SOCIAL SCIENCES

Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958–1962

Farrar. Nov. 2012. c.656p. tr. from Chinese by Stacey Mosher & Jian Guo. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780374277932. $35. HIST
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When American journalist Edgar Snow defied state department bans to tour China in 1959, Premier Zhou Enlai assured him that reports of famine deaths were CIA propaganda. After Mao Zedong died in 1976, official Chinese accounts still blamed bad weather and local problems for the famine, but plausible foreign estimates of famine deaths steadily climbed from millions to tens of millions, and foreign scholars put the blame squarely on Mao's totalitarian rule (most tellingly, Frank Dikötter, Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958–1962). Yang, who joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1964 as a reporter for the official Xinhua News Agency, clandestinely interviewed bitter local officials and survivors and collected frank internal government reports. This two-volume, massively detailed, and scathing account was published in Hong Kong in 2008 and soon ran through eight printings (many copies went straight to the mainland). This selective translation, rearranged and annotated for foreign audiences, is still monumental.
VERDICT Yang's stories are gruesome and his explanations moralistic, but readers with a background in Chinese studies will find it essential and riveting.
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