TOMBSTONE by Yang Jisheng. A Critical Review


by Yang Jisheng


Have Mao and his party kept their oath or broken it? Have they endured the people’s hardships first and enjoyed their benefits last? Or have they been the callous, self-interested megalomaniacs that Mao is accused of being and concealed their gross failures? If the answer is ‘no’ you can continue publishing unpopular opinions and I can devote more time beer drinking and less to thinking about China–and nothing of importance changes.

But what if the answer is ‘yes’? What if they have told the truth, hidden nothing, and sought unselfishly to improve others’ lives? What if they have kept their oath? Even to acknowledge that possibility would require of us an intellectual and emotional conversion–and not a moment too soon, for a Mao protege may assume world leadership before the New Year.

If we compare the condition of poor people in China today to their lot in 1949, the evidence suggests that Mao and his successors have kept their pledge. Plain old. If we compare the condition of poor people in America today to their lot in 1949, the evidence suggests that our Founders and their successors have lied us into penury. Flat out. We now have more drug addicts, suicides, executions, homeless, poor women, hungry children, and imprisoned people than China, though China’s per capita GDP is below Mexico’s.

If the events described in Tombstone and Mao’s Great Famine were real, they would not only constitute the first invisible major famine in modern history but be so bizarrely out of character with Mao’s well-documented life that we–and the hundreds of people who knew him well–would conclude that he had suffered a psychotic episode for he was, statistically, the most compassionate man in history. I will let Patrick McNally’s review of Tombstone speak for me:


Mao’s Famine

This is a topic which has frequently attracted misuse of statistics so I was prepared for that when I ordered this book. If the author were a US writer then the book would not be worth looking at. This author is Chinese and represents that sector of the current capitalist class which seeks to more broadly disown the revolution. As such, the author has an agenda but is still worth looking at critically.

OK, so what happened and what does this book attempt to do? The general outline is rather clear, despite gaps in the data. The first major gap which we’re faced with is that no system of regular population counts, with a registry of births and deaths, had really existed in pre-revolutionary China. All of the existing reports from the earlier era support something like what John Finley summarized in the Foreword to the 1926 publication of the American Geographical Society by Walter Mallory, China: Land of Famine, “It is a shocking fact that with all of the labor expended and virtues practiced, nearly a fourth of the people of the globe live in a land of famine–not of general famine at any one time nor of continuous famine in any one place, but of famine in one or another province or locality all the time.”

That is not a substitute for real hard statistics, but it gives an idea of what China in peaceful years was like. One can also gain some useful information by looking at the known statistics for the provinces of Czarist Russia that remained in the USSR after 1917, as given in Frank Lorimer, The Population of the Soviet Union:

Year_____Deaths per thousand among the population
















You can find some books which give the number 30.2 for 1913 instead of Lorimer’s 30.9. That has to do with the 11 other provinces of Czarist Russia which broke away from the USSR after 1917. Mortality was actually higher in the main Russian part of the Czarist Empire than in Finland, Poland or the Baltic. For another comparison, some select years of the United States can be placed alongside this:

Year_____Deaths per thousand among the population












These offer some useful guides on what is realistic to think of as likely death rates in China. It is beyond question that any serious guess of mortality rates under the most peaceful conditions in pre-revolutionary China would have to be notably higher than all of the rates listed for Czarist Russia. It also makes sense to assume that mortality rates in China for the first decade after the revolution of 1949 would have been notably higher than the death rates listed above for the United States. Unfortunately, the very flawed statistics published by the Statistical Yearbook of China 1986 are obviously way off and do not meet these criteria:

Year_____Deaths per thousand among the population
















These are comical underestimates. There is no way that Chinese mortality could have been as low as 20/1000 in 1949 or 10.8/1000 in 1957. At the same time the official Chinese data is instructive on general patterns. What this table asserts is that mortality for China in 1958, 1959 and 1961 (11.98, 14.59. 14.24) was well below anything that had ever existed in pre-revolutionary China. 1960 was a year of famine which these numbers imply caused about 3.36 million deaths over and above the rate of 1949 (25.43 – 20 = 5.43, multiplied by the approximate size of the population). At the same time, if one were to compute from the official data the numbers who died in 1958-61 above the 1957 death rate of 10.8, then the result would be 15.1 million. That says something about the general pattern, but the numbers are obviously all wrong. Judith Banister constructed a different table, in response to official statistics, and Banister’s numbers are a bit more realistic:

Year_____Deaths per thousand among the population
















Banister’s numbers are more realistic, while conforming to the same general pattern as the official statistics. Banister’s assigned numbers for the years 1958, 1959, and 1961 (20.65, 22.06, 23.01) are all visibly lower than all of the death rates recorded for Czarist Russia, and far lower than anything which had ever occurred in pre-revolutionary China. Banister’s numners imply that about 4.35 million deaths occurred in 1960 above the death rate of 1949 (44.6 – 38 = 6.6, multiplied by the approximate size of the population). At the same time they indicate about 25.4 million dying in 1958-61 above the rate of 18.12 which Banister assigns to 1957.

