that Ma had assigned him to carry out the system,6 an official one level higher can crush his subordinate, and that is what happened here.
Campaigns against right deviation in other counties were similarly brutal. In Xi County, party secretary Xu Xilan directed a struggle session against deputy secretary Feng Peiran. Xu sat above Feng with a handgun at his side while someone held Feng by the neck as others beat and kicked him. According to Zhang Shufan’s memoirs, some twelve thousand struggle sessions were held in the prefecture,7 and all kinds of ridiculous statements were made under political pressure.
In 1958, Xinyang’s Suiping County was given nationwide publicity for Great Leap production successes referred to as Sputniks, or “satellites.” These “grand achievements” were attributed to the “struggle against right-deviating conservatism.” In an atmosphere of extreme political pressure, anyone who dared question the accuracy of these reported crop yields risked being labeled a “doubter” or “denier” engaged in “casting aspersions on the excellent situation,” and anyone who exposed the fraudulence of the high-yield model was subjected to struggle.
A drought in 1959 drove down Xinyang’s crop yields, but prefectural party cadres, overcome by fanaticism, proposed the slogan of “Big drought, big harvest” and claimed higher yields than the year before. Commissioner Zhang Shufan, who was directly responsible for agriculture, in early August convened a meeting of leading county cadres to provide “practical and realistic” appraisals of the disaster and to adopt advanced measures such as varied crop plantings to prevent a famine.
Following the Lushan Conference, the prefectural party committee had each county report its projected yields. Under the political pressure of the times, each county’s estimate was exceeded by that of the next, as all feared being criticized for reporting the lowest projection. Yu Dehong, a staff member at the prefectural party committee meeting, later recalled that the first projection totaled 15 billion kilos. Zhang Shufan and others thought this excessively optimistic and asked everyone to submit new figures, which subsequently totaled 7.5 billion kilos and finally 3.6 billion kilos. During a meeting of the prefectural party committee’s standing committee, eight of the nine standing committee members believed that the 1959 crop yield would exceed that of 1958, and that given the 1958 yield of 2.8 billion kilos, a 3.6 billion kilo yield for 1959 was very reasonable. Zhang Shufan, however, expected a yield of only 1.5 to 2.0 billion kilos.
In late August and early September, the Henan provincial party committee convened an enlarged meeting to implement the spirit of the Lushan Conference. Each prefecture was asked to report projected crop yields. Zhang Shufan led off for Xinyang by reporting that his standing committee projected a crop yield of 3.6 billion kilos, but that his more modest personal projection was 1.5 to 2 billion kilos. The provincial party committee was dissatisfied with Zhang’s report and subsequently asked prefectural party secretary Lu Xianwen, “What’s going on in Xinyang?” Under pressure, Lu convened another meeting of county party secretaries requesting new projections. At first no one spoke, but finally someone asked, “Isn’t it what we already reported in our meeting?” Lu Xianwen replied, “Someone took exception to those projections.” By “someone,” Lu was referring to Zhang Shufan. Soon afterward, right-deviating elements were sought out and subjected to struggle, and this county head who had dared to speak the truth was stripped of his official position.8
PROCUREMENT BASED ON ABSURD PROJECTIONS
Exaggerated yield projections meant high state procurement quotas. In Henan, every county was forced to hand over every available kernel of grain. Zhang Shufan recalls:
Following the expanded meeting, I returned to the prefecture to head up the autumn harvest procurement. The provincial party committee based its procurement on the big 1958 harvest, and our prefecture met our quota of 800 million kilos by taking every kernel of grain ration and seed grain from the peasants. Immediately after the harvest, many localities were left with nothing to eat, and people began to leave the prefecture in search of food. Many communal kitchens had no food to serve their members, and the helpless villagers staved their hunger at home as best they could with sweet potatoes and wild herbs.
