Mao's Great Famine

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Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62
Cover of the first edition
Cover of the 2010 first edition
AuthorFrank Dikötter
PublisherWalker & Company (hardcover, US)
Bloomsbury Publishing (hardcover, UK and softcover, US)
Publication date
6 September 2010
Media typePrint (hardback)
ISBN978-0-8027-7768-3 (hardcover, US)

Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, is a 2010 book by professor and historian Frank Dikötter about the Great Famine of 1958–1962 in the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong (1893–1976).

Based on four years of research in recently opened Chinese provincial, county, and city archives,[1] Dikötter supports an estimate of at least 45 million premature deaths in China during the famine years.[2] Dikötter characterises the Great Famine as "The worst catastrophe in China's history, and one of the worst anywhere".[2]

The book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011,[3] and has been described by Andrew J. Nathan, Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, as "the most detailed account yet"[4] of the Great Chinese Famine.


Dikötter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, where he teaches courses on both Mao and the Great Chinese Famine,[5] and Professor of the Modern History of China from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. The author's research behind the book was funded in the UK by the Wellcome Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the Economic and Social Research Council, and in Hong Kong by the Research Grants Council and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.[6]

Dikötter was one of only a few historians granted access to the relevant Chinese archives.[3]

Key arguments[edit]

On a website providing exposure for the book, Dikötter detailed his key arguments. First, he states that the famine lasted at least four years (early 1958 to late 1962), not the three sometimes stated. And after researching large volumes of Chinese archives, Dikötter concluded that decisions coming from the top officials of the Chinese government in Beijing were the direct cause of the famine.

Beijing government officials, including Zhou Enlai and Mao, increased the food procurement quota from the countryside to pay for international imports. According to Dikötter, "In most cases the party knew very well that it was starving its own people to death." Mao was quoted as saying in Shanghai in 1959: "When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill."

In their attempts to survive, Chinese people resorted to hiding, stealing, cheating, pilfering, foraging, smuggling, tricking, manipulating or otherwise outwitting the government. There were reports of armed assaults on granaries or trains.[7] Overall, Dikötter estimates that there were 45 million premature deaths, not 30 million as previously estimated. Some two to three million of these were victims of political repression, beaten or tortured to death or summarily executed for political reasons, often for the slightest infraction.

Because local communist cadres were in charge of food distribution, they were able to withhold food from anyone of whom they disapproved. Old, sick and weak individuals were often regarded as unproductive and hence expendable. Apart from Mao, Dikkötter accuses several other members of the top party leadership of doing nothing about the famine. While famine was ravaging the country, free food was still being exported to allies, as well as economic aid and interest-free or low-interest loans.

In addition to the human suffering, some 30 to 40 percent of all rural housing was demolished in village relocations, for building roads and infrastructure, or sometimes as punishment for political opposition. Up to 50 percent of trees were cut down in some provinces, as the rural ecological system was ruined.[2][8]



Dikötter's website listed positive responses from Orville Schell, former Dean of the UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, Simon Sebag-Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), and Jung Chang, author of Mao: The Unknown Story (2005)[9] Jasper Becker, author of Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (1998), praises the book as a "brilliant work, backed by painstaking research . . . The archive material gathered by Dikötter ... confirms that far from being ignorant or misled about the famine, the Chinese leadership were kept informed about it all the time."[10]

Jonathan Fenby, author of The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850–2009 (2009) and China Director at the research service, Trusted Sources, praised Dikötter's "masterly book" and states that his "painstaking research in newly opened local archives makes all too credible his estimate that the death toll reached 45 million people."[1]

Sinologist Roderick MacFarquhar said the book is "Pathbreaking ... a first-class piece of research ... [Mao] will be remembered as the ruler who initiated and presided over the worst man-made human catastrophe ever. His place in Chinese history is assured. Dikötter's book will have done much to put him there."[11]

Jonathan Mirsky, a historian and journalist specialising in Asian affairs, said Dikötter's book "is for now the best and last word on Mao's greatest horror. Frank Dikötter has put everyone in the field of Chinese studies in his debt, together with anyone else interested in the real China. Sooner or later the Chinese, too, will praise his name." He also writes that "In terms of Mao's reputation this book leaves the chairman for dead, as a monster in the same league as Hitler and Stalin – and that is without considering the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when hundreds of thousands more Chinese died."[12]

