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 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. Access to Communist Party archives has long been denied to all but the most loyal historians, but now a new law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era. Frank Dikotter's astonishing, riveting and magnificently detailed book chronicles an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented. Dikotter shows that instead of lifting the country among the world's superpowers and proving the power of communism, as Mao imagined, in reality the Great Leap Forward was a giant - and disastrous -- step in the opposite direction. He demonstrates, as nobody has before, that under this initiative the country 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 the greatest demolition of real estate - and catastrophe for the natural environment - in human history, as up to a third of all housing was turned to rubble and the land savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments. Piecing together both the vicious machinations in the corridors of power and the everyday experiences of ordinary people, Dikotter at last gives voice to the dead and disenfranchised. Exhaustively researched and brilliantly written, this magisterial, groundbreaking account definitively recasts the history of the People's Republic of China.
Frank Dikötter is the Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Professor of the Modern History of China on leave from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Born in the Netherlands in 1961, he was educated in Switzerland and graduated from the University of Geneva with a Double Major in History and Russian. After two years in the People's Republic of China, he moved to London where he obtained his PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1990. He stayed at SOAS as British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and as Wellcome Research Fellow before being promoted to a personal chair as Professor of the Modern History of China in 2002. His research and writing has been funded by over 1.5 US$ million in grants from various foundations, including, in Britain, the Wellcome Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The Economic and Social Research Council and, in Hong Kong, the Research Grants Council and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.
He has published nine books that have changed the ways historians view modern China, from the classic The Discourse of Race in Modern China (1992) to China before Mao: The Age of Openness (2007). His 2010 book =Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe was selected as one of the Books of the Year in 2010 by The Economist, The Independent, the Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard (selected twice), The Telegraph, the New Statesman and the BBC History Magazine, and is on the longlist for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.
In a recent blog on Liberia I alluded in passing to Joseph Conrad, specifically having his novella Heart of Darkness in mind. Have you read it? If you have you will recall the final words of Kurtz in his moment of epiphany shortly before his death - The horror! The horror!
Let me take you to another heart of darkness; let me take you to China in the middle of the twentieth century, to the time of the so-called Great Leap Forward. I’ve been reading Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter, a new study of that grim period in the country’s history. It’s a sober, scholarly, thoroughly researched piece of work, written in clam and measured prose. But you should see my copy, see my marginalia, see the things I’ve written as I went along. I’ve not quite written The horror! The horror! though I came close, alighting on passages like this;
If the thatch on the roofs had not been consumed by fire, it was taken down and eaten in desperation. Villagers also ate the plaster from the walls. (p.169)
The worst form of desecration was to chop up the body and use it as fertiliser. This happened to Deng Daming, beaten to death because his child had stolen a few broad beans. Party Secretary Dan Naming ordered his body to be simmered down into fertiliser for a field of pumpkin. (p. 297)
Human flesh, like everything else, was traded on the black market. (p. 321)
But as desperate survivors all of them would have witnessed many of the horrors being inflicted on living human beings, from body parts being chopped off to people being buried alive. Surely, in the midst of state-sponsored violence, necrophagy was neither the most common nor the most widespread way of degrading a human being. (p. 323)
And so it goes on, the story of the most devastating manmade famine in all of history, one that is now estimated to have taken the lives of at least 45 million people. I do have one small criticism of this book – the title is rather misleading. Yes, most people caught up in this madness died of hunger, but a great many died of disease or neglect or were worked to death, including pregnant women; others were beaten to death with clubs. Some two million in desperation took their own lives. And of course, going on the Marxist principle that those who do not work do not eat, the sick and the elderly were simply given no food at all.
The madness had a face: the face was Mao Zedong, one of the most abhorrent criminals in human history. It was his ‘vision’ that in a few years China could overtake the capitalist West and the Soviet Union in its rate of industrial development. It could all be done, he believed, by a single act of collective will, voluntarism, his particular contribution to Marxist thought. Opposition was dismissed as ‘rightist’, the work of ‘bad elements.’ The demand was for higher and higher targets in every field of economic activity; and since the whole system was driven by fear, higher and higher targets meant bigger and bigger lies; bigger and bigger lies meant more and more requisitions until people were left with a hundred per cent of nothing. Farmers were driven from the fields to work on irrigation projects, worthless in the main, so no seeds were planted and crops grown. And since in the communist scheme of things steel production was an important sign of ‘getting it up’, Mao called for backyard furnaces into which people were compelled to throw all of their metal implements, even their cooking utensils, to receive brittle and worthless chunks of pig iron at the end. No matter, there was nothing to eat, so who needs a wok?
Existence was collectivised: people were driven into mass farms and then into vast communes. There was no defence in law, no right to private property; even nappies were commandeered. But on it went, Mao urged forward by a sycophantic court. Sparrows, he decreed, were vermin, eating grain; sparrows were to be exterminated. They were, in their tens of thousands, with the result that the pests which made up the largest part of their diet multiplied out of control, with an even greater impact on the diminishing food supply. In the end, in one of the craziest trade deals in history, China was obliged to import sparrows from the Soviet Union.
I do not envy modern China its prosperity; how it has earned it by forms of suffering that most of us simply can’t conceive; the suffering of parents who sold their children or relatives who had to dig up their dead in a country with a deep reverence for departed spirits simply because they had nothing else to eat.
It used to be said that when an imperial dynasty was coming to an end in the great cycles of Chinese history that it had lost the mandate of heaven. For a good part of the twentieth century, from the Revolution of 1911 until at least the death of Mao in 1976, China itself might be said to have lost the mandate of heaven. Frank Dikötter shows just how deeply the country descended into one cycle of hell. Not long after it was over Mao took into another – the Cultural Revolution. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
It is hard to exaggerate the sheer chilling effect this book by Frank Dikötter can have. It has made me realise that the statement by Gordon Kerr, in his primer, A Short History Of China, that the death tolls in China, throughout its documented 4000 years of history are ........"often staggering, demonstrating not only a disdain for human life" and with that also providing a "vast and inexhaustible supply of manpower". In the end this book brings the disdain and inexhaustible supply into focus.
