The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

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Sigg Collection
Chen Yanning: Chairman Mao Inspects the Guangdong Countryside, 1972. This painting, from Asia Society’s recent exhibition ‘Art and China’s Revolution,’ shows Mao’s visit to the outskirts of Guangzhou during the first year of the Great Leap Forward, the initiative that propelled China into a famine resulting in millions of deaths.

When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying what had gone wrong in China as they were growing up. Especially after the Tiananmen massacre, many stayed on after their Ph.D.s, some to become professors.

But when Chinese began arriving in the US in significant numbers as college freshmen in the late 1990s,1 the situation was different: the Cultural Revolution had ended before they were born, Tiananmen was a blurred memory, China was booming, and many, perhaps most, planned to return home after gaining work experience in a laboratory or on Wall Street. In addition to having to adjust to different educational methods and lifestyles, Chinese undergraduates, like their graduate student predecessors, had the opportunity to learn about their country’s recent history untrammeled by the requirements of Party propaganda. Unlike their predecessors, however, the undergraduates had concerns.

The natural thing for students everywhere is to learn their nation’s history from their countrymen. Why would Westerners know better about modern Chinese history? Would American professors insult Chairman Mao? Would they too offer up propaganda, only anti-Chinese? And yet most Chinese students realized that there were important periods of China’s past of which they had been taught little. The Cultural Revolution was a subject on which their parents and grandparents rarely dwelled, and most Chinese professors covered it only in passing.2 Further back in time there were the “three bitter years” between 1959 and 1961, brought about, according to official texts, by “Left” errors, characterized by excessive economic targets, the issuing of arbitrary directives, boastfulness, the stirring up of a “communist wind,” “a succession of natural calamities,” and the “perfidious” withdrawal of Soviet aid.3

But those texts do not spell out the terrible human costs of the famine brought about by the Great Leap Forward (GLF) of 1958–1960, or indicate that, even at the time, most peasants and some officials recognized that the catastrophe was largely man-made, and not by Russians but by Chinese. For those Chinese students who want a reliable and readable account of what really happened, my standard advice has been to read Hungry Ghosts, by the British journalist Jasper Becker.4 But Becker’s work has now been largely superseded by the pathbreaking Mao’s Great Famine by the social historian Frank Dikötter.

Dikötter is a polyglot scholar on leave from the London School of Oriental and African Studies who is currently chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong …

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  1. 1

    According to the Institute of International Education, there were 8,000 Chinese undergraduates in US colleges in 2000–2001 and more than 26,000 in 2008–2009; see Dan Levin, “The China Boom,” The New York Times, November 7, 2010. 

  2. 2

    In fall 2006, I gave a guest lecture at Shanghai’s Fudan University in what I was told was the first course on the Cultural Revolution anywhere in the country. 

  3. 3

    Resolution on CPC History (1949–81) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1981), pp. 28–29. This was the Party leadership’s explanation of past disasters, mainly the Cultural Revolution. 

  4. 4

    Free Press, 1996.