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Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 Paperback – October 11, 2011
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“The most authoritative and comprehensive study of the biggest and most lethal famine in history. A must-read.” ―Jung Chang, author of Mao: The Unknown Story
“Mao's Great Famine is a gripping and masterful portrait of the brutal court of Mao, based on new research but also written with great narrative verve, that tells the gripping story of the manmade famine that killed 45 million people, from the dictator and his henchmen down to the villages of rural China.” ―Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
“Despite Beijing's new openness over the past few decades, there are still whole parts of contemporary Chinese history that Party officials have managed to keep largely hidden from the scrutiny of the outside world. The 1959-60 Great Great Leap Forward, Mao's epic effort of revolutionary will power to force China's peasantry into socialism through the rapid communization of agriculture, is such a period. However, by managing to gain access to unplumbed regional Chinese archives and other new materials, Frank Dikotter has helped throw back the shroud on this period of monumental, man-made catastrophe. With both narrative vigor and scholarly rigor, Mao's Great Famine documents how Mao Zedong's impetuosity was not only the demise of many of his far more politically level-headed comrades-in-arms, but also of tens of millions of ordinary Chinese who perished unnecessarily in this spasm of revolutionary extremism.” ―Orville Schell, Author and Director of the Center on US-China relations at the Asia Society
“A direct, hard-hitting study of China's Great Leap Forward in light of newly opened archival material … A horrifically eye-opening work of a dark period of Chinese history that desperately cries out for further examination.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“An intensively researched litany of suffering, packed with statistics, grim anecdotes, and self-serving explanations by leaders responsible for the devastation.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Dikotter has done a service to history and, when they are allowed to read it, to the Chinese themselves.” ―Bloomberg
“This is an important work illustrating the dangers of one individual holding power to force millions to fulfill his personal fantasies.” ―Booklist
“Uses newly opened archives and original interviews to detail the calamity in calm, if unavoidably grisly, detail.” ―NewYorker.com
“Aided by newly released historical documents detailing the savage infighting and backstabbing of those in power and the extent of the nationwide damage, Dikötter has produced one of the best single-volume resources on the topic.” ―Library Journal
“This emphasis on how party violence exacerbated the death toll sets Dikötter's book apart from other studies of the Great Leap Forward … Books like his may help force the atrocities, and the debate, back to the surface.” ―Newsweek
“Dikötter tells the story with vivid new details…His relentlessly clinical, morally intense account of filth, disease, and hunger is both fascinating and numbing.” ―Foreign Affairs
“In Mao's Great Famine, historian Frank Dikötter assembles a treasure chest of these historic facts, but more important, he strokes them together into a masterly and memorable story…ranks among the best documentation available on the Great Leap Forward.” ―Christian Science Monitor
“Haunting… Dikötter succeeds in his dark task of cataloguing the awesome scale of [Mao's] crime.” ―New Republic
“Groundbreaking… Dikötter found new evidence of the massive and spectacular violence.” ―Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Frank Dikötter's thoroughly researched book will help ensure that the country's present-day insecurities do not allow this dark past to be forgotten entirely… His findings are astounding…"Mao's Great Famine" makes for very grim reading in parts. But the sheer volume of previously hidden facts allows a much clearer and more damning picture to emerge, making a critical contribution to Chinese history.” ―Wall Street Journal
“A riveting and heartbreaking and illuminating read by an expert in the field…Mao's madness comes through on every page. A MUST READ.” ―Travel Watch
“In terrifying detail, Dikotter elucidates the cult-like world of Maoism and the sycophancy of the Chairman’s inner circle…precise details of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution wouldn’t emerge until much later―and in the case of Dikotter’s book, which is the most detailed account published in English, a half century later…[a] masterpiece of historical investigation. ” ―Commentary
“[A] tour of the follies, inefficiencies, and deceptions of Mao's commandeered economy…[a] vivid catalogue of horrors…Focussing relentlessly on Mao's character and motivations, Dikötter confirms the man's reputation as sadistic, cowardly, callous, and vindictive….[a] bold portrait.” ―New Yorker
“[A] seminal and must-read book.” ―Sify.com
“For those Chinese students who want a reliable and readable account of what really happened, my standard advice has been to read Hungry Ghosts, by the British journalist Jasper Becker.4 But Becker's work has now been largely superseded by the pathbreaking Mao's Great Famine by the social historian Frank Dikötter… This is a first-class piece of research…. [Mao] will be remembered as the ruler who initiated and presided over the worst man-made human catastrophe ever. His place in Chinese history is assured. Dikötter's book will have done much to put him there.” ―New York Review of Books
About the Author
Frank Dikötter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Professor of the Modern History of China at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is a key proponent of studying the history of China in global perspective, and has published a series of innovative books, from his classic The Discourse of Race in Modern China (Univ. Stanford Press 1992) to the controversial Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China (Univ. Chicago Press 2004). He lives in Hong Kong.
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by Frank Dikotter
This book is an excellent account of the Great Famine of China from 1958-62. The causes for the disaster are many, and they primarily come from the top-Chairman Mao, the communist dictator from 1949-76. Dikotter catalogues the natural disasters created by Mao’s dictates, ruinous agricultural practices directed by cadre acting on production quotas from top Communist Party leadership, deadly working conditions both for both rural and urban workers, and the inevitable violence against a people when you take their property, food, clothes, and livestock, leaving them to starve to death.