George Mason University Law School professor Ilya Somin called the book "excellent", and wrote that "Dikötter's study is not the first to describe these events. Nonetheless, few Western intellectuals are aware of the scale of these atrocities, and they have had almost no impact on popular consciousness. This is part of the more general problem of the neglect of communist crimes. But Chinese communist atrocities are little-known even by comparison to those inflicted by communists in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, possibly because the Chinese are more culturally distant from Westerners than are Eastern Europeans or the German victims of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the Wall (one of communism's relatively smaller crimes) is vastly better known than the Great Leap Forward – the largest mass murder in all of world history. Hopefully, Dikötter's important work will help change that."[13]

Steven Yearley, Professor of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge at the University of Edinburgh, notes that the book "stands out" from other works on the famine "on account of its basis in recently opened archives and in the countless compelling details which are provided to clarify the interlocking themes of the text."[14]


The Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, writing in The New Yorker, stated that the "narrative line is plausible", but noted that Dikötter is "generally dismissive of facts that could blunt his story's sharp edge", and thought that Dikötter's "comparison of the famine to the great evils of the Holocaust and the Gulag does not, finally, persuade". Furthermore, Mishra argues that Dikötter omits Mao's achievements in improving social stability, economic growth and living standards by 1956.[15]

Cormac Ó Gráda, famine scholar and professor of economics at University College Dublin, criticised the book as "more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument", and that it failed to note that "many of the horrors it describes were recurrent features of Chinese history during the previous century or so". Ó Gráda says 10 per thousand "normal" mortality rate adopted by Dikötter is "implausibly low" and used to maximise his death count. Ó Gráda says that "The crude death rate in China in the wake of the revolution was probably about 25 per thousand. It is highly unlikely that the Communists could have reduced it within less than a decade to the implausibly low 10 per thousand adopted here (p. 331). Had they done so, they would have 'saved' over 30 million lives in the interim! One can hardly have it both ways."[16][16]

Journalist Aaron Leonard criticised Dikötter's failure to address the Great Chinese Famine in a larger historical context, and made no mention of pre-1949 famines under the Kuomintang regime. Leonard argues, "Dikötter looks at China under Communist rule in a narrow vacuum, thus dispensing with the inconvenient fact that famine in this part of the world has been a recurring phenomenon, which Mao did not invent or even magnify."[17]

In The China Journal, Felix Wemheuer, lecturer of Chinese history and politics at University of Vienna,[18] said that Dikötter's figure of 45 million dead was higher than other estimates of 15 to 40 million dead, and said, "It seems that his interest is in presenting the highest number possible, to label the Great Leap as the greatest mass killing in human history."[18] Wemheuer says the figure derived from discrepancies between Cao Shuji's 2005 estimate of 32.5 million and data from official county police reports, which Dikötter added 40–50 percent to the official figures. Wemheuer also disputed Dikötter's claims that 2.5 million and 1–3 million people were beaten to death and driven to suicide, respectively. Wemheuer criticised Dikötter's lack of mention of famines under Republican China, and said Dikötter's account "reads like a long list of atrocities committed by Mao's regime against the Chinese people and bears the hallmarks of having been written in furious outrage".[18]

Dikötter defended the estimate of 45 million dead, citing other Chinese authors who had spent time in the Party's archives, including Yang Jisheng (36 million), Chen Yizi (43 million), and Yu Xiguang (55 million). Dikötter dismissed comparisons between the Great Chinese Famine and those under Republican China, saying that the latter were wartime disasters, the former was a human-made disaster during times of peace: "There is a difference between starving to death and being starved to death".[18]

Famine image on the book cover[edit]

Adam Jones, political science and genocide studies professor at UBC Okanagan, criticised Bloomsbury Publishing for using a cover photograph on their editions of the book of a starving child that was from a Life magazine depiction of a 1946 Chinese famine.[19]

Jones said, "Most book covers are designed by the publisher, often using stock images, rather than by the author," but also accepted a blogger's point that it was unlikely that Dikötter would have been unaware of the deception, because in an interview with Newsweek magazine, Dikötter had stated that, to his knowledge, no non-propaganda images from the Great Leap Forward had ever been found.[20] The Walker & Company edition of the book has a different cover, using a 1962 image of Chinese refugees to Hong Kong begging for food as they are deported back to China.[20]

