Dikköter’s Mao’s Great Famine vs. Yang’s Tombstone

I recently started reading Frank Dikköter’s book Mao’s Great Famine, The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 and am about halfway through. Reading it is not a pleasant experience. Nothing about the Great Leap Forward makes for pleasant storytelling. You can feel the author’s rage on every page, even while his style remains calm and restrained. It is clear he sees the GLF not only as a man-made calamity, which it was, but one for which Mao deserves nearly all the blame. It is a crime that Dikkoter believes ranks with the Holocaust, one that Mao supported with full awareness of its consequences, and even with malice.

The other famous book on the GLF, Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone (discussed in an earlier post here) takes a more measured look at the nightmare years, and is not so quick to accuse Mao of intentionally and maliciously wreaking suffering on his people. Or so at least we are told in this superb book review by Xujun Eberlein, one of my favorite bloggers and someone I had the pleasure to meet in Chongqing a few years ago. Everyone who reads this blog will want to see this side-by-side comparison. She clearly sides with Yang Jisheng.

“Understanding the complexity of human behavior in times of catastrophe is one of the aims of the book,” Dikötter states, and he does a good job fulfilling that goal in terms of ordinary people. But when it comes to the behavior of Mao and his colleagues, he has a tendency for simplification and caricature. The Mao under his pen is simply one of history’s most sadistic tyrants; consideration is not given to the complexity of his behavior. The reader gets the impression that Mao knew about the famine all along, but either deliberately let people starve, or was indifferent to their fate. Dikötter’s indignation toward Mao is understandable, but this representation is neither factual nor insightful.

In contrast to Dikötter, Yang Jisheng, despite his sorrow and resentment over the catastrophe, does not let personal sentiment get in the way of factual reporting and serious exploration. Aptly casting Mao as “China’s last emperor,” Yang nonetheless provides a more complete portrait.

Mao’s policies were the main cause of the famine, and nothing can excuse him from that responsibility. But the catastrophe was not a deliberate act of mass murder like the Holocaust, as Dikötter suggests. Rather, it was the result of policy failures from a governance system based on the control of ideology and information. Culminating in the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the utopian policies, enthusiastically shaped and promoted by the entire leadership, were intended to bring about China’s high-speed development. They instead resulted in the collapse of the nation’s economic pillar: agriculture. The central government’s inflated production targets and export quota led to unreasonably high procurements of grain from the peasants, while local governments under political pressure responded with inflated grain production statistics. The two types of inflation fed each other to form a vicious cycle that exhausted agricultural capacity, while the backyard steelmaking that took workers away from the land further worsened the grain shortages. After the famine started, it was prolonged because bad news was blocked from feeding back to top policy makers. Mao, thus, went through a long period of delusion and denial before, in late 1960, making a partial concession: “I myself made mistakes, too; I must correct.”

So perhaps Mao’s saving grace is that when he actually did recognize the tragedy of his policies in 1961 he took steps to reverse them. Either way, epiphany or not, Mao must assume the lion’s share of the blame, especially considering how he purged anyone who dared question his revolutionary plan to modernize China. And he didn’t seem to learn from his mistakes. Only a few years later he would seek to rehabilitate himself by launching a new campaign, one that equaled the GLF in terms of insanity, cult worship and suffering.

Like the Holocaust, the GLF is a subject of endless fascination for me, making me wonder how men can surrender their critical faculties and their humanity. And no, I am not saying the GLF equals the Holocaust.I’m not say Mao has blood on his hands the way Hitler does. But both featured certain key ingredients: blind obedience and blind faith, an ideologically twisted leader who assumed cult status, and an unfathomable lack of compassion for the suffering.

After reading this remarkable review I’m keen to read Tombstone, though the fact that it’s 900 pages in two volumes might be beyond my stamina. It is set to be published later this year. Luckily, Xujun has broken the books down to at least give us a taste of both. Read the review, and tell me how two brilliant researchers/writers could come to such different conclusions.

Update: Please note that Xujun’s excellent blog has moved to this address. You can read the sad story of how she lost her domain name here. Maddening.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 120 Comments

@Daniel Xu. Mike Davis. The best American historian writing today, no if’s and no but’s.

Thanks for drawing that to my attention. My last visitation was Buda’s Wagon and his previous City of Quartz, which I have linked many times, and which was all about the Aryan dream for California and screw the non-whites.