The book is broken into several sections. The cost of collectivization and forced communal living is covered in the beginning chapters. The peasant’s land was taken, their houses were often torn down and used for fertilizer, and cooking pots and pans confiscated for steel production leaving a homeless and starving people. Even essential farm tools and grain for replanting were taken. Agricultural practices dictated from top Communist leaders and enforced by militia’s or cadres led to disastrous overplanting and overfertilizing, despite the farmer’s warnings. The result was poor crop yields and even top soil destroyed leading to not enough food to eat.
Crops were taken from the rural areas and given to the cities. At a time when millions were starving, grain was being exported to pay for Mao’s military buildup. Livestock was devastated due to stables torn down for fertilizer, neglect, and disease. A culture of waste is well documented, as is an interesting relationship between the communist dictators Stalin, Khrushchev, and Mao.
Along the way there are the manufactured enemies, political prisoners, Communist Party purges, and GULAGS, where the number of imprisoned and murdered were far less than their SOVIET counterparts. However, while the SOVIETS killed roughly 5-7 million in Ukraine famine under Stalin, 30-45 million were killed in Mao’s Great Famine.
The horror of the famine is given over several chapters. From people eating leather, bark, thatch from roofs, cotton seed, and even mud to digging up bodies to eat and cannibalism. The extreme violence by cadres against the people is also covered. Here is the clear danger of a government-controlled economy where insufficient food, shelter, and clothing leads to death, and enforcement of totalitarian policies are accomplished against a mostly unarmed populace.
Where unmet unrealistic quotas from agricultural and industrial goods hold dire consequences to local officials, the result is inflated and inaccurate figures, corruption, stealing, and both natural and economic disasters leading to the deaths of millions and the destruction of morality. Families were likewise destroyed, as millions of men relocated to the cities for work, and women were left to care for the children. Elderly could often no longer be cared for by families now fragmented and in this climate of every person for themselves. Starvation destroyed rural communities. Sexual and physical abuse by cadets occurred often.
Much space is given to the sources and the accompanying problems in determining the exact number of dead due to the famine. While the sources are well documented, the difficulties inherent in a closed society, where information is hidden and distorted for propaganda purposes, are quite apparent. Whether there were 45 million dead due to Mao’s famine, as the author and others propose or not, Dikotter makes a good case for there being more than the 30 million estimated using the Statistical Yearbook. He outlines three other sources not used in the yearbook in which one member places deaths at 43-46 million due to the underreporting of deaths in rural areas and the subsequent 1979 study produced but not published.
Two similarities struck me between the communist dictatorships of the SOVIETS and Communist Chinese. The Russian communists had a common saying: “If you are not stealing from the government, you are stealing from your family.” I saw the humor in it, and now I see the truth in it. Dikotter demonstrates again and again how the same government who took everything from the people now forced them to “steal” from the government for mere survival. Many examples were given: whether through simply eating raw grain that they grew, forging figures of goods produced, robbery, or even saving enough grain to replant next year’s crops.
The responsibility for the deaths caused by the communist dictators—Stalin and here Mao—was excused by the citizens. Granted, there was no free press and little information distributed that was not propaganda. Moreover, blaming either could have meant a membership in GULAGS or their Chinese equivalent. However, there was a widespread, prevalent view that Mao (or Stalin) did not know what was going on in the communities, and presumably if he knew he would not agree or allow it. Yet, these very same totalitarian and draconian policies that led to such disasters came from these same two dictators. While quotas created an environment rife with inflated figures, Mao was warned about this, yet he chose to discard it. After all he was responsible for the policies; he was the dictator in charge of the policies leading to the Great Famine.
Dikoetter does for Mao what Robert Conquest did for Stalin - tell the truth. Or at least as much can be attained from limited documentation. As the author explains central government and Communist Party archives are not open to scholars or journalists. However, provincial records are available in some provinces and quite a bit of data can be pieced together from them. , Some of the documentation is available is simply from the the bureaucratic practice of making many copies and sending them to the provincial cadre leadership. While there is plenty of room for debating interpretation of the data, the debate appears to be confined to whether 45+ million dies or "merely" 20-25 million.
It would seem that Mao was a genius at attaining and keeping power. At running a country not so much. The question that remains in my mind is did he actually comprehend the disaster that he created or it's scale? Even if he did, did he care? Did he think it mattered? A poignant account is when Liu Shaoqi who had devoted decades of his life loyally supporting Mao, the Party and the socialist dream comes to realization of what he has inflicted on the Chinese people. Unlike others he spoke up about it and paid the price.
Beware: after reading this the next time you see someone on the street wearing a Mao t-shirt you won't feel the same.
The story is tragic and the figures of the dead place him above even Stalin and Hitler by many millions of deaths. What he did to China should never be forgotten and must be taken into account when we, in the west, try and judge China's current leaders against their precursors.
Personally I was fascinated by a minor issue: the allegation (that could lead to the accused'd death) that he was a promoter of "splittist tendencies". The phrase was a new one for me but its absurdity belies its viciousness wehn hurled about by Mao, who really was a monster on a grand scale.