Higher levels reported a somewhat smaller procurement quota, but agreed that excessive procurement had serious repercussions:
In 1959, Xinyang suffered a drought. The total grain yield of the prefecture was less than 1.63 billion kilos, a decrease of 46.1 percent from 1958, but the prefectural party committee projected a grain yield of more than 3.21 billion kilos. On that basis, the province set Xinyang’s procurement quota at 480 million kilos, which was 21.5 million kilos more than in 1958. The prefectural party committee added 5 percent to the procurement quota for each county, raising the total procurement quota to 502.45 million kilos. After the prefecture met its quota, the food ration left after seed grain and fodder were excluded was only 82.25 kilos of unprocessed grain per person for the year. Based on typical consumption of 17.5 kilos per person per month, that was enough to feed the population for four months. With no supplementary foodstuffs or oil, the 17.5 kilos of unprocessed grain amounted to 12.5 kilos of edible grain, barely enough to prevent starvation. In addition, some 1.8 million people were engaged in irrigation projects in the prefecture, and they alone consumed a large share of the available grain.9
The Henan provincial party committee subsequently found,
Last year the autumn yield of the entire prefecture of Xinyang was estimated at only a little more than 1 billion kilos, but was exaggerated to 3.2 billion kilos, and the province set the prefecture’s procurement quota at 480 million kilos, with additional procurements at the prefecture, county, and commune levels increasing the procurement quota by more than 20 percent. After the prefecture met its mid-October procurement quota of more than 350 million kilos, 3,751 communal kitchens (370,000 people) were left without food. Even under those conditions, the campaign against false underreporting of output and of widespread private withholding of foodstuffs continued in all communes and production teams.10
As this campaign gained force, it exacerbated the famine.
In 1958, Xinyang Prefecture organized about 30 percent of the prefecture’s working population for the great iron and steel production campaign.11 The steel furnaces didn’t actually smelt any iron; rather, the woks and cooking utensils of the peasants, the door knockers from their homes, and the bells from temples were all melted down in order to report success. In addition to the 1.2 million laborers used for this campaign, more than half a million were engaged in ball bearing production, and another 2.0 million in irrigation projects.12 Feeding these laborers left that much less grain for the farm production teams.
THE VIOLENT CAMPAIGN AGAINST FALSE REPORTING OF OUTPUT
Excessively high requisition quotas made procurement difficult. If farmers were unable to hand over the required amount, the government would accuse production teams of concealing grain. A “struggle between the two roads” (of socialism and capitalism) was launched to counteract the alleged withholding of grain. This campaign used political pressure, mental torture, and ruthless violence to extort every last kernel of grain or seed from the peasants. Anyone who uttered the slightest protest was beaten, sometimes fatally.
A meeting at Rooster Mountain pushed the campaign against grain hoarding to a climax. Li Ruiying, the wife of Zhang Shufan, was chair of Xinyang Prefecture’s Federation of Women. In June 1959 the prefectural party committee had her lead a work group to Rooster Mountain Commune to report on a pilot project to produce 5,000 kilos of paddy per mu of land, the brainchild of the county party secretary. Li Ruiying’s team stayed at Rooster Mountain for a month, during which they learned that this model commune was a fraud and that the peasants there were starving. Li wrote to prefectural party secretary Lu Xianwen requesting 105,000 kilos of grain, but Lu refused and labeled Li Ruiying a right deviationist. A cadre sent to Rooster Mountain to replace Li also truthfully reported the hunger of commune members, only to be labeled a “vacillator.”
Li’s replacement, Wang Binglin, tried to appease party secretary Lu Xianwen by organizing an on-the-spot meeting to oppose “false reporting of output and private withholding,” the arcane official formulation for hoarding. All that was produced were rice husks covered by a thin layer of grain. The prefectural party committee ordered local cadres to stifle the public outcry, stop villagers from fleeing in search of food, and halt the closure of communal kitchens. After that, anyone who claimed to have no grain was labeled a “negator of the Three Red Banners,” a “negator of the Great Harvest,” or a “right deviationist,” and was subjected to struggle. If communal kitchens closed due to lack of food, this was labeled “the masses threatening the cadres,” and abandoning starving children along the roadsides was labeled “an assault against the party.”13
Punishments were inflicted on cadres and villagers alike. In Guangshan County, 2,241 people were beaten, 105 fatally, and 526 cadres were stripped of their official positions. The number of deaths from physical abuse rose even higher toward the end of the campaign. In The Xinyang Incident, Qiao Peihua describes the situation in one village:
At the end of September 1959, Wang Pinggui, a member of the Wangxiaowan production team, was forced to hand over grain kept in his home, and was beaten with a shoulder pole, dying of his injuries five days later. Not long after Wang’s death, the rest of his four-member household died of starvation.
In October 1959, Luo Mingzhu of the Luowan production team, upon failing to hand over any grain, was bound and suspended in mid-air and beaten, then doused with ice-cold water. He died the next day.
On October 13, 1959, Wang Taishu of the Chenwan production team, upon failing to hand over any grain, was bound and beaten with shoulder poles and rods, dying four days later. His fourteen-year-old daughter, Wang Pingrong, subsequently died of starvation.
On October 15, 1959, Zhang Zhirong of the Xiongwan production team, upon failing to hand over any grain, was b...
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