Banister’s numbers may suffer from inaccuracies with inflated birth rates in several years. For 1957-63, Banister assigns fertility rates per thousand of 43.25, 37.76, 28.53, 26.76, 22.43, 41.02, and 49.79. These numbers imply that fertility surpassed mortality by a large margin in all years but 1960-1, and only in 1960 did mortality exceed fertility by a wide margin. That is not very likely. Even such an author as Jasper Becker, who is also part of the same bandwagon in support of capitalist restoration, maintains, “Very few women were able to have children during the famine. A large proportion stopped menstruating because of the lack of protein in their diet. Some students sent down to the countrtside said that they stopped menstruating for as long as five years.” — Hungry Ghosts, p. 210.

Mao’s Famine

The numbers given for fertility by both Banister and the official yearbook do not reflect such tendencies of loss in fertility. That may probably mean that Banister has overestimated the death rate in 1960. But regardless, the general pattern given is clear and makes sense. China experienced a dramatic unprecedented drop in mortality rates during the years following the revolution. Revolutionary leaders became overambitious and attempted a Great Leap Forward, which proved to be a failure in 1958-9. That resulted in some increase in mortality in those years, without actually reaching what had been the normal annual death rates in pre-revolutionary China, or even Czarist Russia. By the year 1960 the main effort of the Great Leap Forward had been called off, but this also proved to be a year of severe weather catastrophe.

Even Roderick MacFarquhar has documented this fact, “Not surprisingly in view of the drought, most of the flooding had been due to the typhoons, more of which had hit the Chinese mainland than in any of the previous 50 years, 11 between June and October; and each typhoon had lasted longer than usual, averaging ten hours, the longest stretching to 20. Moreover, nature had played an additional trick. The typhoon did not strike north-westwards as usual, but northwards. This added to their impact because it meant that there were no high mountains to ward them off, and that less rain reached the rest of the country. In the aftermath of the drought and floods came insect pests and plant diseases.”– The Great Leap Forward 1958-1960, Volume 2 of The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, p. 322.

Against the background of these natural disasters, further compounded by the lack of comprehension within the Party apparatus, which led to even more errors, the mortality rate in China in 1960 rose to a level that was fairly common in many previous famines which used to occur quite regularly in pre-revolutionary China, perhaps approaching 44.6 per thousand for the country as a whole. That brought an end to the age when China was regarded as “the land of famine” and by 1963 China’s mortality rate had fallen as low as 13.81 per thousand and continued to fall thereafter steadily during the years before Deng Xiao-ping began the capitalist counter-revolution. That’s what the real data shows.

Not surprisingly, many proponents of capitalist restoration in China have sought to promote the most wildly inflated estimates of famine deaths in these years in an effort to justify counter-revolution. The more honest books will simply quote plausible numbers for the years 1957-63, but without telling the reader anything about what real mortality patterns in China historically looked like. But there is another even more dishonest approach favored among some proponents of capitalism which actually requires deliberately faking statistics by citing numbers from the official statistics where it is politically convenient, yet citing higher numbers from other sources for other years.

It is analogous to someone finding two census agencies which regularly offer an annual estimate of the black population in the USA, but which use a different criterion so that there is always a disparity of one million in the numbers for each year. Now suppose that someone looked up such numbers from such sources and quoted them for two consecutive years in a way which implied that white racists had murdered one million black people.

That is the type of hoax which Yang Jisheng tries playing in this book. It’s easy to cite specific illustrations of this from the text. On p. 394 he says: “The mortality rate in Sichuan from 1958 to 1962 was 1.517 percent, 4.69 percent, 5.39 percent, 2.942 percent, and 1.482 percent.”

Comparing these numbers with the numbers given by both Judith Banister and the Statistical Yearbook, it’s clear that the number “1.517 percent” which he gives for 1958 is meant to read as a little bit higher than the number “11.98 per thousand” which the Statistical Yearbook gives. Yet this number is significantly lower than the number “18.12 per thousand” which Banister gives for 1957, and the gap is even larger when compared with the “20.65 per thousand” which Banister assigns to 1958 itself.

This isn’t just a fluke. On pp. 408-9 the author lists alleged death rates which clearly come from the Statistical Yearbook and he uses to compute what he declares to be a “normal mortality rate” of 1.047 percent. This is obviously a very steep underestimate of what real mortality rates in China up to 1957 had been like. Banister’s guess of 18.12 per thousand may even be too low, as it assumes a dramatic heretofore unprecedented drop in Chinese mortality over the years 1949-57. If Chinese mortality in 1957 had only been as low as 25 per thousand then that would still represent a dramatic gain over the performances of Czarist Russia and pre-1949 China, while still being larger than each of the mortality rates which Banister assigns to 1958, 1959 and 1961.

Obviously the reason Yang Jisheng uses the number of 1.047 percent as an estimate drawn from the Statistical Yearbook is because when such a steep underestimate of real mortality in China is cited, then followed by more realistic estimates for the later years, it allows one to dramatically raise the numbers of deaths occurring over an alleged “normal mortality rate.” This is a very dishonest cut-and-paste method of generating false statistical results. Because of this all of the more special assertions made in this book which do not already have a general corroboration need to be treated with high skepticism. This book was put together with an agenda, and that shows.

