The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Winner of the Lemkin Award
Winner of the Hayek Book Prize

An estimated thirty-six million Chinese men, women and children starved to death during China’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s. One of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, the famine is poorly understood, and in China is still euphemistically referred to as the “three years of natural disaster.”

As a journalist with privileged access to official and unofficial sources, Yang Jisheng spent twenty years piecing together the events that led to mass nationwide starvation, including the death of his own father. Finding no natural causes, Yang lays the deaths at the feet of China’s totalitarian Communist system and the refusal of officials at every level to value human life over ideology and self-interest.

Tombstone is a testament to inhumanity and occasional heroism that pits collective memory against the historical amnesia imposed by those in power. Stunning in scale and arresting in its detailed account of the staggering human cost of this tragedy, Tombstone is written both as a memorial to the lives lost—an enduring tombstone in memory of the dead—and in hopeful anticipation of the final demise of the totalitarian system.


Read an Excerpt

Henan is a rural province north of Shanghai and south of Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party’s “Three Red Banners” waved highest here, and the famine likewise hit hardest. Political movements set off the famine in Henan. Some seventy thousand Henan residents were labeled “rightists” in 1957—nearly 13 percent of those targeted in the Anti-Rightist Movement nationwide, and 15 percent of the province’s cadres.1 In 1958 a new campaign was launched against the “Pan, Yang, Wang rightist anti-party


Praise for Tombstone

“The best English-language account . . . [Tombstone] combines thorough statistical analysis with detailed archival research and heart-rending oral histories.” —Matthew C. Klein, Bloomberg

“Without a doubt the definitive account—for now and probably for a long time . . . One of the most important books—not just China books—of our time.” —Arthur Waldron, The New Criterion

“A vital testimony of a largely buried era.”—Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, The Independent

“Yang's discreet and well-judged pursuit of his project over more than a decade is a quietly heroic achievement.”—Roger Garside, China Rights Forum

Tombstone easily supersedes all previous chronicles of the famine, and is one of the best insider accounts of the Party’s inner workings during this period, offering an unrivalled picture of socioeconomic engineering within a rigid ideological framework . . . meticulously researched.” —Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker

“Eye-opening . . . boldly unsparing.”—Jonathan Mirsky, The New York Times Book Review

“Beautifully written and fluidly translated, Tombstone deserves to reach as many readers as possible.”—Samuel Moyn, The Nation

“[An] epic account . . . Tombstone is a landmark in the Chinese people's own efforts to confront their history.”—Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books

“The toll is astounding, and this book is important for many reasons—difficult to stomach, but important all the same.”—Kirkus Review

“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

“A book of great importance.”—Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and co-author of Mao: The Unknown Story

“A truly necessary book.”—Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History

“In 1989 hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese died in the June Fourth massacre in Beijing, and within hours hundreds of millions of people around the world had seen images of it on their television screens. In the late 1950s, also in Communist China, roughly the inverse happened: thirty million or more died while the world, then and now, has hardly noticed. If the cause of the Great Famine had been a natural disaster, this double standard might be more understandable. But the causes, as Yang Jisheng shows in meticulous detail, were political. How can the world not look now?”—Perry Link, Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching, Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages, University of California, Riverside

“Hard-hitting. . . It's a harrowing read, illuminating a historic watershed that's still too little known in the West.” —Publishers' Weekly

“Groundbreaking…The most authoritative account of the Great Famine…One of the most important books to come out of China in recent years.” —Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books

“The most stellar example of retrospective writing on the Mao period from any Chinese pen or computer.” —Perry Link, Chancellorial Chair for Innovative Teaching, Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages, University of California, Riverside

“The first proper history of China's Great Famine.” —Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post

“A monumental work comparable to Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize-winning work The Gulag Archipelago.” —Xu Youyu, Chinese Academy of Social Science


In the Press

Book Review: Tombstone | The Great Famine in China - WSJ.com
Michael Fathers reviews Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 by Yang Jisheng and The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary History by Zhou Xun.
- The Wall Street Journal
'Tombstone - The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962,' by Yang Jisheng - NYTimes.com
The Chinese famine of the mid-20th century is a monument to Maoist tyranny, a journalist argues.
- The New York Times Book Review
China's Great Shame - NYTimes.com
Why won't the Chinese government allow the true tale to be told of the Great Famine?
- The New York Times
China: Millennial madness | The Economist
Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962. By Yang Jisheng. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 629 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £30. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk IN...
- The Economist
Totalitarianism, Famine and Us | The Nation
Have histories of famines caused by totalitarianism become a distraction to the new politics of hunger?
- The Nation
The Weekend Interview with Yang Jisheng: Reading Hayek in Beijing - WSJ.com
In The Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens interviews Yan Jisheng, a chronicler of Mao's depredations, who finds much to worry about in modern China.
- The Wall Street Journal
How Friedrich Hayek Helped Me To Understand China's Economic Tragedy - Forbes
The extreme poverty of Mao's China was the inevitable result of the central planning that Hayek warned against.
- Forbes

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Yang Jisheng was born in 1940, joined the Communist Party in 1964, and worked for the Xinhua News Agency from January 1968 until his retirement in 2001. He is now a deputy editor at Yanhuang Chunqiu (Chronicles of History), an official journal that regularly skirts censorship with articles on controversial political topics. A leading liberal voice, he published the Chinese version of Tombstone in Hong Kong in May 2008. Eight editions have been issued since then.Yang Jisheng lives in Beijing with his wife and two children.

    Translator Bio:  

    Stacy Mosher learned Chinese in Hong Kong, where she lived for nearly 18 years. A long-time journalist, Mosher currently works as an editor and translator in Brooklyn.

    Guo Jian is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Originally trained in Chinese language and literature, Guo was on the Chinese faculty of Beijing Normal University until he came to the United States to study for his PhD in English in the mid-1980’s.






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