Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 is intended as a monument to members of his family, and to the 30 million others, who died in Mao’s famine.

The famine left horrors in its wake: “Some villages transported corpses by the truckload for burial in common graves. In villages where survivors lacked the strength for proper interment, the limbs of the dead protruded from the ground. In some places, the dead remained along the roadsides where they had dropped in their futile search for food. More than a few were simply left in their homes, where rats gnawed at their noses and eyes” (13).

Not just rats: “Cannibalism was no longer exceptional . . . during the Great Famine, some families resorted to eating their own children . . . . Reliable evidence indicates that there were thousands of cases of cannibalism throughout China” (14).

It was unprecedented because it was not due to war, climate change, or epidemics. It was, Jisheng makes clear, Mao’s famine.

Mao erected a “secular theocracy that united the center power with the center of truth. Divergence from Mao’s views was heresy,” and the fear of heresy ensures that lying was woven into the government. By imposing communal kitchens on China’s villages, dismantling stoves, and taking control of all livestock and plants, the government all but ensured starvation.

Mao warned, for instance, that there might be too much food, and promised inexhaustible supplies. People gorged themselves, used up their surplus, and then waited for government replenishment that never came. Food was under the control of government officials, and as a result “the communal kitchens became bastions of privilege,” who not only fed themselves from the common supplies but brutally punished any villagers who violated the rules (20-21).

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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