Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize
An unprecedented, groundbreaking history of China's Great Famine that recasts the era of Mao Zedong and the history of the People's Republic of China.
"Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up to 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." So opens Frank Dikötter's riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era." Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country among the world's superpowers and prove the power of Communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction. It 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 of "the greatest demolition of real estate in human history," as up to one-third of all housing was turned into rubble). The experiment was a catastrophe for the natural world as well, as the land was savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments. In a powerful mesghing of exhaustive research in Chinese archives and narrative drive, Dikötter for the first time links up what happened in the corridors of power-the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders-with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, giving voice to the dead and disenfranchised. His magisterial account recasts the history of the People's Republic of China.
Taking advantage of newly opened Party archives, Dik tter, a University of London historian who has specialized in modern China, presents a bleak, gruesomely detailed account of perhaps history's worst famine. A decade after assuming power, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, designed to quickly develop his impoverished nation, substituting mass action for planning and investment. A catastrophe followed. Forests were destroyed to feed 500,000 backyard blast furnaces that produced expensive but poor quality iron. Under miserable conditions, factory workers fulfilled hopelessly optimistic quotas with shoddy goods. Coerced into communes, millions of subsistence farmers neglected their fields to labor on poorly planned dams or irrigation projects; others demolished houses and barns to use as fertilizer. Falsifying figures, local officials proclaimed vast increases in food production. Shipping off the usual fraction of actual production for urban provisions and exports left little behind, so peasants starved; more than 40 million Chinese died. This is not a historical overview but an intensively researched litany of suffering, packed with statistics, grim anecdotes, and self-serving explanations by leaders responsible for the devastation. 8 pages of b&w photos.