BEIJING—When Yang Jisheng’s study of China’s Great Leap Forward was first published in 2008, it quickly established itself as the most thorough and comprehensive account of a tragedy that many people worldwide had never heard of.
The book tells the story of Mao Zedong’s failed industrialization scheme that, by its conclusion in 1961, had caused the greatest famine in world history. Ever since, the Chinese Communist Party has neglected to confront this event, even scrubbing it from school history textbooks. Yang’s own interest in the famine began when realized that his father’s starvation was not the isolated event he’d always believed it was. When he began investigating the truth about China’s great famine, he uncovered a story much bigger than one he could have imagined.
As a reporter for Xinhua, China’s largest state-run news service, Yang was able to access records never intended for public consumption, resulting in a book whose depth of information is coupled with harrowing firsthand accounts of the disaster.
Five years after its publication in Hong Kong, the book, entitled Tombstone, is now thought to be the most authoritative text about the Great Leap Forward ever published. Tombstone has become a best-seller worldwide and, despite being banned in mainland China, has been translated into several languages. For his work in exposing the deadly famine, Yang was recently awarded The Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize for Literature.
Tombstone is more than just a story of how, during a three-year period free from war or natural disaster, at least 36 million people died unnatural deaths. It’s also the story of how the political and social environment helmed by Chairman Mao upended the livelihood of China’s rural population, punished individuals who didn’t echo the party line, and turned a blind eye to the millions who cried out for help.
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