Good one.Someone who reads a book.

February 8, 2012 @ 5:56 pm | Comment

Apologies. To continue. Not that a good book reference lets Mao off the hook. Obsessed with maintaining power (his favourite bed time reading being dynastic histories – lessons to be learnt about maximum leader maintenance), he never brushed his teeth, fornicated with a significant percentage of procured female peasantry and experienced significant constipation for the entirety of his life. Probably best described as a shit house rat who didn’t give a rats beyond his own personal pleasures and power plays. On top of that, he had a taste for tigers flesh…also true.

February 8, 2012 @ 6:19 pm | Comment

I’m surprised sp has never been banned. Oh wait, no, I’m not.

You mean China and India were “industrialized” in the 1800s? Hahaha

They were partially industrialized, and moving forward, stupid.

February 9, 2012 @ 12:28 am | Comment

They were partially industrialized, and moving forward, stupid.
As usual, you just have to take your hat off to the way how Cookie ridiculed, insulted and ranted against the stupidity of the Chinese Communist Party. All the following were sources from the CCP and in Cookie’s words, the CCP was just plain stupid to not acknowledge that China was “partially industrialized, and moving forward” in the 1800s. Sit back and enjoy how cookie exposed the supposed imbecility of the CCP for not claiming that “partially industrialized, and moving forward” during the 1800s . Hahahahaha.

From the CCP’s central research office history website


中华民族是一个勤劳勇敢智慧的民族,在漫长的历史发展与演进中,曾以辉煌灿烂的文明遥遥领先于世界其他民族。但到了近代,中国却落伍了。当古老的“中央帝 国”还处在闭关锁国、妄自尊大的状态时,西方国家先后爆发了资产阶级革命,完成了工业革命,推动了社会生产力的迅猛发展,也激发了资产阶级与资本主义的对 外扩张。


English translation

“The Chinese nation is one that is industrious, courageous and wise. In the long history of development and evolution, it was once a glorious civilization far ahead of the other peoples of the world. But in modern times, China was behind the times. When the ancient “Middle Kingdom” was in a state of isolation and arrogance, Western countries had undergone the bourgeois revolution, industrial revolution which not only promoted the rapid development of social productive forces, but also stimulated the external expansion of the bourgeoisie and capitalism.

The Qing dynasty, which prided itself as the “celestial kingdom”, was completely ignorant of the trend of global development and disdainful of the state-of-the-art scientific and technological achievements of the West.”

From人民网 people



English translation
Up till mid-Qing period, with regards to the modern process of industrialization and globalization that happened in Western Europe, the Chinese people were completely not in the know.

From the Communist Party of China News, 中国共产党新闻网



English translation
In modern times, with the rise of Western capitalist civilization, the ancient Chinese civilization gradually declined. Western bourgeois emancipation of the mind contrasted with the rigidity of Chinese feudalist thought. The dawn of modern Western science and technology contrasted with the dusk of traditional Chinese science and technology. The consolidation of the Western market economy mechanisms contrasted with China’s natural state of the old economy. The rapid advancement of the Western industrial revolution contrasted with the stagnant of agrarian development of China. All these various gaps led to the Chinese nation’s backwardness.

February 9, 2012 @ 2:31 am | Comment

Daniel, while I don’t for one minute dispute China’s economic position in history, I do dispute the idea that the demise of the lofty position held by China and India can be solely due to a small island off the Atlantic coast. Something was rotten within to allow the rapid collapse of the regime. Britain’s participation (and it was not only Britain – we’re not THAT big!) was merely a catalyst.
I dare say Mao’s crimes next to those committed during the various rebellions in China (I gave teh Taiping one as an example) pale in comparison, just as Hitler’s crimes pale in comaprison to those committed in the Thirty Years War. Regarding India, I have read a piece that described the British take over as more benign than that of the Mughal take over (I can try and find that, if you wish), suggesting that crimes committed by the Mughal would make British ones pale in comparison.
Again, though, what is historically mentioned are merely conjecture – educated, yes, but conjecture. You yourself above have mentioned that the GLF, despite all the deaths, resulted in more people. In India’s case, British involvement resulted in a unified (until 1948, then 1971) country, a thriving democracy and successful industries. In China’s case, one could say that the involvement of European and Asian powers in China’s affairs resulted in the ending of a moribund dynasty and cessation of isolationism that was leading to stagnation. Who knows, maybe the blood letting by Euro-Asian powers also prevented a greater blood letting if the power struggle and regime change occuring in China at the twilight of the Ching dynasty.
We don’t know – we only have one time-line to see. Other scenarios are extrapolations and conjecture, even if tempered by academic qualifications. From where I’m sitting, in 2012, I can see a vibrant India and a vibrant China – given their past histories, I’d conclude the period that they look back on with embarrassment were the catalysts to turn them from their spiral of descent.

