58 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on 5 February 2012
In terms of shock and impression that it leaves you, very few books compare. This has to be one of the books which has left me utterly shocked and has really opened my eyes to the brutality of Mao's regime. Being born in a former cummunist country that was also a staunch supporter of Mao (Albania), I thought that I'd be able to draw parallels of people's lives in both countries. How wrong I was. The book details page after page sheer human suffering all in the name of mad schemes created by the politburo and in many cases by Mao himself.
I want to say that I enjoyed this book, but in saying such a word would imply a sort of entertainment or satisfaction from the book. Enjoyment is the wrong word. I found this book to be profoundly humbling and being the sensitive type, most of the time, I found myself being absolutely repulsed by the idiocy and lunacy of the authorities and the great human loss that resulted. It takes a great writer for a book to have such an effect on the reader. And kudos to him! Dikotter is truly an amazing writer and his research into Mao's China is painstaking and second to none. He writes with a sense of compassion for the people caught in this tragedy but does not however mince his words.
I'd certainly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about China or who wants to be left humbled about how lucky they truly are!
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on 18 March 2013
This book contains a devastating shock on just about every page - I promise you that, for every page without a shock, there will be eleven pages with plenty of shocks to spare.
I have read extensively about the Holocaust, the terror-famine in Ukraine, Stalin's Gulag, North Korea. Those books make me weep, rightly so, but they, even collectively, describe a destruction of human life which just doesn't compare with what happened in China and Tibet from 1958 to 1962. I'm pretty sure that the author is being extremely conservative, when he gives an estimate of about 45 million deaths from the so-called "Great Leap Forward".
China, in the fifties, was supposed to surpass Britain's industrial output. That meant abandoning silly old agriculture (why would the world's most populous country need copious amounts of food, after all?). It required the export of huge amounts of rice and maize, grains which were essential for the survival of Chinese farmers, to pay for dodgy industrial hardware from Russia, East Germany and even rather better functioning machinery from parts of the capitalist world, such as West Germany and the United States. China simply couldn't meet the payments. It carried on exporting agricultural produce, much of it completely inedible, by the time it reached its destination, while its own farmers starved to death, in numbers which the human brain (mine, anyway) is just not up to imagining.
This disaster (1958-1961) coincided with an implementation of collectivisation which was even more catastrophic than the the soviet version in the twenties and thirties, the Romanian edition in the late eighties, even worse than the Ethiopian disaster of the mid-eighties.
They tore down straw huts (people's actual houses), to make fertiliser. Much of China is incredibly cold (more like Canada than England or Scotland) in winter. People had no chance of survival, without shelter. They melted down pans, shovels, forks, hoes, spades and knives for metal, supposedly to make the machinery which would propel China to the forefront of production. When farming tools were needed, they no longer existed. They confiscated the seed crop, the seeds essential for the new year's planting; without that, nothing would grow. People, of any age, were murdered by the state (usually by beatings, rather than shooting - were the state thugs short of bullets?). Such food as China had, she exported, or consumed at banquets for the maoist leadership. China exported food, desperately needed by the very people who had farmed it, while the farmers died in millions and tens of millions. State hoodlums scoured desperately poor farms, just as in 1931 Ukraine, tracking down any hint of grain.
The descriptions of life in China in this period ('58-61') really churn the stomach. This book is an outstanding record, meticulously annotated. This is a superb book, a very great book, but - be warned - it will upset you.
Mao's China, even more than Hitler's Germany, or Stalin's ussr, was the most appalling regime that has yet existed. Self-proclaimed "maoists" have brought murder on a huge scale to Peru, on an unimaginably vast scale to Cambodia. Quite how somebody can look at Mao's China and see anything deserving emulation is beyond me. This book, with Jung Chang's "Mao - The Unknown Story" and Zhisui Li's "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" (both, especially Li's work, much referred to here), is essential reading, regarding that terrible era.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 11 May 2013
I'm a bit of a Sinophile and have an entire library of books on China. This book is the most authoritative, in-depth and detailed book on the Great Leap Forward that you will find and provides a real insight into some of the shocking aspects of this traumatic time in the history of modern China.
If you are looking for something which looks at Chinese history more widely and covers aspects of the Great Leap Forward then try Jonathan Spence's "In Search for Modern China",
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 5 April 2013
This is about the great leap "forward" and what it really meant to the Chinese. It is a superb book. Very definitely worth reading. I, personally, have no criticisms of this book. In fact, Frank Dikötter left me wanting to read more about China, and, in particular, the next great disaster, the Cultural Revolution.
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on 3 November 2012
I read Mao's Great Famine last year, and returned to it recently to check some details. Once again it drew me into the history. It is thoroughly researched, well-constructed, insghtful, very well written and very involving for the reader.
I am puzzled though by the one star reviews here. They are way off beam, and seem to be part of a concerted 'holocaust denying' type of mindset. Seriously, ignore them.
