91 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it and weep
I immediately recognized the photo on the cover of Hungry Ghosts, a boy and two women (one carrying a baby) pulling a plow. When I first came to Taiwan, a few days after Lin Biao died and a few weeks before Nixon visited Mao, the government here frequently published this photo as evidence of how wrong things had gone in the PRC. Pooh, I thought, things can't possibly be...
Published on November 5, 2002 by G. B. Talovich
15 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A powerful but flawed indictment of Maoist ultra-radicalism.
Becker, Jasper. 1998. _Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine_. New York: Henry Holt. xiii+380 pp. Appendix, index, notes, photos, postscript, references. ISBN 0-8050-5668-8.
Hong Kong-based journalist Becker documents calamitous starvation visited on China during the Great Leap Forward, 1958 - 1960. Becker's thesis is that Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao...
Published on May 27, 1999 by J. Martin
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91 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it and weep,
Years after Mao died, when the PRC started opening up, it became evident that the KMT had vastly understated its case, perhaps to avoid panic here. Hungry Ghosts documents a tragedy that the world hardly noted.
Example: Becker mentions the dams peasants had to build. In the early 1980s, Mr Wei, from a family of tea farmers in Fujian, told me why his relatives starved:"We were told that tea is decadent and capitalistic. We were ordered to tear out all the tea trees and plant grain. Our family has farmed those hills for generation after generation. We know the soil, we know the climate, and we know that grain cannot grow there. We were ordered to build a dam. We didn't know how, so we asked the cadres. They said,'Ask an old farmer.' We had no choice, so a couple old farmers got together and planned a dam, even though they had never seen one, either. We toiled and toiled. Since we were producing no crops, we had little to eat. Finally, our dam was finished. As soon as we let the water flow, it washed away the dam. We asked the cadres what to do. They said, 'Grow tea.' But we couldn't harvest tea for several years. For three years, we had nothing to eat. Many of my relatives starved." Anybody who reads Hungry Ghosts will recognize the elements in this story. For me, practically the whole book reads like this, corroborating things I had seen and heard over the years.
Mr Becker speaks with authority on modern China, but his ancient history is weak. The first chapter opens with "an inscription on a Shang tomb." I have never heard of an inscription on a Shang tomb. In, yes; on, no. If the inscription is translated correctly, it is hardly typical of early Chinese thought (unless the 'Emperor' refers to the god Di). Becker makes some outlandish comments about Confucianism. Okay, big deal, his book is about modern, not ancient China. His explanation that the Cultural Revolution was a response dealing with the GLF makes sense of an otherwise senseless convulsion.
Dear reader, this is a heart-breaking book. May you and I never suffer as those poor people suffered. May such times never come again.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice Job, Excellent Read,
This review is from: Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Paperback)I found this book well-written, well-organized, and moving. It's interesting to see how many Chinese readers consider it ethnocentric and anti-Chinese. I didn't take it that way at all -- Mao's sort of madness is all-too-universal in human history, and the story left me with a sense of great admiration for the Chinese people who somehow suffered through this period. Becker is also very careful to point out that the real roots of the disaster were not in China but in Mao's enthusiasm for actions of Stalin and the writings of Marx.
And if the portions on Mao sometimes read like a bio of Idi Amin, well, I'd consider that appropriate. He was a murderous, vainglorious sociopath. The fact that he was right about the terrible crimes of the Western powers against China neither changes nor justifies a thing.
Anyway, a very nicely written and fascinating account that left me wanting to learn more about both ancient and modern Chinese history.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The greatest peacetime disaster of the 20th century,
This review is from: Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Paperback)-----------------------------------------------------------
A horrifying and well-researched history of how Mao's "Great
Leap Forward" became the worst famine in history, killing
perhaps 30 million Chinese (1958 - 1960) -- it appears
unlikely an exact fatality figure will ever be known. Which
adds to the horror, I think, that millions of people, with hopes
and dreams like our own, could vanish without leaving
a trace, even a number, in the world outside their homes.
Not to mention uncounted millions of children whose lives
were blighted by brain-damage from malnutrition....