This book is in 6 parts with the first 2 parts "The Pursuit of Utopia" and "Through the Valley of Death" covering the history of The Great Leap Forward. The final 4 parts discuss the effects on all parts of Chinese life from the lowly peasant through to the political consequences. There is "An Essay on the Sources" that is a vital explanation of the research used to produce this history.
There have been and still are debates as to what Communism is. I, in a way, hardly care because, after reading this book, to my mind the Chinese Communist Party during the Great Leap Forward was attempting a form of State Corporatism that has had nothing comparable historically except maybe Stalinist USSR?
I could no doubt real off the statistics on the death and destruction etc that Dikötter has researched but in the end I might bring to the attention of the reader of this review a strange little chapter called "Nature" in Part 3 "Destruction". It seems to me that the Chinese have been "fighting" nature for many a long century from attempts to control the various floods and other natural events that blight all nations. During The Great Leap Forward the "fight" against nature was at times, to use a word from Dikötter, bizarre. Historically China had depleted it forest for various reasons such as need for firewood etc but The Great Leap Forward at the behest of Mao took it to a new level. "there is a new war: we should open fire on nature" he said and so they did. Forests were decimated, mountains levelled as backyard furnaces flourished in some egotistical attempt to outstrip British steel production. It reached a point that after the destruction of the forests that farmers took to felling their orchards to keep warm during the winters. The consequences of that are obvious. In the end drainage systems became blocked with mud and silt as the rains caused even more issues to the many thousands of square kilometres of barren lands and with that the villages and towns that suffered flooding and starvation. Hu Yoabang traveled heavily during 1961 and denied the effect of the rains as a cause of the devastation stating "the rainfall was basically normal".
Dikötter covers other areas in the fight against nature such as the over use of pesticides, pollution, etc but the war on nature well and truly reached the heights of bizarre in 1958 with Mao's call to eliminate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. The war on sparrows reaches the point of being weirder than fantasy. Sparrows were targeted because they ate grain, the fruits of the labour of the masses, and so began a mass mobilisation to conquer them. For several days nests were attacked, sparrows shot out of the air with thousands of people banging drums etc forcing petrified sparrows to fall from the air from exhaustion. Shanghai reported that it had eliminated 1,367,440 of this pesky bird. Shanghai also eliminated 1,213,05 cockroaches for good measure. By April 1960 the realisation was that sparrows ate insects but it was then too late as they were now almost extinct. Insect infestation ruined crops and with that further famine. Locusts had a great time as well.
One of the consequences of The Great Leap Forward was the loss of reputation of Mao within the party. But he fought back with the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Dikötter has had access to various archives hence this book and The Tragedy of Liberation: A history of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. Hopefully he writes a book on The Cultural Revolution as this would be an excellent trilogy on the Mao years.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone with interest in the astonishing and always fascinating history of the Middle Kingdom.
“When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
Page 303 Lenin
“He who does not work shall not eat.”
The author deconstructs the myth of Chairman Mao as a benevolent and wise leader. There have been other books published on this subject, like Mao: The Unknown Story, but this book brings it to another level.
We are given a relentless outline of all that went wrong during the “Great Leap Forward” which was launched late in the 1950s across China. Its aim was to reconstruct the rural countryside into massive farm collectives and to rid society of private enterprise (like home ownership and local markets). Rural and urban society were to be radically transformed. The results were devastating.
Chen Yizi conservatively puts the number of deaths at a minimum of 45 million for the great famine of 1958-62.
By physically altering the environment to make dams and large farming communities – and by borrowing huge sums of money, mostly from the Soviet Union, to industrialize – China no longer had the wherewithal to feed itself. In fact, it had to use its decreasing grain and other produce production to pay back the loans.
With private enterprise gone and all output regulated by government quotas, – incentives and variety disappeared. Since nobody owned anything, the care of tools and equipment was non-existent.
Overall, the Great Leap Forward constituted by far, the greatest demolition of property in human history.
There was environmental devastation as whole forests were wiped out. Pollution, due to rapid industrialization, was rampant. There was no control of toxic waste released in the atmosphere and rivers. Thousands were fatally poisoned.
The horrifying descriptions in the book are what happens when the leadership is in quest of utopia.
The whole country became a universe of norms, quotas and targets from which escape was all but impossible, as loudspeakers blasted slogans, cadres checked and appraised work, and committees endlessly ranked and rated the world around them.
Page 102-03 1960
In a moral universe in which the end justifies the means, many would be prepared to become the Chairman’s willing instruments, casting aside every idea about right and wrong to achieve the ends he envisaged… the country plunged into catastrophe, tens of millions of lives would be extinguished through exhaustion, illness, torture and hunger.
The author recounts how the communist party used violence as a means to enforce its policies. China had been in a state of war since the 1930s – with a civil war between the communists and the nationalists (led by Chiang Kai-shek), then the brutal invasion of Japan. The role of violence was continued by the communist party as a means to attain their paradise on earth.
Throughout the country those who died of starvation often did so naked, even in the middle of winter. [So little did they have.]
Due to starvation and food shortages, there was always an underground market – where everything was traded. Even children – for food or for hope of a better upbringing.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of abandoned children, but in a city like Nanjing several thousand were found in a single year.
Page 211 Zeng Mu
“Those who could not steal died. Those who managed to steal some food did not die.”
There were vast migrations to cities in hopes of finding a better life.
