Chronicle Of History’s Greatest Carnage

Tombstone, by Yang Jisheng, is an uncomfortable read but a brave and important account of the huge human cost of Mao's Great Leap Forward

George Walden

“A 41-year-old woman, Pan Suhua, in March 1960, dug up the body of her husband after he had committed suicide, and apart from cooking and eating his flesh, sold 5.875 kilograms of his bones as bear bones at 75 fen per kilogram.”

“In the spring of 1960, a four-member family had been reduced to just the mother and her emaciated daughter. Driven to madness by starvation, the woman killed her daughter and cooked her flesh to eat, after which she became completely deranged and repeatedly cried out her daughter’s name.”

“When [the brigade leaders] went inside they saw something being cooked in a wok, and when they raised the lid they saw it was human flesh. The wok contained an arm that still had a hand attached, from which I could see that it had come from a child.”

There is more. The fullest and most authoritative account ever published of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, the biggest manmade disaster in history, is not an easy read. Frank Dikötter’s book Mao’s Great Famine appeared in 2010 and was rightly awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize. Yang’s conclusions are similar, though his approach is different, and concentration on the documented and on first-hand accounts enhances the impact. It is safe to say that you will never have read a book like it, or one that is more horrific. 

First published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2008 in two volumes, it was reprinted eight times in two years. The author’s personal and professional credentials could not be bettered. He worked for many years as a senior journalist at the official Xinhua News Agency, allowing him to amass archival and first-hand oral material. He also has firsthand experience.

As a young man he saw his own father die of hunger in 1959. It is a measure of the psychological deformation of an entire society that Maoism produced, especially with regard to the family (“a historically produced phenomenon”, in the Chairman’s words, “that will be eliminated”) that Yang, busy promoting the Great Leap in the Communist Youth League at the time of his father’s death, did not blame the system. Only when the Chairman launched into his second murderous folly in the Cultural Revolution seven years later did he begin to understand. 

The Great Leap was a frenzied lurch from socialism into Communism, conceived by the Chairman and spurred by his ambition to overtake Moscow as the leader of international Communism. Communism being the future, success in the Great Leap would place the Middle Kingdom, materially and politically, back at the centre of the world.

Hence the drive to expand and industrialise the towns in a matter of years. The swelling army of workers was to be fed by enforced procurements from peasants stripped of their livestock, tools and garden plots, conscripted into production teams and herded with their families into communal kitchens. The peasants disliked the communes and collectivisation was a colossal failure. With all personal incentives to production gone, as the towns ate more agricultural produce shrank dramatically.

Within a year and a half mass starvation began. Driven to desperation, and, in the worst areas, to cannibalism, some peasants attacked grain storage facilities, trains transporting food to towns, or Communist Party cadres whose numbers had been hugely increased and whose cruelty was at once highly imaginative and beyond imagination. Punishments for “right-deviationists” or “counter-revolutionaries”— often starving peasants — went beyond the usual criticism meetings and vicious beatings. One report spoke of cadres “driving pine needles into the gums, ‘lighting the celestial candle’ (lighted embers forced into the mouth), branding the nipples, tearing out pubic hair, penetration of the genitals and being buried alive”.

Yet as millions died or were driven to devour one another as the state-imposed famine continued, there was no mass revolt. Yang’s explanation is that under Mao a combination of Soviet-style autocracy and Chinese despotism in 20th-century form produced a level of dread that “seeped into the nerves and blood, becoming part of the person’s instinct for survival”.

The atmosphere of terror was not confined to ordinary people. Ideologically-induced blindness and party loyalty ensured that it operated in the higher echelons too. Twenty years later Deng Xiaoping said: “During the Great Leap Forward, was it only Mao Zedong who was so fanatical and none of the rest of us? Neither Comrade Liu Shaoqi nor Comrade Zhou Enlai nor I opposed him.”

The role of Zhou Enlai, to this day lionised in the West, was the most craven. After abjectly repenting for having warned the party against “rash advance” in 1956, the prime minister spent the rest of his career as Mao’s faithful executive tool. In the Great Leap, a few brief murmurs of concern apart, he fell into line. “Once Mao’s most powerful lieutenants debased themselves,” Yang comments, “no one else would dare challenge his views.” It follows that Zhou’s personal responsibility for the calamity is enormous.

Liu Shaoqi, the country’s president during the Great Leap, was initially even more enthusiastic than Zhou, especially about the attack on the family, but unlike the prime minister he later developed qualms. “History will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people, and the cannibalism will also be memorialised,” he told Mao when the Chairman was forced to retreat in 1962.

Particularly unsavoury were the personal spats between Liu’s wife Wang Guangmei and Mao’s consort Jiang Qing: Jiang tried to sabotage the circulation of a speech by Wang implying criticism of her husband, and cried tears of rage after another by Liu himself: “After Stalin died Khrushchev made a secret report, and now you aren’t even dead and someone is making an open report.”

