Ian Johnson in the NYRB blog:
Yang Jisheng is an editor of Annals of the Yellow Emperor, one of the few reform-oriented political magazines in China. Before that, the 70-year-old native of Hubei province was a national correspondent with the government-run Xinhua news service for over thirty years. But he is best known now as the author of Tombstone (Mubei), a groundbreaking new book on the Great Famine (1958–1961), which, though imprecisely known in the West, ranks as one of worst human disasters in history. I spoke with Yang in Beijing in late November about his book, the political atmosphere in Beijing, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo.
Tombstone, which Yang began working on when he retired from Xinhua in 1996, is the most authoritative account of the Great Famine. It was caused by the Great Leap Forward, a millennial political campaign aimed at catapulting China into the ranks of developed nations by abandoning everything (including economic laws and common sense) in favor of steel production. Farm work largely stopped, iron tools were smelted in “backyard furnaces” to make steel—most of which was too crude to be of any use—and the Party confiscated for city dwellers what little grain was sown and harvested. The result was one of the largest famines in history. From the government documents he consulted, Yang concluded that 36 million people died and 40 million children were not born as a result of the famine. Yang’s father was among the victims and Yang says this book is meant to be his tombstone.