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Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 Hardcover – October 30, 2012

4.1 out of 5 stars 98 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 is methodical and factual, and it amounts to a devastatingly clear account of Mao and his era. In the me of building Communist utopia overnight, farmworkers were diverted to labor on industry and infrastructure; agricultural work was collectivized and thrown into disorder; high-ranking bureaucrats imposed useless and destructive pseudoscientific farming methods on the countryside. Local officials, vying to demonstrate the greatest commitment to progress, reported fraudulent crop yields, and the government requisitioned its due share of the non-existent bumper crops. Even with such shocking stories driving the narrative, the true horror of Tombstone is that it’s not sensational. It is, rather, a meticulous accumulation of evidence and fact. —Tom Scocca


“The best English-language account . . . [Tombstone] combines thorough statistical analysis with detailed archival research and heart-rending oral histories.” ―Matthew C. Klein, Bloomberg

“Without a doubt the definitive account--for now and probably for a long time . . . One of the most important books--not just China books--of our time.” ―Arthur Waldron, The New Criterion

“A vital testimony of a largely buried era.” ―Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, The Independent

“Yang's discreet and well-judged pursuit of his project over more than a decade is a quietly heroic achievement.” ―Roger Garside, China Rights Forum

Tombstone easily supersedes all previous chronicles of the famine, and is one of the best insider accounts of the Party's inner workings during this period, offering an unrivalled picture of socioeconomic engineering within a rigid ideological framework . . . meticulously researched.” ―Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker

“Eye-opening . . . boldly unsparing.” ―Jonathan Mirsky, The New York Times Book Review

“Beautifully written and fluidly translated, Tombstone deserves to reach as many readers as possible.” ―Samuel Moyn, The Nation

“[An] epic account . . . Tombstone is a landmark in the Chinese people's own efforts to confront their history.” ―Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books

“The toll is astounding, and this book is important for many reasons--difficult to stomach, but important all the same.” ―Kirkus Review

“Mao's Great Famine of the late 1950s continues to boggle the mind. No one book or even set of books could encompass the tens of millions of lives needlessly and intentionally destroyed or explain the paranoid megalomania of China's leaders at the time. As with the Holocaust, every serious new account both renews our witness of the murdered dead and extends our understanding. Zhou Xun here selects, translates, and annotates 121 internal reports from local officials to their bosses. They form a frank, grisly, and specific portrait of hysteria defeating common sense. Zhou's University of Hong Kong colleague, Frank Dikötter, extricated some of these documents from newly opened (and now again closed) archives in local headquarters across China for his Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958–1962, but Zhou's book stands on its own. A useful introduction, headnotes to each chapter, a chronology, and explanatory notes frame the documents. VERDICT Accessible and appealing to assiduous readers with knowledge of Mao's China; especially useful to specialists.” ―Charles W. Hayford, Evanston, IL

“A book of great importance.” ―Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and co-author of Mao: The Unknown Story

“A truly necessary book.” ―Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History

“In 1989 hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese died in the June Fourth massacre in Beijing, and within hours hundreds of millions of people around the world had seen images of it on their television screens. In the late 1950s, also in Communist China, roughly the inverse happened: thirty million or more died while the world, then and now, has hardly noticed. If the cause of the Great Famine had been a natural disaster, this double standard might be more understandable. But the causes, as Yang Jisheng shows in meticulous detail, were political. How can the world not look now?” ―Perry Link, Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching, Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages, University of California, Riverside

“Hard-hitting. . . It's a harrowing read, illuminating a historic watershed that's still too little known in the West.” ―Publishers' Weekly

“Groundbreaking…The most authoritative account of the Great Famine…One of the most important books to come out of China in recent years.” ―Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books

“The most stellar example of retrospective writing on the Mao period from any Chinese pen or computer.” ―Perry Link, Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching, Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages, University of California, Riverside

“The first proper history of China's Great Famine.” ―Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post

“A monumental work comparable to Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize-winning work The Gulag Archipelago.” ―Xu Youyu, Chinese Academy of Social Science


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374277931
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374277932
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.9 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #661,490 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Recently I read a short review of this work in the New York times, and then to my surprise saw this 629 page book on the Chinese Famine of 1958-61 in my local bookstore. I thought, who would buy it? I did graduate study in Chinese History, speak Chinese, and lived in China in 1982. Now I am not in the China field. The topic is interesting to me, so I bought it and read it over the weekend. I was very pleasantly surprised.