Liu’s punishment was to be hounded to death in the Cultural Revolution. And it was Zhou, his comrade for many decades, who was to sign his condemnation — his death warrant, in effect — as “traitor, inside agent and scab”. I don’t recall Zhou’s association with cannibalism featuring in John Adams’s modish opera Nixon in China, where he emerges as a sagacious and conciliatory figure, the Wise Man from the East.

Yang’s documentation of the facts is remorseless. The more leftist the provincial party boss, he establishes in pages of exhaustive tables, the greater the number of deaths. The western province of Sichuan, so productive it is called “Heaven’s Pantry”, suffered ten million dead from starvation, chiefly because its party chief was an unquestioning ultra, anxious to ingratiate himself with Mao. The starving millions ate rice straw, corn stalks, rats, sparrows, roots, tree bark, algae, egret droppings, insects, and in the last stages of desperation, clay or human flesh (30 cents per half kilogram).

The cynicism and brutal cunning of the Chairman emerge clearly. “Why aren’t we being tough?” he said as the deaths piled up. “It’s just a matter of having a little less pork for a time, or fewer hairpins and a shortage of soap.” At the Lushan conference in 1959, when the disastrous effects of his dogma were already clear, delegates expected a retreat to be called. But Mao had things fixed. As in the Hundred Flowers period of 1956, he allowed the doubters to speak, then turned the meeting into an “anti-rightist” campaign, rather than one aimed at curbing the lunatic excesses of the Left.

The retreat came in 1962, when peasants regained garden plots and most communal kitchens closed. But that too was to prove tactical. The Cultural Revolution was a continuation of the Great Leap by other means, and it was then that Mao exacted revenge on his most courageous opponent at Lushan, defence minister Marshal Peng Dehuai.

Yang estimates the victims of the Great Leap at over 36 million, though he acknowledges that other sources, including an internal post-Mao report by the party itself, have come up with higher figures. As well as his scrupulous calculations about the numbers who died, Yang discusses the losses to the Chinese population as a whole through abortions or failure to conceive. In one district 60 per cent of women ceased menstruating, and 30 per cent suffered uterine collapse.

The scale of the ideologically inspired slaughter — some two-thirds of the population of Britain — is driven home. His figure for the dead, Yang points out, is similar to the number killed in the First World War, and almost as many as in the Second (40-50 million). Why has it taken so long for the enormity of Mao’s carnage, and of his guilt, to emerge? The efficiency of Chinese censorship and repression is one reason. Another is the lack of photographic evidence, of the kind we have seen of Auschwitz. If there are no pictures, the modern mind reasons, can we be sure it ever happened?

Yet evidence of the disaster, if not of its scale, has been there for half a century. The numbers escaping from the mainland to Hong Kong at the risk of their lives shot up in the famine years, and as a diplomat in the early Sixties I remember reading reports of our interrogations of refugees recording the horrors of the Great Leap and the brutality of the cadres. Chinese journalists in Hong Kong were on to the refugees too, and told their stories, but in the West not too much was said. In this sense the hecatomb of the Great Leap is comparable to the Holocaust: anyone who wanted to know knew, but many did not.

Denials by sinologues, Maoist sympathisers or “friends of China”, many on university campuses, helped to suppress the truth. The same people, or their ideological heirs (as a romantic, highly personalised creed, Maoism has taken on the force of myth, making it impervious to the facts, and so extraordinarily tenacious) will find ways to play down this book, as they did Frank Dikötter’s. One is to continue to claim that the deaths were due in the main to natural calamities, a contention that Yang demolishes by detailed reference to the climatological facts of the time. Not even the Chinese Communist Party argues this any more, so not for the first time we have sinologues and leftist Western intellectuals who are more Maoist than the Chinese pope.

A final reason the truth has been long coming is racism. For Western apologists for Mao, China was frequently an abstraction, a plaything of the mind. Many had never been there. Unlike Europeans or Americans, the Chinese were not thought of as flesh and blood individuals, which made the lives of an over-abundant people expendable in the cause of an intellectual experiment. 

Nor were our campus revolutionaries alone. Many a liberal-minded or even right-wing Westerner found and will go on finding excuses for the Great Helmsman’s murder of tens of millions of his people. I recently heard of a banker who continues to shrug off the deaths with the comment that in a country that size they were soon replaced. Will the Great Leap Forward ever feature in history lessons in our schools, along with the ubiquitous Nazi studies? For reasons that are ultimately racial as much as political, I think not.

On the prospects for the future of his country, Yang is warily optimistic. Quoting Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, he warns that where ideas are concerned the crowd is always several generations behind, and that a genuine democracy in China will not come soon. Today all right-thinking folk want China to lunge forward to a full democracy, but Yang is not among them: “An overnight imposition of democracy combined with the radical actions of anarchists could cause a weak regime to lose its ability to control society and allow the emergence of a new dictator — because autocracy is the most effective means of restoring order out of chaos.”

Wise words from a courageous man, who still lives in Beijing. His book is of course banned in China, yet, for all our complaints about it, Chinese censorship is not remotely what it was in the past, and like Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Mao, in time Yang’s work will filter in and permeate the country’s elites, the Communist Party included. The result, it must be hoped, will be to make any leap back to its poisoned past less likely.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"