The author is very clear and meticulous about identifying the sources - mostly official records to which he was allowed access in the People's Republic. And, as a good historian, he interrogates the records for their reliability. He is also suitably cautious about scaling up to an overall level of casualties from the regional figures.
But to me the point isn't about a big figure total of casualties. People who argue the detail on this are clearly missing the human dimension: the levels of suffering, cruelty and coercion that blighted the lives of so many people. And the mixture of blindly-driven ideology, stumbling incompetence and ignorance, and desire or pressure to conform that caused so much harm and set the economy of China back by 50 years.
Very highly recommended.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 4 November 2012
When one thinks about the disasters of the 20th century, we tend to focus on the conflagration of the Second World War - where the Nazis systematically murdered with surgical precision via a series of death camps, 6 million Jews. His erstwhile ally and then enemy, Stalin, who himself was no stranger to genocide, once remarked "one person's death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic" - a horrific quote, but when we are faced with such a barrage of numbers, it is perhaps inevitable that our ability to personalize or at least humanize such an thought is lost to the winds of time.
Frank Dikotter's book concentrates on "The Great Leap Forward" of 1958-62, Mao's relentless drive to haul China into the modern age with a series of command-economy style reforms to both the industrial and agrarian base. The result - an estimated 45 million deaths, mostly due to forced starvation, but also around 10-15% of that via beatings, torture and straight forward murder - and all with no tangible achievement, as, to be expected, the whole thing was an unmitigated disaster of unparalleled scale. Mao wanted to push China onto the global stage, setting unobtainable targets for his minions, who inevitably would resort to violence to try to ensure they were met.
The sheer baseness of what happens is almost unfathomable - you couldn't call it "medieval" because that would be a disservice to the achievements of that age. To think that this sort of thing went on whilst say, the Beatles were just about to hit the western world doesn't almost compute. A country with a rich civilized history reduced to a year zero, manichaen duality of those who could work and eat, and those who couldn't and therefore died. Dikotter's analysis is blunted a little by the somewhat workmanlike nature of the prose, and it's a little difficult at times to follow it due to the somewhat atomized nature of his examples. China is a huge country with a vast population and to see him zoom in on the example of one person's experience in one village does sometimes cloud one's perception of the overall picture. That's not to demean his efforts because there's still so much to be learnt about this truly dark period of the country's history - much of the official documentation is still kept securely behind closed doors.
The sheer range of disasters is meticulously detailed by Dikotter; from woefully planned hydroelectric projects that wiped out entire regions of villages to insane drives to wipe out birds because they ate precious seed, only realizing too late that the avians were essential as they ate insects that attacked the grain. All the while Mao was keen to distance himself from Soviet Russia and project themselves as a global power - sending abroad grain for trade whilst the people starved to death. The main upshot of this book's analysis is that the 20 year struggle of the Chinese communist revolution between 1929 and 1949 had turned the upper echelons of the party into hardened, violent psychopaths (with a few exceptions), who for them, death and misery was an inevitable part of life. Eager to please Mao, violence dripped down from the top to the bottom in an escalating fashion to the point where there was no other option for cadres faced with insurmountable production targets to meet.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 3 October 2013
It's not every day that you come across a book which is truly harrowing but here you have one. It is the unvarnished story of a leader and his nation.
In my work as a Baptist Minister I am expected to be an inspirational leader, to cast a compelling vision and set strategies that will inspire people to bring about change. This role often leads me to study books which describe great leaders and their motivation. Stories about able leaders, their thinking and psychology are an inspiration to me. 'Mao's great famine', however, reveals the polar opposite of good leadership. If you are expected to lead in any sphere of life, here is how not to do it.
Under Mao the Chinese nation had a leader of blindly driven ideology whose self centred personality drove the nation into the largest man-made famine in human history. An estimated 75 million lives were lost (and yes, that is more than ten times the Jewish holocaust of the second world war). For decades the west swallowed Mao's propaganda that during the late 1950s and early 19060s China suffered a series of natural disasters which had cost many lives.
While some of that was true, Prof Dikotter shows how shallow this claim was. With impressively researched stories, many from first hand sources, he describes how a great nation was brought to its knees. The food needed to feed the population was given away at rock bottom prices leaving the farmers without nutrition. Irrigation projects were scored according to the amount of earth moved, not the quantity of water conserved. People who questioned the state were silenced or murdered and party officials caroused in luxury on a river boat while people starved on the bank as they passed. Ridiculous state intervention in the steel market left people burning their most precious possessions in a drive to feed low quality furnaces. Children and the elderly lived on the brink, constantly at risk of starvation. Even dead bodies, many bloated from malnutrition, lay unburied by the side of the road. All this in a futile bid to out-perform Russia and the West.
