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Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962

3.96  ·  Rating Details  ·  323 Ratings  ·  66 Reviews
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
Hardcover, 656 pages
Published October 30th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2008)
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(showing 1-30 of 1,931)
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Petra X
Edit: Nothing to do with the book, but everything to do with the subject, political famine, read this about North Korea and cannibalism. In 2013. Beyond wicked.

What to say about the most terrible book I've ever read? It's a five-star read without doubt but how can I say I enjoyed a book that documents the demise by starvation, by purely political starvation, of 36,000,000 people. It won't surprise you to know that this book is banned in China.

The book wasn't brief. It d
Feb 25, 2014 Hadrian rated it really liked it

"I did erect a tombstone for my father, in my heart, and this book is made up of the words I carved into that tombstone. Even after I leave this life, these heartfelt words will remain behind in libraries throughout the world."

This history book is a tombstone. It stands in memory of the author's father, Yang Xiushen, who died from starvation in 1959. Yang Jisheng offers this book up in memory of his father, but of the millions of others, and against the system which drove them to this end. It is
Feb 03, 2013 sologdin rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Nutshell: a mix of five-star primary reportage & archival work with one-star reckless inferences & commentary.

Text is like Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago insofar as it is an indictment, proceeding from the position of internal critique, written by an author as yet subject to the jurisdiction of the accused state. It is therefore written at the writer’s dire risk, and should be regarded as proof of the author's integrity and boldness.

Unlike Solzhenitsyn, however, this is no "litera
Eric Stone
Dec 17, 2012 Eric Stone rated it really liked it
I give it a four because of the research and the context that the research is put in, which is remarkable, important and devastating. It isn't an easy read, and certainly not an enjoyable one. It is utterly horrifying - 36 million dead (according to the author who seems to have done a more thorough job of backing up that claim than previous books have done with their numbers) from starvation and violence associated with the famine. It is as terrifying a depiction of the horrors perpetrated by id ...more
Jan 03, 2013 Michael rated it liked it
A very difficult book to read but anyone who is an admirer of China should attempt. When you have finished the book you will better understand that the edifice that is the Chinese Communist Party cannot endure. And it is yet another blow to the reputation of Mao Zedong - possibly the largest mass murderer in history. Reading this book was like watching a horror movie - it was appalling that the 'religion' of communism could allow people to ignore the starvation of their own people.
Alex MacMillan
Feb 27, 2015 Alex MacMillan rated it really liked it
"On every page of Tombstone you see detailed case studies of what Hayek warned about: the pretense of knowledge as political leaders thought they could do away with the family and individual initiative, but ended up starving 36 million people to death in the mother of all unintended consequences; the ludicrousness of an economic system which tries to do away with prices to provide information, signals, and incentives, and replaces it with command and control; the dangers of repressing freedom an ...more
Aug 11, 2013 Gwern rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The statistics and anecdotes are fairly horrifying, and the sheer profusion drills in how widespread the famine was. But for me, the most fascinating part of Tombstone was how the vast Chinese government hierarchy rippled policies and misinformation up and down it - how the local cadres tried to bow to the demands they were hearing from higher up, how the higher ups took the falsified statistics and claims often at face value, and how the highest officials in Beijing seem almost childishly helpl ...more
Feb 02, 2013 Jafar rated it liked it
You probably don't want to read this book in its entirety because: 1) it's too depressing; 2) it's way too detailed for a lay reader, and can get repetitive. However, no doubt it's a very well-researched book for those who are interested in the details of this period of the contemporary Chinese history.

The fact that the author freely lives in Beijing shows that China has come a long way from the days described in this book.
Daniel Landsman
Oct 26, 2013 Daniel Landsman rated it it was ok
Didnt finish...too long and too depressing. Interesting though, but it read more like a government report than a good readable history book.

