Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Yang Rebuts Dikötter on Famine Research

[Note:  I don't know either Frank Dikötter or Yang Jisheng, but I have read both China's Great Famine (in English) and Tombstone (in Chinese), two books I'll be reviewing.

For research purposes, I'm intensely interested in finding out whether Mao really said "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill," and if he did, in what context.  According to Dikötter, Mao made the speech on March 25, 1959, in a secret meeting in Shanghai, but the source Dikötter cites in his book is "Gansu" – Gansu's provincial archive. If Dikötter can show us the complete speech of Mao that contains those words, or the complete context if they are words attributed to Mao by someone else, that would be a great help to all researchers of the subject. – Xujun]

Update:  my review for both books has been published in LA Review of Books in January 2012:  "The Teacher of the Future"

In Response to Mr. Dikötter's Comments on Tombstone

by Yang Jisheng 
Independent Chinese Pen Center, November 16, 2011

[In translation]

Not long ago, when I heard that Mr. Dikötter's book on China's great famine had been published, I was very happy: with one more comrade researching China's great famine, I felt in my heart the consolation of not being alone. Later, when I heard his book had received an award, I was again very happy, for our research field had attracted serious attention from international academic circles.

I got to know Dikötter in 2007.  I was visiting the Chinese University of Hong Kong, mainly to make use of its various chorographic resources for my final proofreading and correction of the Tombstone manuscript. Beijing’s Library on Wenjin Street also has chorographies, but does not allow open-shelf reading; one has to check out a single book a time to read, which is very inconvenient. 

One day perhaps in May 2007, through the introduction of Prof. Cao Shuji of Shanghai Jiaotong University, Dikötter found me at CUHK. I told him about my research.  He said, "You study about death; I study about survival."  I thought his angle was original.  We also discussed the number of [starvation] deaths. I said 36 million is only an approximate number; it is impossible to find an accurate count. Later I gave a talk at a lunch meeting on China's great famine; I remember Mr. Dikötter was also there.

Tombstone was published in May 2008 in Hong Kong by Cosmos Books, and it triggered unexpectedly strong reaction.  Sometime later, probably in 2009, Dikötter's assistant Ms. Zhou Xun visited me in Beijing. I gave her some information and methods for gathering famine data.  I half joked, "With your Chinese face and pure Sichuan dialect, maybe you could sneak into Sichuan's Provincial archives!" 

I have not read Mr. Dikötter's book (note: Mao's Great Famine has not been translated into Chinese – Xujun), and can't make comments except to congratulate. But I'll have to say a few words in response to his comments on Tombstone. I read his comments from the October 30, 2011 issue of Asia Weekly.  This is an influential journal; if I don't provide a bit of the necessary response, it will be difficult to clear up its many readers' misunderstanding of Tombstone.  A few things are discussed in what follows.

1.  Mr. Dikötter speaks of the causes of the Great Famine: "This is a system or structure issue, not that of a certain person.  That's the biggest difference between my book and Yang Jisheng's."  Anyone who read Tombstone knows that, from the introduction through every chapter, the book talks about the system issue; it never says the cause for the great famine was the problem of "a certain person." In addition, Chapter 26 focuses on analyzing systematic causes of the famine, and Chapter 27 explores the theoretic roots of the system. I always think that, to inculpate Mao Zedong alone for all China's problems in the 30 years before Reform, such as anti-rightists, the great famine, and the Cultural Revolution, is contrary to historical facts, and is superficial.

2. Mr. Dikötter says, "He [Yang Jisheng] writes Mao Zedong as very bad, the Communist Party as very good."  Tombstone neither says "Mao Zedong is very bad" nor "the Communist Party is very good," of course it does not say Mao is good either.  Not only are there no such words, but also no such meaning, in my book.  Readers who have read Tombstone must think Mr. Dikötter remembered wrong.  Tombstone just objectively writes the historical course as it occurred. When writing about several leaders of the Party central, the book does not give any evaluation of "good" or "bad," because that kind of simplified evaluation is not scholarly thinking, and is not scientific.  Especially for such a large-scale catastrophe as the great famine, the roots are in the system, it can't be the consequence of whether a certain person is "good" or "bad."

Speaking of Mao Zedong, I will have to point out, one piece of information Dikötter introduced to prove "Mao Zedong is bad" is not reliable. Dikötter quotes Mao as saying "It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill." Based on my many years of research on the great famine and Mao Zedong, I am positive that Mao did not say such words.

3. "He [Yang Jisheng] says Zhou Enlai is wonderful, Liu Shaoqi is wonderful, Deng Xiaoping is wonderful; as such this cuts apart the history of the relationship between Mao Zedong and the Party."  Readers of Tombstone can testify, my book absolutely does not have any such words as Dikötter says it has. Not even a hint of such. Tombstone only states historical facts and the systematic systemic causes that made them happen; it does not evaluate credits and faults of any particular leader. In addition to describing Mao's words and behavior, Tombstone especially spends many pages describing Liu Shaoqi's speeches during the Great Leap Forward, and then states: "When I list here a series of speeches by Liu Shaoqi that led to the 'Five Winds,' it is not to say that the source of the 'Five Winds' was Liu. It is also not to reduce Mao's responsibility; rather it is to illustrate that, after the criticism of 'countering rash advance,' the majority of the then Party leadership was in keeping with Mao’s attitudes and was supportive of Mao. Among them, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai were in tune with Mao; sometimes they even spoke more radically than Mao."