China became a society of survival of the fittest – or the connected. There was little in the way of any safety net.
All over China, from Sichuan, Gansu and Anhui to Henan, people tormented by hunger turned to mud.
As the quotes demonstrate, this book can make for an appalling read. As an aside, I had some professors during my university years in the mid-1970s who loudly proclaimed Mao’s China as a great egalitarian and fruitful society. How were they so duped? And they duped others, myself included.
This book is sometimes mired in an abundance of statistics and percentages. But as history, we are able to comprehend the roots of modern China.
"The executioner always kills twice, the second time through silence." - Elie Wiesel
This is the least compelling volume of Frank Dikotter's recent trilogy on the years of communist rule in China from 1945-1976. These three works are undoubtably required reading if you are interested in the period and are limited to English (as I am). This book notably won the prestigious Samuel Johnson Award for best non-fiction writing in 2011. Many of its more entertaining parts are excerpted from "The Private Life of Chairman Mao", a fascinating memoir written by Mao's personal doctor.
Dikotter is a modern historian in the sense that he employs pseudo scientific methods of statistics and economics in his research and writing. He dives deep into provincial archives and conducts local interviews that result in stark conclusions about the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous attempt to boost factory and farm output during 1958-'62. He claims that 45 million dead starved by collective farming gone awry. This isn't original or controversial (see "Tombstone" by Yang or "Hungry Ghosts" by Becker).
It is certainly an important and professional work of history but it is hindered by two problems, in my mind. The first is that Dikotter, while correct about the abject failure of Mao's plan, can see only evil in its goals. His misguided efforts at agricultural and industrial reform become cynical exercises in political infighting and power consolidation. Attempts to address poverty and underdevelopment, tragically flawed, were made merely to seize wealth and overthrow social order which seems a bit of an overreach.
Paradoxically perhaps Mao's dream to achieve communism may have been an altruistic one. Did Mao plan to kill his own people? This is inevitably a moral question that must be asked. The answer for Dikotter is that Mao saw mass death as collateral damage in his struggle to fulfill Marxist destiny. This follows a trend in recent histories of Mao as a monster on the scale of Hitler or Stalin. Although similar in numbers of fatalities, in aims the comparisons are less apt.
The second problem is the book is not that engaging unless you can become easily absorbed by superficially presented statistics and economic data. Any account of the twentieth century's greatest man-made disaster would be incomplete without these but should also explore the historical context in a more comprehensive way. In this regard Dikotter adopts a reductionist approach where all is due to Mao.
The people primarily play a role as the victims of Mao's paranoid delusions goaded by the stick and the ladle. Although seen as unprincipled slackers and saboteurs they are also cunning and cruel ideologues, however argument demands. Ironically they are accused again of the same fabricated crimes once obtained by forced confessions and now culled from the archives of a discredited totalitarian state. The answer must lie in between.
The question of how a nation of 650 million came under the command of a purported madman is left largely unresolved. The answer might be found in desperation to transcend war and poverty rather than cowering before coercion and conformity. It is worth noting that the other two volumes on the Communist Revolution ('45-'57) and particularly the Cultural Revolution ('62-'76) offer more insightful looks at their respective periods.
This is one of those occasions when I almost wish the God i believed in was the vicious judgemental harsh one that some fundamentalists of all flavours seem to look to. This was brilliantly written but a really difficult wading through the horror and disgusting callousness of the Chinese regime at the time of the Great Leap Forward.
As I type this I went and found my copy of Billy Bragg's album 'Workers' playtime ' cos I wanted to check and yep lo and behold he has the image of happy communist chinese folk sitting around well nourished and smiling and one of the songs is ' Waiting for the great leap foward '...Billy hold your head in shame. This appaling destruction of, at a conservative estimate, 45 milion people in four year from 1958 -1962 came about as a direct result of Mao and his fellow leaders' crass stupidity coupled with violence, hypocrisy and inability to ackowledge the wisdom of centuries.
As i read the account it made me more and more horrified as you see men and women totally unaware of their interconnection with nature, society or history grabbing hold of a vision and riding roughshod over any opposition. Agriculture collectivised to such an extent that farmers and their experience are disregarded and theory trumps any kind of knowledge. Society and indeed any familial loyalty is collectivised and attempts to defend and protect the voiceless and vulnerable is punished and decried as ' rightist ' or counterrevolutionary.
The truly astounding thing was how totally uncaring the leaders were and tragically this did not just mean the main leaders in power but those under them down in a foul cascade throughout every level. The knock on effect of the need to save face at the highest point in government when confronted with leaders of other governments cascades down through the need to shine before superiors at the lower ambitious levels down to the lowest local brute who just enjoyed exercising power untrammeled by any form of human kindness.
The Great Leap Forward destroyed the countryside and its very sensitively balanced situation in which poverty was never far away prior to Mao but his inability to trust the wisdom of farmers, the imposition of ridiculous theories of agriculture, his removal of so many of the land workers to build dams and irrigation systems which were unthought through, badly designed, incorrectly placed and never maintained made the failure of crops and the death of so many inevitable. Added to that the desire, at all costs, to keep this failure secret meant China continued to export even when millions of its own people starved.
As I read I kept asking myself, how can such blind cruelty go ahead ? The over arching sadness is the realization that once we put ideologies before people, once I allow my dogma to deaden me to the effects it has this sort of monstrous catastrophe happens again and again. Did Mao and his cronies genuinely believe that a few deaths were worth the sacrifice. Cannon fodder as it were for this Great Leap Forward. This is an extraordinariy harrowing book, all the more so because it is to an extremely major extent wholly man-made. I am pleased i have read it but still regret that the God I believe in will be far more merciful to Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Ke Qingshi then I would be to them or indeed they were to their own people
Been from China myself, this books is a masterpiece. It told me stories that was never been told to me when I was a student in China back in the 80s and 90s. All the characters described in the book such as Deng, Zhu, and Peng were described to us as heroes in Chinese schools. I truly believed it when Frank Dikotter said that in recent interviews, people who survived the great famine still blamed the Soviet Union for the whole disaster, it was what had been told to me in Chinese school. Even now, China places country's reputation and face above human life such as the train crash that happened recently. I guess you would not really understand China unless you see it from a different perspective which is what Frank Dikotter offered me.
