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The Killing Fields of China - A Review Essay by Roger Garside

December 29, 2012

Frank Dikötter
Walker & Company
Hardcover: September 2010, 420 pages
Paperback: October 2011, 448 pages

Yang Jisheng
Edited by Edward Friedman,
Guo Jian, and Stacy Mosher
Translated by Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Hardcover: October 2012, 656 pages

Edited by Zhou Xun
Yale University Press
Hardcover: July 2012, 224 pages

These books present a wealth of evidence that in the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958 - 60 the Communist Party of China caused the greatest catastrophe ever inflicted upon a society by its own rulers.                      

Dikötter, Zhou and Yang, have based their books on documents they have collected in official archives in mainland China, and, to a lesser extent, on interviews with survivors and retired cadres. Collaborators on a joint project, based in Hong Kong, Dikötter and Zhou, gathered 1,000 documents; Yang, a resident of the mainland, amassed 3,000, totaling almost 4 million characters. (Tombstone is an English version of Yang’s much longer original work in Chinese, Mubei; he has been superbly served by his translators-editors, Mosher and Guo.) All three authors have benefitted from a relaxation of policy on archive access that began in the early 1990s. Most of the documents are from the Communist Party’s own archives, at or below provincial and municipal level. Central Party archives remain hard to access, but the authors were able to use those of the Foreign and Food Ministries. As a result of this access, and the skill of their authors in analyzing and organizing a vast quantity of material, these books recount the history of the Great Leap with an authority, thoroughness and detail never before achieved.

Dikötter writes: “The archival evidence . . . conservatively puts the number of premature deaths at a minimum of 45 million for the great famine of 1958-62.”2 Yang estimates that “the Great Famine brought about 36 million unnatural deaths, and a short fall of 40 million births. China’s total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million.”3  The short fall of births occurred because men and women were made to sleep in separate dormitories, and fatigue, disease and starvation caused men to produce less sperm, and women to stop menstruating and to suffer collapse of the uterus. 

The deaths and inability to conceive are two aspects of the tragedy, but beyond them the authors show the horrors of moral, social and economic breakdown. The depth of suffering destroyed people’s moral sensitivity and capacity for feeling, so that Yang records: “Tens of millions departed this world in an atmosphere of mute apathy . . . . There were no anguished appeals to heaven, . . . no sympathy, no grief, no tears, no shock, no dread.”

The scale and scope of the catastrophe make of it an event of universal importance, from which we can learn much about the nature of man, and how he should or should not be governed. In his Preface to The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn quoted the Russian proverb, “Dwell on the past and you will lose an eye. Forget the past, and you will lose both eyes.” The Strategies of the Warring States teaches: “What is not forgotten of the past may serve as a guide for the future.”4 Yang wrote Tombstone partly as a memorial to those who died, but also to enable us all to draw political lessons from it. He believes that the “basic reason why tens of millions of people starved to death in China was totalitarianism,” and Dikötter shares this view. The three books provide the evidence from which readers can draw their own conclusions. 

Because the Great Leap occurred more than fifty years ago, is not recorded in detail in Chinese textbooks and is still not well known elsewhere, I will briefly summarize it, with a warning that it is too complex a phenomenon for any short description to be satisfactory.

In the summer of 1958, the Communist Party launched a social and economic revolution intended to transform China from a socialist into a communist society, and to achieve such increases in industrial and agricultural output that it would immediately put an end to poverty. The international aim (undeclared, but evident) was to seize the leadership of world revolution from the Soviet Union. Society at every level was collectivized, militarized and thrown into combat. Mao advocated untried and unscientific methods of farming, without checking them with experts, and claimed that they would multiply yields per acre by ten times; he then based on them national targets for food production wildly beyond the bounds of possibility. One or two brave men called these into question, and he reduced them, but only to a level that was still beyond the bounds of possibility. The same kind of subjectivist thinking and planning was applied to steel-making, water control, irrigation, pig production, and other economic activities. The provinces that suffered worst were those whose leaders followed the policies of the Center [中央, zhong yang, a term commonly used in China to mean the CPC’s Beijing-based top leaders], most fanatically or cynically, inflating targets even beyond those set at the center, carrying policies to extreme, and falsifying reports to hide failures to meet targets.

The promise of abundance motivated some trusting farmers at first, and gullible youths threw themselves into the movement. The harvest of 1958 was good, and in the climate of euphoria, wild exaggeration of success, and suspension of reason that had been whipped, people even believed that there was a problem of surplus food. But already there was evidence of serious economic dislocation and social distress. Mass mobilization of labor for irrigation projects had diverted labor from essential agricultural tasks, the “steel” produced in backyard furnaces was worthless, the pace of work was leading to exhaustion, the destruction of private dwellings and family life, and enforced eating in communal mess halls were detested. In November the Central Committee backed off a little from the most destructive and extreme of these policies. 

