In his legendary book ‘Tombstone,’ Yang Jisheng uses 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.”

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined by Ian Johnson

Photo: Chinese refugees returning to China from Hong Kong, May 1962 (AFP/Getty Images)

In his legendary book ‘Tombstone,’ Yang Jisheng uses 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.”

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined by Ian Johnson

Photo: Chinese refugees returning to China from Hong Kong, May 1962 (AFP/Getty Images)

‘Worse Than the Cultural Revolution’: An Interview With Tian Qing

Tian Qing may be China’s leading cultural heritage expert. A scholar of Buddhist musicology and the Chinese zither, or guqin, the sixty-four-year-old now heads the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, an institution set up by the government to protect China’s native traditions in the performing arts, cuisine, rituals, festivals, and other forms of culture. I spoke to him recently at his offices at the Academy of Fine Arts.


Ian Johnson: Sometimes I wonder if people want to have their old traditions protected. You note that people flood to museums, but in daily life it’s a different story.

Tian Qing: The problem is that modernization and protecting heritage are at odds with each other. It’s like driving a car and then you tell someone to look back. You can’t do it. On the one hand everyone says yes, yes it’s great, wonderful, let’s do it. But you say, for example, to a Miao woman, “Your clothes are beautiful,” but she says, “No, I want to wear jeans”. The old clothes are so difficult, they take half a year to make and you can’t wash them easily; jeans are better. Or you say to a Dong person [an ethnic minority concentrated in south China’s Guizhou province], “Your homes are great—wow, it’s made of bamboo, it’s great!”—and they say, “I don’t want it. It’s cold and there’s no running water”. People want modernization.

Can’t one unite the two? For example, Bach’s sacral music is now more often than not performed in a concert hall. The music has been preserved but has a different function in society.

It’s possible. But it can lead to horrible things too. In Yunnan Xishuangbanna [a popular tourist area in China’s far south] there’s a Water Splashing Festival of the Dai minority. It’s related to the birthday of Sakyamuni and used to be once a year. But now people splash water on you every day. As long as tourists come, they splash water. It’s lost its religious function.

Ian Johnson

Bo Xilai, the mercurial leader of the city-state of Chongqing—roughly the size of Austria, but with a population of 30 million, nearly four times as large—was forced to step down on Thursday. Just a few months ago, commentators were saying that Bo was a serious candidate for the nine-member Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, the apogee of power. Suddenly, he had vanished from the heavens. How did this happen and what does it mean?

The answer is rooted in a constellation of powerful families who helped the communists win power in the 1940s and are trying to align their interests before the next great congress begins this fall.

Ian Johnson, Learning How to Argue: An Interview with Ran Yunfei

One of China’s most outspoken public intellectuals, Ran Yunfei was detained last year after calls went out for China to emulate the “Jasmine Revolution” protests sweeping North Africa. He was held without trial for six months until last August. Interestingly, prosecutors turned down police requests for Ran to be formally charged, sending the case back to police with requests for more evidence. When police failed to come up with more evidence, he was then held under house arrest until early February.

Ran works for the government-run Sichuan Literature, where he writes often about classical Chinese. He is also the author of over a dozen scholarly books, including a meticulous history of a local temple, The Lungs of Old Sichuan: The Temple of Great Charity, which was released after he was detained last year. But it was his blogging—where he sometimes goes for the jugular, mixing humor and exaggeration—that got him into trouble. After anonymous calls were made on overseas exile Chinese websites for a Jasmine Revolution in China, Ran wrote China needed reform or would end up like the North African states that were then in turmoil. (He also has an account on Twitter (@ranyunfei) with 57,000 followers—viewable in China only with a VPN or proxy—and another blog on a permitted Chinese microblog, Sina Weibo with 70,000 followers.)

Most recently, Ran, who is 47, has been concerned with freedom of expression and what he sees as a need for a change in the country’s moral education. Born in a rural county that is now part of the city-state of Chongqing, he is a member of the Tujia ethnic group, one of China’s 55 recognized minorities. I talked to him at his house in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, where he has lived since going there to study literature in the early 1980s.

