Mao’s Great Famine

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikotter is a good book about the worst mass death incident of the 20th Century, the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1961 that killed somewhere between 32 and 50 million people. Given the scale of the disaster the lack of knowledge of it and the Holodomor amongst many people is very disappointing.

Dikotter knows his subject intimately. He speaks Chinese and has is a Professor of the History of Modern China at the University of London. He has read the previous books on the subject and has access to more modern research as well.

The book goes is in 6 parts:

  • The Pursuit of Utopia – where Sino-Soviet relations are described and the start of the planning that would lead to the great Famine is described
  • Through the Valley of Death – where the initial problems and the ignoring of the warning signs are dealt with
  • Destruction – which outlines the failure of state planning and the collapse of agriculture and industry
  • Survival – which talks about how people managed to survive during the event
  • The Vulnerable – that outlines how the Communist utopia treated women, children and the elderly
  • Ways of Dying – that described how people died from disease, the gulag, violence and cannibalism and has the tally for the famine.

The book contains a wealth of detail about each of it’s subjects. Dikotter refers to general items and then gives specifics for each area that he is writing about. He is clearly intimately familiar with both the high politics of the time and the struggles between the leaders and the details of everyday life.

The book does not provide a particularly good overview of the events. It would be preferable to have had an introductory chapter that outlined how the progress of the famine went through each year and some graphical explanations of the size of provinces, the deaths involved and so on. This is the one major deficiency of the book. Nothing is said also of the response to the famine by the Chinese government and the response of Communist organisations around the world who continued to push the ideas of Marxism after the Holodomor and the Great Chinese Famine. Both would have been interesting to explore but are understandable omissions.

However overall the book is one that is well worth reading. It documents the horror of Mao’s disastrous attempt at a purely state run economy and in doing so provides a view of the horror of totalitarianism in a neglected subject.


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