Mao’s own prestige and leadership were so closely associated with the Great Leap that he refused to countenance anything more than the minimum of backtracking essential for his own and the nation’s survival. From then on, he would insist that the overall strategy was correct, blame others for mistakes of implementation, ruthlessly counter-attack against anyone who dared to call for honest acknowledgment of the extent of the disaster as it emerged, and block so long as he could policy reversals on the scale required to minimize famine and disease. Except for Minister of Defense Peng Dehuai, and his few supporters, all Mao’s senior comrades yielded to his threats, acting as his accomplices. By March 1959, Mao was forced to confront the growing reality of suffering, but his response was: “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.” His readiness to accept death on this scale domestically recalled the way in which he had told the international conference of Communist Party leaders in Moscow that if war broke out between the socialist and “imperialist” camps, and one half of the world’s population died, “there will still be one-half left, but imperialism would be erased, and the whole world would become socialist.” If proof were needed that Mao’s prime concern in domestic and world revolution was not for the poor and powerless of this earth, these words would provide it. 

As the crisis deepened, the Center increased rather than diminished the targets of compulsory grain procurement from the farmers, because it gave priority to the politically sensitive cities, and to foreign trade and aid over the needs of the countryside. It claimed that the farmers were hiding grain, and refused to release reserve stocks to starving regions.  The Party waged war on the farmers, and did not pretend otherwise in its internal communications. 

Soon after the Great Leap was launched, violent coercion became normal, with the encouragement of the Center. These books document how Party cadres, to protect their own careers, enforce their authority, strive for fulfillment of their targets, and protect their rice bowl at a time of famine, turned the countryside of China into killing fields. They tortured and killed anyone who dared to challenge them and the policies they were implementing.  They forced husbands to torture their wives, and kill their children if they were disobedient. 

 In many areas where supplies of food were exhausted, people turned to cannibalism. Parents even killed their own children to eat them. Children survived by eating their parents who had died. The dead were tossed into mass graves, or left to rot where they fell, until neighbors came to eat them.

Chastened by the disastrous history of collectivization in the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1940, Stalin had warned Mao and his comrades against repeating Soviet mistakes. They ignored his warning. They promised a Great Leap to Paradise: they delivered a Highway to Hell. 

Only with the 7,000-cadre conference of 1962 did they respond politically on the scale the situation demanded.  

These books are banned in mainland China, and no public debate is permitted on the lessons to be drawn, more than half a century after the Great Leap.  This enforced amnesia is a matter of political logic: if the National Socialist Party was still ruling Germany with a monopoly of political power, if Hitler’s corpse was lying in a mausoleum in Berlin, and his portrait hanging from the Brandenburg Gate, then the Party would probably claim that the stability of the Third Reich required that examination of the Holocaust be forbidden.  Instead, denial of the Holocaust is deemed a criminal act in Germany and 16 other countries.  The Chinese leaders did not set out to kill, unlike the Nazis when they launched the Holocaust, but when they saw that their policies were killing millions they did not reverse them until it was far too late, and then the high-ranking made scapegoats of their subordinates who had obeyed their orders. They did so to defend themselves and the system they had constructed.

The catastrophe cannot be laid at the door of one man, Mao. While the Great Leap was his initiative, and would not have happened without him, it was only possible because China was ruled by a political party committed to totalitarian dictatorship. Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and other senior comrades had joined Mao in fashioning that party. The revolutionary changes they imposed in the early 1950s, all modeled closely on the Soviet Union under Stalin, paved the way for it. They had eliminated private property, sealed China off from information beyond its borders, abolished freedom of expression, undermined and attacked all religions and tradi­tional ethics, and overridden such rule of law as existed. They never shrank from using terror and lies to win, use, and hold power.  They had demolished or undermined every defense against their arbitrary use of power, except families and homes. The summer of madness swept many of those away.5

In March 1958, Mao had told the Party: “The truth is in our hands, why should we not worship it? . . . Each group must worship its leader, it cannot but worship its leader.”6  In Yang’s words, China's government became “a secular theocracy that united the center of power with the center of truth.”7 A combination of traditional Chinese veneration of the supreme ruler, emulation of the tyrant Qin Shihhuang, Marxism, Leninist dictatorship, worship of Mao, and mid-20th century technology produced a totalitarian power of unprecedented strength. From these books we see in explicit detail how policy was transmitted from the lips of Mao to the minds and entrails of farmers in the most remote villages of China.

Yang is particularly interested in systemic analysis, and demonstrates impressively how the regime transmitted and magnified the folly and the evil of the men at the top, instead of checking it. Party cadres engaged in collective beatings of those few of their fellow officials who dared to defend truth; lying and unquestioning obedience down the chain of authority were instilled and enforced by violence. At the center of coercive power Mao warned Liu Shaoqi, “All I have to do is lift a finger and you are finished,” and in communal dining halls the man or woman who held the food ladle exercised the power of life and death. In a vivid phrase, Yang claims that this system made of every person who entered it a slave facing upward, and a dictator facing downward.

