Yang Jisheng: The man who discovered 36 million dead

Yang Jisheng

In the era whose secret he uncovered, a journalist's office would have looked just like the one where Yang Jisheng works now. The tiled floor, the grimy window panes, the desk piled two feet high with papers, envelopes and books. The Mao-era radiators. The cigarette ash and the dust.

Under Mao Zedong, Yang's good fortune was to find a job as a reporter with China's state-run Xinhua news agency. His misfortune had been to see his father die of hunger in 1961, at the height of the famine that killed an estimated 36 million people:

"When my dad died, I thought it was just my family's problem. I blamed myself because I hadn't gone back home to pick wild plants to feed my dad. Later on, the governor of Hubei province said millions of people had died. I was astonished," Yang says.

In the 1990s Yang, by now a senior editor at Xinhua, used his status to secretly research the truth about the famine in 12 different provincial archives:

"I could not say I was looking for data about the famine, I could only say I was looking for data about the history of China's agriculture policy. In the data, I found a lot of information about the famine, and people who starved from it. Some of the libraries allowed me to take photocopies; some only let me write the information down. These," he gestures casually at a teetering pile of brown envelopes on the floor, "are the photocopies".

Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong visiting farm workers in Zhejiang, China, 9 Feb 1958 Chinese communists launched the Great Leap Forward campaign under Mao Zedong's leadership

The result was Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine, published in the West this year to high acclaim.

Yang, aged 72, is neat, small, swaddled in two jumpers despite the shafts of winter sunlight that stream across his desk. He is rummaging through his shelves on the hunt for a book whose title is important: by a Western author whose name has slipped his mind.

"Something about slavery?" he says. I try the name Hayek and after a bit of transliteration it works. He had stumbled on Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom in a library and chuckles with mild scepticism when I tell him it is probably the most influential book in Western economics:

"Before I read Hayek, I had only read works the party wanted me to. Hayek says that to use the state to promote a utopia is very dangerous. In China that's exactly what they did. The utopia promoted by Marx, even though it is beautiful, it is very dangerous."

Even now, 50 years on, Chinese official history insists the famine of 1958-61 was a natural disaster. Yang's work demonstrates the famine's massive scale and its direct, political causes.

Agriculture was brutally collectivised, leaving peasants dependent on centrally distributed grain. Local cadres ordered the forced pooling of family kitchens, confiscating all ladles and punishing those who kept private food supplies.

Then, as Mao ordered rapid industrialisation during the Great Leap Forward, the grain supplies disappeared. Simultaneously local officials, terrified of failure, began to report fictional bumper harvests. Mao, meanwhile, publicly humiliated any party leader who voiced doubts. The result was the greatest famine in modern history.

It is Yang's refusal to duck the parallels with today that make his book unpublishable in mainland China. The famine happened because the party was all-powerful, he argues - just as numerous disasters visited on China by today's leaders - from the HIV-infected blood selling scandal, to the spread of Sars, to the shoddy buildings that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake - are the result of unfree politics and an unfree press.

Despite its samizdat status, Yang thinks there may be around half a million copies of the Hong Kong edition circulating in China. His own copy, discreetly kept in a cupboard, is a black-market version of the latter: its pages are photocopied, its binding stiff, shiny and amateur.

Start Quote

We learn a lot about history. However, most of it is fake. It is full of made up stories to meet the needs of ideology. Once you realise you've been cheated, you'll begin to pursue the truth. ”

End Quote Yang Jisheng

"It is estimated that there are about 100,000 of these knock off copies in circulation," he says. "People try to bring the real ones from Hong Kong but they get confiscated, so they make these. The response is very strong, I have received lots of letters from readers telling me the stories of relatives who died from the famine."