Although this book can not and will not stand with sustained authority over the long haul, it may still be worth examining with a very critical eye. Probably the most notable thing about this book was that the author does confirm that an incredible decline in annual mortality was indeed brought about by the Chinese Revolution. He obviously doesn’t mean to state it that way. But it would be unnecessary for him to assert that mortality in Sichuan was as low in 1958 as 1.517 percent if that were not the case. I can actually believe that death rates in Sichuan in 1958 may have really been higher than the national rate of 20.65 which Banister assigns to the year 1958. But again, even that number is far lower than the normal death rates of Czarist Russia and pre-1949 China.

There is undoubtedly a need for some methodical critique of the whole era which takes everything into account. Although the weather of 1960 definitely did play an important role in raising the death rate for 1960 above those of 1958-9, and although one does need to appreciate the real progress that was accomplished in the first decade after 1949 in order to see how the Chinese government became overambitious, but it was still acknowledged even within the Party that the whole thing had been badly handled. That much is undoubtedly true even when the distortions of capitalist restorationist propaganda are taken into account. But this book is just another distorting piece of propaganda.

Although I don’t find any source to be altogether satisfactory, the 3-volume work by Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, is probably a useful place to start. The second volume is focused on the period of the Great Leap Forward. He does acknowledge the role of natural disaster in the famine.

But more important than that is simply getting some clarity on what the real populations statistics are like. The basic story of the GLF is clear enough. China had made huge progress in the years 1949-57. The leadership became dizzy with success and launched off on a project which fumbled badly in 1958-9. In 1960 there was serious natural disaster and that compounded problems which had already begun in 1958-9.

But the big central issue here is over what were the true population statistics like and do these data actually support claims that tens of millions died who would otherwise have lived if the revolution had not occurred? As I’ve said above, this book (like quite a few others) deliberately uses false statistics which underestimate real mortality rates in 1957, it avoids honestly addressing the issue of what real mortality rates had been like in pre-revolutionary China, and then it combines those underestimations of the 1957 mortality rate with estimates for later years which are deliberately taken from other sources. What one needs is not so much a history of this period but just a more honest accounting of the known population data.

For that, Judith Banister’s China’s Changing Population is the right first stop. That should then be compared with either the Statistical Yearbook of China 1986 or else with the book by Peng Xizhe & Guo Zhigang, The Changing Population of China, which reproduces the data from the above Statistical Yearbook. It then becomes clear that the numbers given in the Statistical Yearbook and reproduced in Xizhe & Zhigang involve a uniform underestimation of Chinese mortality for the two decades or so after 1949. The author Yang has deliberately used these lower numbers, such as the claim that mortality in 1957 was 10.8 per thousand, where it has suited his purpose. But then he uses other numbers that are in line with Banister’s statistical construct when it suits him, even though Banister assigns a mortality rate of 18.12 per thousand to the year 1957.

Great Leap into Famine: A review essay*

CormaC Ó Gráda

Frank dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Ca- tastrophe, 1958–1962 is the longest and most detailed study of the Great leap Forward (GlF) famine to appear in english to date. much of the story will already be familiar to western readers from works by Roderick macFarquhar (1983), Jasper Becker (1996), Ralph thaxton (2008), and others, but dikötter adds a lot that is new and valuable. For the past decade or so chinese scholars have been publishing works based on public records, including party archives, formerly closed to historians. most prominent of these are Yu Xiguang, cao Shuji, and Yang Jisheng. Yang’s Tombstone created a sensation when it ap- peared in hong Kong in 2008, and its english translation is eagerly awaited (see Yang 2008, 2010). dikötter, a prolific writer, has been quickest off the mark among western scholars in accessing these records, and Mao’s Great Fam- ine (henceforth MGF) is informed by an “against the grain” reading of “well over a thousand” documents from cities and provinces spread across china (although excluding anhui and henan, two of the worst-hit provinces). har- rowing images of brutality and suffering based on these documents (rarely, however, quoted directly) give a vivid and graphic character to MGF, although whether the end result fundamentally “transforms” our understanding of the GlF and accompanying famine is moot.

dikötter begins with a broadly chronological narrative of the Great leap Forward and accompanying famine (chapters 1–16). the remainder of the book describes the impact on the economy and the environment (chapters 17–21), and the cost in terms of lives ruined and lost (chapters 22–37). it begins in 1953 with the death of Stalin, which chairman mao Zedong saw as an opportunity for asserting his independence of moscow, and ends in 1962 when mao was confronted by his own Khrushchev in the person of liu

*Review of Frank dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962. new York: walker & co., 2010. xxi + 420 p. $30.00.

Book reviews

PoPulation and develoPment Review 37(1): 191–210 (maRch 2011) 191

192 PdR 37(1) Book Reviews

On Famine and Measuring Famine Deaths

Shaoqi. the tone throughout is one of abhorrence and outrage, and some- times MGF reads more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument. in style and approach it recalls Jung chang and Jon halliday’s controversial Mao: The Unknown Story (2005); indeed, chang leads the ”praise” for MGF on the back cover.