Im sure there are more page-turning accounts of the Great Famine even if they arent as well researched and chock full of data. Yang has incredibly painstakingly researched data, quotes, stats, etc. Not what I needed though.
Nov 01, 2014 Kelley rated it really liked it
Yang's book is a very thorough exhaustive and exhausting history of the Great Chinese Famine that was the direct result of the Great Leap Forward. In wondering how 36 million people died of starvation (with an estimated 76 million total decline in potential population due to a dramatically curtailed birth rate along with the unnatural death rate), this book details policies, politicians' and civilians' actions that all contributed to this disaster. This book is thoroughly researched and document ...more
Mar 08, 2013 Julia rated it liked it
I was expecting a bit more of a narrative structure, so I found this book to be incredibly dense. It is well-researched and leaves few devastating details untold. It is shocking now to think that something like this happened within such recent memory, but is a good lesson on the power of such a regime and how quickly things can get out of control.

The book alternates between chapters of "what happened" (very interesting) and the political climate that made it possible (so confusing, so many name

Description: "I call this book Tombstone. It is a tombstone for my father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death and perhaps for myself for writing this book."

Yang Jishen's book is banned in China. It is a passionate and angry account of one of the 20th century's most shocking man-made disasters. Based on an array of new sources and personal testimonies and written
Apr 09, 2013 Phyllis rated it really liked it
This is a fantastic scholarly read about China's famine from 1958-1962. No, I did not read the entire book but given more time in retirement I will return to this book. This quote says it all "With this book I erect a tombstone anticipating the ultimate demise of the totalitarian system. Through it, later generations will know that there was once a system established at a certain juncture of history in the name of "liberating mankind" that in reality enslaved humanity. This system promoted itsel ...more
Sally Tsang
Flipped through this in a bookstore and found it really hard to put down. Absolutely devastating and horrific... So much suffering, and so recent... Corroborates what my parents told me growing up, but not so much graphic detail. A really traumatising read, but hats off to the author for raising awareness of this horrible episode of Chinese history that has been repressed for too long (and this book is still banned in China as far as I am aware).
Nov 02, 2012 Laura rated it liked it
Recommended to Laura by: Bettie
Book of the Week - BBC Radio 4:
Yang Jishen's book on Mao's Great Famine, during which 36 million Chinese starved to death.
Alexandra Popoff
Sep 22, 2012 Alexandra Popoff rated it it was amazing
This is a great book -- it provides a profound analysis of the Communist system, which generated unprecedented famine under Mao.
D.L. Kung
Nov 19, 2012 D.L. Kung marked it as to-read
Anything translated by Stacy Mosher already has a recommendation as far as I'm concerned. She knows her stuff.
Magnus Karlsson
Apr 25, 2016 Magnus Karlsson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a true story about what happens when corruption and lies run rampart - more people died in the Great famine than civilians died in WW2, yet this isnt a story of evil - but cheer incompetence and what happens when there is no free press and when the authority has such control that people cant even move to tell the truth and those that tell the truth gets beaten, many times to death and their children starve to death because of the lie.

One example of why this happend is Wu Zhipzu, that wa
Christian Layow
Mar 17, 2014 Christian Layow rated it really liked it
This was a startling account of a devastating short stretch in Chinese communist history most Westerners know very little about. It was written by a Chinese journalist who witnessed his own father die of starvation during the famine. He researched for over 10 years to write this book and thoroughly notated it with his sources, in order to make sure it could stand up to Chinese government claims that his work was falsified. As is usual, the book is banned in China. What is so tragic, is that it ...more
Mar 04, 2013 Christina rated it liked it
Did you know that 36 MILLION people starved to death as a result of political policies in China from 1958-1962? After reading several novels by Lisa See about Chinese families, I wanted to learn more about this famine and China, so I found this book. It is comprehensive, written by a Chinese journalist who spent 20 years researching and piecing together a mostly accurate account (many statistics from the time were reported incorrectly due to the political climate, and the famine is still covered ...more
Cher Pong
Jan 23, 2016 Cher Pong rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It is astounding that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, whereas an estimated 36 million Chinese died during the failed Great Leap Forward. Yet, there are few accounts of the tragic story of China's Great Famine of the 20th century. It is a fascinating piece of work, backed with extensive research, about the circumstances that led to it - including how officials across China were driven to exaggerate crop yields - and the consequences of the famine, e.g. cannibalism. Overall, the book was per ...more
Lupeng Jin
Jan 07, 2015 Lupeng Jin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One who has already finished this book might not be qualified to understand China, but it is certain that he/she has grasped the core part of Chinese history in a statistical aspect rather than a fictional style. The history cannot be fabricated arbitrarily in a long run. Even though some party dresses it up and hind it out from focus of the public, the fact will definitely reveal itself with time passing.
Jan 27, 2015 Rebecca rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-china
Probably the most comprehensive account of Mao's famine available to Westerners; it is, however, often very dry and at times feels a little repetitive. That said, the full scale of Mao's famine is incomprehensible (or at the very least *should* be); take every other famine you know of, combine them, and they still don't hold a candle to Mao's famine.
Aug 03, 2014 Jfavs rated it it was amazing
The cult of Mao Zedong is fascinating and beyond scary. This book details his amazing ability to acquire power, part of which hinged on his willingness to let his countrymen die. The Chinese famine was an outgrowth of his mania; people died of starvation -and devolved into cannibalism- outside of grain silos brimming with wheat and other grains.
Dec 16, 2013 Philip rated it really liked it
This is a remarkable book.

