Mao's Great Famine

Mao's Great Famine
Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62  
Cover of the first edition.
Cover of the 2010 first edition.
Author(s) Frank Dikötter
Language English
Genre(s) History
Publisher Walker & Company (hardcover, US)
Bloomsbury Publishing (hardcover, UK and softcover, US)
Publication date 6 September 2010
Media type Print (Hardback)
ISBN 0802777686

Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, is a 2010 book by professor and historian Frank Dikötter about the Great Chinese Famine of 1958–1962.

Based on four years of research in recently opened Chinese provincial, county, and city archives,[1][2] the book constructs what Andrew J. Nathan, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Columbia University writing in Foreign Affairs, describes as "the most detailed account yet"[3] of the experiences of the Chinese people during the famine, which occurred under the Communist regime of Mao Zedong. The book supports an estimate of "at least" 45 million premature deaths in China during the famine years.[4] Dikötter characterises the Great Famine as "The worst catastrophe in China’s history, and one of the worst anywhere."[4].

The book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011, beating five other works on the short list,[5] for being what the judges characterised as "stunningly original and hugely important".[6] The ₤20,000 award is the largest in the UK for a non-fiction book.[7]



Dikötter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, where he teaches courses on both Mao and the Great Chinese Famine,[8] and Professor of the Modern History of China from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. The author's research behind the book was funded by, in the UK, the Wellcome Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the Economic and Social Research Council, and in Hong Kong, the Research Grants Council and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.[9]

The first chapter of the book, entitled "The Pursuit of Utopia", explains how the Chinese Communist Party's Great Leap Forward program, intended to achieve the rapid modernization of Chinese industry and agriculture, instead led to the catastrophe of the famine. According to one reviewer, the chapter summarizes:

… Mao's hubristic and utterly impractical plans for remaking China in the image of communist paradise. These include mass mobilization fueled by revolutionary ardor alone, the expropriation of personal property and housing to be replaced by People's Communes, the centralized distribution of food, plans to leapfrog Britain in 15 years and outdo Stalin by "walking on two legs” (referring to development of both agriculture and industry), and regimenting and militarizing the entire society.[1]

The following chapters detail the attempt to reach these goals and the consequences of the failures to do so.[1] Dikötter was one of only a few historians granted access to the relevant Chinese archives.[5]

Key arguments of the book

On a website providing exposure for the book, Dikötter detailed his key arguments. First, he states that the famine lasted at least four years (early 1958 to late 1962), not the three sometimes stated. And after researching large volume of Chinese archives, Dikötter concluded that decisions coming from the top officials of the Chinese government at Beijing were the direct cause of the famine.

Beijing government officials, including Zhou Enlai and Mao, increased the food procurement quota from the countryside to pay for international imports. According to Dikötter, "In most cases the party knew very well that it was starving its own people to death." Mao was quoted as saying in Shanghai in 1959: “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.”

In their attempts to survive, Chinese people resorted to hiding, stealing, cheating, pilfering, foraging, smuggling, tricking, manipulating or otherwise outwitting the government. There were reports of armed assaults on granaries or trains. Overall, Dikötter estimates that there were 45 million premature deaths, not 30 million as previously estimated. Some two to three million of these were victims of political repression, beaten or tortured to death or summarily executed for political reasons, often for the slightest infraction.

Because local communist cadres were in charge of food distribution, they were able to withhold food from anyone of whom they disapproved. Old, sick and weak individuals were often regarded as unproductive and hence expendable. Apart from Mao, Dikkötter accuses several other members of the top party leadership of doing nothing about the famine. While famine was ravaging the country, free food was still being exported to allies, as well as economic aid and interest-free or low-interest loans.

In addition to the human suffering, some 30 to 40 percent of all rural housing was demolished in village relocations, for building roads and infrastructure, or sometimes as punishment for political opponents. Up to 50 percent of trees were cut down in some provinces, as the rural ecological system was ruined.[10][4]

Responses to the book

Mao's Great Famine has elicited a number of responses (here presented in alphabetical order by author):

Jasper Becker, author of Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine, praises the book as a "brilliant work, backed by painstaking research . . . The archive material gathered by Dikötter . . . confirms that far from being ignorant or misled about the famine, the Chinese leadership were kept informed about it all the time."[11]

Jung Chang, author of Mao: The Unknown Story, called the book: "The most authoritative and comprehensive study of the biggest and most lethal famine in history. A must-read."[12]