This book doesn't need to rely on a subtly framed argument which leads the reader to the authors' own preferred interpretation. It lets the facts speak for themselves. Story after story, all meticulously documented, tell the harrowing story of a great nation brought to ruin. Behind the façade of communism lies self interest, greed and a fanatical desire to be one better than Russia and Britain. It is a tragic tale describing the inevitable consequences of self-aggrandisement as Mao leads his nation into chaos.
This is an uncomfortable and curiously compelling book and one whose message we ignore at our peril.
Ian White, Eastbourne, UK
131 of 144 people found the following review helpful
on 8 February 2011
I just finished reading the book "Mao's Great Famine". It brought back certain memories to me.
I am an ethnic Chinese lucky enough to be born and then grew up in Hong Kong, under the protection of the British Flag and not in China. If not I would either have been killed during the Great Leap Forward or have become a Red Guard and not been able to receive a proper education in the 1960s.
I was brought up by a maid who used to be a peasant in China and who escaped to Hong Kong at the time of the Great Leap Forward. She told me stories that at that time, many did not believe. She told me of the close cropping forced on the peasants by the Communist cadres. She told me how one night, the night before the village was to receive an inspector from the Central Government, the village party secretary forced all of them out into the field to pull up the saplings by about 1 inch so that the next day, the party secretary could tell the inspector all was well, the saplings were growing! She told me of the starvation. From rumors, I have also heard of cannibalism. Now all those were confirmed by Frank Dikotter's findings and reportage in that book.
The world should know of the horrors perpetrated by Mao, a man still honored by Communist China, a man whose body now lies preserved in that mausoleum in Beijing, a man whose legacy of mass murders put him in the same league as Stalin and Hitler, but managed to be honored officially by his own country as a great man and not vilified as a murderer. How did he do it?
I graduated from the Medical Faculty of Hong Kong University in the 1960s and later joined the Department of Medicine as a lecturer until i resigned and moved to Singapore in the 80s.
In 1967, I was the Secretary of the Hong Kong University Students' Union. That year was the year of the communists instigated riots in Hong Kong. We, the students, were a pretty apolitical lot in those days. We tried to keep our heads low and not say anything about the riots. Then one day, one of the communists newspaper, '''said they have received support from the HKU Students' Union. I was the secretary and I have never written that, nor has the President. That same evening, the Executive Committee divided into teams, went to all the hostels and took a poll. Something like 98% of the students polled were against the riots. That same evening, we issued a press release saying, "This morning, '' reported they have received from the HKUSU statement of support for the riots, the Executive Committee had never issued that statement and a poll of the students the same day showed 98% of the students polled were against it." The President received a letter with the picture of a coffin in it, and fake bombs were placed in the Students' Union premises. I learnt a lesson - in China, truth is what power says it is - the age old story from the time of the Warring Kingdom was still true, '''', (to point to a deer and says it is a horse).
Then in 1980, after the fall of the Gang of Four, China was trying to rehabilitate its doctors, many of whom were sent to the field as labourers. A team of lecturers from HKU was requested to go back to China and to give a series of lectures to those doctors. I was part of that team. We went to Guangzhou. One night, there was a knock on the door of our room in the Hotel. A man in his 60s stood there. He then told us he was a graduate from HKU Medical School, and in the 1950s, he heeded the call of Mao to overseas Chinese to go back to China and help the country. During the Cultural Revolution, he was branded a rightist and he and his family were sent to Tangshan to work as miners. During the earthquake of 1976, his whole family was killed. "I am a lonely man now", he said. He then requested us to put him in touch with HKU again. After that, he left the room and I accompanied him on his way out. Whilst in the corridor, and having ascertained there was no other person in the corridor, he put his hand around my shoulder, and whispered these words into my ear, "I am a member of the Communist Party, and I tell you, Communism is bad." He then quickly walked away.
The heinous deeds perpetrated by Mao should be widely known. I am so glad Frank Dikotter wrote that book which confirmed all my personal experience. Even though present day China seems to be a different beast compared with Mao's China, until they take that man's body out of the mausoleum, one still has questions regarding the trustworthiness of China - is Truth still defined by Power?
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 6 February 2012
This is a significant piece of research. It reveals the frightning scale of Mao's obsession with his 'Great Leap Forward' and the true cost in human suffering and wasted life. The indifference to misery, hunger and death are beyond comprehension; a willingness to kill a nation in order to make it progress. I can't believe that I lived through these years as a child, growing up with no idea of how dreadful the times really were. Shame on all the governments who kept silent. We are all aware of the millions of his own people that Stalin killed, but Mao's tally is many times worse.
The author has gained remarkable access to official records, and from beginning to end the account is moving and authoritative. I suspect Dikotter has broken new ground with this book. It is the salutary lesson that ends don't necessarily justify means and that, in the end, human compassion should be worth more than the drive for wealth.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 5 September 2013
Frank Dikotter is a brilliant writer, able to hold one's attention with ease.
His research is based on recently opened archives in China - a rare opportunity for historical research.