When the head of a production brigade dares to state the obvious – that there is no food – a leader warns him: "That's right-deviationist thinking. You're viewing the problem in an overly simplistic manner."Words to live by.
The Great Famine remains a taboo in China, where it is referred to euphemistically as the Three Years of Natural Disasters or the Three Years of Difficulties. Yang's monumental account, first published in Hong Kong, is banned in his homeland.We know the feeling.
He had little idea of what he would find when he started work: "I didn't think it would be so serious and so brutal and so bloody. I didn't know that there were thousands of cases of cannibalism. I didn't know about farmers who were beaten to death.
"People died in the family and they didn't bury the person because they could still collect their food rations; they kept the bodies in bed and covered them up and the corpses were eaten by mice. People ate corpses and fought for the bodies. In Gansu they killed outsiders; people told me strangers passed through and they killed and ate them. And they ate their own children. Terrible. Too terrible."
For a moment he stops speaking.
"To start with, I felt terribly depressed when I was reading these documents," he adds. "But after a while I became numbed – because otherwise I couldn't carry on."