Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter

Mao's Great Famine coverIn 2010 I was in Beijing and driving past Tiananmen Square with the owner of the hostel I was staying at. I’d visited the square, largely expanded by Mao Zedong in 1958-1959, a couple days before, where I’d been approached by men trying to sell me cheap plastic watches with the Chairman’s portrait plastered on the dial. Now I pointed to the same chubby face gazing over the scene from the front of the Forbidden City.

“So, uh, what do you think of Mao?” I asked.

The owner gave me a sort of funny smile. “Him? We didn’t like him.”

He didn’t elaborate and we left it at that, but this was the exchange I was thinking about when I decided to read Mao’s Great Famine, by historian Frank Dikötter, who wrote using recently declassified party archives from the famine years, as well as interviews with survivors.

All I’ve ever really associated Mao’s name with was the Cultural Revolution, though the policies and subsequent fallout of his so-called Great Leap Forward in the years preceding the Revolution, as he pushed for China to become a reigning communist superpower, led to the largest famine in the history of mankind, as well as the greatest ever destruction of real-estate.

If you’re lucky, food is one of the things so easy to take for granted. It’s ironic that I read the latter half of the book while vacationing and stuffing my face pretty much nonstop. What would it be like to be so hungry that you’d eat mud, tree bark and exhumed human corpses? I don’t know and never want to know. I’m not even sure I can sufficiently imagine it. But that’s what happened in the Chinese countryside between 1958-1962, years which left tens of millions dead (the true number is debated, but could be as high as 50-60 million) as mass collectivisation replaced the ability of farmers to provide for themselves, and a violent, corrupt and dehumanising hierarchy of officialdom took over, from the villages to the capitol.

Famine started out slow, heavy on numbers as Dikötter delves into the math of a planned economy, sorting between figures purposely inflated or reduced to please the party, and the reality as it stood. It gets more intense as the focus narrows in on the situation on the ground, to individual villages and people.

There was a popular post on the website Reddit a few weeks ago in which someone attempted to describe the history of Russia in one sentence: “And then things got worse.” That’s also exactly what can be said of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. I went from wearily trying to make it through chapters about grain, steel and cotton production to having my stomach churned at the horrors of what people did–what they had to do–in order to survive. Desperation is a powerful force, and absolute desperation, in the face of looming death, can drive humans to do things that are close to unfathomable. Furthermore, starvation was not the only cause of death during the famine years: suicide, murder by local cadres or the militia, the winter cold (people were forced to tear down their homes for fuel and spare steel), gruesome industrial accidents, and poisonings of food and water supplies were all factors. This was hell on earth. Over the last half of the book I alternated between disgust, anger and sadness, often all three together.

I was reminded of another society, one which happens to be only a few degrees of latitude north from me. The acts of desperation and inhumanity during the famine are similar to those found in descriptions of life in the labor camps of North Korea, as detailed in the survivor’s memoir Escape from Camp 14. It’s sickening to consider that much of what went on during the famine of the Great Leap Forward is still going on today under the Kim regime of the DPRK. Meanwhile, a few hours from the border in South Korea we enjoy an absolute bounty of food, not to mention shelter and our freedoms. As in North Korea, in Mao’s China it took a poor populace and a convincing speaker with promises of utopia so grand, so sure (and so deluded), that people were willing to go with less one day, then one month, then a little less the next month too, and then, well, then things got worse.

Pages: 448  FoA pages: 37,549

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