The English language version has made a massive impact, with some calling Yang the Chinese Solzhenitsyn. To me, however, he seems more like the Chinese equivalent of Vasily Grossman: though he believes Marxism is a dangerous fantasy he remains a party member. His haunting prose - like Grossman's - defends the power of memory:

"China has undergone an enormous transformation. But… the abuses under the exclusive profit orientation of a market economy and the untrammelled power of totalitarianism have created an endless supply of injustice, exacerbating discontent among the lower class majority. In this new century I believe that rulers and ordinary citizens alike know in their hearts that the totalitarian system has reached its end." (Tombstone, p22)

What is it like, I ask, to be an historian in a country where historical memory is so completely suppressed?

"Very painful," he says. "We learn a lot about history. However, most of it is fake. It is full of made-up stories to meet the needs of ideology. Once you realise you've been cheated, you'll begin to pursue the truth. That's what I did: I've been cheated, so I want to write the truth - however risky it is."

Though retired from Xinhua, Yang is still active. The small political magazine he runs out of this tiny office seems, from piles of unsold copies stacked up in the corridors, not massively influential. He thinks it will take 10 years to publish Tombstone in the People's Republic, if the political reform process keeps to its current glacial pace.

But like all dissident writers in China, he has learned not to hurry.

He pinches green tea leaves for me into a paper cup, and pours hot water from a flask. There is a barely-touched and ancient computer in one corner of the room, but Yang's conquest has been made in the world of analogue information: photocopies and scribbled notes.

He pats the English edition contentedly, still stunned by the price the publishers Penguin are charging for each one:

"Tombstone has four layers of meaning. The first is for my father who died in the famine, another is to remember the 36 million people who died during the famine. The third layer is a tombstone for the system that killed them."

And the fourth?

"The fourth is - the book has put me at political risk, so it's a tombstone for myself if anything happens to me because of writing it."

See Paul Mason's report on Yang Jisheng and other writers whose work is banned in China, on Newsnight Wednesday 21 November at 2230 on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.

Paul Mason Article written by Paul Mason Paul Mason Former economics editor, Newsnight

End of an era

After 12 years on Newsnight, Economics editor Paul Mason has moved on to pastures new and this blog is now closed.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Forget Hayek, forget Mao, forget Marx, forget Stalin,
    Where is common sense? It's not even basic game theory, it's genuine common sense that no uniform rule can work in a system that comprises of individual elements that are themselves different, and live in different habitats. If forced to be the same, the system would have 0 degrees of freedom and die. DUH?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Curiosity @39
    Unless from 'usage'

    As you suggest, capitalism 'features' exchange of goods, ideally 'free exchange', with 'state interference' to back 'contracts', echoes of 'imperialism' all too likely

    Democratic capitalism would have further 'features', personal market demand (directive) being equal (incomes & votes), profits being 'amongst signals' for intelligent investment

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    36 million people is a big number, it was about 10% of the total Chinese population at that time. If this figure of 36million was true, as a normal Chinese and from a poor family I should directly know at least one people died due to the “famine”. Rumors always spread quickly. LOL

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    As a normal Chinese, this fake story makes me laugh. I am aged 56, and had gone through that time. None of my family members, relatives and friends or people we known were dead during that time because of the “famine”. Yes, we got food shortage, but were far from the dead. 36 million people is a big number, it was about 10% of the total Chinese population at that time, I should know 1 died.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.


    A suspended spring will stretch when weight is added. The length is roughly proportional to the weight, and it will spring back if the weight is removed. As a rule.

    But if you add too much, it breaks and will never spring back. The observed pattern is no longer valid but the laws of physics haven't changed.

    Good advice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    70. ComradeOgilvy

    A trend is not a rule - see Hooke's Law.

    Is that a formula for measuring pirate`s enthusiasm ?.There you have me cold.I would not know Hooke`s law if it bit me on the bottom.Leaving secondary school at 15 with no qualifications kind of missed out on Hooke`s law.
    I had to learn very soon,life is a race,work hard & share.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.


    The world has certainly become a more pleasant place over time.

