Non Fiction Book Review: Mao’s Great Famine (People’s Trilogy #1) By Frank Dikötter
Mao’s Great Famine is set in between 1958 and 1962, where China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up 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.
Access to Communist Party archives has long been denied to all but the most loyal historians, but now a new law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era. Frank Dikotter’s astonishing, riveting and magnificently detailed book chronicles an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented.
Dikotter shows that instead of lifting the country among the world’s superpowers and proving the power of communism, as Mao imagined, in reality the Great Leap Forward was a giant – and disastrous — step in the opposite direction. He demonstrates, as nobody has before, that under this initiative the country 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 the greatest demolition of real estate – and catastrophe for the natural environment – in human history, as up to a third of all housing was turned to rubble and the land savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments. Piecing together both the vicious machinations in the corridors of power and the everyday experiences of ordinary people, Dikotter at last gives voice to the dead and disenfranchised. Exhaustively researched and brilliantly written, this magisterial, groundbreaking account definitively recasts the history of the People’s Republic of China.
Sneak Peek Into “Mao’s Great Famine”
Stalin’s death in 1953 was Mao’s liberation. For more than thirty years Mao had had to play supplicant to the leader of the communist world. From the age of twenty-seven, when he was handed his first cash payment of 200 yuan by a Soviet agent to cover the cost of travelling to the founding meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai, Mao’s life was transformed by Russian funds. He had no qualms about taking the money, and used the Moscow link to lead a ragged band of guerrilla fighters to ultimate power – but not without endless reprimands from Moscow, expulsions from office and battles over party policy with Soviet advisers. Stalin constantly forced Mao back into the arms of his sworn enemy Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the nationalist Guomindang that ruled much of China. Stalin placed little faith in Mao and his peasant soldiers, and openly favoured Chiang, even after the Guomindang had presided over a bloody massacre of communists in Shanghai in 1927. For the best part of a decade Chiang’s troops relentlessly hounded an embattled Mao, forcing the communists to find refuge on a mountain base and then to traverse some 12,500 kilometres towards the north in a retreat later known as the Long March. When Chiang was kidnapped in Xi’an in 1936, Stalin promptly sent a telegram ordering Mao to release his hostage unharmed. After Japan had invaded China a year later, Stalin demanded that Mao again form a United Front with his arch enemy Chiang, sending planes, arms and advisers to the Guomindang regime. All Mao got during the Second World War was a planeload of propaganda leaflets.
Instead of confronting the Japanese, Mao strengthened his forces in northern China. At the war’s end in 1945 Stalin, always the hard pragmatist, signed a treaty of alliance with the Guomindang, diminishing the prospects of support for the communists in the event of a civil war. Soon after Japan’s surrender, full-scale war between the communists and the nationalists resumed. Stalin, again, stayed on the sidelines, even warning Mao to beware the United States, which had sided with Chiang Kai-shek, now recognised as a world leader in the Allies’ defeat of Japan. Mao ignored his advice. The communists eventually gained the upper hand. When they reached the capital, Nanjing, the Soviet Union was one of the few foreign countries to permit its ambassador to flee alongside the Guomindang.
Even when victory seemed inevitable, Stalin continued to keep Mao at arm’s length. Everything about him seemed suspicious to the Soviet leader. What kind of communist was afraid of workers, Stalin wondered repeatedly, as Mao stopped his army outside Shanghai for weeks on end, unwilling to take on the task of feeding the city? Mao was a peasant, a caveman Marxist, Stalin determined after reading translations of the Chinese leader’s writings, which he dismissed as ‘feudal’. That there was a rebellious and stubborn streak in Mao was clear; his victory over Chiang Kai-shek, forced to retreat all the way to Taiwan, would have been difficult to explain otherwise. But pride and independence were precisely what troubled Stalin so deeply, prone as he was to seeing enemies everywhere: could this be another Tito, the Yugoslav leader who had been cast out of the communist family for his dissidence against Moscow? Tito was bad enough, and Stalin did not relish the prospect of a regime that had come to power without his help running a sprawling empire right on his border. Stalin trusted no one, least of all a potential rival who in all probability harboured a long list of grievances.