Jonathan Fenby, author of the Penguin History of Modern China and China Director at the research service, Trusted Sources, praised Dikötter's "masterly book" and states that his "painstaking research in newly opened local archives makes all too credible his estimate that the death toll reached 45 million people."[2]

Sinologist Roderick MacFarquhar said the book is "Pathbreaking... 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."[13]

Historian and journalist Ben Macintyre, one of the judges for the Samuel Johnson Prize, said Mao's Great Famine was a "meticulous account of a brutal manmade calamity [that] is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the 20th century."[7] He also said that the book "could have been overwritten, but part of what makes it work so well is it is written with quiet fury. He doesn't overstate his case because he doesn't need to. Its very strength lies in its depth of scholarship, lightly worn."[6]

Writer Brenda Maddox, another of the judges for the prize, said "this book changed my life - I think differently about the 20th century than I did before. Why didn't I know about this?"[6]

Jonathan Mirsky, a historian and journalist specializing in Asian affairs, said Dikötter's book "is for now the best and last word on Mao's greatest horror. Frank Dikötter has put everyone in the field of Chinese studies in his debt, together with anyone else interested in the real China. Sooner or later the Chinese, too, will praise his name." He also writes that "In terms of Mao's reputation this book leaves the Chairman for dead, as a monster in the same league as Hitler and Stalin - and that is without considering the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when hundreds of thousands more Chinese died."[14]

The Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, writing in The New Yorker, offered qualified praise for the book, stating that the "narrative line is plausible". However he stated that Dikötter is "generally dismissive of facts that could blunt his story’s sharp edge", and thought that Dikötter’s "comparison of the famine to the great evils of the Holocaust and the Gulag does not, finally, persuade".[15]

Cormac Ó Gráda, a leading scholar of famine, and professor of economics at University College Dublin, criticised the book describing it as reading "more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument". Ó Gráda further goes on to describe the book as "weak on context and unreliable with data" and that it failed to note that "many of the horrors it describes were recurrent features of Chinese history during the previous century or so". Dikötter is also taken to task for his use of an unrealistic low 'normal' mortality rate of 1 percent in order to maximise his death count. Ó Gráda says 10 per thousand adopted by Dikötter is "implausibly low". Ó Gráda 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."[16] Ó Gráda criticises Dikötter's "breathless prose style – replete with expressions like 'plummeted,' 'rocketed,' 'beaten to a pulp,' 'beaten black and blue,' 'frenzy,' 'ceaseless,' 'frenzied witch-hunt'" which he said were more "reminiscent of the tabloid press than the standard academic monograph".[16]

Orville Schell, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, praised Dikötter's research in Chinese archives, which enabled him to unveil "the shroud on this period of monumental, man-made catastrophe" and document how Mao's "impetuosity was the demise of tens of millions of ordinary Chinese who perished unnecessarily in this spasm of revolutionary extremism."[12]

Simon Sebag-Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, called the book "a gripping and masterful portrait of the brutal court of Mao."[12]

George Mason University Law School professor Ilya Somin called the book "excellent", and wrote that "Dikötter’s study is not the first to describe these events. Nonetheless, few Western intellectuals are aware of the scale of these atrocities, and they have had almost no impact on popular consciousness. This is part of the more general problem of the neglect of communist crimes. But Chinese communist atrocities are little-known even by comparison to those inflicted by communists in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, possibly because the Chinese are more culturally distant from Westerners than are Eastern Europeans or the German victims of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the Wall (one of communism’s relatively smaller crimes) is vastly better known than the Great Leap Forward — the largest mass murder in all of world history. Hopefully, Dikötter’s important work will help change that."[17]

Steven Yearley, Professor of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge at the University of Edinburgh, notes that the book "stands out" from other works on the famine "on account of its basis in recently opened archives and in the countless compelling details which are provided to clarify the interlocking themes of the text."[18]

Misrepresentation of famine image on book cover

Adam Jones, political science and genocide studies professor at UBC Okanagan, criticised Bloomsbury Publishing and Dikötter for using a cover photograph on their editions of the book of a starving child that was actually from a Life magazine depiction of a 1946 Chinese famine, well before the events described in the book took place. [19]

Jones places most of the blame on Bloomsbury, stating that "Most book covers are designed by the publisher, often using stock images, rather than by the author," but also accepted a blogger's point that it was unlikely that Dikötter would have been unaware of the deception, because in an interview with Newsweek magazine, Dikötter had stated that, to his knowledge, no 'non-propaganda' images from the Great Leap Forward had ever been found.[20] The Walker & Company edition of the book has a different cover, which incorporates a 1962 image of Chinese refugees to Hong Kong begging for food as they are deported back to China.[20]