"Some go thirsty, some just drown That's the law round here Said the King of Sunset Town"*
This is the second volume of Frank Dikötter's trilogy dealing with Mao's China; this middle title dealing with the terrible consequences of one man's monstrous vision. Specifically, that agrarian China will become an industrial power to rival Great Britain (don't laugh, it's dealing with the late 50's).
The begins an examination of how ambition and reality diverge; dams and irritation systems obey the laws of physics and silt up; removal of the rural workforce to work on prestige projects bizarrely leads to a downturn in crop yields; and any criticism of the leadership or the programme can be (and usually is) fatal. Political theory trumps practical experience of any sort, and the result is an unparalleled tragedy, for the population in general and the country as a whole.
The tragedy is followed first politically, then economically (the effects of the programme on industry, agriculture and the environment are far reaching and would be laughable were they not patently ridiculous) and then personally, which is where the true tragedy occurs - human life becomes so cheap that installation of safety equipment in workplaces is seen as "rightist sabotage", as is cooking for yourself, and food becomes a weapon in the hands of the Party.
Not a book to pick up if you're feeling down, but a timely warning of the consequences of unchallenged ultimate power (the kind that corrupts ultimately). Harrowing but well written, and perhaps an interesting primer on China's leadership today?
Discrediting Mao has become an industry for a reason. As late stage capitalism metastasizes, imperialist armies rush out across the globe, and we accelerate past the global warming tipping point, the 21st century ruling class must inoculate us against remembering and calling upon the successes of socialism in the 20th century. The latest book produced by this well funded project is Mao’s Great Famine, by Frank Dikötter. It accomplishes its purpose by being more a collection of selected anecdotes than a legitimate analysis, loose with data and weak on context, failing to discuss the famines recurrent in China in recent centuries. An example of the methods used is the photo of the starving child on the original book cover. This picture is from the 1946 famine in capitalist Nationalist China, not from the Great Leap Forward.
During the Great Leap Forward planning and political errors, drought, and the Soviet assistance pull-out resulted in starvation and many deaths. Much of the newly retrieved data on this tragedy actually originated from teams Mao sent out to determine what was happening and how to fix it. But Mr. Dikötter's methods in compiling this and other data is dishonest and immoral. For example, Cormac Ó Gráda, a leading scholar of famine and professor of economics at University College Dublin, lays out (in his 15 March 2011 China Study Group review) how Dikötter uses an unrealistic low 'normal' mortality rate of 1 percent in order to maximize his death count. Ó Gráda says the 10 per thousand adopted by Dikötter is "implausibly low", and goes on to say that "The crude death rate in China in the wake of the revolution was probably about 25 per thousand. It is highly unlikely that the Communists could have reduced it within less than a decade to the implausibly low 10 per thousand adopted here (p. 331). Had they done so, they would have “saved” over 30 million lives in the interim! One can hardly have it both ways." In other words, in addition to deaths from starvation, Dikötter effectively includes a huge number of deaths from diseases, accidents, violence, and age. This all in an effort to pump up the old original falsely developed figures of 30 million etc. into a new lie of 43 million!
Using the same methodology of manipulating population numbers and stirring in anecdotes about failed projects, people mis-behaving, and so forth could be applied to the New Deal Dust Bowl era in the US to say "FDR killed millions!". As Indian economist Amartya Sen has said: “compared with China’s rapid increase in life expectancy in the Mao era, the capitalist experiment in India could be said to have caused 4 million excess deaths a year since India’s independence…India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame, 1958-61”. As India's four million excess deaths per year has continued right up to the present day, it could be said capitalism has now killed 240 million there. But no one will fund the writing of that book. By contrast, Dikötter's book research was funded by five different foundations.
Even one, or a thousand or a million people dying of starvation is terrible. What kind of mind and what kind of agenda thinks it is not, and so has to keep on inflating it? Buried in the book are some assumptions and qualifiers to make the methods appear less dishonest. But one main purpose has been accomplished, which is to give the sound bite that talk show hosts can yell at people stuck in traffic: "Mao killed 43 million!".
In Mao's time, there were problems and errors from which lessons can be learned. But also during those decades, life expectancy in China more than doubled, and China achieved what capitalist U.S. never will: a universal, just, and fair health care system. Industry grew by more than 10 percent a year during the Cultural Revolution, and by the 1970's China had solved its historic food problem. This revolution saved untold lives. Moreover, it was the greatest step forward towards the emancipation of humanity yet made. This revolution was defeated, and China has taken the capitalist road. But it will only be a revolution that ultimately saves humanity.
For today? I recommend Bob Avakian's book The New Communism. It is a viable strategy for revolution today, learning from the great successes as well as errors of communist revolution in the 20th century, and providing a map forward to do even better.
One man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia. Utopia is a dream we aspire; an equilibrium that dignifies all human survival. When faultless notions embrace immorality and audacious obstinacy emitted from one solitary individual, an illusionary veil is fashioned camouflaging tyranny, torment and nightmarish endurance. On every occasion of my understanding Mao and his political explosion, I cannot help but to refer to my old frayed copy of Orwell’s 1984 blaring the ubiquitous caption:-"BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU".