February 9, 2012 @ 4:25 am | Comment

Perhaps unfortunate I was taught by Larry James in history at school…

February 9, 2012 @ 4:44 am | Comment

“I’d conclude the period that they look back on with embarrassment were the catalysts to turn them from their spiral of descent.”

Mike Goldthorpe. Describing the Taiping rebellion as a ‘crime’ is like describing the English civil war as a ‘crime’. It is an absurd analogy.

History develops in a contingent way. Every historical event has unintended spin-offs, some good, some bad.

Perhaps if the Holocaust had not happened the Jewish people would not have been impelled to unite and fight for and creat the state of Israel. In fact many Jews do say that the Holocaust was a catalyst for this.

So using your logic, Mr Goldthorpe, Israeli Jews should be grateful to Hitler?

“I have read a piece that described the British take over as more benign than that of the Mughal take over”

With mortality rates far worse than the GLF, over a century, the worst famines in human history, I would hardly call that benign.

“just as Hitler’s crimes pale in comaprison to those committed in the Thirty Years War”

This statement lacks moral perspective.

Thanks for the linked article. It is quite a good article. Again, I heartily recommend Mike Davis. King Tubby also likes Mike Davis. So he must be good 😉

February 9, 2012 @ 5:49 am | Comment

By the say sp123.

Think of the definition of 汉奸.

Then look in the mirror.

February 9, 2012 @ 5:52 am | Comment

Mike Goldthorpe
Who knows, maybe the blood letting by Euro-Asian powers also prevented a greater blood letting if the power struggle and regime change occuring in China at the twilight of the Ching dynasty.

Perhaps they were really so kind, and all the former colonized peoples of the world should return the favor with a lesser blood letting of the West.

February 9, 2012 @ 5:56 am | Comment

When did I ever “denigrate” the black man? Is it offensive to state facts, such as that Martin Luther King was a debauched mediocrity? Is he your messiah?

As for eugenics, what is wrong with it? Humanity has spent thousands of years cultivating plants and animals for desired traits, why not ourselves?

February 9, 2012 @ 5:57 am | Comment

To Jing,
I had no plans to liken you to a plant, or an animal. But maybe you’re onto something there. And given that it’s 2012, no need to bother with cultivation. You should start headlong into the process of genetically modifying yourself forthwith.

February 9, 2012 @ 6:12 am | Comment

Dan, I used crime as people use it to describe the GLF and benign as a camparative – I know the Raj wasn’t the cosy picture of G&T and polo matches with happy natives. But, as you say, “Every historical event has unintended spin-offs, some good, some bad.” so yes, I did dispense with morality in my post and just posited a hypothesis.
I shall try and find that Davis book – do like history and, as I said, I was taught by one of the Empire’s apologists.

February 9, 2012 @ 6:26 am | Comment

Oh, and the Hitler remark – Thirty Years War pretty much killed off a good 1/4 to 1/2 of people in the German states. I’ll admit the death was not quite of the industrial variety of the Holocaust, but it was effective nonetheless. And all, seemingly, for the sake of deciding what was the true faith….among other things.

But in the long run, does any of it matter? Crimes against humanity (is the use of “crime” here too mild?) still exist and yet, even as they occur, there are apologists for them, even here in this blog. As you can see, the ways of justifying the most murderous of genocides by the consequences shows why arguments about which was worse and who did what worse are pretty pointless…..in my personal view, anyway.

February 9, 2012 @ 6:39 am | Comment

Wow! Where did Daniel (You’re misinterpreting Cookie & you’re the real hanjian) Xu spring from?

@Jing: When did I ever “denigrate” the black man?”

Did you run into walls a lot when you were a kid, Jing?

