Previously, I reviewed Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 and The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, investigative accounts into life under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976). In the first volume, Tragedy of Liberation, we learned about the transformation of China following the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975) and his Kuomintang Nationalist party. In the third volume, The Cultural Revolution, the behind the scenes political battles are put on display revealing the dysfunction that had engulfed Mao’s inner circle. Here in Mao’s Great Famine, Dikötter takes us back in time to the Great Leap Forward and its catastrophic failure between the years of 1958 and 1962. I feel the need to point out that by far, this part of the trilogy was the most difficult to read. As usual, Dikötter’s writing style is to the point and very concise. The difficult part is the material at hand. Today we know a fair amount about the Great Leap Forward and how it failed to transform Chinese society. The famine that ensued is known but what may not be known are the facts about what really happened behind the closed doors of China as a government struggled to move a nation forward as widespread hunger decimated its population.
If you are a reader with a sensitive stomach or easily disturbed, this may not be the book for you. But if you are a reader that is able to digest material that is emotionally and mentally difficult to accept, then this book will be one that you can add to your reading list. Some may wonder why a book such as this is needed. I believe it is important because it reveals to us what many probably did not and do not know. The details are sometimes gory and all around tragic. At several points in the book, I wondered to myself how human beings could do the things that they did to each other. The policy of collectivization and the labor mandated by the government devastated the country in ways from which it is still recovering. Mao’s grip over China was relentless and his failure to first grasp the severity of the situation and his lack of action to halt the descent is mystifying and infuriating. And considering what was known to have occurred in counties across the country, I am astounded that he was able to sleep at night with the blood of millions of Chinese on his hands. Perhaps towards the end of his life and in closed-door meetings, he did voice concern and repulsion about what was transpiring. But if that did happen, those facts have remained secret and are locked away from public view. One day we may find out more of the truth but for now we can only assume.
In between the descriptions of famine and violence, I did pick up a possibly unintended message in the book; we should all be grateful for the privileges and comforts in life that we have. I personally have never had the experiences detailed by Dikötter. And I can only imagine what life for them was like. Through his work, I now know their stories and can see their pain but I can never say that I know their struggle. Daily episodes of gratuitous violence, sexual assault, exhaustion, inhumane living conditions and death occurred with no reprieve. And when people did try to make their voices heard, they were met with severe resistance by cadres unwavering in their adulation to the Chairman. Lives were ended and others had their career ruined as the Red Guard made its presence felt throughout the country. Those who did not succumb to violence, often had to deal with extreme hunger, disease and mental degradation. The number of deaths that occurred is not known for sure but as we see in the book, it is believed that over 40 million Chinese people died during the Great Leap Forward. It is by far the worst case of systemic mass murder the world has ever seen and hopefully never will see again.
Today, Mao’s picture can still be found across China and his tomb in Beijing is open to the public. But as we come to know more about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, we will be forced to reexamine what we thought we knew about the Chairman and the legacy that lives decades after his death. This book is a hard look at the Great Leap Forward and all of its infamy.
Author Frank previously published his spellbinding investigative account, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, about the rise of Mao Zedong and the formation of the People’s Republic of China. That was followed by Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. Here he returns with a third expose of the movement that changed the course of Chinese history. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proudly declared the new republic following the defeat of the Kuomintang forces led by Chiang Kai-Shek. The new communist government sought to emulate its Soviet icon and instituted the disastrous policy of collectivization under the banner of the “Great Leap Forward”. But as Dikotter showed us, reality soon set in as the aura of the new country began to fade as famine set in, the government began to seize property and a climate of deceit and suspicion spread across the country. The book was thorough in examining the failures of the program as the harsh effects it placed upon the people of China. In this third book, he takes us deep inside the revolution, showing us the very dark side behind the late Chairman’s government.
I forewarn the reader that this book is not for the faint at heart. The things we learn although factual are ugly to say the least. Behind the facade of a nation of comrades committed to revolution, was a society breaking away at the seems as anarchy ruled and those in charge plotted against each other as they sought to maintain their hold on power and avoid the Chairman’s wrath. Today it is no secret that the “Great Leap Forward” failed in many ways. But what is often not discussed and examined are the very things we learn in this book. Similar to Himmler’s SS, the Red Guards, under the guise of filtering out counter-revolutionary’s, unleashed a wave of terror across the country against anyone suspected of being against the regime, from a lower class family or related to those who held high positions in society before the revolution. The Third Reich used the classic technique of divide and conquer to control the people and purge those suspected of not harboring unwavering loyalty to the Führer and his ideology of the master race. In China, the faces were different but the same climate of suspicion and spying by one person on another is prevalent. In fact, one example we learn of is a child that turns in their own parent.
Dikötter as usual has done a great job researching this book. To say that it is eye-opening would be a severe understatement. Not only does he show us what really happened behind the closed off borders of China, he highlights the political battles that raged behind the scenes. His writing style is engaging, pulling the reader in from the beginning and refuses to let go. The lives and actions of major places at the time are examined in detail. Names such as Jiang Qing (1914-1991, Madame Mao and leader of the Gang of Four), Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), Lin Biao (1907-1971) and Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969) appear throughout the book as the deadly politics of Communist China come to light. The members of the old guard have long passed but they still remain a part of China’s complicated history. What shocked me the most was the ease at which accusations were hurled and lives ruined in nearly every case without a shred of proof. Mao, concerned with maintaining an iron grip on his rule, let the division fester and rarely intervened. And as I think back to the book The Private Life of Chairman Mao by his personal physician Dr. Li Zhisui, I remember his words that the Great Leap Forward was used by Mao to expose those plotting against him. In fact, as I read the book, I found it increasingly hard to believe that those in charge actually did have concern for the millions of people affected by their actions. Dysentery, famine, pillaging and even cannibalism, turned the revolution into a living nightmare.
China continues to be haunted by the legacy of Mae Zedong. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, continued the government position of suppression of dissent and the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 became some of the most memorable of the twentieth century. Time will tell if democracy will ever take hold and if the young generation will be able leave Mao in a past that many do not care to relive. For students of the Cultural Revolution or those curious about what really happened across the country under Mao’s leadership, this book is a great addition of any historical library.