About 35 million people died during this famine, which was sparked by China's catastrophic "Great Leap Forward." The famine could have been avoided completely, and was a result of a series of government actions. The author worked as a journalist at Xinhua, an official news agency, for many years. Consequently, he gained access to many government archives that were not open to outsiders, and was also able to interview many people about these event. The result in an incre
Feb 20, 2014 Jennifer rated it really liked it
The editing of this book is terrible, terrible, terrible. But I got through it because the story was fascinating. How does China cover up the starvation deaths of 30-60 million citizens? Unbelievable- and terrible what China did in the name of Mao and communism.
Frank Ashe
Feb 19, 2014 Frank Ashe rated it it was amazing
This book is horrible in what it depicts. I had to stop reading it twice because the litany of evil so so overwhelming. But that makes it a "must read" for all sorts of reasons. I'd like to hope we don't see this again, but as it's taking place in Nth Korea now, and in some parts of Africa, we can never rest.
Robert J.
Feb 23, 2013 Robert J. rated it really liked it
This book is an incredibly important work of history, documenting the massive deaths of the great famine during the Great Leap Forward. It's contribution is also its problem, as you feel by the middle of the book that you've seen most of the deaths individually in great detail. It's a hard read both because of the nature of the material but also because you have to slog through a massive amount of detail to get to the kernels of analysis. Also, despite the finger of fate pointing at Mao, I didn' ...more
Jun 07, 2016 Zoie rated it it was amazing
So... if you're in the mood for a 600-page analysis of 5 years of Chinese history, then this book is for you!

Seriously though, this book is SUPER intense, but incredibly interesting. If you read it, we need to talk.

I have a mild obsession with Chinese history, and this book is a superbly-written history of what the Chinese had to endure during the Mao years.
I can't rave enough about this book.

Warnings-- a LOT of gruesome things happened during this time period in Chinese history. Be prepared
Jul 05, 2015 Emma rated it it was amazing
There should be more books like this. Rather than being just academic accounts of what happened at the highest levels of the CCP, the author was close enough to the events to offer more compelling evidence, share more untold stories, and shed light to more dark corners of history in all its gory bloodiness.

What is terrifying is that the government system that Yang described is very much still running the same way as 50 years ago. There is almost nothing to prevent this horrific human error from
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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" i ...more
More about Yang Jisheng...

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“A tombstone is memory made concrete. Human memory is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; the bright spots, but also the darkness. The authorities in a totalitarian system strive to conceal their faults and extol their merits, gloss over their errors and forcibly eradicate all memory of man-made calamity, darkness, and evil.” 1 likes
“China has undergone an enormous transformation. But because the political system remains unchanged, the great changes in the economic and social sphere have resulted in an unequal allocation of the fruits and costs of economic reform. The combined abuses under the exclusive profit orientation of a market economy and the untrammeled power of totalitarianism have created an endless supply of injustice, exacerbating discontent among the lower-class majority.” 0 likes
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