Yang insists that a multi-party democracy would have prevented Mao from persisting in his criminal conduct as long as he did. But the inhabitants of democratic countries should feel no complacency. For a long time many leaders of opinion in our countries have been blind to the true story of the Great Leap, either through laziness or willful denial. This is inexcusable. The gravity of the famine and social crisis caused by the Great Leap were common knowledge in Hong Kong when I was serving there as a young soldier in 1958-9, the Taiwan press reported it fully, and sections of the American press got it right. The truth took longer to penetrate some groves of academe, and very eminent Sinologists have gone to their graves without recognizing it. The magnitude of the famine was demonstrated by a handful of American and British demographers and economists in the 1980s, and the broad outlines of the human misery caused by it were brilliantly recounted by Jasper Becker in his Hungry Ghosts, published in 1996. But the books under review increase our knowledge and understanding of the Great Leap Forward, and the comprehensive disaster it caused, far beyond anything published in English (or indeed in Chinese) hitherto.  They not only describe the horror in all its dimensions, they allow us to understand how and why it came to pass. They make intelligible and credible what for long seemed surreal. 

To a degree never possible until now, Dikötter and Yang show the impact of the Great Leap on the “common people.” Indeed Mao’s Great Famine is the first volume in a People’s Trilogy that Dikötter is writing, to cover the Tragedy of Liberation 1945-57, the Great Leap (this volume) and the Cultural Revolution. As a historian he is going from strength to strength in a growing oeuvre characterized by trail-blazing searches for truth. His intellect and language are direct and vigorous, and he shapes a wealth of complex material most skillfully. 

In recording the Great Leap, these books inevitably pile grim fact upon grim fact.  Only very occasionally do we learn of heroic integrity on the part of cadres, in the face of certain punishment, and time and again people who were starving had only a choice of “evil” options if they were to survive. Both Yang and Dikötter provide policy description and analysis as well as narrative, but Yang separates them, devoting whole chapters to the former. These provide some contrast and relief, and are as gripping as his narrative chapters, because their subject matter is electrifying, and he illustrates their themes with vivid examples and policy statements. His opening chapter, “An Everlasting Tombstone” is a deeply moving and courageous testament, both personal and political.  Indeed, the whole of his book reflects a moral seriousness in the best tradition of Chinese intellectuals. This and the sobriety of his style allow the horror of his content to make its impact with full power.

Zhou’s short but valuable book presents the history of the famine through a well-balanced collection of 120 documents out of the 1,000 that she and Dikötter gathered from mainland Party archives, in a joint research project. She organizes the documents by theme, e.g. Famine in the Communes, Seasons of Death, and Cannibalism, prefacing each with a few succinct pages of context.

All three authors are to be congratulated on their courage in tackling this most sensitive of subjects, and their diplomatic skill in negotiating access to archives in an often opaque system. Yang’s discreet and well-judged pursuit of his project over more than a decade is a quietly heroic achievement. He remains at liberty despite his denunciation of the Party’s disastrous record and the totalitarian system it created; indeed he was permitted to visit the U.S. earlier this year to speak at a conference on the Great Leap.

At about 140,000 words, Mao’s Great Famine is much shorter than Tombstone, which has about 220,000 words of text, excluding end matter. The two books, one by a European, the other by a Chinese insider, complement and reinforce each other, arriving at broadly similar conclusions and extending the range of sources.8 Together with Zhou Xun’s collection of documents, they form a landmark in the historiography of contemporary China.

Working on these books tested the resilience of spirit of those involved. Even reading them requires a certain resolve. They are journeys into hell, on which Dikötter and Yang act as our guides, as Virgil guided Dante; but Dante’s vision of Inferno is no more horrific than this journey through the killing fields of China.

Roger Garside (盖思德) served as a British diplomat in China during and immediately after the Cultural Revolution. He is the author of Coming Alive: China after Mao, published in 1981.


1. The book is also published in London in fall 2012 by Allen Lane under the title, Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine.^

2. Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962 (New York: Walker & Company, 2010), p.325.^

3. Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-62, eds. Edward Friedman, Guo Jian, and Stacy Mosher, Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian trans., (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux,  2012), p.430; as a proportion of the population of their nation, the Khmer Rouge inflicted a higher ratio of deaths on Cambodia, 1976-9, but, at 2.2 million, the total was far lower.^

4. 前世之不忘,后事之师, qianshi zhi bu wang, houshi zhi shi, cited by Guo Jian in a review of Mubei,^

5. Yang, p.8.^

6. Dikötter, p.19.^

7. Yang, p.18.^

8. Together, they cover 16 of China’s 22 provinces, and Beijing and Shanghai.^

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