Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Dual Review of Tombstone and Mao's Great Famine

(Note:  I'm traveling in China right now, where I don't have access to my own blog.  I have to ask someone else outside to put this post up for me.  It was a surprise to me, though, that LA Review of Books is also blocked.  I don't know why and doubt that there was a particular reason, but now with my following review published, the Chinese government might indeed feel the need. Sigh. )

on two accounts of the great Chinese famine.

In July 2011, Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine won the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize, one of Europe’s best known and most lucrative awards for a work of nonfiction. One of the judges, Brenda Maddox, explained to the Guardian why the book impressed her so much: “Why didn’t I know about this? We feel we know who the villains of the 20th century are — Stalin and Hitler. But here, fully 50 years after the event, is something we did not know about.”

That reaction highlights both the main contribution and main limitation of Dikötter’s book. Though there have been many books and articles published on the same subject — in English, Chinese, and I’m sure other languages — apparently Dikötter’s is the one that brought awareness to at least one more Westerner ignorant of the catastrophe. 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, the Holocaust, and the Soviet Gulag is, at best, an over-simplification that hinders understanding. To borrow what the discerning Asia scholar Ian Buruma once said on a different subject: “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.”

The most authoritative study on the famine is Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone, which has a broader and deeper perspective. The Chinese language edition of the book was published in Hong Kong two years before Dikötter’s, and an English version is due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in fall 2012.

(Read the complete review at LOSANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS)


Anonymous said...

Dear Xujun,

I enjoyed your review of the books by Dikotter and Yang.

However, I have a question for you. It is claimed by some that the actual crude mortality rates (around 25 to 20/1000 per year) during the period of the GLF were in fact nothing out of the ordinary for a developing country of the time. And in fact far better than 38/1000 per year in 1949.

I wonder what your thoughts are on this?

Anonymous said...

Correction...I meant to write (25 to 30/1000 per year)

Anonymous said...

The fact is there was continual death from hunger before 1949. In 1946, Life magazine has famine images from Hunan (which is hardly noted in the history books):

Note also Dikotter's dishonesty:

On the linked page you will find an image of a starving boy with a begging bowl. He uses the image of this boy on the cover of his book about the GLF.

Xujun Eberlein said...


I've heard about the cover photo incident before; in Dikotter's defense authors are not usually too involved in cover art.

The larger question you raise is talked about quite a bit in Pankaj Mishra's article in the New Yorker that I mentioned in the review:

IMO, just looking at crude death rates does not negate the huge negative effects that the GLF had on China's people. Had the movement not occurred, many fewer would have died and the suffering would have been greatly reduced. The evidence on that seems pretty incontrovertible.

Anonymous said...

IMO, just looking at crude death rates does not negate the huge negative effects that the GLF had on China's people.

Agree entirely.

But the demographic data pretty much does show a remarkable decline in mortality and increase in life expectancy under Mao. That is pretty hard to deny if you consider the population growth during his time, which was about three or four times as rapid as the rate during the three decades just before his rule. This at a time of falling fertility.

But tragically this performance could have been even better - by tens of millions of lives.

So to compare Mao to Hitler as many in the West now do is simply absurd.

The conditions created by imperialism before the revolution killed unimaginable amounts of people, if 'excess' deaths are attributed to imperialism in the same way that 'excess' deaths are attributed to Mao.

My own father in relatively rich Guangdong province lost three out of six of his sisters in the late 1930s. And his family was relatively well off. Who are those deaths to be blamed on?

The GLF disaster is rightly blamed on Mao.

But imperialism caused far more deaths, from China, to India. to Africa. India had a higher mortality rate just ten years before than the GLF---with this rate and worse, sustained over decades.

The British caused famines in Ireland in the 1840s and India in the late 19th Century killed far more than the GLF, as a percentage of the population.

And Im sure if Mr Yang similarly went through India or pre-1949 China documenting every death from hunger, he could come up with book with contents equally appalling as the one he did for the GLF.

Famine in 1946. Not even a part of most histories of China - because these conditions were typical before the revolution, and highly atypical after the revolution.

Even my mother from Macau remembers truckloads of dead people from starvation during the war years.

The lessons of the GLF need to be learned. But saying this period was the worst in China's history is done by people who wish to absolve the far greater crimes, and deaths resulting from Western and Japanese imperialism.

As for Dikotter, I find him his book somewhat orientalist, specifically designed to appeal to a Western audience.