MGF may become the best-known account of the GlF famine for a while. But should it? it is not a comprehensive account of the famine; it is dismissive of academic work on the topic; it is weak on context and unreli- able with data; and it fails to note that many of the horrors it describes were recurrent features of chinese history during the previous century or so. more attention to economic history and geography and to the comparative history of famines would have made for a much more useful book. in what follows i focus on the economic context of the famine, review features of the famine treated by dikötter but worth further study, and conclude by discussing the role in these events of mao and the party elite.

Poor China

Famines are a hallmark of economic backwardness. it bears remembering that china on the eve of the Great leap Forward was one of the poorest places on earth. according to the late angus maddison’s reconstructions, chinese real GdP per head in 1957 was only one-quarter of the global aver- age in the 1950s and one-twelfth of today’s global average. despite having been (by maddison’s estimate) the 12th fastest-growing economy on the globe since 1950, china in 1957 was still ranked 120th out of the 140 economies included. alternatively, only ten of the same 140 economies were poorer in 1970 (and only eight in 1980) than china had been on the eve of the Great leap Forward. the Penn world tables (heston et al. 2009) paint an even gloomier picture of the chinese economy in this period. their cover- age is much narrower for the 1950s, and their earliest data for china refer to 1952. in each year between 1952 and 1957, the Penn world tables estimate china’s GdP per head as the lowest in the world (see table 1). they imply that chinese GdP per head in 1957 was 3.9 percent that of the united States; by maddison’s reckoning the ratio was 5.8 percent. low GdP per head was compounded by very unequal land and income distributions (Brandt and Sands 1992: table 6.3), low life expectancy, and high infant mortality.

china’s extreme poverty was also reflected in its recent famine history. For at least a century before 1949, major famines were probably frequent enough to warrant walter mallory’s depiction of china in 1926 as the “land of famine.” the taiping Rebellion is routinely reported as costing 20 million lives, mostly from famine and disease. neither R. h. tawney’s (1932) report that the famine of 1849 “is said to have destroyed 13,750,000 persons” nor contemporary claims that the Great north china Famine of 1876–79 took a

Book Reviews PdR 37(1)



ranking 1952 1953 1954 Poorest china china china

(468) (483) (490)

2nd ethiopia ethiopia malawi (730) (759) (558)

3rd india india ethiopia (840) (870) (583)

4th Pakistan uganda uganda (921) (905) (867)

5th uganda thailand india (989) (955) (882)

N 60 62 65

Chinese GDP per head in comparative perspective, 1952–57 1955 1956


china (568)

malawi (587)

ethiopia (750)

Ghana (783)

india (876)



china china (504) (552)

malawi malawi (571) (562)

Ghana Ghana (662) (769)

ethiopia ethiopia (759) (777)

india india (882) (883)

69 69

note: the chinese estimates are averages of the two estimates given each year. N is the number of economies included in the database in any year. the numbers in parentheses are 1996 PPP-adjusted uS dollars.

SouRce: heston et al. (2009).

further 9.5 million to 13 million lives should be taken literally, but such esti- mates accurately underline the apocalyptic nature of those famines. Famine mortality probably declined thereafter. Yet Yang (2010) claims that china’s most severe famine before the GlF famine occurred in 1928–30, killing 10 million people. Between 1920 and 1936, he added, “famine due to crop fail- ures took the lives of 18.36 million people.” again, these numbers seem too high. Still, tawney witnessed the devastation that followed in the wake of the famines of the late 1920s, and famine in anhui province in 1929 inspired nobel laureate Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. nor did it end there. Famine in the Yellow River region in 1935 resulted in significant female infanticide in 1935–36, while the henan famine of 1942 produced its own catalogue of atrocities. again and again, what dikötter dubs ”traditional coping mecha- nisms” (p. 179) had failed to prevent famine.

it also bears noting that the impact of the GlF famine was greatest in china’s poorest regions and in those regions where harvest shortfalls were greatest in 1959–61. Proxies for the harvest and regional income alone ex- plain about half the variation in excess mortality during the GlF (Ó Gráda 2008).1 had dikötter focused more on the implications of northern china’s ”dry and dusty countryside [and] an alkaline soil that hardly yielded enough grain for villagers to survive on” (p. 47), he might have produced a more rounded account of the tragedy. this, it hardly bears stressing, is not to deny the role of human agency, however, since the harvest shortfall, if not the poverty, was endogenous to policy (see below).

1a caveat: this result assumes that the proportional shortfalls in official data are reliable.

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china’s extreme backwardness on the eve of the Great leap matters be- cause it greatly increased its vulnerability to disequilibria, man-made or other. had chinese GdP per head been, say, twice as high as it was, the devastation wreaked by the leap would presumably have been much less. nor, on the other hand, does MGF take sufficient account of how conditions improved between 1949 and 1958. if the standard estimate of grain output of 200 mil- lion metric tons in 1958 is taken at face value (p. 132), then there was enough food to provide an average daily intake of about 2,170 kcals (ashton et al. 1984: 622; compare meng et al. 2010). if, however, the output data are con- taminated by leap-style ”winds of exaggeration” and refer to unhusked grain, then the picture is much less rosy and the margin for error by central plan- ners much narrower. nonetheless, the achievements of the pre-leap years prompted a false optimism that much faster growth was feasible—catching up or overtaking Britain “in fifteen years” (pp. 14, 15, 73).