4. Dikötter says, "On the so-called three-year natural disasters, in fact there weren't big natural disasters." In fact, it is not that there weren't big natural disasters.  There were natural disasters. To research the impact of the natural disasters on farm crops, I went to the National Meteorological Administration five times to gather information and seek advice from meteorological experts.  My conclusion: "Natural disasters occur every year; those three years were normal years. The cause of the Great Famine was a man-made disaster."

5. Dikötter says, "His [Yang's] book rather emphasizes on how many deaths occurred in which province, which place. To use a not very appropriate word,  I feel that's a bit stupid (无聊)." 
Dikötter calls my research on each province's death numbers "stupid"; to this criticism I would rather not respond. Readers please make your own conclusion. But I do want to make clear that, for this "stupid" thing, I indeed expended great efforts. For example, I sought advice from many demographers, and had in-depth discussions with them. I collected nearly all foreign and Chinese demographers' research data on China's famine death figures, studied their methods, and analyzed their calculation results. Further, I hand-copied each province's relevant data, book by book, from the 30 books of  Population of China, drew up tables to organize the data,  and then calculated the data province by province.  Each day, I calculated the data after work; one evening was enough for only one province. Why did I devote such big efforts in such a "stupid" thing? I treasure life. Behind every figure is an array of lives from birth to death.

6. Dikötter said many times that, his biggest discover is that besides starvation deaths, many people were beaten to death.  Is this his new finding?  Readers of Tombstone know this well, readers of Ms. Qiao Peihua's Xinyang Incident know this well, too. Both books described many cases of peasants being beaten to death.  Tombstone was published three years earlier than Mr. Dikötter's book.  Xinyang Incident was published over a year earlier than Mr. Dikötter's book.

7. Mr. Dikötter said many times that China's archives are now opened, he visited China's inland archives and read over a thousand documents relating to the great famine, and said his book is based on the archive materials.  I went to 10+ Provincial Archive Establishments as well as the Central Archive, hand-copied and Xeroxed several thousand original documents; the hardship I experienced is unspeakable. I had the status of Xinhua Agency's senior reporter, and the help from many high-ranking friends, and still I ran into lots of trouble and setbacks; some provinces did not let me in. … As far as I know, China's famine archive is not opened. Some Archive Establishments opened other files, but those related to the famine have a small rectangular stamp on them with the word "restricted", and reading is not allowed. Mr. Dikötter is a foreigner with distinctive exterior and language, who'd have thought he could access over a thousand files of the famine archives!  There must be some tricks.  If he could tell of his experience, it would be a great help to all scholars of China.

Yang Jisheng, October 28, 2011

(Update: Thanks to  Joshua Rosenzweig for pointing out that Mao's Great Famine has been translated into Chinese  – Xujun)

(Update 2: My review for both books has been published in LA Review of Books in January 2012:  "The Teacher of the Future"   – Xujun)


Robert C said...

Those comments attributed to Dikotter raised my eyebrows even without Yang's responses.

Nice blog.

Richard said...

Fascinating. I am reading the Dikotter book now and a very grateful for this perspective.

florant said...

I asked Dikotter in an email about the let-half-the-Chinese-starve question. He sent me the page where Mao's comment was taken from.

Xujun said...

Florant, thanks very much for your link. To be honest, I don't understand why Dikotter is so dismissive of Yang's work, and displays that attitude everywhere. Even in his note to you he seems to be angry that Yang didn't read his book. On the other hand, all his comments on Yang show that he didn't read, or didn't read much of, Yang's book either. This is too bad given that they both are big contributors to the famine research.

About the Mao quote: now that it is established that Mao made an isolated comment as Dikotter quoted, it would be even more interesting to know what Mao was responding to when he said it. Do you think there is a way to find the missing text?

Mark said...

About the 'better half of of them starve quote'

However, Dikotter did let two correspondents of mine have an informal look at one crucial document in his office. This is Mao’s speech on 25 March 1959. On p.134 of Mao’s Great Famine, Dikotter quotes Mao as saying during the Great Leap Forward ‘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.’


The quote suggests another possibility about Mao’s alleged comment about half the people dying so the other half could eat their fill in Shanghai. It might be regarded as a sarcastic statement, as when Mao said at Wuchang ‘Half of China might have to die…’, when he was warning others about over-ambitious economic plans. We must also remember that these were minutes of a meeting, and presumably not something written by Mao himself. It could well have been that Mao was simply repeating the kind of warning that he made at Wuchang and the statement was not fully minuted, leading to a misleading impression. Dikotter’s approach in simply quoting this alleged statement, without taking an overview of all Mao’s statements on the issue and other statements made in the document is one-sided to say the least.

Anonymous said...

I am doing a research essay on the Great Leap Famines and in what way Mao's policies on the communes caused the famine and I would really like to read Tombstone because I already have Mao's Great Famine and I feel like a combination of the two would be some of the best information I could get. Do you have any idea when Tombstone will be translated into English?

Xujun said...

Tombstone has already been translated into English; its official release date is Oct. 30 this year, but you might try requesting a review copy from the publisher right now. Here is the book's Amazon page:

If you are interested, I have a dual review of the two books in LA Review of Books:

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to request a review copy of a book if you are not from a magazine, book blog, or such? Also, thank you so much for your review of the books. I'm sure it'll help me a lot. I've found it difficult to find sources for my essay so I really appreciated finding this blog.

Xujun said...

Are you a student doing research? If so it is less likely you'll get a copy. But you can always try.

Anonymous said...

Does Dikotter speak Chinese? Listening to him, just now, on NPR, he pronounces Mao Ze Dong so badly that I am left to wonder...