Ian Johnson: I wondered when reading Tombstone why officials didn’t destroy the files. Why did they preserve all this evidence?
Yang Jisheng: Destroying files isn’t up to one person. As long as a file or document has made it into the archives you can’t so easily destroy it. Before it is in the archives, it can be destroyed, but afterwards, only a directive from a high-ranking official can cause it to be destroyed. I found that on the Great Famine the documentation is basically is intact—how many people died of hunger, cannibalism, the grain situation; all of this was recorded and still exists.
…Why are you the first Chinese historian to tackle this subject seriously?
Traditional historians face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts, don’t dare to speak up about it, don’t dare to touch it. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. And if they publish, they will face censure. So mainstream scholars face those restrictions.
But there are many unofficial historians like me. Many people are writing their own memoirs about being labeled “Rightists” or “counter-revolutionaries.”
That is an interview with journalist and editor Yang Jisheng in the New York Review of Books.