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.

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk