December 15, 2014 no responses

Interpreting the Causes of the Greatest Famine in China: Is Mao Zedong to Blame or the Ideologies of the Chinese People?

The Great Leap Forward was a tragic time for China’s economy and for it’s people. The two books in the forefront leading the way to freed archives and truth are Frank Dikötter’s “Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962” and Yang Jisheng’s “Tombstone.” Though I painfully enjoyed both accounts of the Great Leap Forward, I enjoyed Yang’s more. I felt his account of the famine was more honest and sincere than Dikötter’s was. While both accounts of the Great Leap Forward are condemning of the actions of the communist party, Dikötter is more interested in placing the blame on a specific person and does so to Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. On the other hand, Yang is more interested in the ideologies that caused the famine and using these failings of the system to provide a warning to the future politicians.

Just looking at the cover of Dikötter’s book, I got a sense of the idea that he is trying to get across to anyone who reads the book. To him, Mao is the sole cause and perpetrator of the Great Leap Forward. Dikötter uses sensationalist titles to condemn the actors of the Great Leap Forward. The title of the entire book “Mao’s Great Famine” places the blame of the great famine mostly on Mao and the policies he had in place during that time. In the first line of his preface, Dikötter makes the statement “Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward,” (Dikötter xi). That Mao intentionally slaughtered and starved millions of his own citizens, is a false statement. The tragedy of the Great Leap Forward was not caused by men with intentional vendettas or hatred toward a certain race of people, but instead thoughtless policies that were enacted and the mistakes made by the yes-men party leaders of communist China.

On the same page, Dikötter compares Mao to the popular villains of the 20th century; Stalin and Hitler. Though the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward were so terrible that it cannot be exaggerated, comparing it with the Holocaust of the Jews oversimplifies it and cheapens the tragedy of the ignorance and mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party members. In her review of Dikötter’s and Yang’s books, “The Teacher of the Future,” Xujun Eberlein states “On the other hand, Dikötter’s attempt to draw parallels between the Mao-era famine that swept over the entirety of mainland China from 1959 to 1961 and killed tens of millions and the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag is, at best, an oversimplification that hinders understanding.” The great famine wasn’t just caused by Mao’s crazy policies and dreams, it was caused by people who said yes to everything Mao wanted, who covered up the starvation and suffering by falsifying records and statistics.

In the same review, Eberlein uses the very applicable statement by Ian Buruma, a Dutch scholar on Asian Culture, which states, “To distinguish between atrocities does not diminish the horror, but without clarity on these matters history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda.” “Mao’s Great Famine” borders on propaganda. Dikötter splits the book into six parts with titles that are meant to wrench at the reader’s heart strings such as “the Vulnerable” and “Ways of Dying.” He even employs well known biblical references for part two “Through the Valley of Death” and “Exodus.” Dikötter also uses sensationalist, eye-catching chapter titles such as “The End of Truth,” “Feasting through Famine,” and “Cannibalism.” Each of these titles are designed to catch the reader’s attention and expose them to the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, separating moving them as far from the causes and the results as possible. He places “cannibalism” at the end of the book while placing “The People’s Communes,” a chapter which explores the ideologies that the villagers backed and were even excited about, at the beginning. These titles are meant to make the reader uncomfortable and feel bad for the villagers and peasants. In the middle of his book, Dikötter includes photographs of Mao and other leaders of the communist party accompanied with the headline “ No photographs other than those taken for propaganda purposes are known to exist from the years of the famine” (Dikötter 166–167). The titles and photographs, while bearing truth, make no allusions to the intricacies of the government and policies in place at the time. They are used only for the purpose of condemning and simplifying the famine and suffering.

Dikötter also blames Mao for the systematic violence toward peasants all over the country. In the chapter entitled “Violence” Dikötter states that “Violence became a routine tool of control” (Dikötter 292). Mao “did not concentrate all its resources on the extermination of specific groups of people with the exception, of course, of political categories vague enough to include anybody and everybody” (Dikötter 298). Dikötter cites Mao’s enthusiasm of a military society where “everyone [is] a soldier” as the cause of the extreme violence carried out by provincial cadres. Instead of the lack of information available as the main source of the pacification of Peasants, Dikötter places more importance on the use of violence as the main controlling factor of the country. Dikötter mentions little of the peasant’s infatuation with Mao and their devotion to the man who liberated them from the landlords and gave the land back to the peasants (Yang 6-11).

While reading “Mao’s Great Famine” I could see Dikötter’s rage at the calamity seething off of the pages. His harsh words against the Chinese Communist Party were all throughout the book unabashed at the obvious subjectivity they portrayed. Dikötter’s hatred towards Mao is also evident throughout the book. Dikötter makes no effort to cover up his feelings. In Dikötter’s preface. Dikötter shows Mao as unapologetic of the famine and deliberately ignoring the truth when it was presented to him. Dikötter paints the picture of Mao as a sadistic tyrant with a temper who was always suspicious of his chiefs, denouncing Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai. Dikötter’s Mao Zedong takes pleasure in watching the people suffer and refuses to listen to reason or truth. Dikötter fails to mention the extent of the people who rallied behind Mao to enforce everything he said as law and denounce those who would oppose Mao and their policies such as Ke Qingshi and Zho Enlai.