The Great Leap Forward or "China’s Economical Sputnik", whatever you may designate, was Mao’s calamitous infrastructure vehemently assembled on infinite human suffrage and radical collectivism. Mao reminds you of an overtly pushy anxious kid who would do anything just to get a pat on his back. The Great Famine paints a portrait of a murky hell endured by the Chinese for five uninterrupted years (1958-1962).The fact that one man can persuade a God-like authority to govern the free-will of individuals at the cost of their disintegrating corpses is enormously enraging. Mao’s obstinate pursuit to propel China into a superior industrial opulence uprooted the very essence of a country’s survival. A hallucination of profusion resulted not only in genocide but in cataclysmic damage to the agricultural, industrial and financial sectors of the country. Afflicted with starvation, dreadful diseases, disintegrated abodes and besmirched regulations; China became a mere crumb of existence laced with dreadfulness of boiling cadavers for fertilization purposes and impecunious villagers selling their offspring for a meager meal of steamed buns.
"Mass killings are not usually associated with Mao and the Great Leap Forward and China continues to benefit from a more favorable comparison with the devastation usually associated with Cambodia or the Soviet Russia."
Unofficial reports deduced a figure between 50-60 million deaths demarcating it to be communalist genocide. Amid the aftermath of the famine still claiming more lives Mao Zedong pronounced 'Cultural Revolution' in 1966.
Dikotter pens a transfixing and meticulous study of the demoralizing man-made tragedy that questions the authority of a single man and his right to vision himself as the redeemer beneath a garb of narcissist fanaticism and sycophancy.
La historia de esta raza -humana- maldita está plagada de atrocidades y crímenes abominables que ninguna otra especie que haya pisado la faz de la tierra a lo largo de sus lentos eones, ha cometido en contra de su propio género. No hay que irnos a los albores del tiempo, basta con dar una mirada al siglo que nos precede para encontrarnos las trincheras en el Somme y Verdún; los campos de concentración Nazi; el Holodomor ucraniano; el napalm norteamericano en Vietnam; los Jemeres Rojos en Camboya o el genocidio en Ruanda para ver cara a cara el horror, la crueldad y la barbarie que como especie, somos capaces de infligir a nuestros semejantes. Dentro de esa cuasi interminable lista de atrocidades que “adornan” el espeluznante siglo XX, nos encontramos con la que tal vez sea la mayor catástrofe causada por la mano del hombre en toda su historia: La Gran Hambruna China, calamidad inenarrable que asoló los campos de China entre 1958 y 1962 y que estima sus muertos entre 30 y 46 millones de almas.
En el año 2010 el historiador holandés, profesor de la universidad de Hong Kong y especialista en la historia moderna de China, Frank Dikötter publicó su aclamado libro "La gran hambruna en la China de Mao 1958-1962", texto que fue alabado por la crítica y se granjeó el prestigioso premio británico “Samuel Johnson Prize”. Gracias al acceso a datos y archivos que han sido progresivamente desclasificados en los niveles provinciales y distritales del Partido Comunista de China (PCCh), Dikötter ha podido comparar y estudiar informes secretos, discursos originales sin censura, conversaciones de cuadros provinciales, actas de reuniones de comités comunistas; informes de cuotas de requisa de alimentos; reportes de muertos por inanición y enfermedades derivadas de la desnutrición; todo para poder determinar las causas reales de la Gran Hambruna (inicialmente achacadas por los altos cargos del PCCh a “graves desastres naturales”); el conocimiento que tenían los altos cargos dentro del PCCH -incluido el propio Mao- de la hambruna y la mortandad sin precedentes que se estaba dando en las áreas rurales del país; la poca y tardía respuesta de las autoridades chinas; así como una acercamiento a las desoladoras cifras reales de muertos a causa de la hambruna, sustentadas por el autor en 45 millones de personas, rebatiendo las anteriores estimaciones que daban una cifra de fallecidos entre 30 y 36 millones.
Pero más allá de las cifras anónimas y etéreas que pueda mostrar cualquier libro o investigación, la verdadera proeza de Dikötter con este gran texto es humanizar los números y las estadísticas para enfrentarnos a los horrores abominables que padecieron millones y millones de Chinos a lo largo y ancho de las áreas rurales de tan extenso país, gracias a la megalomanía y ambición de un solo hombre: Mao Zedong, quien en su intento por modernizar China y alcanzar los niveles de producción de potencias como Gran Bretaña o la Unión Soviética se embarcó en un absurdo proyecto llamado “El Gran Salto Adelante”, el estilo chino-comunista como pretendían convertir a una sociedad eminentemente rural, en una potencia industrial-rural a través de una rápida y agresiva colectivización, pésimamente planeada y aún peor ejecutada. El resultado fue la destrucción de la agricultura, la industria, el comercio, la vivienda, el entorno natural (especialmente con el proyecto de conservación de aguas a gran escala, el desvío de ríos y la construcción de represas sin estudios técnicos; junto con la “campaña del acero” que provocó una terrible deforestación); los vínculos sociales y familiares, todo lo cual desencadenó en una hambruna de dimensiones apocalípticas que se deriva de pésimas cosechas producto de absurdas e incorrectas técnicas agrícolas de siembra implementadas por el gobierno central; requisas indiscriminadas por parte del cuadros locales para cumplir con las cuotas establecidas por el partido; la insistencia de Mao en mantener el flujo de alimentos constante hacia las grandes ciudades así como las altas cantidades de exportación de granos a países comunistas aliados de China – como Rumanía o Albania, así como la aceleración para atender el pago de la deuda con la Unión Soviética luego del rompimiento de relaciones con Jruschov; y especialmente la ilusión de la superabundacia que alimentaron cuadros locales al inflar las cifras de producción regional de granos para cumplir con las cuotas exigidas por el Plan Central, lo que conllevó a requisas de hasta el 90% de los cultivos para alcanzar las metas impuestas por los superiores.
De todas las atrocidades y padecimientos descritos en este grimorio de horror comunista, es tal vez el capítulo dedicado al canibalismo el que más nos hará horrorizar. La antropofagia y la necrofagia son comunes denominadores en otras hambrunas producidas por el hombre – el sitio de Maarat an Numan durante la Primera Cruzada; el Asedio de Leningrado entre el '41 y el '44; la hambruna de Bengala del '43; el Holodomor ucraniano entre el '32-'33-; sin embargo y para el caso Chino, la hambruna fue producida por su propio gobierno, sin influencia de un atacante o enemigo foráneo y como demuestra el autor en el libro, con conocimiento de ciertos miembros del Partido Comunista. Una crueldad absoluta y una indiferencia aún más terminante.
Podrá achacársele al autor una clara tendencia anticomunista, un excesivo registro estadístico, una falta de orden y narración cronológica en su relato (situación que corrige en su siguiente libro La tragedia de la liberación: Una historia de la revolución china 1945-1957), o que muchas de sus conclusiones no pueden ser 100% verificables hasta tanto no sean abiertos los archivos centrales del PCCh y puedan cotejarse las cifras provinciales con las centrales. En todo caso La gran hambruna en la China de Mao 1958-1962 es un grandioso libro que nos permite ser testigos del ilimitado alcance de la maldad y la crueldad del espíritu humano, de los macabros detalles de una tragedia que muchas veces se minimiza o se olvida, y de los irremediables peligros de la planificación estatal, el culto a la personalidad y los regímenes dictatoriales representados en un tipo como Mao Zedong, quien en su momento pudo haber aprendido la lección que en sangre hambre y muerte le estaba dando la historia y sin embargo decidió retirarse temporalmente únicamente para lamer sus heridas en privado y planear desde la oscuridad su gran venganza y regreso triunfal al poder, un regreso que tan solo cuatro años después en 1966, volvería a bañar en sangre y muerte a China a través de la Revolución Cultural. Aún quedaba un capítulo de la tragedia China del Siglo XX.
“Cuando no hay comida suficiente, la gente muere de hambre. Merece la pena que la mitad muera para que la otra mitad pueda comer bien” Mao Zedong, discurso del 25 de marzo de 1959, Gansu.
Unfortunately, this is a totally confusing ramble about statistics. The information would better be presented in tables and graphs rather than in prose. The other part of the book is about quotes or not by far too many people. Again, we get lost, especially those of us who only know a couple of the names in Chinese politics of the time. I stopped reading it more or less halfway through. I'm sure I caught most of the gist of the story, but spared myself endless tons of rice and other produce.
A very informative, well researched book about the effects of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, a supposed revolution in industry and agriculture dreamt up by the fuckwit known as Mao Zedong.
It's long and dense, but a valuable, compelling read. The author focuses way more on the politics and political hierarchy of the times, at the expense of more personal stories from on-the-ground, in-the-trenches, but attempts to make up for that in the last part of the book.
It's well written enough, but suffers due to occasionally awkward wording and usage issues. For example, the author repeatedly uses 'decimate' as a synonym for 'annihilate.' Decimate means to destroy every tenth part. If I decimate a plate of ten cookies, I only ate one. The author will spend an entire chapter talking about how many people died of the famine, and will end on a sentence about how the famine 'decimated' rural towns, which causes the reader to think all of a sudden, "Eh, no big deal," despite the fact that all evidence points to the fact that this was a very big deal. Random word flubs like that would often take me out of the book, and I'd have to force myself back in.
If this book can be distilled down to a few bullet points, the salient points the author keeps hitting again and again:
- Mao thought he was some sort of demi-god that knew everything about everything - Mao was, in fact, a galloping, raging idiot of a nutsack - Fuck Mao Zedong - No, seriously, fuck Mao Zedong - The big ideological problem was that he took the "People's Army" and made that a reality on every stage of society, every single rung of the ladder, so that farmers toiling in the fields were also 'soldiers,' and that kind of useless rhetoric is quite socially, culturally, and politically damaging in both the long and short run - Fuck Mao Zedong - The environment was plundered to the point that it's a miracle that it recovered at all - Fuck Mao Zedong - The Great Famine wasn't just a famine: it was a collapse of virtually every sector of the economy. It wasn't that people ran out of food. The food was often there. But distribution failed. Inflation ran rampant. Corruption soared. Beaurocracy placed a stranglehold on ordinary government mechanisms. All resources, not just foodstuffs, became scarce or seriously defective. Ancient cultural rites and religions, anything that held the society together and was traditionally used to keep destructive forces like violence at bay, were systematically wiped out. All of this was ignored at the top, or explicitly encouraged at the top. - Mao had a hard on for making things rough for Russia because Stalin used to treat Mao like the little nutsack that he was. - No, seriously, fuck Mao Zedong, may he rot in hell forever, if you believe in hell.
Also, read this book. I highly recommend it. You will come away knowing more than you ever wanted to about this dark time in China's history, and how much Mao Zedong sucks.
This is a book about the effects of slavery at all levels of a totalitarian regime. In 1958 Chairman Mao effectively fell out with Stalin and determined that the People's Republic of China would become self sufficient, no matter what the cost. He became a slave to the idea that the population would take the Great Leap Forward willingly. He was aware that there would be suffering but felt that it would be worth the human cost.
The entire population were enslaved into the GLF resulting in the displacement of whole populations to achieve Mao's dream. The natural cycle of farming was destroyed, farm implements were melted down to export iron and steel and an already weak infrastructure disintegrated almost completely. Middle ranking party cadres effectively had total control of their minions and were too scared to report factual failures so invented fictional successes. They had carte blanche to reach impossible targets and became the masters of life and death. Millions died of starvation, hundreds of thousands were killed for being incapable of work. The elderly, women and children were singled out because they were less productive. In the face of such destruction it is incredible that the Chinese people survived at all.