Ian Johnson, Learning How to Argue: An Interview with Ran Yunfei

One of China’s most outspoken public intellectuals, Ran Yunfei was detained last year after calls went out for China to emulate the “Jasmine Revolution” protests sweeping North Africa. He was held without trial for six months until last August. Interestingly, prosecutors turned down police requests for Ran to be formally charged, sending the case back to police with requests for more evidence. When police failed to come up with more evidence, he was then held under house arrest until early February.

Ran works for the government-run Sichuan Literature, where he writes often about classical Chinese. He is also the author of over a dozen scholarly books, including a meticulous history of a local temple, The Lungs of Old Sichuan: The Temple of Great Charity, which was released after he was detained last year. But it was his blogging—where he sometimes goes for the jugular, mixing humor and exaggeration—that got him into trouble. After anonymous calls were made on overseas exile Chinese websites for a Jasmine Revolution in China, Ran wrote China needed reform or would end up like the North African states that were then in turmoil. (He also has an account on Twitter (@ranyunfei) with 57,000 followers—viewable in China only with a VPN or proxy—and another blog on a permitted Chinese microblog, Sina Weibo with 70,000 followers.)

Most recently, Ran, who is 47, has been concerned with freedom of expression and what he sees as a need for a change in the country’s moral education. Born in a rural county that is now part of the city-state of Chongqing, he is a member of the Tujia ethnic group, one of China’s 55 recognized minorities. I talked to him at his house in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, where he has lived since going there to study literature in the early 1980s.

Ian Johnson, ‘I’m not interested in them; I wish they weren’t interested in me’: An Interview with Liao Yiwu

Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews with ordinary Chinese, has been banned by the authorities for its provocative revelations about everyday life. In early July, amid a worsening atmosphere for artists and intellectuals critical of the Chinese government, Liao fled to Germany via a small border crossing to Vietnam in Yunnan province.

Liao first came to prominence in 1989 when he recorded an extended stream-of-consciousness protest poem called “Massacre” about the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was subsequently arrested and spent four years in prison, where he met the series of outcasts and misfits who became the protagonists of his first book on China’s underclass. Written in the form of questions and answers, these stories became symbolic vignettes about people from a range of offbeat and unusual professions or situations. Some of them were translated in The Paris Review in 2001, and they were collected and expanded in the 2008 book The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.

Now, one of Liao’s other three books, God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, is about to be published in the United States in September. It tells the story of Christian persecution in the early Communist era, mostly in minority areas of Yunnan province. He has also written a memoir of his four years in prison that has just been published in Germany to wide acclaim. His fourth book, on China’s new underclass, has yet to be published.

I recently spoke with Liao at Berlin’s Literaturhaus, where he easily blended in amid the tourists and would-be hipsters. His head clean-shaven, he appears younger than his 53 years, a short, powerful man who often lapsed into a thick, Sichuanese dialect. He talked about his decision to flee, his new book, and how he plans to continue his work from afar.

Illustration: Liao Yiwu by Larry Roibal

Ian Johnson, ‘I’m not interested in them; I wish they weren’t interested in me’: An Interview with Liao Yiwu

Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews with ordinary Chinese, has been banned by the authorities for its provocative revelations about everyday life. In early July, amid a worsening atmosphere for artists and intellectuals critical of the Chinese government, Liao fled to Germany via a small border crossing to Vietnam in Yunnan province.

Liao first came to prominence in 1989 when he recorded an extended stream-of-consciousness protest poem called “Massacre” about the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was subsequently arrested and spent four years in prison, where he met the series of outcasts and misfits who became the protagonists of his first book on China’s underclass. Written in the form of questions and answers, these stories became symbolic vignettes about people from a range of offbeat and unusual professions or situations. Some of them were translated in The Paris Review in 2001, and they were collected and expanded in the 2008 book The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up.

Now, one of Liao’s other three books, God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, is about to be published in the United States in September. It tells the story of Christian persecution in the early Communist era, mostly in minority areas of Yunnan province. He has also written a memoir of his four years in prison that has just been published in Germany to wide acclaim. His fourth book, on China’s new underclass, has yet to be published.

I recently spoke with Liao at Berlin’s Literaturhaus, where he easily blended in amid the tourists and would-be hipsters. His head clean-shaven, he appears younger than his 53 years, a short, powerful man who often lapsed into a thick, Sichuanese dialect. He talked about his decision to flee, his new book, and how he plans to continue his work from afar.

Illustration: Liao Yiwu by Larry Roibal