Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962

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"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 to 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." So opens Frank Dikötter's riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era." Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world's superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It 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 of "the greatest demolition of real estate in human history," as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble). The experiment was a catastrophe for the natural world as well, as the land was savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments. In a powerful meshing of exhaustive research in Chinese archives and narrative drive, Dikötter for the first time links up what happened in the corridors of power-the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders-with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, giving voice to the dead and disenfranchised. His magisterial account recasts the history of the People's Republic of China.

Winner of the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The most authoritative and comprehensive study of the biggest and most lethal famine in history.  A must-read."—Jung Chang, author of Mao: The Unknown Story

"Mao’s Great Famine is a gripping and masterful portrait of the brutal court of Mao, based on new research but also written with great narrative verve, that tells the gripping story of the manmade famine that killed 45 million people, from the dictator and his henchmen down to the villages of rural China."—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

"Despite Beijing’s new openness over the past few decades, there are still whole parts of contemporary Chinese history that Party officials have managed to keep largely hidden from the scrutiny of the outside world. The 1959-60 Great Great Leap Forward, Mao’s epic effort of revolutionary will power to force China’s peasantry into socialism through the rapid communization of agriculture, is such a period. However, by managing to gain access to unplumbed regional Chinese archives and other new materials, Frank Dikotter has helped throw back the shroud on this period of monumental, man-made catastrophe. With both narrative vigor and scholarly rigor, Mao's Great Famine documents how Mao Zedong’s impetuosity was not only the demise of many of his far more politically level-headed comrades-in-arms, but also of tens of millions of ordinary Chinese who perished unnecessarily in this spasm of revolutionary extremism."—Orville Schell, Author and Director of the Center on US-China relations at the Asia Society

"A direct, hard-hitting study of China’s Great Leap Forward in light of newly opened archival material … A horrifically eye-opening work of a dark period of Chinese history that desperately cries out for further examination."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"An intensively researched litany of suffering, packed with statistics, grim anecdotes, and self-serving explanations by leaders responsible for the devastation."—Publishers Weekly

"Dikotter has done a service to history and, when they are allowed to read it, to the Chinese themselves."—Bloomberg

"This is an important work illustrating the dangers of one individual holding power to force millions to fulfill his personal fantasies."—Booklist

"Uses newly opened archives and original interviews to detail the calamity in calm, if unavoidably grisly, detail."—

"Aided by newly released historical documents detailing the savage infighting and backstabbing of those in power and the extent of the nationwide damage, Dikötter has produced one of the best single-volume resources on the topic."—Library Journal

"This emphasis on how party violence exacerbated the death toll sets Dikötter’s book apart from other studies of the Great Leap Forward … Books like his may help force the atrocities, and the debate, back to the surface."—Newsweek

"Dikötter tells the story with vivid new details…His relentlessly clinical, morally intense account of filth, disease, and hunger is both fascinating and numbing."—Foreign Affairs

"In Mao’s Great Famine, historian Frank Dikötter assembles a treasure chest of these historic facts, but more important, he strokes them together into a masterly and memorable story…ranks among the best documentation available on the Great Leap Forward."—Christian Science Monitor

"Haunting… Dikötter succeeds in his dark task of cataloguing the awesome scale of [Mao’s] crime."—New Republic

"Groundbreaking… Dikötter found new evidence of the massive and spectacular violence."

Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Frank Dikötter's thoroughly researched book will help ensure that the country's present-day insecurities do not allow this dark past to be forgotten entirely… His findings are astounding…"Mao's Great Famine" makes for very grim reading in parts. But the sheer volume of previously hidden facts allows a much clearer and more damning picture to emerge, making a critical contribution to Chinese history."—Wall Street Journal

"A riveting and heartbreaking and illuminating read by an expert in the field…Mao’s madness comes through on every page.  A MUST READ."—Travel Watch

"In terrifying detail, Dikotter elucidates the cult-like world of Maoism and the sycophancy of the Chairman’s inner circle…precise details of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution wouldn’t emerge until much later—and in the case of Dikotter’s book, which is the most detailed account published in English, a half century later…[a] masterpiece of historical investigation."


"[A] tour of the follies, inefficiencies, and deceptions of Mao’s commandeered economy…[a] vivid catalogue of horrors…Focussing relentlessly on Mao’s character and motivations, Dikötter confirms the man’s reputation as sadistic, cowardly, callous, and vindictive….[a] bold portrait."—New Yorker

"[A] seminal and must-read book."—

"For those Chinese students who want a reliable and readable account of what really happened, my standard advice has been to read Hungry Ghosts, by the British journalist Jasper Becker.4 But Becker’s work has now been largely superseded by the pathbreaking Mao’s Great Famine by the social historian Frank Dikötter… This is a first-class piece of research…. [Mao] will be remembered as the ruler who initiated and presided over the worst man-made human catastrophe ever. His place in Chinese history is assured. Dikötter’s book will have done much to put him there."—New York Review of Books

Publishers Weekly
Taking advantage of newly opened Party archives, Dikötter, a University of London historian who has specialized in modern China, presents a bleak, gruesomely detailed account of perhaps history's worst famine. A decade after assuming power, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, designed to quickly develop his impoverished nation, substituting mass action for planning and investment. A catastrophe followed. Forests were destroyed to feed 500,000 backyard blast furnaces that produced expensive but poor quality iron. Under miserable conditions, factory workers fulfilled hopelessly optimistic quotas with shoddy goods. Coerced into communes, millions of subsistence farmers neglected their fields to labor on poorly planned dams or irrigation projects; others demolished houses and barns to use as fertilizer. Falsifying figures, local officials proclaimed vast increases in food production. Shipping off the usual fraction of actual production for urban provisions and exports left little behind, so peasants starved; more than 40 million Chinese died. This is not a historical overview but an intensively researched litany of suffering, packed with statistics, grim anecdotes, and self-serving explanations by leaders responsible for the devastation. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Oct.)
Library Journal
From 1958 to 1962, Mao Zedong oversaw a massive collectivization, announced to the world as his "Great Leap Forward," an attempt to push China, both agriculturally and industrially, into the 20th century. Instead Mao destroyed the lives of millions of Chinese, forcing them to work under inhuman conditions on "the people's" farms. A devastating famine that killed approximately 30 million resulted from poor planning, execution, and widespread corruption. When even Mao's closest colleagues began to point out this folly, Mao consolidated his power and continued down this road of devastation with the "Great Cultural Revolution" (1966–76). Dikötter (Sch. of Oriental & African Studies, Univ. of London; The Discourse of Race in Modern China) writes a compelling account of the Great Leap Forward. VERDICT Aided by newly released historical documents detailing the savage infighting and backstabbing of those in power and the extent of the nationwide damage, Dikötter has produced one of the best single-volume resources on the topic. Although a scholarly, heavily footnoted work, its flowing narrative—effectively a cautionary tale on the destructive powers of misguided ambition and blind hubris—reads well. Recommended for specialists as well as interested general readers.—Glenn Masuchika, Pennsylvania State University Lib., University Park
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802779236
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 10/11/2011
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 513,278
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Frank Dikötter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Professor of the Modern History of China at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is a key proponent of studying the history of China in global perspective, and has published a series of innovative books, from his classic The Discourse of Race in Modern China (Univ. Stanford Press 1992) to the controversial Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China (Univ. Chicago Press 2004). He lives in Hong Kong.

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Read an Excerpt



Walker & Co.

Copyright © 2010 Frank Dikotter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-7768-3


Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up with and overtake Britain in less than fifteen years. By unleashing China's greatest asset, a labour force that was counted in the hundreds of millions, Mao thought that he could catapult his country past its competitors. Instead of following the Soviet model of development, which leaned heavily towards industry alone, China would 'walk on two legs': the peasant masses were mobilised to transform both agriculture and industry at the same time, converting a backward economy into a modern communist society of plenty for all. In the pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivised, as villagers were herded together in giant communes which heralded the advent of communism. People in the countryside were robbed of their work, their homes, their land, their belongings and their livelihood. Food, distributed by the spoonful in collective canteens according to merit, became a weapon to force people to follow the party's every dictate. Irrigation campaigns forced up to half the villagers to work for weeks on end on giant water-conservancy projects, often far from home, without adequate food and rest. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives.


Excerpted from MAO'S GREAT FAMINE by FRANK DIKÖTTER Copyright © 2010 by Frank Dikotter. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Co.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Two Rivals....................3
2. The Bidding Starts....................10
3. Purging the Ranks....................15
4. Bugle Call....................25
5. Launching Sputniks....................34
6. Let the Shelling Begin....................43
7. The People's Communes....................47
8. Steel Fever....................56
9. Warning Signs....................67
10. Shopping Spree....................73
11. Dizzy with Success....................84
12. The End of Truth....................90
13. Repression....................100
14. The Sino-Soviet Rift....................104
15. Capitalist Grain....................108
16. Finding a Way Out....................116
17. Agriculture....................127
18. Industry....................145
19. Trade....................155
20. Housing....................163
21. Nature....................174
22. Feasting through Famine....................191
23. Wheeling and Dealing....................197
24. On the Sly....................208
25. 'Dear Chairman Mao'....................215
26. Robbers and Rebels....................224
27. Exodus....................230
28. Children....................245
29. Women....................255
30. The Elderly....................263
31. Accidents....................269
32. Disease....................274
33. The Gulag....................287
34. Violence....................292
35. Sites of Horror....................306
36. Cannibalism....................320
37. The Final Tally....................324
An Essay on the Sources....................341
Select Bibliography....................349
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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted February 16, 2014

