He was away at boarding school in April 1959 when his father, a peasant farmer, succumbed to starvation â€“ one of the early victims of the three-year Great Famine that killed tens of millions of Chinese country folk.
But Mr. Yang has never forgotten how his neighbors resorted to eating grass, roots, and bark before many of them, too, died. And for 20 years, since he retired from his job as a reporter for the state-run news agency Xinhua, he has dedicated himself to exploring the full dimensions and real causes of the catastrophe that claimed his fatherâ€™s life.
His quiet crusade has found a few echoes in mainland China, where the government still seeks to stamp out any evocation of the largely manmade famine. Yangâ€™s meticulously researched history of the event, â€œTombstone,â€ was published in Chinese in Hong Kong three years ago, and an English translation of the book is due out in America next October.
But Yang fears that â€œit will be 10 years before we can publish it here officially, and more likely 20 years,â€ though a number of pirate editions have circulated under the censorsâ€™ noses.