Although Dikötter oversimplifies the causes of the Great Leap Forward, by putting a face and a name to the tragedy can help people identify more with the tragedy. Every story needs a villain and in Dikötter’s adaptation of the Great Leap Forward, that villain is Mao Zedong. By using the eye-catching and provocative titles, Dikötter hopes to draw the reader’s attention and spark the reader’s interest in the Great Leap Forward. He does so successfully. By focusing on the tragedies that occurred during the famine, Dikötter makes sure the reader is interested in pursuing more books on the Great Leap Forward and is successful as his book is the most well-known and praised of almost any other source on the Great Leap Forward and subsequent Great Famine.

The lesser known of the two books, “Tombstone” by Yang Jisheng is much more evenhanded in its approach to the Great Leap Forward. He keeps away from provocative titles like those in Dikötter’s book, and instead opts for more technical and practical chapter titles such as “The Epicenter of the Disaster” and “China’s Population Loss in the Great Leap Forward.” Yang is less concerned about a bestselling novel than he is about remembering those who perished during the famine and bringing the truth to not only the eyes of the Chinese, but to the rest of the world. The title of the book “Tombstone” is vaguer than Dikötter’s “Mao’s Great Famine” and carries a tone of sadness and remembrance for the famine and deaths of over thirty-six million citizens. Unlike Dikötter, Yang does not intend for the title of the book to place blame on any particular person but rather to remember the tragedy and suffering of China during the Great Famine. Yang clarifies and states that his intentions for the book in his preface, “An Everlasting Tombstone,” is to;

“to erect a tombstone for my father, who died of starvation in 1959; … to erect a tombstone for the thirty-six million Chinese who died of starvation; …to erect a tombstone for the system that brought about the Great Famine…I erect this tombstone so that people will remember and henceforth renounce man-made calamity, darkness, and evil.” (Yang 3)

Yang keeps truer to the causes of the Great Famine by identifying the ways that the political system failed the peasants during the Great Leap Forward. He devotes more than one chapter discussing the causes and issues that led up to the famine and identifies that instead of the fault of one mad man, as Dikötter would have you believe, the famine was caused by people blinded by the good image of Mao , overzealous people blinded with opportunism and those caught up in self-preservation (Yang 263-264). The villain of Yang’s Tombstone is the people of China who were blinded to the destruction and catastrophes around them by the ideals and promises of communism. Mao’s ideals and policies, were the main cause of the famine, but unlike Dikötter’s reasoning, Yang does not believe that famine and calamities were the result of intentional mass murder like those of the Holocaust. Instead they were from people who took these policies and through means of self-preservation, opportunism and personal desires, inflated the statistics of grain and downplayed the famine (Yang 254-258, 264).

Yang’s perspective of the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famine is more broad and objective. Yang is almost passive in recounting of statistics. Although he grew up during the Great Famine and watched his father die of starvation (Yang 5), Yang has done well to remove himself emotionally and from placing blame on solely one person. He quotes several people and identifies their involvement in enabling the famine, but refrains from blaming the entirety of the tragedy on a specific member of the Chinese communist party. Unlike Dikötter, Yang is more forgiving of Mao. Though Yang does not make any excuses for Mao neither is he apologetic of the policies that Mao had enforced. Yang recognizes that the Great Famine was the result of the faults of many people. “Mao’s own actions were to a certain extent also beyond his control. No one had the power to resist such a system, not even Mao” (Yang 22). The “exaggeration Wind” was further reaching than anyone could have anticipated.

From the local cadres to the top of the Communist party no one is exempt from criticism and reproach by Yang. Yang tells of party members like Wu Zhipu and Tan Zhenlin who perpetuated the Inflation of statistics, “if he [Tan Zhenlin] did not agree with the report, there was no way for it to be passed upward” (Yang 58).Wu Zhipu covered up starvation when Mao went to inspect Henan Province (Yang 81). There were many others who did the same all across the provinces and kept the truth of starvation from reaching Mao’s ears. Yang even criticizes himself. In his preface, Yang regretfully admits that he was also blinded by the communist ideals espoused by the establishment in place. “My support for the Great Leap Forward was due not only to the inspiration of communist ideals, but also to ignorance” (Yang 7-8). Many people during the Great Leap Forward had very good images of Mao. Even as they were starving and watching the people around them die, the villagers’ perception of Mao was still a very pleasant one. Even now after much of the results and atrocities of the famine have been exposed, Mao has a decent reputation. Many people have pictures and statues of Mao in their homes and school and the currency still proudly displays a picture hopeful looking Mao.