When I was in China, eight years ago, our supervisor was a delightful elderly lady called Maureen. She was the daughter of two doctors who were labelled Rightist during the GLF and she was sent into the mountains to dig railway tunnels and lay track. She would give no details, which I had assumed was due to political concerns.
Dikotter is an objective reporter of Chinese history, which is only just coming to the attention of the rest of the world. His style is understated and scholarly which makes the horrific suffering of the Chinese people all the more barbaric. He comments rather than blames.
Personally I found this book almost as emotionally exhausting to read as If This Is a Man / The Truce and I could only read it in small chunks. Fortunately the chapters are individually short and I was able to intersperse other lighter reads without losing the thread. His research is meticulous and he has access to PRC data on a scale only dreamed of by Langley! However, he demeans his work by making trite and unsupported statements (e.g. "Genocide, after allo, is only made possible with the advent of the modern state" p298) that detract from the overall excellence of his work.
This book makes a significant contribution to the knowledge of the common man, viz. me. Like Anne Applebaum's work on the Soviet Union, Mr. Dikötter has undertaken revealing, comprehensive research on a subject little understood in the popular conscience and done so in an eminently readable form. The naïve among us, I suppose, imagine the human condition to be rather tame; after all, do we not live in a world of modernity, happiness and constant, unremitting forms of entertainment? Mao's Great Famine is a reminder of just how much misery we can inflict on our neighbors and just how far our illusions have developed.
I am reminded of Edward Gibbon, who wrote that history "is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind." It seems we must be constantly reminded of the potential depth of those follies, lest we too soon revisit them? This work also further supports David Benatar's thesis, which I currently embrace, regarding anti-natalism. I dare not dwell too long on that theme, lest I be labelled insane.
Because of China's historical separation from Western consciousness and the apparent impenetrability of its language and current institutions, I believe the work of Mr. Dikötter and his peers is extremely important for our continued enlightenment, which presents an ironic paradox, for that which is gained cannot be forgotten. Perhaps I would be a better person ignorant of our crimes, follies and misfortunes? Hope and optimism are, indeed, powerful tonics.
I'll keep this brief. When cuddly old Uncle "Wedgie" Benn dies and the eulogies pour forth, remember him as an life-long apologist for Mao, the biggest of the socialist mass-murderers of the 20th century.
Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot et al pale by comparison to Mao. Read this book and try to comprehend what this moron did to 45 million of his own people.
Given the grim subject matter it's a "good" read - depressing but never grinding. It's essential for anyone interested in the evils of the big state and collectivisation.
3.5 rating. Well written, interesting, and worth the read. However, it struck me as an expanded magazine article - it could have been much shorter without losing much. Or, perhaps better said, I think it could/should have had both more breadth and depth. E.g., it seems lacking in comparison to other books recently read - Clark's Iron Kingdom (re the history of Prussia) and The Emperor of All Maladies (a "biography" of cancer), both of which are, admittedly, superb.
This is a book you won't find in Chinese libraries - it destroys the image of Mao Zedong as the benevolant leader of Communist China. It is a book full of tragedy, the so-called Great Leap Forward which took the lives of approximately 30 million Chinese people (some estimates even consider a death toll of 45 million) during the great famine which was caused.
The Great Leap Forward starts with the bidding between China and Russia. Kruschchev boosts that Russia will overtake the United States in 15 years and Mao, who does not want to be the underdog, boosts that China will catch up with or overtake the United Kingdom in 15 years. All conservatism is swept aside, everybody who voices criticism is being purged and millions of Chinese peasants are set to work on large irrigation works, or at little furnaces to increase steel production. Meanwhile, the crop is rotting in the fields. Chinese provincial leaders - out of fear of being labelled as rightist - boost that their provinces will create bumper harvests. When the state takes its share, nothing is left for the peasants, resulting in famine and death.
Frank Dikötter offers a tale of personal people in various chapters, including the impact on agriculture, industry, trade, housing and nature. Also, Dikötter explains the impact on various peoples like children, women and the elderly, which are ruthlesly impacted by the chosen few. All food is being distributed in canteens, and the manager of the canteens holds absolute power - everybody who is to old or sick to work gets no food, resulting in mass starvation.
This is not a fun book, the tales are harrowing and it shows chairman Mao in a negative light, blaiming him (and only him) to be the cause of the disaster. Something that you will not find in the ' official' communist history.
4 stars because (in my eyes) Frank could have explained more about the political background of all Chinese communist leaders who were involved in the Great Leap Forward and explain a little bit more about the political system at that time. But besides that, this book will definitively explain everything you need to know about the starvation during the Great Leap Forward.
I suppose that you can throw communism into the same pot as laws and sausages as far as things you don’t want to know about how they are made. You have to wonder about the collective damage done to the Chinese psyche when your omnipotent leader starves 35 million of his subjects to death simply to make a point in his argument. The logic involved in Mao’s Great Leap Forward is about a million times more Orwellian than anything George Orwell could have conceived in his darkest hour.
The bottom line in this book, the thing that I walk away with is the idea that in Mao’s China (which pretty much was and still is China) the individual equals fuck all in the big (and small) scheme of things. If you are willing to condemn 35 million people to starvation “for the greater good” then you're approaching reality from a completely different vantage point from anyone who isn’t Chinese. An example:
Before they died they sold their offspring, more often than not to couples who could not have children of their own. In Shandong, Yan Xizhi gave away his three daughters, and sold his five-year-old son for fifteen yuan to a man in a neighbouring village. His youngest son, a ten-month-old toddler, was sold to a cadre for a pittance. Wu Jingxi got five yuan for his nine-year-old son from a stranger, a sum which covered the cost of a bowl of rice and two kilos of peanuts.
