‘After I die, cut out my heart and eat it’ (Book Review: Tombstone)

Yang Jisheng is a Chienese Communist Party worker and a senior journalist. He silently toured all over China and meticulously documented the Great Famine of 1959-61, which is known as the largest man-made disaster. Mainly attributed to Mao Zedong, this famine also took Yang’s father. The famine resulted in the death of more than 36 million people. In `TOMBSTONE’, (Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine, by Yang Jisheng, translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, 629 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35)

Yang narrates the story in a tone void of emotions. Though his original work ran into more than 2000 pages, the translation is mostly abridged to cater the English audience. Yang’s methodology was simple. He spoke to the people who suffered and survived, including those who were on the ruling side. He also collected innumerable written Government documents and datasheets to fill up the blanks. He himself has defined the reasoning behind the title ‘TOMBSTONE’: One for his father, one for those 36 millions and one for himself, if the Chinese Government sees red. Though `TOMBSTONE’is banned in China, he continues to live there. He also accounts for another 40 million who were stopped from being born.

Cannibalism, punishment/ struggle sessions, hunger, edema, murder, whipping, – all such events leading to death have been narrated in detail. One can experience the chilling effect just by going through a paragraph like this:

“ Cannibalism occurred in many places. Among 41 production brigades in ten communes of Linxia City, 588 people ate the remains of 337 others. In Hongtai Commune alone there were 170 people who ate 125 corpses as well as killing and eating five other people. Cannibalism occurred in six places of the eight production teams of the Xiaogoumen production brigade, with 23 household eating 57 people. In some cases individuals barbarously consumed their own parents, children, spouses and siblings. Some ate corpsesof those who had just died, while others dug up bodies that had been dead for a week or even a month. In Qiezang Commune’s Jinguang production brigade, Ma Xishun ate the corpse of a diseased person and then died himself, along with the rest of his eleven-member family. A commune member named Bai Yinu ate a total of eight dead bodies, including his father, wife and daughter. A poor peasant from Qiezang Commune, Ma Abudu, near death, enjoined his daughter Ma Hasufai, “There’s no meat left on my body, but after I die, cut out my heart and eat it”. His daughter followed his instructions.

In Qiezang Commune’s Tuanjie production brigade, a poor peasant couple, Ma Yibula and his wife, killed and ate their fourteen- year-old daughter, and after Ma died, his  wife ate him. ……”

Many books have been written on the Great Famine. But `TOMBSTONE’ surpasses all in its originality and authenticity. Aung Chang in her book `MAO THE UNKNOWN’ (2005), has attributed Mao with the death of more than 70 million people, including this famine. China still runs hundreds of ‘Laogai’ camps across the country, and there are credible stories which say hundreds are dying even now.

Yang Jeshing is a no-nonsense journalist and says a sudden change in Chinese political leadership is also not a good idea. He aspires for a gradual understanding of the situation and a systemic change.

`TOMBSTONE’ is a grim reminder of the largest, countrywide genocide after the World War II, committed on the people by the same Government. This part of the history is always forgotten by the intelligentsia of the world and Maoists. Those who died were part of Mao’s Long March, Communist Party and Communes; they were farmers and teachers and labourers; they were innocent children.
No contemporary historian can dare ignore this book, but for escaping the truth.

  • Additional reading: MAO’S GREAT FAMINE by Frank Dikotter

Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine
By Yang Jisheng, translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian
629 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.

– Beluru Sudarshana

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