Allen Lane, £30 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine, By Yang Jisheng, trans. Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian

This epic work of testimony and investigation lays bare a Communist crime of the century

In 1959, Yang Jisheng watched the uncle who raised him starve to death during Mao's Great Famine. In 2008, he published Tombstone in Chinese in Hong Kong. The tome took him over a decade to research and acts as an exhaustive monument to the tens of millions who died during the worst famine recorded in world history. Yang begins the story by attempting to make sense of his own childhood tragedy.

He was a schoolboy in the late 1950s and editor of his school newspaper, Young Communist. Like the majority of his generation bought up on a diet of propaganda, he was an ardent believer in Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In spring 1959, Yang returned to his home village from school to discover his uncle on his deathbed. Anything edible had long since being consumed: the dogs had been cooked, the elm tree in their yard stripped for bark to boil, the pond dredged for molluscs. Yang came bearing rice, but it was too late.

Some 36 million died during the Great Famine, according to the author. (The Dutch historian Frank Dikötter has gone further, calculating that 45 million died in his book Mao's Great Famine.) Yang points out that the famine occurred during a period of normal climate patterns with no wars or epidemics. Yet its death toll was greater than the First World War.

Famines, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues, are political: no large famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic leadership and free press. The Great Famine was a result of Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward in which he extolled rapid industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation. Yet when the polices went wrong, there was no one to correct them. The Party controlled every outlet of information. For his part, Yang believed for years that his uncle's demise was an isolated tragedy rather than directly caused by the state's actions.

Tombstone is therefore a bold plea for China to take responsibility. So far, it has gone unheeded. The Great Famine is still referred to erroneously as the "three years of natural disasters" in the mainland. Any official acknowledgement of the tragedy is unforthcoming, largely because the Party which oversaw the disaster remains in power today. Tellingly, Tombstone is banned in mainland China and no full account of the famine has ever been published there.

For this reason, Tombstone is a vital testament of a largely buried era. Wisely, Yang's superb translators Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian have cut the book to one volume for the English edition. It is not a Western-style historical narrative. Rather, Yang has provided an exhaustive, unrelenting log of abuses. Key to the book is uncovering the role of violence, which added to the toll.

Officials falsified data to meet procurement quotas. Peasants were forced to hand over grain and rely on communal kitchens. Those who objected, or who tried to hide grain, were tortured or starved to death. Some were hung upside down and beaten; others had bamboo driven into their hands or had their ears cut off. Ideology more often than not trumped common sense. Parts of Tombstone are particularly sobering because of Yang's non-sensationalist presentation of data. Survival techniques are no less shocking. Many of the starving turned to cannibalism, digging up dead bodies to cook.

Why did China's leaders allow such erroneous policies to continue? Mao, and other leaders, knew what was going on but refused to change their course. Yang is, above all, at pains to blame the system of totalitarianism. Democracy, he concludes, is the only solution which will prevent further catastrophes.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried