Yang Jisheng is a Chinese journalist and author of Tombstone, the most comprehensive account of the Great Chinese Famine. The book is currently banned in China.
Yang joined the Communist Party in 1964 and joined Xinhua News Agency after graduating from Tsinghua University in 1966. Although he continued working for Xinhua until his retirement in 2001, he spent much of the later part of his tenure researching Tombstone after becoming disillusioned with the Party after the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.
He is also the author of Political Struggle in Reform China (2004), based on his personal records spanning more than a decade of reporting for Xinhua, including the contents of three discussions he had with Zhao Ziyang while the ousted premier was under house arrest.
Yang is a Fellow of China Media Project, a China media watching initiative of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.
Why I write
Writing is pleasant, it’s fun. Also, it’s a very noble thing; although today writing is no longer what we used to call ‘ming shan shi ye’ (an author’s works destined for posterity), but I still feel it’s a noble calling.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Thinking every day, reading every day, but not writing every day.
Worst source of distraction?
Other work. I used to work for Xinhua News before I retired. Now I work for Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine.
Best source of inspiration?
Attention to society; social issues prompt me to write. And I get inspired from meetings, friends, reading, from which I get all sorts of insights and imagination.
How often do you get writer’s block / doubt your own ability?
If you get writer’s block it means you do not thoroughly understanding the topic you’re writing about; your writing conditions have not been fully prepared. So stop the pen, continue to study, investigate and think. If you are truly sure about your topic and have all the required information available then your writing will have both rich content and a smooth style.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, and Zhang Hanshu’s Xiyang Zhengzhi Sixiang Shi (The History of Western Political Thought).
Favorite Chinese writer?
Hu Shi’s works and essays, Tang Degang’s Wanqing Qishi Nian (The Last 70 Years of the Late Qing), and works by Yu Yingshi, which talk about Chinese culture, as well as the works by Lu Xun, Lin Yutang, Gu Zhun and it’s also worth taking a look at Li Shenzhi’s later works.
Best book about China?
Difficult to say. A few books before the reform were good, but most were for singing praises, distorting history, political preaching and the interpretation of policies. I read a lot during that time, but now feel it was not terribly valuable. I haven’t read much by writers after the reform. Some novels are good, like Chen Zhongshi’s White Deer Plain and Li Peifu’s Yang Di Men.
I like historical works and literary works with rich history, content and depth, as well as works on politics and sociology.
Hu Shi, Lu Xun, Gu Zhun.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Recently, I want to read MacFarquhar’s Mao’s Last Revolution because I need to know more about the Cultural Revolution. Also, works on the French Revolution.