Mao, indeed, never forgot a snub and deeply resented the way he had been treated by Stalin, but he had no one else to turn to for support. The communist regime desperately needed international recognition as well as economic help in rebuilding the war-torn country. Mao declared a policy of ‘leaning to one side’, swallowing his pride and seeking a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.
Several requests to meet Stalin were rebuffed. Then, in December 1949, Mao was finally asked to come to Moscow. But rather than being welcomed as the leader of a great revolution that had brought a quarter of humanity into the communist orbit, he was given the cold shoulder, treated as one guest among many other delegates who had travelled to Moscow to celebrate Stalin’s seventieth birthday. After a brief meeting Mao was whisked off to a dacha outside the capital and left to wait in isolation for several weeks for a formal audience. With every passing day he was made to learn his humble place in a communist brotherhood which revolved entirely around the Soviet dictator. When Mao and Stalin met at last, all he got was $300 million in military aid divided over five years. For this paltry sum Mao had to throw in major territorial concessions, privileges that harked back to the unequal treaties in the nineteenth century: Soviet control of Lüshun (Port Arthur) and of the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria was guaranteed until the mid-1950s. Rights to mineral deposits in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, also had to be conceded.
Even before Mao and Stalin had signed the Alliance and Friendship Treaty, Kim Il-sung, the communist guerrilla fighter who seized control of the north of Korea after his country’s division in 1948, had been contemplating the reunification of the peninsula by military force. Mao supported North Korea, seeing in Kim a communist ally against the United States. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, but it prompted American intervention in defence of the south. Faced with overwhelming air power and tank battalions, an embattled Kim was pushed back all the way to the Sino-North Korean border. Worried that the Americans might cross the Yalu River and attack China, Mao dispatched volunteers to fight in Korea, having been promised air cover by Stalin. A ferocious war followed, the casualties on the Chinese side all the higher as the planes that Stalin had pledged came only sparingly. When the conflict reached a bloody stalemate, Stalin repeatedly obstructed negotiations to bring it to an end. Peace was not in his strategic interests. To add insult to injury, Stalin also demanded payment from China for the Soviet military equipment he had sent to Korea. His death in March 1953 brought a rapid armistice.
For thirty years Mao had suffered humiliation at the hands of Stalin, willingly subordinating himself to Moscow out of sheer strategic necessity. The Korean War had made him even more resentful of the Soviet Union’s patronage, a feeling widely shared by his fellow leaders who likewise craved a sense of equality in their country’s dealings with Moscow.
After Stalin’s death Mao finally saw a chance to secure independence from the Kremlin and claim leadership of the socialist camp. The Chairman naturally assumed that he was the leading light of communism, which was about to crush capitalism, making him the historical pivot around which the universe revolved.
3 Words to Summarize This Book
EDUCATIONAL, COMPLEX, GRUESOME
With how China has been gaining more international power lately and me realizing how much countries rely on China to produce their goods, I have decided to embark on a journey to learn more about the country and its history. While I wasn’t surprised about what I read and found in the books as I have a rough idea about what is going to happen before going into Mao’s Great Famine, there were plenty of things that still made me gasp, or made me do a double take.
This book is by no means an easy book to read. It took me about 2 to 3 weeks to finish Mao’s Great Famine, and there were times where I wanted to give up midway because of how informationally dense it was, but I was truly glad that I pressed on. Because now I can say that I understand––at least a little bit more––about China, it’s history and how it becomes the China that we know today.
MAO ZE DONG
For someone who caused so much death and suffering, I personally expected more from him. I don’t know how he will be in other books since Mao’s Great Famine is book 1 from a trilogy, but in this book––no offense––he just seems like a boy who was given power and wield that power like a child would.
Oh, so he wanted China to be better than Britain and other western countries. How do we get there? Rip apart the very fabric of society and force your citizens to work to their death in the race to industrialize the country. To be quite honest with you I was left quite disappointed with Mao because in my head, for someone who was able to cause upwards 30 million deaths in the few years that he was in power, he was quite daft. He’s not a good strategist––at all. And all he did was order things around and mention something cryptic in the passing and his minions spend days to decipher what the actual fuck the guy means while trembling in worry that they will lose their cushy positions if they didn’t please the great lord Mao.
