The harrowing account of China’s Great Famine.
When he was a young boy in the countryside, writes Yang Jisheng, a classmate insisted that Chairman Mao “has been enthroned”—that is, following an old pattern in Chinese history, had overthrown the old emperor to become the new one. Mao Zedong wasn’t exactly an emperor—he complained bitterly about being lied to, something the first emperor in China, Shi Huangdi, would have dealt with by mass beheading—but he had the requisite aloofness to stand aside while, by the author’s account, millions of his compatriots starved to death in a four-year famine that was partly the fault of the weather, partly the fault of overpopulation, but mostly the fault of politics. “The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism,” writes the author. In a book that may eventually be thought of as a Chinese analog to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Yang offers a numbing inventory of the myriad dead and the statistics surrounding their demise: “One of the hospital’s so-called doctors was an accountant, and one of the two nursing attendants was an eleven-year-old orphan. The smell of the wards was so horrendous that the nursing attendants couldn’t bear to enter them”; “The figures on grain yield and pig farming quoted in the Anhui Daily report on Mao’s visit were preposterous. . . . Once the lies were reproduced in People’s Daily, cadres all over China felt compelled to spew out similar falsehoods.” And the deaths were not just of the living, writes the author, all 36 million of them, but also of the imagined unborn, another 32 million who would have entered the world had there been no famine.
The toll is astounding, and this book is important for many reasons—difficult to stomach, but important all the same.