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on 11 May 2017
This book is so thorough and well-researched. It exposes a lot of deeply shocking and horrifying information, making me so utterly thankful that I wasn't born in China under Mao's brutal regime. It is difficult to believe the inhumanity that was perpetrated.
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on 18 March 2017
Despite being extremely detailed this book reads easily, succesfully condensing all the relevant details of the period. The author provides numerous examples of how damaging the policies of collectivisation were to the land and people of China and how these policies traced back to the leadership. Recommended for anyone looking to gain insight into Mao's China and I look forward to reading the remainder of the series.
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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!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 September 2013
This is one of the most remarkable books I've ever read. The research is meticulous, fact and sources clearly documented. The amount of data is mind boggling, but is presented in a lively and easy to read style.

China is such an enigma. A country that was aeons ahead of the Western world during the Middle Ages, but one shrouded in secrecy. I remember being intrigued by Maos Little Red Book in the 1960s and puzzling over how one person could wield such power over over so many people. I wondered how it was possible to indoctrinate a nation. This book exposes the stark reality of Mao's Great Leap Forward, explaining in detail how policy and targets set by central government were delivered ( or not)at both Province and even local village level. It's often an extremely difficult and harrowing read. The cost, in human terms, is genocide and was totally ignored by the West. The scale of human misery is incalculable; loss of life measured in multi millions.

It also served as a stark reminder of the extent to which Britain has slipped in world terms. It's difficult now to think back to a time, within my lifetime, when Britain's industrial output was Mao's benchmark.

I would urge anyone with an interest in social history to read this book. It's not always a comfortable read, but it's an important insight into events and attitudes which have shaped and continue to shape our current world. Some facts cannot and should not be ignored.
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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",
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 5 April 2017
Horrible Chinese history after Mao seize the power which is still in his party's hand.
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