November 8, 2012

JUST KEEP TELLING YOURSELF THAT WWIII NEVER HAPPENED....:

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined (Ian Johnson, NOVEMBER 22, 2012, NY Review of Books)

Originally published in 2008, the Chinese version of Tombstone is a legendary book in China.1 It is hard to find an intellectual in Beijing who has not read it, even though it remains banned and was only published in Hong Kong. Yang's great success is using the Communist Party's own records to document, as he puts it, "a tragedy unprecedented in world history for tens of millions of people to starve to death and to resort to cannibalism during a period of normal climate patterns with no wars or epidemics."

Tombstone is a landmark in the Chinese people's own efforts to confront their history, despite the fact that the party responsible for the Great Famine is still in power. This fact is often lost on outsiders who wonder why the Chinese haven't delved into their history as deeply as the Germans or Russians or Cambodians. In this sense, Yang is like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: someone inside the system trying to uncover its darkest secrets.

Like The Gulag Archipelago, Yang's Tombstone is a flawed work that has benefited by being shortened in translation. The original work spun out of control, with Yang trying to incorporate everything he found and constantly recapitulating key points. This is one reason why the original was over 1,800 pages and published in two volumes. The English version is half the length and reorganized by Yang in conjunction with the translators, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, and an outside editor, the University of Wisconsin's Edward Friedman. The result is a much more compact book with Yang's most important work clearly showcased.

The original book started out with fourteen provincial case studies followed by six "policy" chapters and eight "analysis" chapters. The translation begins, like the original, with Yang's powerful chapter on Xinyang but then alternates provincial case studies with the broader chapters on policy and analysis. Only four of the fourteen provincial chapters are in the English translation but from my reading of both versions it seems that they have cut almost none of Yang's key findings, including interviews with victims and those responsible for the famine, and his best scoops from the archives. The English version retains all six policy chapters and five of the eight analysis chapters.

Yang's travails in piecing together the book are part of its lore.2 As a reporter for the government's Xinhua news agency, he had been a blindly loyal Party member. The turning point was the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre: "The blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades." That made him determined to write the history of the Great Famine, which had touched him directly: he had watched his father die in front of him, at the time thinking it was an isolated tragedy and only later realizing that tens of millions had also died.

The story Yang tells is by now familiar in broad strokes thanks to the work of earlier writers, especially for foreigners, notably Jasper Becker's 1996 book Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine, but also because of the findings of demographers, local studies specialists, and Chinese memoirists and researchers who have over the years pulled together the basic facts. Yang's contribution is to have written a large-scale history based on these works and his own pioneering research in Chinese archives.

His main point is to prove that the Party, from the village chief up to Chairman Mao, knew exactly what was going on but was too warped by ideology to change course until tens of millions had died. Like Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, the book is a cry of outrage from a victim. Yang vowed to erect for his father an everlasting tombstone, one that would not crumble or fall with time, and he did so with this book.
Posted by at November 8, 2012 5:12 AM
  
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