It's true that the writer's intention was to document the effects of the Great Leap Forward objectively, but I was also pleased that he was not afraid to draw conclusions and penetrate to the heart of the issue: Every major communist regime, the Soviet Union, the PRC, Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea etc. caused mass starvation in the initial period when their zeal was high and they sought to get an iron grip on the population by controlling the food supply. The problem with these regimes is systemic; the suffering was not the result of "natural disasters" or "isolated abuses." Totalitarian systems have big problems pulling off mid-course corrections. They are not responsive to feedback until they go beyond the brink. In those systems everyone is a slave to their superiors and often they are also tyrants to those below them in the pecking order. The only way to prevent this from happening again is to educate the populace (stop calling them peasants) and gradually transition to openness and democracy.

Other things that the writer brought out that I think people should realize:
- Despite the depiction of the Communist movement as a "peasant movement," the regime caused great suffering among the farmers, killing more people than the Japanese invaders (1937-1945).
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Format: Hardcover
I read the original Chinese version, so this review is not about the translation quality of the book, but rather the content. And what a heavy content it is. This book is probably the most comprehensive body of work on the subject of the Great Chinese Famine to date. For those who has never heard of The Famine (and that makes for most people, since it is closely guarded by the CCP as part of their shameful history), it is a period from 1958-1962 where an estimated 36 million Chinese died of un-natural causes, all during peace time from ONE country. In comparison, the total number of civilian deaths in WWII from ALL combatant nations is estimated to be between 37 to 54 million. If you add in the number of reduced births (when people are starving they tend not to give birth), estimated at 40 million, then the total population reduction exceeds civilian war deaths in WWII.

This book represents nearly two decades of meticulous research by the author, who was a reporter from the New China News Agency, with access to restricted documents and living survivors. He conducted his research under the pretense of "researching farming policies in early years of PRC", and painstakingly pieced together birth/death statistics from multiple provinces heavily impacted by the famine. He also interviewed survivors, who gave live testimonies and names of the deceased and cause of death. The length of investigation, the thoroughness and above all, the author's dedication, is exemplary journalism rarely seen in today's world, let alone in China.

The topic of The Great Famine is rarely talked about in China, and thoroughly hidden in history books as a period of "Great Difficulty".
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a native Chinese and grew up in that sad period in China's history. I have relatives in the countryside who almost perished if it weren't for the money wired by my parents. For various reasons, my family was much better off on the hunger scale but still my father was reduced to about 100 pounds for a man 5'5" tall and my mother's menstrual periods were stopped for many months.

Just like in Orwell's 1984, the horrible history was covered up, distorted and re-written in whatever way to suit the need of regime. As the result, few fully understand their own past, much less the big picture. To understand my own country's history, I had to look in the books available outside China for the answers. I had read Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker and Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikoetter. I had read Man-made Disaster (in Chinese) by DING, Shu and countless personal stories. Then I read Tombstone (in Chinese) by Jisheng YANG and found it the best written, most comprehensive on the subject. I'm very glad it has been translated into English. I haven't read the English version yet. But if the translation does justice to the book, the reader should gain tremendous insight into the cause, the scale and the consequence of the huge man-made disaster.
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Format: Hardcover
Mao was determined to push the Soviets off their perch as leader of the world communist movement. Khrushchev boasted in May 1957 that the Russians would become the world's leading industrial and agricultural power within ten years. Mao sought a similar goal for China, over a much shorter period. Instead, his 'Great Leap Forward' generated the worst famine in history. An estimated 36 million Chinese starved to death during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The number killed exceed those killed by the hated Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 and even approached the overall mortality resulting from WWII.

Author Yang Jisheng's credibility on the topic is excellent - he experienced the death of his father from starvation during this period (but didn't link the event to government failure until three decades later), and spent twenty years interviewing numerous survivors and studying local records while creating over 3,600 folders of information. He is also a Communist Party member, with inside knowledge of the system. The detailed level of his reporting creates unquestionable authority, but becomes hard to digest.

Unfortunately, Yang doesn't speculate on how Mao's massive failures probably have led to China's government today being much more by consensus to avoid repeating these two disasters. The likely rationale for his avoiding this - elsewhere he states that staying away from commenting on current government leaders is essential to avoiding government reaction.

The CCP had issued a March, 1953 resolution promoting the pooling of land for agricultural purposes. By the end of 1954, over 400,000 agricultural cooperatives had been established - often over the resistance of the peasants.
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