What did the victims die of?

throughout history most famine victims have succumbed to disease, not to literal starvation. weakened immune systems and social disruption allowed diseases present in normal times to play havoc during famines. Pre-1949 china was no exception: economic backwardness made infectious diseases such as cholera, typhus, and malaria endemic and most famine deaths were from such diseases and from dysentery. So what did the victims of the Great leap famine die of? most accounts imply death by starvation rather than by disease; thaxton links most deaths in the village of da Fo in 1960 to ”edema,” and this is corroborated by the most detailed study of the causes of death to date, Yixin chen’s analysis of public health gazetteers from anhui province (thaxton 2008: 209, 253; chen 2010). although chen argues convincingly that the faulty data in the gazetteers underestimate the death toll from dis- eases such as dysentery and malaria, he nevertheless concedes the primary role of edema and literal starvation. dikötter (p. 286) concurs and wonders why disease did not carry off more ”before terminal starvation set in.”

the primacy of starvation as the cause of famine deaths is rather striking and poses a conundrum for demographers studying famine. Before the 1950s only war-induced famines in economies with effective public health regimes, such as the western netherlands in 1944–45 or leningrad in 1941–43, fol- lowed such a pattern. does this imply that the maoist public health campaigns of the early and mid-1950s influenced the causes of deaths during the Great leap famine, if not the death toll itself? could it be that the authorities’ at- tempts to control migration limited, even if unintentionally, the spread of infectious diseases? chen (2010) gives due credit to achievements registered before the leap; by then three major killers—smallpox, plague, and cholera— had been virtually eliminated and large-scale immunization campaigns carried

Book Reviews PdR 37(1) 195

out. Reluctant to allow public health improvements a role, dikötter surmises, albeit without supporting evidence, that the chinese peasantry succumbed to starvation quickly, ”reducing the window of opportunity during which germs could prey on a lowered immunity” (p. 286).

The demographic impact

MGF is full of numbers but there are few tables and no graphs. Quantification is not its strong point. So we read that ”between 1 and 3 million people took their lives” by suicide during the GlF (p. 304); that in Xinyang in henan prov- ince “67,000” people were clubbed to death by militias (pp. 117, 294); that in some unspecified location “forty-five women were sold to a mere six villages in less than half a year” (p. 261); that “at least 2.5 million…were beaten or tortured to death” during the leap (p. 298); and that delays to shipping in the main ports during some unspecified period cost “£300,000” (p. 156). an estimate of 0.7 million deaths from starvation and disease in labor-correction camps between 1958 and 1962 is obtained by applying an arbitrary ”rough death rate” of two-fifths to a guess at the camp population at its peak (p. 289). the main basis for the claim that “up to two-fifths of the housing stock turned into rubble” (p. xii) seems to be a report describing conditions in hunan prov- ince from liu Shaoqi to mao on 11 may 1959, after liu had spent a month in the region of his birth (p. 169).2 on page after page of MGF, numbers on topics ranging from rats killed in Shanghai to illegal immigration to hong Kong are produced with no discussion of their reliability or provenance: all that seems to matter is that they are ”big.”

the cost of famines in lives lost is often controversial, because famines are nearly always blamed on somebody, and excess mortality is reckoned to be a measure of guilt. it is hardly surprising, then, that MGF’s brief account (pp. 324–334) of the famine’s death toll arrives at a figure far beyond the range between 18 million and 32.5 million proposed hitherto by specialist demographers (e.g., Yao 1999; Peng 1987; ashton et al. 1984; cao 2005). Rather than engage with the competing assumptions behind these numbers, dikötter selects cao Shuji’s estimate of 32.5 million and then adds 50 percent to it on the basis of discrepancies between archival reports and gazetteer data, thereby generating a minimum total of 45 million excess deaths.

much hinges on what ”normal” mortality rates are assumed, since the archives do not distinguish between normal and crisis mortality. the crude death rate in china in the wake of the revolution was probably about 25 per thousand. it is highly unlikely that the communists could have reduced it within less than a decade to the implausibly low 10 per thousand adopted

2elsewhere, however, liu is described as visiting his home region for the first time in four decades in april 1961 (p. 119).

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FIGURE 1 Demographic indicators in Anhui 1954–65

Book Reviews

Birth rates








1954 1957

1960 1962





Death rates










1954 1957

1960 1962







Index of rural and urban population size








1954 1957 1960 1962






here (p. 331). had they done so, they would have ”saved” over 30 million lives in the interim! one can hardly have it both ways.