Awards and honours[edit]

The book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011[3] for being what the judges characterised as "stunningly original and hugely important".[21] The £20,000 award is the largest in the UK for a non-fiction book.[22]

Historian and journalist Ben Macintyre, one of the judges for the Samuel Johnson Prize, said Mao's Great Famine was a "meticulous account of a brutal man-made calamity [that] is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the 20th century".[22] He said that the book "could have been overwritten, but part of what makes it work so well is it is written with quiet fury. He doesn't overstate his case because he doesn't need to. Its very strength lies in its depth of scholarship, lightly worn."[21] Writer Brenda Maddox, another of the judges for the prize, said "this book changed my life – I think differently about the 20th century than I did before. Why didn't I know about this?"[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Fenby, Jonathan (5 September 2010). "Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikötter". The Guardian. London.
  2. ^ a b c Dikötter, Frank (15 December 2010). "Mao's Great Leap to Famine". International Herald Tribune.
  3. ^ a b c "Mao's Great Famine wins Samuel Johnson Prize". BBC News. 6 July 2011. Archived from the original on 28 November 2017. Mao's Great Famine, by Dutch historian Frank Dikotter, beat five other short-listed titles to the award. Chair of the judges Ben Macintyre praised the book as an "epic record of human folly". He added it was "essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the 20th Century". Mao's Great Famine reveals new details of the period from 1958-1962, providing fresh historical perspectives on Mao's campaign to increase industrial production during which tens of millions starved to death.
  4. ^ Nathan, Andrew J. (3 November 2010). "Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962". Foreign Affairs.
  5. ^ "Professor Frank Dikötter". University of Hong Kong. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 7 January 2011.
  6. ^ "Frank Dikötter". Frank Dikötter home page. Archived from the original on 20 May 2012. Retrieved 1 January 2011.
  7. ^ "Mao Tse-tung, How Many Deaths? – Page 2 – Historum – History Forums". Retrieved 6 February 2017.
  8. ^ Dikötter, Frank (20 October 2010). "Cover interview of October 20, 2010". Retrieved 21 November 2010.
  9. ^ "Frank Dikötter: Advance Praise and Synopsis". Frank Dikötter Home Page. Archived from the original on 5 September 2010. Retrieved 22 November 2010.
  10. ^ Becker, Jasper (25 September 2010). "Systematic genocide". The Spectator. Archived from the original on 3 October 2010.
  11. ^ MacFarquhar, Roderick (20 January 2011). "The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever". The New York Review of Books.
  12. ^ Mirksy, Jonathan (September 2010). "Livelihood Issues". Literary Review. Archived from the original on 6 September 2010.
  13. ^ Somin, Ilya (17 December 2010). "Frank Dikötter on Mao's Mass Murders". The Volokh Conspiracy.
  14. ^ Yearley, Steven (15 January 2011). "Book Review: Frank Dikötter, Mao's Great Famine". Food Security. 3 (1): 113–115. doi:10.1007/s12571-010-0110-3.
  15. ^ Mishra, Pankaj (20 December 2010). "Staying Power: Mao and the Maoists". The New Yorker.
  16. ^ a b Ó Gráda, Cormac (15 March 2011). "Great Leap into Famine? – Ó Gráda's review of Dikötter book". China Study Group.
  17. ^ Leonard, Aaron (Fall 2011). "Review of Frank Dikötter, Mao's Great Famine". Logos. 11 (4).
  18. ^ a b c d Wemheuer, Felix (July 2011). "Sites of horror: Mao's Great Famine [with response]". The China Journal (66): 155–164. JSTOR 41262812.
  19. ^ Jones, Adam (7 October 2010). "Misrepresenting a famine image". Genocide Studies Media File.
  20. ^ a b Fish, Issac Stone (26 September 2010). "Greeting Misery With Violence". Newsweek.
  21. ^ a b c Flood, Alison (6 July 2011). "Samuel Johnson prize won by 'hugely important' study of Mao". The Guardian.
  22. ^ a b "Mao's Great Famine' Wins Nonfiction Prize". ABC News. Associated Press. 6 July 2011.

External links[edit]