February 9, 2012 @ 7:55 am | Comment

“Think of the definition of 漢奸”


February 9, 2012 @ 8:46 am | Comment

Perhaps if the Holocaust had not happened the Jewish people would not have been impelled to unite and fight for and creat the state of Israel. In fact many Jews do say that the Holocaust was a catalyst for this.

So using your logic, Mr Goldthorpe, Israeli Jews should be grateful to Hitler?

Hahaha, Daniel has just slapped Chairman Mao’s face because Mao was indeed grateful to the Japanese! LOL. What a hilarious drama.

Mao Zedong’s quotation 2: “I once have talked with the Japanese friends. They said sorry that the Japanese Imperial Army had invaded China. I said, no! If your Imperial Army didn’t invade most half of China, the Chinese people cannot unite to cope with Chiang Kai-shek, and the CCP can not seize the power. Therefore, the Japanese Imperial Army is a good teacher for CCP, also can be said it is great benefactor, the great savior. “– July 10, 1964, Mao’s speech in Beijing in meeting with chairman of the Japan Socialist Party Sasaki and Kuroda Hisao ((Pick from “Long Live Mao Zedong Thought”.533-534 pages)

Mao Zedong’s quotation 3: “The Japanese Imperial Army occupied most half of China in the past, so the Chinese people have accepted the education. If there is no Japanese invasion, we are still in the mountains; you and I cannot watch the Beijing opera here. It is precisely because the Japanese Imperial Army occupied most half of China; let us establish many anti-Japanese base areas for the future victory of the liberation war created the conditions. Japanese monopoly capital and the warlords have done the `good deed’ to us, if there is a need to say thanks, actually I want to thank the Japanese Imperial Army invading China.” — On January 24, 1961, Mao talked with Japanese Socialist party congressmen Kuroda Hisao ands so on. (Pick from “Mao Zedong Diplomacy Literary selections”, edited by the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Central Committee of the CCP Literature Institute, Central Literature Publishing House, in 1994)

February 9, 2012 @ 11:02 am | Comment

Amazing the number of Mao apologists who prefer the ‘failure of administrative machinery’ to explain away the horrors of the famine. The many years Mao’s traumatic and blood soaked history must necessarily be anesthesia that de-sensitised brutality of unimaginable proportions, even when against his people. Such dehumanized psychology is well documented in battle scarred communities, in the darkest chapters of human history.

February 13, 2012 @ 11:08 am | Comment

As a Southeast Asia Chinese, let me say something about it Cold War part 2? Hahahahaha No nfefose of course. That depends on the leaders of both nations, can they co-operate? can they be friendly to each other?What I know so far, is that China don’t do imperialism or station troops outside its border unless invaded. Don’t let the Tibet issue be seen as a problem, Manchuria China already got Tibet as its belongings.You do know that The western alliance forces invaded Beijing during the late Manchurian China, the whole population got worry like hell. Modern China become strong so that such thing will not happen again and intended to become a force to anti such thing; and also to gain respect from others.We Chinese are proud people, unless you trigger us pass our limit, we will not threaten you, that’s our culture.So far, USA made itself the prime rival and target of the world because of pressing its influence upon other nations, directly or indirectly. It became worry to so many others. For example, Osama Bin Laden issue. Since Malaysia is Islamic country, we become a suspect of Osama’s allies, we were joking among ourselves what happen if your bomber airships come, we can go back to stone age.Some set back made you people feel worry, I can understand that, it’s a common human thing. Some professional analyzed that USA’s policies on finance kind of stuff is actually flaw, now the flaw has come to realize.Don’t worry, China got enough problems on its own, no danger will come to realize in our life time. Our children’s era, I don’t know, no one knows.BTW, cosmic rule says no nation will stand tall forever and none will lay down forever. Was this answer helpful?

March 23, 2012 @ 12:17 am | Comment

[…] A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-57, Frank Dikotter, a harsh critic of Mao in his earlier book on the Great Leap Forward’s unnecessary famine, demolishes the myth of Mao’s golden years. He maintains instead that was a time of […]

September 13, 2013 @ 8:57 am | Pingback

[…] “A Great Leap Forward.” 21 July 2012. The Peking Duck. Web. December 2013. —. “Dikoetter’s Mao’s Great Famine vs. Yang”s Tombstone.” 4 February 2012. Peking Duck. […]

December 30, 2014 @ 6:59 pm | Pingback

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