FWIW, Jasper concludes that Mao's Great Famine was more
omission than commission (in contrast to Stalin's): Mao's
absurd ideas of backyard industrialization, plus turning
loose the Red Guards chaos, ruined the harvests. Then
Communist Party officials simply denied the problem, and
concocted elaborate coverups -- even painting the tree
trunks to hide that the bark had been eaten by starving
people -- when Mao or senior officials were to visit famine
areas. And a smiling-peasants "Big Lie" for foreigners,
which worked for years.
It's a remarkable, and depressing, account. Highly recommended.
review copyright 1999 by Peter D. Tillman
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars new insight into the political evolution of China,
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Astonishing, Horrifying, Catastrophe...,
This review is from: Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Paperback)It has often been said that, to understand China, you must know of its past. Here is a compelling treatment of a chapter in China's history that is almost a black comedy. Mao's Great Leap Forward is predicated upon such preposterous silliness that we chuckle at its absurdities (eg, the crops will improve with "deep planting" at up to 12 feet; steel can be made by all in back yard smelters, etc...). Yet...the consequences are so awful, that any thought of smiles is quickly erased.
Historians differ, but here was want and famine on a scale unprecedented in the 20th century. Perhaps as many as 30,000,000 died. Another reviewer scoffs at this number and says that it was "only" 10,000,000. Whatever the number, this is still an unthinkable tragedy, and one that happened in our lifetime. Like the Taiping Revolution that claimed as many as 22,000,000 lives (read "God's Chinese Son"), it left an indelible, but largely unknown mark on China - one that shapes the country today as it emerges as the only "other" super power.
Well written and fascinating.
19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Free markets vs. government planning,
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read book,
This review is from: Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Paperback)This book isn't especially well written from a literary perspective. In the reviews below you will find one or two criticisms such as an incomplete understanding of ancient Chinese history, which may well be valid. Unfortunately some people have obviously got hung up on the "30 million" deaths claim, but Becker does little to independently research the size of the death toll. He just summarises the various research that has been carried out, with what looks to me like a fair-minded commentary of the problems of estimating an accurate number.
However this is not the point of the book, which is firstly to gather together evidence that this famine did happen and secondly to piece together the complex strands explaining why it happened.
Ultimate blame is placed at the foot of Mao who firstly was the architect of the radical and in some cases barmy social and agricultural reforms which initiated the famine and secondly put in place a regime of terror which led most non-heroic subordinates to feedback the information they thought he wanted to hear regardless of the reality on the ground. Most of those who dared to tell the truth, ultimately paid with their life, either immediately or a few years later in the Cultural Revolution, which itself is seen by Becker as the way Mao sought to regain control of the party from the more moderate voices who had eventually managed to put in place the reforms to Mao's policies which ended the famine.
To his credit, Becker spends some time discussing the previous famines and periods of war and unrest which provide a backdrop to the situation. He also recognises, though does not emphasis some of Mao's achievements. His overall thesis is I think not, as some seem to suggest, that Mao deliberately and consciously murdered his own people in the way that Stalin did. It's more that Mao though he might have been a master political and military tactician had little understanding of human nature or science and was so drunk on his own propaganda that he refused to see how he could have been mistaken. Becker leaves open the morally important question of the extent to which Mao had deluded himself about the suffering of his people, and the extent to which he believed that such suffering was of little consequence in the greater scheme of things.
Becker also correctly lays considerable blame at the doors of those western commentators, China watchers and academics who were duped by Mao's propaganda - way up until the early 1990s, thus paving the way for a series of disasters around the world as various third world governments from Cambodia to Tanzania tried to emulate the apparent achievements of Mao's China with disastrous policies of their own.