Famines invariably also result in fewer births (see Banister 1984: Figures 2–6). Sometimes the births are lost, sometimes (as to some extent in china in 1959–61) they are postponed. Surprisingly, perhaps, dikötter has little to say on this aspect, but his attempts at quantification again are hardly convincing. elementary human biology suggests that the drop in the number of births in

Index (1954=100)

Per 1,000 Per 1,000

Book Reviews PdR 37(1) 197

one region of Yunnan province from 106,000 in 1957 to 59,000 in 1958, which dikötter mentions twice (pp. 68, 254), refers mainly to conditions before the leap. and his implied claim (pp. 260–261) that marriage rates rose during the famine would, if verified, represent a first in the global history of famine.3

another feature of the famine’s demography touched on only in pass- ing is its disproportionately rural dimension. data collected from anhui gazetteers by cao Shuji (2005: appendix 3), although probably subject to under-recording, are highly revealing on this aspect. anhui’s proportionate population loss was the highest in china, but whereas the death rate in urban areas rose by 260 percent, in rural areas it rose almost eightfold. note too the very different rates of population change in rural and urban anhui and the dramatic rebound in births in both rural and urban areas in the wake of the famine (see Figure 1).

Finally, as dikötter highlights, not all leap deaths were famine deaths. his anecdotal evidence on the terror campaigns waged by local cadres is com- pelling, although his figures for deaths in the ”gulag” (“at least 3 million”), by suicide (“between 1 and 3 million”), and from torture and beatings (“at least 2.5 million”) are just weakly supported guesses (pp. 291, 298, 304).

Horrors of famine

anthropologist Kirsten hastrup (1993: 730) has argued that when a famine results in cannibalism, it has gone ”far beyond mensurational reach” to a level of ”hardship so extreme that humanity itself seems at stake.” dikötter’s account of cannibalism during the 1959–61 famine (pp. 320–323) helps to underline its apocalyptic character, but famines resulting in cannibalism were much more common in the past than either he or hastrup implies. while never responsible for more than a minuscule fraction of famine deaths, the evidence for famine cannibalism recurs throughout history (Ó Gráda 2009: 63–68), not least in late Qing and Republican china. three stock phrases regarding cannibalism recur in gazetteers’ accounts of the ”incredible” north china famine of 1876–79: people ate each other,” exchanging children and eating them,” and variants of people ate each other to the point that close kin destroyed each other” (edgerton-tarpley 2008: 223). theodore white’s reports from henan in 1942–43 described parents tying children to a tree ”so they would not follow them as they went in search for food”; ”larger” children being sold for less than ten dollars; and a mother who was charged with eating her little girl merely denying that she had killed her.4 Kathryn

3the number of marriages in Yunnan in the 1982 chinese one-per-thousand fertility survey fell from 3,998 in 1958 to 3,393 in 1959, and then rose to 4,219 in 1960 (china Population informa- tion centre 1988: vol. 1, pp. 78–79).

4citations are taken from reports by white from Time magazine, 26 october 1942 and 22 march 1943.

198 PdR 37(1) Book Reviews

edgerton-tarpley (2008: 225) surmises that such accounts were ”primarily metaphorical expressions of the catastrophic destruction of the family unit wrought by the famine”; alas, the evidence presented by white, Becker, Yang Jisheng, and now dikötter argues otherwise.

Three parts nature?

the role of the weather in 1959–61 remains contested. is dikötter right to dismiss it? contemporary chinese sources highlighted ad nauseam the diffi- culties caused by drought and flooding, while denying the existence of famine conditions. western journalists and historians echoed this view. Time maga- zine repeatedly reported adverse weather,5 and an eminent harvard Sinologist declared as late as 1969 that conditions such as those experienced in 1959–61 “would have meant many millions of deaths in the areas most severely af- fected” but for the effectiveness of public policy and the transport network (Perkins 1969: 303). macFarquhar’s pioneering account of the famine also highlighted adverse weather as a factor (macFarquhar 1983: 322).

dikötter acknowledges the challenges posed by the weather but blames harvest shortfalls instead on the environmental destruction caused by the GlF, which magnified damage caused by adverse weather shocks. Perhaps, but here anecdotes are an inadequate substitute for more rigorous meteoro- logical analysis. Research on the impact of the weather hitherto has relied on indirect measures such as the proportion of the grain crop damaged by the weather or reported grain production. using this approach Y. Y. Kueh found that droughts and flooding accounted for the bulk of the shortfalls in 1960 and 1961, although he also insisted that ”even without natural disasters, the agricultural depression was inevitable” (Kueh 1984: 80–81; 1995: 224). Re- searchers have only begun to use some abundantly available direct measures that are not subject to misreporting.6 in the absence of systematic analysis of these data, all one can say is that data from several chinese weather stations show signs of exceptionally adverse weather shocks in 1959–61, though hardly enough to account for the regional variation in harvest shortfalls.7 dikötter’s sense that the weather did not matter much may well be correct, but his failure to nail the issue is a lacuna.

5For example, 6 July 1959; 24 august 1959; 22 august 1960; 6 January 1961; 21 april 1961; 26 may 1961.

6For example, Garnaut (2009); meng et al. (2010).

