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Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  405 Ratings  ·  81 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
Paperback, 656 pages
Published November 19th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2008)
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Petra Eggs
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
Jan 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: chinese
Beware Law Written in the Heart

The quantity of unintended human misery is near enough infinite. But the quantity of misery experienced by the Chinese nation intentionally through its own government's policies is of a higher cardinal order of infinity altogether. The capacity of the Chinese to endure what they have seems only matched by their capacity to forget it. It appears that nothing about China can be exaggerated. Its suffering, its resilience, its insanity, and its resistance to self-analy
Oct 26, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction, china

"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

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
Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, by Yang Jisheng is a chronicle of the Great Famine in China, where an estimated 15+ million Chinese starved to death due to policies implemented in the Great Leap Forward. These policies were designed to drive rapid agricultural production increases, push rural peasants into Communes, and move grain distribution and marketing firmly under government control. These policies began in 1959 and continued to 1961. Other policy choices included the expan ...more
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 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sally Tsang
Aug 24, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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).
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.
Nov 22, 2012 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
Horace Derwent
Jul 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Oh, man, I have to say that this book kicks all hell of asses
Alex MacMillan
Feb 19, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"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
Feb 02, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
Omar Ali
May 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I did not write a review when I read it, but I think the New York Review of Books review takes care of business. A must-read book. Painful, but necessary.
Excerpts from the NYRB review:
The Xinyang Incident is the subject of the first chapter of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958–1962, the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng’s epic account of the worst famine in history. Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mos
Jul 27, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 12, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Hubert Han
As a book, this was truly appalling - there was no narrative, no coherence, and no discernible chronology. Yang attempts to convince the reader through volume of evidence rather than force of argument, with admittedly comprehensive facts and in-depth contemporary accounts. But the latter 450 pages (of 500) offer no new insight - it is repeatedly about a totalitarian polity requiring systemic lies as a requisite for survival, in turn perpetuating unrealistic goals and a corrupt and misleading des ...more
Apr 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Unfortunately, this book exemplifies the Stalinist adage that "a million is a statistic". In attempting to do justice to the many, many victims of the Great Leap Forward, even this version abridged for Western audiences gets bogged down in myriad similar tragedies, with the net effect that it becomes a paradoxically dry account.

Though no doubt a valuable document for historians, this is quite a difficult read for the wrong reasons.
D.L. Kung
Nov 19, 2012 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Anything translated by Stacy Mosher already has a recommendation as far as I'm concerned. She knows her stuff.
Alexandra Popoff
This is a great book -- it provides a profound analysis of the Communist system, which generated unprecedented famine under Mao.
Nov 02, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Earl Grey Tea
Feb 19, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The Big Take Away: Negative feedback is extremely important in any governing or managing system.

I've heard bits and pieces about The Great Chinese Famine from time to time in amateur dabbling in history. This information mainly consisted of local villages claiming vastly unrealistic crop yield per mu (畝/亩 - 614.4 m2) along with an iron and steel production campaign that just led to peasants melting down their ironware into useless pieces of ingot.

After this book, I have a much better understandi
Aug 22, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a brutal book. I would not recommend it if you are at all squeamish. To read about people who are starving to death and trade children so they can eat a child that is not of their family is sickening.
Cannibalism appears to have been the main source of food in the epicenter of the famine. Estimates around 36 million dead not including those that were beaten to death, shot or stabbed because they were too weak to work on the projects demanded by Mao range in the 1.5 million. Madness took
Louis Gok
Nov 24, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Even the Jap invaders didn’t kill so many people. When the Japs came, at least we could run away, but this year there was nowhere for us to go … All we could do was stay home and accept death."---To Chinese people, the communist is more worse than the Japs !
Stephen Coates
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book opens with Yang describing a visit to his father in 1959 and discover him starving to death, in his home village in which no dogs were barking, no chickens anywhere, no children playing. 50 years later, with unprecedented access to archives, he researched and wrote this book on the great famine in 1958-62. The book analyses the various factors over these years to illustrate the weather, traditionally blamed by the Chinese leadership, was essentially the same as the years before and afte ...more
Marie Hew
Feb 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Despite my 4-star overall rating, I give five stars for the author's diligence and bravery for shedding light on such a tragic and largely unknown topic. This book must have been personally cathartic to write for the young man who lost his father to starvation in this famine. It should also be cathartic for a nation who lost tens of millions over the course of 4 years, unfortunately this book isn't available in mainland China.

The greatest takeaway from this impressive book is how human nature ru
Christine Keegan
Mar 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A heavy read of a pretty horrible time in Chinese history. Not for the faint of heart.
Christian Layow
Jul 02, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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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...
“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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