I believe that Becker puts forward a fair minded and highly plausible analysis of what happened during this period, and given its importance not only from a moral perspective but in understanding the history of China and the world during the subsequent 50 years, it's a book that as many people as possible should be encouraged to carefully and open mindedly read.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing and Revealing,
This review is from: Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Paperback)In this book Jasper Becker has done an impressive and exhaustive job on digging up information and interviews, out of a society that has pulled out all the stops to repress all knowledge of China's enormous famine of the early 60's. Chairman Mao, who has been idolized and emulated by many third world countries and disdvantaged peoples as a visionary, is instead revealed in this book as a stubborn, cruel, and apathetic dictator. Mao's so-called "Great Leap Forward" quickly became a failure in its efforts to forcibly collectivize agriculture and increase production. Mao refused to believe that his great plan was causing the starvation of huge numbers of peasants, and suppressed and threatened anyone who tried to reveal the truth. The fact that communist officials down to the local level had been threatened to keep their mouths shut, and that Mao refused to admit failure, proves that these dictators would rather watch tens of millions of people die than admit that their bold plan was a dismal failure. So instead of looking like a laughing stock on the world stage, they allowed these people to die and then used an iron fist to cover up all information about the famine. Ironically, this is from a regime supposedly dedicated to the "people" and it was an eerie repeat of a similar famine inflicted on the Ukraine by Stalin 30 years earlier.
Becker has done a good job of unearthing this long-suppressed information, and adequately debunks past writers and politicians who were misled and duped by the communist propaganda machine. While Becker's statistical approach makes this book repetitive in places (especially the section giving the famine's development and death tolls from various Chinese provinces), overall the book is an impressive piece of scholarship. Also, the new postscript about the recent famine in North Korea, which has resulted from almost the same political failures, offers disturbing proof that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tragedy and a farce,
This review is from: Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Paperback)The subject of the book is the great famine caused by Mao's misguided economic policies in China in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The facts as related by Becker are not exactly new, but shocking. In a phase of hubris, the 'great leader', the 'helmsman', wanted China to make the 'great leap forward'. Since he was many things, like eg a brilliant survivor of political infights, maybe a talented guerilla leader, certainly a winner of a civil war and thus by definition a 'liberator', he was not really a leader of a government in peace times. He actually knew next to nothing about economics or even basic administration. Had he faded wisely out of the political front line to something like an elder statesman position, his status as the liberator of his country from lots of evils would be easier to defend. He would still be controversial, but he would not be a front runner in the race for the title of most vicious mass murderer of the 20th century.
The 'great leap', generally in upper case like some heroic event, produced one of history's worst famines with huge numbers of victims. China had its share of famines before. The tragedy of this one was that it was largely man-made, unnecessary, avoidable, and that it would still have been possible to contain it on a more moderate level when it had started. What kept its momentum going and produced these huge fatality numbers was a combination of political incompetence and cowardice. The system, i.e. the party machinery, did not tolerate the truth. The planning process led to exaggerated production figures, which were not corrected when the disaster started to become obvious on a lower level of the hierarchy. Provincial and lower leaders reported harvest and grain storage numbers in line with the plans, and the total added up to an enormous misunderstanding of the real world. The coterie of sycophants did their best to hide the reality from the great helmsman, who continued to live in his dream world of greatness and saw critical questions as counterrevolutionary crimes against his own exaltedness. Even long time friends were discarded if they dared to raise a finger.
If this were not such a sad story, it would be laughable. The man really seems to have believed that he can order grain yields to rise at will. Brecht or similar masters of sarcasm could have invented it and written a political parable about government stupidity and the ambition of the lower class leaders to be good boys and make a career.
Interesting that apparently there are still people who deny the magnitude of the disaster. Interesting also that the subt-title of the book has been changed. I have an older edition, dated 1997. It was called 'China's secret famine', which strikes me as accurate enough. The book on this amazon page is called 'Mao's secret famine'. Not sure that is an improvement.After all, he caused it, but he never went hungry himself. Probably never even believed that he did anything wrong.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile,
This review is from: Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Paperback)I find this book a most fascinating one . . . and a "required" reading for those interested not just in China's history but modern genocide, mass media control by state press, Communist theory development, among many other topics. It is easy to read and gruesome aspects of the famine are dealt with respectfully and with sensitivity.
I give it only four stars (rather than five) because I feel there is, at times, repetition of facts. All in all I highly recommend this book. Every person should read it to better understand and bring to light shameful acts against humanity.
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Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker (Paperback - April 15, 1998)