Mao’s Great Famine by Fran Dikotter

MAO Famine Cover

(18 September 2015 – 20 October 2015)

This book tells the story of how 45 million Chinese people died during the Great Leap Forward between 1958-1962. The Great Leap Forward was Mao’s attempt to catapult China into the industrial age and overtake the western world in under fifteen years. The book recounts how the entire country was thrown in to an age of collectivisation and how peasants were forced to give up everything in the name of the state, and for millions eventually their lives. What followed after collectivisation was systematic beatings and torture of people in communes and perhaps the worst famine the world has ever seen, and one that was man-made.

The Great Leap Forward started with intensified agriculture. In the countryside everyone was forced to give up their land and go and live in communes. Ancient practices of slowly and carefully working the land were abandoned to grow maize and wheat for exporting to Russia and the west. This meant that land that had for centuries been utilised for the growing of various fruits and vegetables were abandoned to grow crops that would boost trade. The book recounts how output was exaggerated all over the country to satisfy Mao’s seemingly impossible targets. As the land became overworked and useless, peasants began to starve in there millions, yet most of the produce was still sent abroad.

Mao saw steel as the main route to achieve industrial superiority. Therefore everyone in the country was forced to bring any sort of metal from their homes, including pots and pans for melting. Again the plan backfired when people were left without the necessary tools to survive around the country. Also the steel produced from these household goods was largely useless because of their lack of quality.

The book describes in horrifying detail how millions of deaths occurred in China during the Great Leap Forward. It describes how families had to survive on meagre amounts of food and how rationing made parents make difficult decisions on how to distribute the food amongst their own children and spouses. Famine like many other catastrophes affected the vulnerable the most, and Dikotter describes how children, women and the elderly were treated horrifically by local leaders and were regularly beaten, starved or abandoned until their deaths.

The book is obviously an extremely difficult read as the subject matter is so horrific. However I would strongly urge people to read it. It is brilliantly researched and recounts the Great Leap Forward in excellent detail. Also it shows what can happen when one man has such a powerful influence over the running of a country. The leaders from various districts were terrified of telling Mao what was actually happening for fear of punishment; therefore news received was often positive and falsified. The book’s emphasis on archives and facts is a double-edged sword as on the one hand it provides an accurate and necessary narrative of what transpired, while on the other hand it can become difficult to keep up with various regions and party members. However the book is an excellent introduction to the Great Leap Forward. I personally had no prior knowledge to the event; yet now feel like I have a strong understanding of what occurred. And for this reason I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the topic.