China’s Great Famine, August 2012

The Great Famine in China, 1958–1962: A Documentary History. Yale Univ. 2012. c.240p. ed. by Zhou Xun. index. ISBN 9780300175189. $45. HIST

Mao’s Great Famine of the late 1950s continues to boggle the mind. No one book or even set of books could encompass the tens of millions of lives needlessly and intentionally destroyed or explain the paranoid megalomania of China’s leaders at the time. As with the Holocaust, every serious new account both renews our witness of the murdered dead and extends our understanding. Zhou Xun here selects, translates, and annotates 121 internal reports from local officials to their bosses. They form a frank, grisly, and specific portrait of hysteria defeating common sense. Zhou’s University of Hong Kong colleague, Frank Dikötter, extricated some of these documents from newly opened (and now again closed) archives in local headquarters across China for his Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958–1962, but Zhou’s book stands on its own. A useful introduction, headnotes to each chapter, a chronology, and explanatory notes frame the documents. VERDICT Accessible and appealing to assiduous readers with knowledge of Mao’s China; especially useful to specialists.—Charles W. Hayford, Evanston, IL

Yang, Jisheng. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958–1962. Farrar. Nov. 2012. c.656p. tr. from Chinese by Stacey Mosher & Jian Guo. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780374277932. $35. HIST

When American journalist Edgar Snow defied state department bans to tour China in 1959, Premier Zhou Enlai assured him that reports of famine deaths were CIA propaganda. After Mao Zedong died in 1976, official Chinese accounts still blamed bad weather and local problems for the famine, but plausible foreign estimates of famine deaths steadily climbed from millions to tens of millions, and foreign scholars put the blame squarely on Mao’s totalitarian rule (most tellingly, Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958–1962). Yang, who joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1964 as a reporter for the official Xinhua News Agency, clandestinely interviewed bitter local officials and survivors and collected frank internal government reports. This two-volume, massively detailed, and scathing account was published in Hong Kong in 2008 and soon ran through eight printings (many copies went straight to the mainland). This selective translation, rearranged and annotated for foreign audiences, is still monumental. VERDICT Yang’s stories are gruesome and his explanations moralistic, but readers with a background in Chinese studies will find it essential and riveting.—Charles W. Hayford, Evanston, IL