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Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 [Paperback]

by Frank Dikötter
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 11, 2011 0802779239 978-0802779236

"Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up to and overtake Britain in less than 15 years The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives." So opens Frank Dikötter's riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era." Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world's superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It became the site not only of "one of the most deadly mass killings of human history,"--at least 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death--but also of "the greatest demolition of real estate in human history," as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble). The experiment was a catastrophe for the natural world as well, as the land was savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments. In a powerful mesghing of exhaustive research in Chinese archives and narrative drive, Dikötter for the first time links up what happened in the corridors of power-the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders-with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, giving voice to the dead and disenfranchised. His magisterial account recasts the history of the People's Republic of China.


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Product Description
“Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up to and overtake Britain in less than 15 years The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives."

So opens Frank Dikötter's riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era." Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world's superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It became the site not only of "one of the most deadly mass killings of human history,"--at least 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death--but also of "the greatest demolition of real estate in human history," as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble.

A Look Inside Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962
(Click on Images to Enlarge)

Autumn 1955–Spring 1956: Mao, displeased with the slow pace of economic development, pushes for huge increases in the production of grain, cotton, coal and steel. November 1957: Mao visits Moscow. Impressed by the Soviet sputnik, the first satellite launched into orbit, he declares that the ‘East wind will prevail over the West wind’. Summer 1958: Farm collectives are amalgamated into gigantic people’s communes of up to 20,000 households. Famine conditions appear in many parts of the country.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

In 1958, Mao Zedong, perhaps influenced by Khrushchev’s boast that the Soviet Union would surpass the U.S. in key aspects of industrial production within 10 years, launched China’s Great Leap Forward. This was a tragically delusional effort to dramatically improve agricultural and industrial production, far beyond any realistic possibility, given China’s limited economic base. The human costs of this folly were catastrophic. Dikötter, professor of modern history of China at the University of London, utilizes newly available material, including Communist Party archives and accounts by individual Chinese citizens, to chronicle these horrors in stomach-churning detail. By the time even Mao recognized his failure in 1962, Dikötter credibly asserts that as many as 45 million Chinese died from starvation, execution, and maltreatment under forced labor. Ultimate responsibility rests with Mao and his indifference to individual human suffering, but Dikötter also condemns other high-ranking party officials who recognized the failures early on but lacked the courage to challenge Mao. This is an important work illustrating the dangers of one individual holding power to force millions to fulfill his personal fantasies. --Jay Freeman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company (October 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802779239
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802779236
  • Product Dimensions: 2.2 x 3.2 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #107,733 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Frank Dikotter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Professor of the Modern History of China on leave from the University of London. He has published a trilogy on racism, sexism and eugenics in modern China, as well as books on crime and punishment, on the history of drug use and on material culture. He just completed a book on the famine that claimed at least 45 million lives under Mao from 1958 to 1962, using hitherto closed party archives. See www.frankdikotter.com for a biography and many downloadable items!

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
78 of 88 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important and Horrifying; 4.5 Stars October 23, 2010
Format:Hardcover
This important and very revealing book is a serious effort to enhance understanding of the horrendous famine resulting from the Great Leap Forward of the last 1950s and early 1960s. In reading this book, its important to understand DiKotter's method with its strengths and limitations. A complete and systematic narrative and analysis of the Great Leap Forward is not possible at this time. Much of the key documentation is hidden in closed archives in China and will probably remain inaccessible until the Communist Party loses its political monopoly. DiKotter pursued documents related to the Great Leap Forward in a number of less tightly guarded provinical archives. This effort produced a number of revealing documents generated by provincial party and government (often the same thing) officials, and copies of important documents from the central party-government apparatus. Supplemented by prior secondary sources and some other archival research, DiKotter was able to assemble a great deal of revealing information about the Great Leap Forward. Since DiKotter's approach is driven heavily by his archival research, this book often has an anecdotal quality, though DiKotter supplements his vignettes with some background narrative and analysis.

