© Photograph: Adam Dean/Panos
Yang Jisheng ... 'He comes across as a sweet old man, but he has a core of steel.'
The famine that killed up to 45 million people remains a taboo subject in China 50 years on. Author Yang Jisheng is determined to change that with his book, Tombstone
Small and stocky, neat in dress and mild of feature, Yang Jisheng is an unassuming figure as he bustles through the pleasantly shabby offices, an old-fashioned satchel thrown over one shoulder. Since his retirement from China's state news agency he has worked at the innocuously titled Annals of the Yellow Emperor
journal, where stacks of documents cover chipped desks and a cockroach circles our paper cups of green tea.
Yet the horror stories penned by the 72-year-old from this comforting, professorial warren in Beijing are so savage and excessive they could almost be taken as the blackest of comedies; the bleakest of farces; the most extreme of satires on fanaticism and tyranny.
A decade after the Communist party took power in 1949, promising to serve the people, the greatest manmade disaster in history stalks an already impoverished land. In an unremarkable city in central Henan province, more than a million people - one in eight - are wiped out by starvation and brutality over three short years. In one area, officials commandeer more grain than the farmers have actually grown. In barely nine months, more than 12,000 people - a third of the inhabitants - die in a single commune; a tenth of its households are wiped out. Thirteen children beg officials for food and are dragged deep into the mountains, where they die from exposure and starvation. A teenage orphan kills and eats her four-year-old brother. Forty-four of a village's 45 inhabitants die; the last remaining resident, a woman in her 60s, goes insane. Others are tortured, beaten or buried alive for declaring realistic harvests, refusing to hand over what little food they have, stealing scraps or simply angering officials.