    Ends and means... difficult to analyse as events were in the context of their time. We can only assess the now and try to figure out the next.

    And there will be a "next". We're ALL stuck in an imaginative rut, but as tribes, feudalism and empires have given way, so will the current system. Hopefully for the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    65. ComradeOgilvy
    The Welsh were Imperialists too

    British Empire who`s sun never set,but did.With its demise giving birth to most of the Worlds stable democracy's.Did the means justify the end?who knows.With ruled leaders & elders probable no,wives saved from suttee,would not see it that way.The past is a very foreign country,who would one want to rule 1/4 of the world with today's mind set.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.


    A trend is not a rule - see Hooke's Law.

    "If one refuses to accept well documented fact then..." Einstein comes up with relativity. Ta da! The history of science is full of such examples.

    Economics and politics, however... doomed repetition as a result mostly of "eyes closed".

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Picking and choosing examples does not 'prove' anything.

    But a series of examples pointing the same direction may well.
    If one refuses to accept well documented fact then its
    Beatles Strawberry fields syndrome,

    Living is easy with eyes closed,
    misunderstanding all you see.
    It's getting hard to be someone
    but it all works out,
    it doesn't matter much to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    65. Spot on Comrade. Don't feel too bad about Zulu, after all it was only us nasty Anglo-Saxons who sent the Welsh out there and they did sing Men of Harlech beautifully, faced with Ivor Emmanuel no wonder the Zulus gave up.
    Must agree about Mao's mum. He was obviously from a dysfunctional family. Spare the rod!

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Is it fair to say that the Challenger space shuttle disaster proved that space flight would never work?

    Equally, is it fair to say that the invention of the rocket rendered the jet engine obsolete?

    Picking and choosing examples does not 'prove' anything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    At least during the industrial revolution, you didn't have to follow the party line, Robert Owen was given the chance and was able 2 improve working standards, however he proved through the system he set up in New Harmony, that Socialism/Communism would never work and within 2 yrs, the model had to be rethought and that was in the 1820's. More like deaf ears to corrupt power absolutely in Maoland!

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    The Welsh were Imperialists too, of course. Anyone here not seen Zulu?

    I wonder is Mao's mum was too soft on him? Perhaps we'd all be living in a communist Utopia, if she'd been a bit firmer. I guess we'll never know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    62. ComradeOgilvy

    Weren't the Tudors Welsh? A virtuous bunch, without doubt.

    Ha yes but "with no dark history hidden away" it was out in the open for all to see.The Tudors had the bible translated into Welsh (resulting in Wales being for the King in the Civil war)so like the curates egg were good in parts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    My goodness haven't we all been busy while I've been away. I hope it's all sorted now, imperialism can be capitalistic or communistic. Socialism is dead, or alive and well and living in the Tory party and Chairman Mao was a very naughty person who should have had a good telling off.
    And Wales is the only country in the world whose history is totally without blemish.
    I hope I've got that correct.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.


    It's just a matter of manners. If you prefer be rude and insult individuals rather than be civil and discuss the topic, that says nothing about those "idiots" and a lot about you.

    Weren't the Tudors Welsh? A virtuous bunch, without doubt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    56. BluesBerry

    Now, name me one country with no dark history hidden away.


  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    54. ComradeOgilvy

    "I do like a good debate",

    "Any need to call anyone with a different opinion an "idiot" I imagine you wouldn't generally do that in person"

    Well that depends on whether they are idiots or not,here in Wales they are about.But whats good for the goose is good for the gander.If one is precious & intimidated, then an international forum is not the place for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    The disaster that was state socialism, where a party takes state power imposes a one-party dictatorship & goes through a very long (never ending?) transistional period.
    Were the Soviet & Mao tragedies part of the pain of industrialisation? (British industrial revolution just as painful but over a longer period?)
    Is the state socialism route just as flawed for industrialised countries?


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