David Frum

11.05.12

Worse Than You Ever Imagined

The current New York Review of Books offers an important survey of the newest literature on the terrible Chinese famine of 1958-1962. They title it starkly, "worse than you ever imagined."

Originally published in 2008, the Chinese version of Tombstone is a legendary book in China. It is hard to find an intellectual in Beijing who has not read it, even though it remains banned and was only published in Hong Kong. Yang’s great success is using the Communist Party’s own records to document, as he puts it, “a tragedy unprecedented in world history for tens of millions of people to starve to death and to resort to cannibalism during a period of normal climate patterns with no wars or epidemics.”

Tombstone is a landmark in the Chinese people’s own efforts to confront their history, despite the fact that the party responsible for the Great Famine is still in power. This fact is often lost on outsiders who wonder why the Chinese haven’t delved into their history as deeply as the Germans or Russians or Cambodians. In this sense, Yang is like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: someone inside the system trying to uncover its darkest secrets.

How extreme was the catastrophe?

Yang conservatively estimates that 36 million people died of unnatural causes, mostly due to starvation but also government-instigated torture and murder of those who opposed the Communist Party’s maniacal economic plans that caused the catastrophe. Its epicenter was Xinyang County, where one in eight people died from the famine. The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later.

Read it, and remember.