Awards and honors

See also


  1. ^ a b c Robertson, Matthew (21 November 2010). "Mao's Utopia a Medley of Death and Destruction". The Epoch Times. 
  2. ^ a b Fenby, Jonathan (5 September 2010). "Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikötter". The Guardian (London). 
  3. ^ Nathan, Andrew J. (3 November 2010). "Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962". Foreign Affairs. 
  4. ^ a b c Dikötter, Frank (15 December 15 2010). "Mao's Great Leap to Famine". International Herald Tribune. 
  5. ^ a b "Mao's Great Famine wins Samuel Johnson Prize". BBC News. 6 July 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c d Flood, Alison (6 July 2011). "Samuel Johnson prize won by 'hugely important' study of Mao". The Guardian. 
  7. ^ a b "Mao's Great Famine' Wins Nonfiction Prize". Associated Press. ABC News. 6 July 2011. 
  8. ^ "Professor Frank Dikötter". University of Hong Kong. Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  9. ^ "Frank Dikötter". Frank Dikötter home page. Retrieved 1 January 2011. 
  10. ^ Dikötter, Frank (20 October 2010). "Cover interview of October 20, 2010". Retrieved 21 November 2010. 
  11. ^ Becker, Jasper (25 September 2010). "Systematic genocide". The Spectator. 
  12. ^ a b c "Frank Dikötter: Advance Praise and Synopsis". Frank Dikötter Home Page. Retrieved 22 November 2010. 
  13. ^ MacFarquhar, Roderick (20 January 2011). "The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever". The New York Review of Books. 
  14. ^ Mirksy, Jonathan (September 2010). "Livelihood Issues". Literary Review. 
  15. ^ Mishra, Pankaj (20 December 2010). "Staying Power: Mao and the Maoists". The New Yorker. 
  16. ^ a b Ó Gráda, Cormac (15 March 2011). "Great Leap into Famine? – Ó Gráda’s review of Dikötter book". China Study Group. 
  17. ^ Somin, Ilya (17 December 2010). "Frank Dikötter on Mao’s Mass Murders". The Volokh Conspiracy. 
  18. ^ Yearley, Steven (15 January 2011). "Book Review: Frank Dikötter, Mao's Great Famine". Food Security 3 (1): 113–115. doi:10.1007/s12571-010-0110-3. 
  19. ^ Jones, Adam (7 October 2010). "Misrepresenting a famine image". Genocide Studies Media File. 
  20. ^ a b Fish, Issac Stone (26 September 2010). "Greeting Misery With Violence". Newsweek. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Great Famine — /greɪt ˈfæmən/ (say grayt famuhn) noun any of various major episodes of famine that have affected areas of the world, including: 1. Also, Potato Famine, Irish Potato Famine, Great Irish Potato Famine, Great Hunger. a famine which occurred in… …   Australian English dictionary

  • Mao Zedong — Mao redirects here. For other uses, see Mao (disambiguation). This is a Chinese name; the family name is Mao. Mao Ze dong 毛泽东 Official 1967 Portrait of Mao Ze …   Wikipedia

  • Mao: The Unknown Story —   Cover of the 2005 first edition …   Wikipedia

  • Great Leap Forward — For other uses, see Great Leap Forward (disambiguation). History of the People s Republic of China    …   Wikipedia

  • Great Chinese Famine — History of the People s Republic of China     1949–1976, The Mao Era         …   Wikipedia

  • Famine — This article is about scarcity of food. For other uses, see Famine (disambiguation). Child victim of the Holodomor. A famine is a widespread scarcity of food. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation …   Wikipedia

  • Mao Zedong — /mow zeuh doong , dzeuh /; Chin. /mow zu dawng / 1893 1976, Chinese Communist leader: chairman of the People s Republic of China 1949 59; chairman of the Chinese Communist party 1943 76. Also, Wade Giles, Mao Tse tung /mow tseuh toong , dzeuh… …   Universalium

  • Famine au Tibet (1960-1962) — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Famine au Tibet. Les subdivisions administratives autonomes tibétaines de la République populaire de Chine, représentées en jaune Le Grand Bond en avant …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Great sparrow campaign — The Great sparrow campaign (zh s|打麻雀运动) also known as the Kill a sparrow campaign (消灭麻雀运动), and officially, the Four Pests campaign was one of the first actions taken in the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962. The four pests to be eliminated… …   Wikipedia

  • Grande famine de Chine — Traduction à relire Great Chinese Famine → …   Wikipédia en Français

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