    On the wings of a communist surge sweeping parts of Asia, Mao de

    On the wings of a communist surge sweeping parts of Asia, Mao defeats challenger Chiang Kai-Shek and assumes dominance over China. Seeking to surpass Great Britain and even his superiors in the Soviet Union, Mao puts into motion one of the most catastrophic, self-destructive revolutions in history. Pursuing the ideal communist utopian fantasy and pushing for an impossible productive output, the Chairman rips the country apart from its roots – literally – using methods so ludicrous and radical in an experiment so foredoomed to disaster one wonders who could have followed such a madman. Farmers’ homes are torn down and turned into fertilizer, leaving tens of thousands homeless or packed like cattle in shacks in the freezing winters; everything metallic from shovels to pots and pans and eating utensils is melted into useless slag, depriving citizens of any possession and even simple farming tools; rivers are rerouted by hand, causing flooding and massive salinization of soil, ruining huge plots of farmland, worsening a countryside obliterated by deforestation to fuel the multitude of furnaces; a ‘war on nature’ is launched, wiping out birds and other animals vital to the natural environmental balance, unleashing a wave of pests, including locusts which swarmed the skies and wiped out crops. Hastening certain disaster come the tyrannical and destructive, typical by-products of communism: farmers, subjected to death and torture by overseeing cadres, are forced into collectivization, their property and even children confiscated by an inept state; the deterioration of morals as the famine forced a desperate struggle for survival in a bleak world where one has to steal, outwit, overpower, and murder to survive; the doomed to death young, female, and elderly who are trampled and abused by the strong; the massive amounts of toxic waste dumped into the environment by factories chasing impossible production quotas; forlorn workers suffering from industrial diseases and accidents in an atmosphere devoid of safety and health concerns; the creation of the black market and the rampant corruption everywhere on the chain as all find ways to outmaneuver a faceless state and its wasteful, inefficient command economy where product exists on paper only; the cancerous deprivation of incentive resultant of a system which reduces everyone to nothing and keeps them there, with the only means of mobility available in loyalty to a party which does not tolerate truth or critique but which thrives on lies and cowardice, using the withholding of food as its weapon, consigning the daring outspoken to hard labor and death in the gulag. The combined application of these two backward concepts – the war on nature and a repressive communist system – resulted in a famine of biblical proportions, reducing its sufferers to eating the mud from the earth and even their fellow humans dying naked in droves by the roadside. The dream of Mao and his ‘yes men’ of creating a world in which everyone was equal and everything was free only resulted in the total devastation of their country – economically, environmentally, spiritually, and in cost of human life.

    Frank Dikkoter and other researchers have done the victims and survivors some level of justice by elucidating the untold story of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. One wonders when such a valuable account of history will be available to the North Koreans also suffering a similar fate.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2012

    China's mortality during the Great Leap Forward - 24/1000 - was

    China's mortality during the Great Leap Forward - 24/1000 - was the same as India's, Pakistan's, and Indonesia's in 1960: India 24/1000, Indonesia 23/1000, Pakistan 23/1000. This was much less than China's 1949 figure (38/1000) and less than that of India's at the end of British rule (28/1000).
    Frank Dikotter adopted 10/1000 as a `normal' yearly death rate for China, and claims this as the figure for China in 1957. Deaths above this he regards as `excess' deaths. But 10/1000 was the mortality in the USA, Britain and France in 1960. Dikotter's claims imply that China reduced mortality from 38/1000 in 1949 to 10/1000 in 1957. India only reduced mortality from 28 to 23/1000, and Indonesia 26 to 23/1000 over the same period. So if Dikotter accepts a 10/1000 mortality rate for China in 1957, then he has to accept that the communists reduced mortality from 38/1000 to 10/1000 during their first eight years, thereby saving tens of millions of lives. This would have been the most dramatic, incredible reduction in mortality in human history.
    If Mao is to be condemned as a killer for presiding over a mortality rate of maximum 27/1000 say in 1960 (the worst year of the great leap forward), what do you call Churchill and other British rulers for consistently presiding over mortality rates of over 30/1000 during all the years of the British Raj? Note also that at no stage in the history of the PRC were mortality rates actually worse than any before 1949.
    That is why in the Maoist period China's population growth was about four times as fast as in the three decades leading up to 1949. In fact the fastest period of population growth in China's history happened under Mao.
    As Amartya Sen pointed out, four million more people died in India than in China in each year between 1958 and 1961.

    Joseph Ball pointed out, ""Although problems and reversals occurred in the Great Leap Forward, it is fair to say that it had a very important role in the ongoing development of agriculture. Measures such as water conservancy and irrigation allowed for sustained increases in agricultural production, once the period of bad harvests was over. They also helped the countryside to deal with the problem of drought. Flood defenses were also developed. Terracing helped gradually increase the amount of cultivated area.
    "Industrial development was carried out under the slogan of `walking on two legs'. This meant the development of small and medium scale rural industry alongside the development of heavy industry. As well as the steel furnaces, many other workshops and factories were opened in the countryside. The idea was that rural industry would meet the needs of the local population. Rural workshops supported efforts by the communes to modernize agricultural work methods. Rural workshops were very effective in providing the communes with fertilizer, tools, other agricultural equipment and cement (needed for water conservation schemes). ... Rural industry established during the Great Leap Forward used labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive methods. As they were serving local needs, they were not dependent on the development of an expensive nation-wide infrastructure of road and rail to transport the finished goods."

    4 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 10, 2011

    Well researched, easy to read

    While the story of the Great Leap Forward is heartbreaking, this book makes the story a compelling read. Reccomend this for any student of history, especially Asian, economic or Communist.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2011

    I did not receive the book.


    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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