Sunday, January 03, 2016

Yang Jisheng: Tombstone

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Between 1958 and 1962, tens of millions of people died in China because of Mao's Great Leap Forward. Not surprisingly, getting a real history and accounting of that time has been difficult. Yang Jisheng has written a monster of a book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, which documents in both factual/historical and anecdotal detail the depth of the disaster. The book, unfortunately, is too long and detailed (and was cut down from 1200 pages) for me to have finished. That said, it is clearly a much needed story of a manmade non-natural disaster, the scope of which is only beginning to be understood. As Jisheng writes,
The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism. While totalitarianism does not inevitably result in disasters on such a massive scale, it facilitates the development of extremely flawed policies and impedes their correction. Even more important is that in this kind of system, the government monopolizes all production and life-sustaining resources, so that once a calamity occurs, ordinary people have no means of saving themselves.
While it is hard to imagine something on this scale happening again in post-Cold War society, it is not impossible to imagine a totalitarian government creating another such scenario. The lengths that China went to ignore and then cover up the problem makes it even worse. Jisheng's book is admirable, unwieldy and important.