The cumulative effect of DiKotter's reliance on his primary sources is, however, a powerful and devastating exposure of the dimensions of this tragedy and the culpability of the Chinese Communist Party. DiKotter takes pains to rebut the common impression that the famine of the Great Leap Forward was the inadvertant consequence of a terribly mistaken policy exacerbated by bad weather. DiKotter shows very well that the famine and its accompanying events go well beyond simple criminal negligence.
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75 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A shocking tale of the Chinese draconian hell September 28, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Frank Dikotter has written a masterpiece about history's greatest monster amd mass murderer ever to have lived. To be precise,he describes the massed and forcible collectivization of the Chinese peasants who paid a horrible price in the process: over 45 million of them died in addition to the many more tens of millions who perished as well because of one man's mad scheme to bring change to his country,no matter what the price ought to be. This was the so-called Great Leap Forward and it happened during 4 years,between 1958-1962. To quote Dikotter: "China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy...(which was)an attempt to catch up with and overtake Britain in less than fifteen years. In pursuit of a utopian paradise,everything was collectivized and people in the countryside were robbed of their work,their homes,their land,their belongings and their livelihood."(See Introduction)
To write this book,thousands of new documents hitherto classified were used. These came from many sources,mainly from the Office of Foreign Affairs and other provincial archives. These brutal acts caused the greatest demolition of real estate in history and one third of all housing was turned into rubble. "Homes were pulled down to make fertilizers,to build canteens,to relocate villagers,to straighten roads,to make place for a better future beckoning ahead or simply to punish thier owners".
But not all the people died of hunger. Many would suffer from common illnesses such as diarrhoea,dysentery and typhus. "Suicide reached epidemic proportions and in Puning,Guangdong,suicides were described as 'ceaseless' ;some people ended their lives out of shame for having stolen from fellow villagers."(p.304) What's more,"human flesh was traded on the black market.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The horror called "The Great Leap Forward" November 23, 2010
Format:Hardcover
This book carefully documents what may have been the greatest mass killing of the 20th century. The author uses primary sources to piece together the story of the events in China from 1958 to 1962. The forced collectivization of rural China destroyed the productive capacity of Chinese farmers. Mao Zedong and his henchmen (Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping) put in place a plan to accelerate the industrialization of China by extracting the "rural surplus" food production. Increasingly unrealistic goals were set for agricultural production. When the results predictably did not measure up to these outlandish goals, the people who paid the price were the farmers who had to yield up increasing amounts of "surplus" food grains. Leaving them with nothing to eat. The horrors inflicted by the Communist party gangsters are gruesome. But each Chapter in the book documents a new atrocity that tops the previous one.

The author estimates Mao's experiment to have caused 45 million deaths. People who enamored of collectivist schemes should read this book carefully.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
By N. Hua
Format:Hardcover
I am from China. There are plenty of sources nowdays that prove some 20-50 million people died in starvation during this famine, even the latest history book published from government agency confessed this fact even though they agreed to a smaller number (about 20 million).

I know many of the facts this book presents from history books published in Chinese. This is the first English book I read about this topic written by a foreigner. I must say this author did plenty of research, not only from Chinese sources, but from sources of other countries. So I did learned something which I did not know before. One example, the book told us Mao pressured to export more meat and other goods, but "When the pressure to deliver increased", the quality goes down. "The Soviet Union lodged repeated complaints of the quality of meat, which was often contaminated by bacteria, 1/3 of pork tins were rusty, ... paper exported to HongKong was unusable, ... West Germany discovered salmonella in 500 tonnes of eggs, Swiss found a fifth of shipped coal consisted of stones..."
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars a shorter book may have been better
Although I appreciate Dikotter's thorough and objective approach, the endless detail of atrocities committed during the Great Leap Forward made me skim many pages - too many... Read more
Published 11 days ago by Bif
5.0 out of 5 stars Famine - Human Error
The truth of this great famine, the official answer is because of weather or else.
But this book show you the fact - Human Error or Craziness.
Published 1 month ago by CHEUNG CHEUK KIT
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Deal Ever
Expected a used copy of the book, the copy that arrived at my house was brand new. I saved at least 60% as opposed to a book store. I am so pleased. Read more
Published 1 month ago by CharlesG
3.0 out of 5 stars The true history leaking out
I studied this period of history in the mid 1970's. While we had some information of how Mao's policies failed we had no idea of the total destruction his policies caused. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Kenneth P. MacKlin
2.0 out of 5 stars A long and boring recitation of horrors in need for a historian to put...
The author seems to be very proud of the thoroughness and volume of his research of Chinese Communist archives, but the book was a disappointment for this reader. Read more
Published 3 months ago by ERW
5.0 out of 5 stars We Thought the Chicoms Could Do Anything. . .NOT
Most people think they can paint houses, write, and coach kid athletic teams. I don't know if Frank Dikotter can paint his house or coach some kid soccer team but he sure as heck... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Stanley
2.0 out of 5 stars Interested in numbers?
Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. But no story. No background. No pschychological info.......... Of no value for me for better understanding of China and Mao Zedong
Published 3 months ago by JACQUES JOOSTEN
5.0 out of 5 stars The great folly
Finally a book about the huge sufferings of millions of people because of the folly of the great Mao. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Micheline Beauchemin
1.0 out of 5 stars it's the nuke cannons, u lying propagandaist!
the journalists crew on taiwan's tv program "crucial moments" research into the great leap forward famine and found out that the cause of it was the undisclosed "use of 2 nuke... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Joe T. Ching
4.0 out of 5 stars Dikotter's take on one of the 20th century's greatest atrocities
All in all, Frank Dikotter's book "Mao's Great Famine" is quite the in-depth study of the deadliest dictator of the 20th century. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Trash Winters
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