Frank Dikötter


On his book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962

Cover Interview of October 19, 2010

In a nutshell

My goal was to write a detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history that is much speculated about, but has never before been fully documented.

Between 1958 and 1962, Mao Zedong threw his country into a frenzy with the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up and overtake Britain in less than 15 years.  The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe China had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives.

The public knows very little about this—because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians.

A new archive law in China has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents, and thus fundamentally changed the way one can study the Maoist era.

Archival research led to astonishing discoveries. Over the course of three years of rummaging through dozens of archives all over China, I found secret reports from the Public Security Bureau, detailed minutes of top party meetings, unexpunged versions of important leadership speeches, surveys of working conditions in the countryside, investigations into cases of mass murder, confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people, inquiries compiled by special teams sent in to discover the extent of the catastrophe in the last stages of the Great Leap Forward, general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivization campaign, secret opinion surveys, letters of complaint written by ordinary people and much more.  The bulk of this material has never been seen before.

The book blends accounts of what happened in the corridors of power—the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders—with accounts of the everyday experiences of ordinary people.

Far from being the program that would lift China among the world’s superpowers and prove the power of communism, as Mao imagined, the Great Leap Forward transformed the country in the other direction.

China became the site not only of one of the most deadly mass killings of human history, as at least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death, but also the greatest demolition of real estate in human history, as up to a third of all housing was turned into rubble.  The experiment was a catastrophe for the natural world as well, as the land was savaged in the maniacal pursuit of steel and other industrial accomplishments.