7chinese weather station data are conveniently summarized at «http://www.famine.unimelb.». weather stations reporting exceptionally adverse weather conditions in this period include chengdu, Sichuan (four wet summers in succession in 1958–61); Baoding, hebei (drought in august 1960); Yiehang, hubei (drought in July–august 1959); Beijing (heavy rainfall in July–august 1959); nanning, Guanxi (heavy rainfall in June 1959, drought in June 1960); lanzhou, Gansu (heavy rainfall in august 1959); Jinan, Shandong (a very dry 1960); Zhengzhou, henan (very dry in July 1959).

Book Reviews PdR 37(1) 199 Human agency

malthus and his followers underestimated the role of human factors in exac- erbating and mitigating famine in the past, even in very backward economies. as John Post pointed out in his classic account of famine in northwestern europe in the 1740s, even very poor economies could escape “famine condi- tions and crisis mortality [by] import[ing] grain supplies, adequate welfare programs, and… effective… public administration” (Post 1984: 17). this mes- sage is also an important implication of amartya Sen’s entitlements approach to famine analysis (Sen 1981). malthusian interpretations of famine in china begin with malthus himself, and most analyses of pre-1949 chinese famines continue to be strictly malthusian. consider the following from thaxton (2008: 26):

in the spring of 1920, a severe drought gripped the lower part of the north china Plain, settling over northern henan, western Shandong, and southern hebei provinces. this long drought extended into the spring of 1921. as a result, several million farmers perished in what came to be called the north china Famine of 1921.

no room for human agency there! dikötter’s stance is the polar opposite. he repeatedly cites variants of liu Shaoqi’s quip (picked up by liu from peasants in his native hunan) that the GlF famine was three parts natural and seven parts man-made (pp. 121, 178, 335), but only to reject liu’s ”three-tenths malthusian” interpretation in favor of one that rests entirely on human agency.

as the examples of ireland and ukraine attest, the temptation to inter- pret famines as genocides is strong. dikötter, perhaps rightly sensing that this approach can distort reality, does not go quite so far as chang and halliday’s claim that mao ”knowingly” allowed millions to starve. indeed, one plausible reading of MGF’s narrative chapters is that it took a long time for the leader- ship in Beijing to grasp the scale of the catastrophe at its height. utopian eu- phoria and a revolutionary impatience to catch up quickly had prompted the Great leap. they also neutered defense minister Peng dehuai’s interventions at the lushan ”think-in” in July 1959. Peng’s protests, in any case, were less about the famine per se than the follies of the leap in its first phase. diköt- ter’s depiction of the follies is excellent and corroborates the more theoretical case previously advanced by economists and economic historians such as Yao (1999), li and Yang (2005), Bernstein (2006), and wheatcroft (2010).

how much did Beijing know when the famine was at its height? despite MGF’s relentless anti-mao stance, it accepts that nobody at the top realized be- forehand how murderous the economic war against the peasantry would be. mao’s private physician, repeatedly invoked by dikötter as a reliable witness (p. 346), ”doubted that [mao] really knew” what was happening (li 1994),

200 PdR 37(1) Book Reviews

and we are told that mao was ”visibly shaken” when presented with graphic reports of famine from Xinyang in henan province in late october 1960 (p. 116). Reliable information was at a premium; even the ”fabled sinologists” in the British embassy had no clue about what was going on (p. 345). Blaming the tragedy on the usual counterrevolutionary suspects, mao nonetheless had ”abusive cadres” removed. the news from Xinyang set in train moves that would mark ”the beginning of the end of mass starvation” (p. 118). in that same month mao, under pressure from critics of the leap, ordered the redeployment of a million workers from industry to agriculture in Gansu province, citing the truism that ”no one can do without grain” (macFarquhar 1983: 323). various concessions to the peasantry followed, and in January 1961 mao told the 9th central committee Plenum that “socialist construction…should take half a century” (Barnouin and changgen 2007: 188). For the millions who died in 1959 and 1960, it was already too late.

china lacked an all-seeing, all-knowing Soviet-style secret police dur- ing the leap. too much reliance was placed on poorly monitored regional agents and thuggish local cadres. why else would it take a visit to his home village in hunan for liu Shaoqi to discover the dimensions of the disaster? what he saw converted him overnight from supporter to ”blistering” critic of the GlF (pp. 119–121). central-planner-in-chief li Fuchun’s reaction to the reports from Xinyang was that misguided policies (which he had championed) had cost lives (pp. 116–117, 122). in a speech in hunan to party planners in mid-1961, he summarized what have become textbook criticisms of central planning: ”too high, too big, too equal, too dispersed, too chaotic, too fast, too inclined to transfer resources” (p. 122). But thanks to a form of ”closed” governance of their own creation, mao and the party leadership seem to have discovered ”destruction on a scale few could have imagined” rather late in the day (p. 123).

none of this absolves mao from responsibility for the policies that caused the greatest famine ever. But reckless miscalculation and culpable ignorance are not quite the same as deliberately or knowingly starving millions (Jin 2009: 152). Few of the countless deaths in 1959–61 were sanctioned or or- dained from the center in the sense that deaths in the Soviet Gulag or the nazi gas chambers were.8

MGF’s reliance on fresh archival sources and interviews and its extensive bibliography of chinese-language items are impressive, but its bite-size chap- ters (thirty-seven in all) and breathless prose style—replete with expressions like ”plummeted,” ”rocketed,” ”beaten to a pulp,” ”beaten black and blue,” ”frenzy,” ”ceaseless,” ”frenzied witch-hunt”—are often more reminiscent of the tabloid press than the standard academic monograph. if Yang Jisheng is destined to be china’s alexander Solzhenitzyn, Frank dikötter now replaces

8on the comparison with Soviet planning in the 1930s see wheatcroft (2010).