Ouch! That will leave some scars. Please remember that this all occurred less than 60 years ago.
got a lot of hate from other famine historians (including Cormac Ó Gráda ???) but is ok, good for popular read but not for a meaty read in the famine, well done though Frank it was helpful to some degree X
My view on this book can be summed up by what Han Dongping said about it in "Remembering Socialist China, 1949-1979":
"Frank Dikötter, the author of Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, Britain's most prestigious book award for non-fiction. It is also rumoured that he received a $2 million scholarship for writing his book. But one of my friends in Malaysia alerted me that the front cover of his book used a picture from Life magazine of 1946. This friend wrote to Dikötter about this. Dikötter answered saying that he used the picture of the famine of 1946 in China because he could not find any pictures of the Great Leap Forward famine. Such is the academic honesty of anti-Mao scholars in the West. Because they could not find any authentic pictures, they resort to fake pictures. And yet they are able to get away with such dishonesty.
Frank Dikötter also claimed that he had documents to prove that Chairman Mao was willing to starve half of the Chinese people to death so that the other half could have more than enough to eat. My friend challenged him to produce the document. Dikötter said that he had an agreement with the source of the document not to show the document to anybody. But under pressure, he agreed to let my friend in Hong Kong to see the document. It turned out that the document was a speech by Chairman Mao at a meeting discussing the investment planned in industrial projects. China had planned to launch over one thousand industrial projects in 1960. Chairman Mao said in the speech that he would rather cut the number of investment projects by half so the Government would have enough money to quickly complete the remaining half of the projects. But Dikötter interpreted Chairman Mao’s words to mean that he was willing to starve half the Chinese population in order that the other half have more than enough to eat. Dikötter claimed that he was a China specialist. I wonder if he was able to read and understand Chinese text, or he was in fact a linguistic genius who could read into the Chinese language something that was not there in the first place." (http://www.rupe-india.org/59/han.html)
Like most of my reviews, this is a personal response.
Despite the fact that the author uses admittedly "soft" sources (341) (due to the difficulty in accessing state archives that are not available to the public) it is a chilling account of what happened during this time.
Being a young mother, it was particularly difficult to read about the effects on the children, the women, and the elderly. The fact that women were forced out of the home and forced to leave their children in state run child care to be neglected and abused just to work in jobs that they were still paid less then men makes me intensely grateful that I have the choice to stay home and raise my children. (See chapters 28-30)
On a completely different subject, the writer did an excellent job of making the history readable and accessible to the lay person. The difficulty mentioned before was due to the subject matter, not because of the author.
This is not my first foray into either Chinese history or into the study of the effects of communism/socialism. This excellent book only makes me glad that we have the freedoms that we do in America. I hope that we are able to maintain them.
Pick it up, flip through it. Let the actions of the communist party rather than their propaganda speak for itself.
Dikotter did a lot of research for this book. He gets 5 stars for that. But the presentation of the material thematically makes it difficult to follow. If I were looking for a GENERAL indictment of communism or Maoism, I could think of no better collection of facts than this book (although he often devolves into sadomasochistic descriptions of the various atrocities that humans are capable of inflicting on each other). However, that's not what I was expecting from this book. I already know that communism sucks and why it sucks. What I was looking for was a SPECIFIC discussion of the Great Famine.
In that, the book fails. I wanted to understand how the Great Famine started, who the players were, what their motivations were, cause and effect, how various events played out sequentially, how and why did it really get started, and how and why did it ultimately grind to an end. In short, I wanted ANALYSIS. There's only the most cursory and superficial analysis in the book. It's a simple recitation of the facts. I was left wanting more.
This book was very very well researched. I look forward to reading the other books in the People's Trilogy.
Onto the content: I found a lot of this book quite difficult to read at times. There was so much violence. Truly disturbing and sad at a few moments. I had to take breaks reading this.
I got some of what Mao did in Present Evil, Active God, which detailed some of the world's most egregious human rights issues of history. However, this book took what I learned about Mao's Great Famine to new great lengths. Very eye opening.
I find this a particularly important and timely read, as history has a strange way of rewriting itself.
Gruesome, horrifying, meticulously researched and eminently readable. Stalin is often (mis?)quoted as saying that "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic"; his disciple Mao Zedong may have taken this literally, presiding over a bureaucratic regime so wholly, shockingly, wilfully corrupt and incompetent that the margin for error of those who died in the great Chinese famine is in the region of 15 million people (between roughly 30 and 45 million deaths). As a work of historical investigation, this book deserves to stand in the very first rank. As an epitaph for Chinese Communism it is utterly damning.
I read this...and want to puke. But because the contents of this books are so enlightening and powerful and the story of this tragic time is so gripping. It's a non-fiction book but the way it's presented you feel like you've been thrown into a real story. And all you can do is ask "why?"
I'm so glad that this books has finally been made possible. It's fresh and recent but because of the intense secretness of the official archives, the whole tragedy risks being erased from modern memory.
A well-researched book, even considering how difficult it still is to get information about this famine out of China. It very clearly describes the workings of Mao's inner circle in the first half of the book and the second half details the results of the failed communal experience. If you ever wondered why Communism doesn't work, read this fascinating, heartbreaking book. It should be required reading in colleges. (which will never happen.)
This is not a good book to read if you're in need of cheering up. Also not good reading for when you're training for a 70K trail run, or doing anything physical, as you'll find your performance dragged down significantly.
If you need evidence of the pain and suffering a small group of people can do when given a monopoly on violence, or in other words, the power of government, this is a stark example.