Book Review: Mao's Horrific Leap Forward

In 1959, a youth burst into the commune classroom where a teenaged student, Yang Jisheng, was studying, to tell him his 70-year-old father was starving to death in his Zhejiang Province village. Yang hurried to collect a three-day rice allotment and hurried home.

When he got there, he found his father – his foster father, actually -- a human skeleton, still breathing, to die not long afterwards. Yang noticed something else.

“The elm tree in front of our house had been reduced to a barkless trunk, and even its roots had been dug up and stripped, leaving only a ragged hole in the ground.” The pond on the property had been drained, the neighbors told him, so they could dig for rank mollusks that had never been eaten before. There were no dogs, no chickens. His father’s buffalo had long since been secretly slaughtered.

That is the opening of an authoritative and heartbreaking 608-page record of the four years of China’s Great Leap Forward, in which an estimated 36 million people starved to death. The title of the book is “Tombstone,” Yang wrote in a foreword. He had originally intended to call the book “The Path to Paradise.” But then he decided to in effect erect a tombstone for his dead father because although a tombstone is made of stone or cement, “human memory is the ladder on which a country and a people advance.” He erected the book as a tombstone, he wrote,” so that people will remember and henceforth renounce man-made calamity, darkness and evil.”

Yang didn’t rebel against what happened to the Chinese people until decades later, after he had spent a successful career as a reporter and investigative journalist for Xinhua, the state-owned news service, rising to an executive position that ultimately would allow him to probe into the fissures and crevices of a society that largely has hidden away the madness that resulted from Mao Zedong’s demand for “rash advance,”a Great Leap Forward that deflected irrationality down from the Great Helmsman all the way down to the village level.

The book was published in Chinese in 2008 in Hong Kong. It has never been allowed into China officially. In Wuhan, for instance, according to a report by the Financial Times on the publication of the Chinese edition, the office of the Committee of Comprehensive Management of Social Order put Tombstone on a list of “obscene, pornographic, violent and unhealthy books for children,” to be confiscated on sight.

Nonetheless, it has gone through eight printings in Hong Kong, going back over the border in the hands of the 27 million-odd tourists from the mainland who have flooded into Hong Kong annually and taken it back with them. Now Tombstone is to be published in English by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It is to be released to the public on Nov. 6.

It isn’t the first time the story has been told. Journalist Jasper Becker was first, with his monumental Hungry Ghosts (Henry Holt Publishers, 1996, US$12.05 on Amazon), a meticulously detailed study that required hundreds of interviews and visits to hundreds of villages to record the carnage first-hand. The book has been dismissed by the so-called “50-centers,” bloggers paid to tarnish unfavorable reports about the country, as the word of a prejudiced westerner out to bring down China.

It is impossible to make the same charge against Tombstone. Yang rose through the ranks to become a senior figure at Xinhua, all the time traveling the country to dig into provincial archives and to talk to those who had lived through the horror. Because of his seniority and position, he was able to get access to documents that had been sealed up after the famine was over.

Mao’s complicity in the calamity is hard to deny. During a party prefectural committee meeting at Rooster Mountain on the border between Hubei and Hunan, Mao was told of the starvation deaths of 450,000 to 480,000 people in Xinyang.

“Regarding the problems in Xinyang Prefecture…Chairman Mao Zedong gave us a ‘one-finger opportunity,’” according to an official at the meeting. “He was referring to Mao’s saying that problems arising with the Three Red Banners (the General Line, the Great Leap Forward and the people’s communes) would constitute ‘one finger,’ while the other nine fingers were accomplishments.”

Eventually, according to memos unearthed by Yang, 1.05 million people would starve to death in Xinyang. However, “at the end of September 1960, Henan Party Secretary Wu Zhipu sent out a directive stating, ‘Xinyang Prefecture’s performance was very good in the past, and it achieved many accomplishments in implementing the general and the specific policies of the CCP Central Committee.’

What started as Mao’s demand for rash advance was magnified every step down the hierarchical ladder, with each succeeding boss raising the production quotas given by his superior. Across China, when those directives got to the village level, they required the confiscation of every grain of rice, every kernel of wheat or barley, every possible thing to eat. When the villagers finished the bark from the trees, the roots from the ground, the grass from the hills, the fish from the rivers, they turned on each other. Cannibalism was rife across much of the country.

In the Xinyang case, after having ascertained the deaths of more than a million people, “we continued our enquiries elsewhere in Henan,” an official wrote. “The Central Inspection Commission did not pass it on to the Central Committee because Tan Zhenlin did not agree with it. He was a member of the Central Committee secretariat and Vice Premier in charge of agriculture; if he didn’t agree with the report, there was no way for it to be passed upward.”

Mao, Yang wrote, himself sent people to investigate the situation in Xinyang independently. Whatever they found, Mao wrote a memo saying “in the context of the excellent situation and the policy of emulation, it is necessary to solve the problem of one-third of the regions”….The memo designated the Xinyang Incident as a case of democratic revolution not being thoroughly accomplished.”

There were Xinyangs happening all over China. Tombstone is an invaluable record of it. But while it would be possible to read chapter after chapter after chapter of what happened in each successive locale that Yang visited, what makes the book more valuable is that his position as a high-ranking journalist gave him entrée into the records of successively higher levels of the decision-making process, making it possible to see how officials set policy all the way up to Mao with almost no regard for the millions upon millions of people who were starving to death.

Yang’s seniority as a Xinhua official and party member has kept him unscathed.

Although his book has been banned, he has managed to remain living peacefully in China while authorities do their best to ignore the history of the disaster, and continue to venerate the man whose policies were responsible for the deaths of so many people.

Asia Sentinel has been provided with soft copies of episodes from the last chapter of the book, translated from the Chinese by Stacy Mosher, a longtime Asia-based journalist, and Guo Jian.

Regarding these excerpts, Mosher observed, “They express the main thrust of Yang’s book, which is that not only did China’s political system cause the famine, but the government's reaction to the famine went on to affect the course of China's political and economic development to this day. This chapter also exemplifies Yang's bold critique of the system he still lives in, and which is antagonistic to his views.”

We will present those excerpts over the next three days.


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