IN JULY 2011, Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine won the BBC's Samuel Johnson Prize, one of Europe's best known and most lucrative awards for a work of nonfiction. One of the judges, Brenda Maddox, explained to the Guardian why the book impressed her so much: "Why didn't I know about this? We feel we know who the villains of the 20th century are: Stalin and Hitler. But here, fully 50 years after the event, is something we did not know about."
That reaction highlights both the main contribution and main limitation of Dikötter's book. Though there have been many books and articles published on the same subject — in English, Chinese, and I'm sure other languages — apparently Dikötter's is the one that brought awareness to at least one more Westerner ignorant of the catastrophe. On the other hand, Dikötter's attempt to draw parallels between the Mao-era famine that swept over the entirety of mainland China from 1959 to 1961 and killed tens of millions and the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag is, at best, an oversimplification that hinders understanding. To borrow what the discerning Asia scholar Ian Buruma once said on a different subject: "To distinguish between atrocities does not diminish the horror, but without clarity on these matters history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda."
The most authoritative study on the famine is Yang Jisheng's Tombstone, which has a broader and deeper perspective. The Chinese language edition of the book was published in Hong Kong two years before Dikötter's, and an English version is due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in fall 2012. Educated at Tsinghua University, Yang Jisheng came from a peasant family in Hubei Province, where his father starved to death during the famine. Yang worked for 35 years as a respected reporter at the Party-run Xinhua news agency. After retiring in 1996, he began a ten-year journey of investigation into the famine that had burdened his heart for decades. Traveling all over the country, and helped by his many contacts in journalism and the government, he managed to access a wealth of material closed to the public, making copies of over 3,600 folders of information from provincial archives as well as those of the central government in Beijing. He often had to be stealthy about his research subject: instead of saying he was writing about the famine, he claimed, as he told Ian Johnson, that he wanted to understand "the history of China's rural economic policies and grain policy." He got away with it most of the time, even in Henan, a province tightly guarding its archives where, years later, Dikötter's research efforts were stymied. The only time Yang failed to get access was in the remote backward province of Guizhou. There, when he handed a carefully researched list of document titles to the archivist, the woman was frightened, and said she'd need instructions from above. When the provincial officials subsequently told Yang they needed approval from Beijing, he had to give up.
To gain a human perspective on the great tragedy, Yang interviewed a wide array of witnesses, from ordinary survivors to officials of various ranks who had handled policy at the time. As a Xinhua veteran, Yang's capacity to access to these officials is unmatched, as is his cultural perspective from within. The r...