The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine

The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine

Rana Mitter, The Guardian

The death toll has never been fully calculated, but Frank Dikötter's powerful Mao's Great Famine puts the number of dead at some 45 million between 1958 and 1962.

The history of the Great Leap Forward,” one of my teaching colleagues used to begin a lecture, “is the history of Chinese accountancy.” The lack of excitement on his students’ faces was palpable, but his less than enticing opening does sum up this bizarre and desolate period in modern Chinese history. For with its tales of exaggerated grain production and ever-more fanciful industrial targets, the Leap was indeed a demonstration of how dubious statistics and lack of transparency could culminate in the deaths of millions.

In 1958, China was a state still nervous about its place in the world – isolated from the capitalist countries and with its USSR alliance starting to fray. Mao Zedongpushed hard for a new programme that would boost China’s economy at a stroke. His colleagues supported him in a drive that would become known as the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to increase agricultural and industrial production to levels never before seen in human history. Within a year, however, it became clear that the plans were going horribly wrong. In China’s countryside, food became ever scarcer. Hugely exaggerated reports of grain harvests were taken seriously at high levels, and food was moved from the countryside to the cities while millions of farmers started to die of starvation and its associated diseases. The death toll has never been fully calculated, but Frank Dikötter’s powerfulMao’s Great Famine puts the number of dead at some 45 million between 1958 and 1962. The picture that Dikötter draws is devastating; but do we really need another long and detailed book on the famine?

The answer is yes. Tombstone is not just a history but a political sensation. Its author, Yang Jisheng, was a longstanding journalist at China’s Xinhua news agency. His own father died of starvation in 1959, and the “tombstone” of the title is in part a tribute to a dead parent who was never acknowledged as a victim of the state’s policies. Over the years, Yang used his access to collect materials from restricted archives detailing the famine. He was denied permission to publish on the mainland, but the book came out in Hong Kong in 2008 and went into eight reprints. This translation is an adapted version of the two-volume Chinese original. The editors and translators, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian, have done a skilful job in reducing and recasting the book so that its chapters alternate between an examination of high politics and the details of the famine on the ground.

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