Book Reviews PdR 37(1) 201

Jasper Becker as its anne appelbaum. the success of MGF should not deter other historians from writing calmer and more nuanced books that worry more about getting the numbers right and pay due attention to geography and history.


this review essay was written while the comments of anthony Garnaut, John S. ly- author was a research scholar at the center ons, nancy Qian, and Stephen wheatcroft on for health and wellbeing, woodrow wilson an earlier draft are gratefully acknowledged. School, Princeton university. the very useful


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The whole “GLF Famine” meme is of a piece with the “Holocaust” meme. A historically traumatic time of great deprivation is overlaid with a politically charged, diabolical narrative. That narrative, of course is created and overlaid for political goals, like a veneer over chip-board. Its authors know well that the truth is much harder to tease out from the complexities that lie beneath it and so the overlay is made easily accessible and emotionally stimulating, attracting lazy academics and the general public both. Over time, the historical realities drift into the mists and only the narrative remains. Academics argue over it, the public assumes the academics will sort it out, and the underlying realities are forgotten.

The so-called “GLF Famine” shares some but not all the characteristics of the “Holocaust” narrative. Both are indeed “signature” events which occurred during times of geopolitical crises, the former during the height of the Cold War while the latter took place during WWII. I use the term “signature” because Western propagandists exploit them for their political value which is to “demonize” certain entities so as to pre-empt any counter-argument. But they differ in that the “GLF Famine” meme is described in ahistorical terms while the “Holocaust” narrative is presented as part of its Nazi historicity.

Almost all the so-called “GLF Famine” experts rely on speculative conjectures based on statistical data and almost none cite any material evidence while ignoring the historical context of the Cold War. To understand why Mao launched the GLF, the historical context of the Cold War and its political exigencies on China has to be taken into account. Remember that Mao decided to back the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War by supplying food, material and weapons from the years prior to and after the GLF. It is likely that Mao decided to resort to mass mobilization of peasant farmers to build backyard furnaces in order to procure as much pig iron as possible which they did produce in large quantities. Mao also was preparing for a possible Chinese military intervention in the Vietnam War as he did during the Korean War. Finally, Mao wanted to develop nuclear weapons and sought Soviet technology which China had to pay by exporting its food surplus. Thus the need to “collectivize” agriculture which proved unpopular with the Chinese masses, so much so that Mao himself was deposed by Liu in 1960, the year of the Sino-Soviet split.

Given this historical context which is entirely absent from the so-called “GLF Famine” narrative, one wonders why and how this ahistorical narrative germinated decades AFTER the GLF. For if mass starvation occurred in the estimated numbers of 25-50M deaths, then that would have been noticed by the hundreds of thousands of Soviet advisors, East bloc residents, Third World students as well as Western communists and other foreigners living and working in China, given the enormous popularity of Mao’s China at the time. They would have recounted with horror at the sight of 25-50M people dying in the streets of China’s towns and cities, who would have moved there from their rural villages to beg for food. More telling is the absence of any Western intelligence reports describing any famine of any kind during the GLF at the height of the Cold War.

Instead, the so-called “GLF Famine” narrative began to appear after Deng took over and made a deal with the West to adopt market reforms by allowing private enterprises and foreign investors into China. By the time he died, Deng had installed his Shanghai-based clique of pro-Western Fifth-Columnists inside the Party which was opposed by the Beijing-based faction of anti-Western Maoists. Naturally enough, these Chinese Fifth-Columnists began publishing books, articles and research papers on the so-called “GLF Famine” which seeks to discredit Mao’s Communism while praising Deng’s Liberalism. Both their timing and methods used betray the political nature of what appears to be hit pieces which lack incontrovertible evidence needed to support their premise of the “GLF Famine”.

Lastly, Dikkoter’s motive for writing his book “Mao’s Great Famine” is clear from his prior book “The Age of Openness: China before Mao” which praises Republican China for its “openness”. I don’t know what Dikkoter means by “openness” but if he means that China was “open” to opium, then yes China was indeed “open” to opium-addiction. But that’s exactly why Mao is so significant in Chinese history because he led a People’s War for National Liberation to free China and the Chinese from opium-addiction, made possible by gangster-Capitalists in cahoots with Western Oligarchs. That one hundred-year history of opium-addiction which Mao single-handedly destroyed is scarcely mentioned in Dikkoter’s books and yet he describes “Mao’s Great Famine” based purely on speculative conjectures while ignoring the historical facts backed by material evidence of China’s one-hundred-year history of opium-addiction. THAT alone demolishes the credibility of Western propagandists like him.

China’s Great Famine

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