What annoyed me most was that it wasn’t that Mao actively killed these innocents. It was the fact that he didn’t even know or cared about the fact that people were dropping dead left and right outside of his castle. As long as he was wined and dined by his personal chefs and taken care of by his maids, he doesn’t care about anything else. Truly, for a dictator, I expected more from Mao Ze Dong.
COMMUNISM = FREEDOM?
When Mao was in power, he would do these purges on people or groups who doesn’t believe in his cause, namely having everything owned by the state and nothing privately owned. Personally, I can’t exactly critique Mao’s way of thinking, because without his actions, China wouldn’t be what it is today. However, the way he went at it was absolutely ruthless.
“The key to understanding the appeal of communism, despite the grim reality on the ground, lay in the fact that it allowed so many followers to believe that they were participants in an historic process of transformation, contributing to something much bigger than themselves, or anything that had come before.”
From re-education camps where the people who went there came out a changed (not in a good way) person, to blatant killing and abuse. It seems like, in Mao’s head, he pictured a utopia where everyone has everything they need without poverty or lack of anything because the state is powerful enough to support its people, but the way he went at it was absolutely horrendous. Due to Mao’s belief in communism, wanting to outrace Britain and to prove that China will do communism better than Russia, Mao decided to turn China into a industrialized country. One moment every citizens have their own small roles to play in the economy, now all of a sudden they have to hand in their pots, pans, hoes, axes so that the country can produce more metals.
There were no longer specialized jobs, or wages as everything belongs to the state. From the sick and pregnant, to the elderly to children, everyone works. There are no say in whether or not if you want to work, you have to. Because if they don’t, then they will not only be beaten red and blue, but they will also not be given food and left to starve. And in a famine, any small scraps of food is valuable.
HUNGER AND CANIBALISM
Going into Mao’s Great Famine, I was expecting cannibalism. When you have tens of thousands of people dying from starvation, it is naturally that the thought enters one’s mind. It is easy to say now that we will never reduce ourselves to someone who would consume human meat for survival, but then again a lot of us has been lucky to have never experienced something like what the Chinese people in 1958-1962 experienced.
In that time period, due to lack of food, people tried to eat anything that they can get their hands on. From berries, roots to mud and deceased animals and persons. At that rate, what is right or wrong no longer matter as one’s focus was only on trying to get as much food as possible to survive. At that time in China, while there were a few cases of cannibalism popping here and there, a lot people were consuming corpses––meaning that they didn’t murder fellow human beings to eat. Other cases including mainly murdering strangers with only 1 case of it being done by a female to her family members (son and husband).
FEAR AND HOPE
While I was reading Mao’s Great Famine, there were moments where I question if some people are truly just evil to the core. There were a few politicians who were just so eager to take advantage of the people, whom their job were to protect. So many politicians and close followers of Mao were afraid to speak up against him, despite maybe many thinking that Mao’s way of leading was not correct. Fear, not surprisingly, seems to be an easier tool to bring people to heel than respect.
“But in reality a dictatorship never has one dictator only, as many people become willing to scramble for power over the next person above them. The country was full of local hegemons, each trying to deceive the next one up into believing that their achievements were genuine.”
Despite how dark and tragic the whole story was, there were some politicians who risked their position and maybe even their lives to speak out about the injustice of it all. Politicians such as Liu Shao Qi and Deng Xiao Ping stake out their livelihood to oppose Mao and speak out the truth about how Mao’s view of communism might be wrong, and as expected they didn’t last long in Mao’s party.
Politicians aside, there were also groups of people who would riot and cause chaos––especially as the country descend more and more in famine. While fear might be a great way to control the people, it seems like at times, hope could just be more potent.
Mao’s Great Famine is not a book that I will lightly recommend to everyone because this was not at all a light read. In a sense, reading Mao’s Great Famine is akin to reading a 350pages long research paper. While Frank Dikotter did a great job trying to simplify the book, the jumping back in forth in time at times can be confusing and the barrage of names doesn’t help either.
However, if you are interested or would like to get a deeper look about what happened during the great famine that killed around 30-60 million people, then definitely give this book a go.
I personally am happy that I read it, as I was quite curious about how China managed to get to where it is today as well as, admittedly, a little scared as well about its international power. So I decided to dig a little deeper and look closer into what has made it into what it is today. While it hasn’t been a piece of cake to finish Mao’s Great Famine, I surely am glad I did. Plus, I came out smarter from it.
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