Unlike Dikötter, who fails to go into detail about the Central Committee’s response to the Famine, Yang spends a chapter discussing their response and the results of action taken to stop the famine. After The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee finally learned the truth of the extent of the famine and believed it, they carried out thorough inspections of the provinces and issued the “Twelve agricultural Provisions” in an effort to reverse the famine and prevent further famine (Yang 436).Yang also directly quotes Mao admitting to the errors in his policies “I have also committed errors and definitely need to correct them” (Yang 437). Unfortunately by the time these measures were taken to stop famine in the tail end of 1960, over twenty million people had perished. (Yang 414) Later in the chapter, Yang illustrates that despite the Central Committee’s and Mao’s efforts to end the famine, the provisions sent to the provinces scarcely made it beyond the doors of the cadres who feasted and grew fat while the peasants starved and became emaciated. What’s more disturbing is how much food went to waste during the famine (Yang 459). The Cadre’s not only feasted on delicacies while watching the peasants they were supposed to be helping starved to death.

Yang ends his book with a sorrowful chapter on how the famine influenced and can continue to influence contemporary Chinese Politics. He predicts that China will move forward into modern democracy but not without difficulty. Yang predicts that if the polices and politicians are not careful a government similar to the one in place during the Great Leap Forward will rise again. Through this chapter Yang again urges the reader to no forget about the past and to learn from the mistakes of those who facilitated and participated in China’s greatest famine. Xujun Eberlein reiterates Yang’s thesis in her review of “Tombstone.” Eberlein states that:

“The Chinese have a saying: “The past that is not forgotten becomes the teacher of the future.” If the famine was the deliberate act of an individual villain (Mao Zedong) as demonic as Hitler or Stalin, then, the villain long dead, the matter is settled. On the other hand, if it was the result of failings in the social and political systems that, at least in part, still persist, then there are important lessons for today’s leaders.”

Yang pleads with the readers to remember the hardships that the people of China went through. We need to remember that to transform a country and its political and economic system we need to refrain from radical and overzealous attitude and actions. A change of the political system requires time to develop, not overnight or over the course five years. There needs to be a gradual change in attitude, in thinking, in tradition and in ideas. No political system can rise within a few short years especially not one as difficult to enforce and perfect as communism. Economies take even longer to stabilize. The Industrial Revolution of the West began in the late 1700s and developed and spread over a century until the early 1900s . By trying to force a new economy onto its people, China ended creating one of the largest famines which killed over thirty six million people in a period of three to four years (Yang 13, 394-430).

Both “Mao’s Great Famine” and “Tombstone” display harrowing accounts of the Great Leap Forward and do their best to expose the true scope of the famine. Both are successful in showing the faults of radical political zealots. Although both Dikötter’s “Mao’s Great Famine” and Yang’s “Tombstone” have many differences and faults, it’s the differences and faults that make the texts mutually exclusive and beneficial to read. I sincerely hope that these two books will become available for everyone to read, especially the Chinese People so that they can become aware of the extent of corruption in the government during the Great Leap Forward. Many Chinese people still revere Mao and keep his legacy pure. When my mother went to China on a study abroad trip, she saw many pictures of Mao displayed in homes and on the gate of the Forbidden City . People still visit his corpse to pay their respects to their beloved leader.

I hope that the Chinese politicians will learn from the mistakes that their predecessors made and move forward and progress without the result being 36 million deaths. Like during the Great Leap Forward, information is still manipulated, tightly controlled and restricted today (Yang 14-15). Many archives are unavailable to the public and internet access is heavily restricted. Anything that might shed light on the corruption of government present or past, such as social media or western news websites are forbidden . Hopefully the accounts of the famine will not be forgotten and lost in the depths of controlled information so that those who perished in the famine will be forever a reminder against a totalitarian government.


Burger, Richard. “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. Web.

Buruma, Ian. “From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds.” New York Books (2011). Web.

Dikoetter, Frank. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of CHina;s Most Devastating Catastroph, 1958-1962. New York: Wlaker Publishing COmpany Inc., 2010. Text.

Eberlein, Xujun. “The Teacher of the Future.” Los Angeles Review of Books (2012). Web.

Ebrey, Patricia, Anne Walthall and James Palais. East Asia: A Cultural, Social. and Political History. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin COmpany, 2009. Text.

Grant, Stan. “Shadow of Mao Still Lingers over China.” News Article. 2012. Web.

History Channel. “Industrial Revolution.” 2013. The History Channel Website. Web. December 2013.

Jisheng, Yang. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Text.

McDonald, Mark. “Adding More Bricks to the Great Firewall of China.” International New York Times (2013). Web.

Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. “Mao’s Legacy Still Divides China.” News Article. 2011. Web.

Wikipedia. “Great Leap Forward.” 3 November 2013.  Web.

Share it!
Aenean mattis venenatis
Amy Pittman