Site hosted by Build your free website today!

A Memory of Tragedy: Judgment and Analysis of the Great Leap Famine

          In Jasper Becker’s book, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, a thorough investigation is made to explore the impact of the Great Leap Forward on human lives from 1958 to 1962.  The resulting famine, its perpetuation and the motives for its secrecy are investigated and explained.  The research, documentation, and personal interviews conducted by the author all offer a window into a part of China’s modern history that to this day has remained a mystery, shrouded in the political rhetoric and mass consensus of Cold War ideologies on both sides. 

          The ideology of Becker himself, however, coupled with his reliance on statistics that are at best an educated guess but assumed to be absolutely true, both serve to taint his book with impartiality. With an air of slightly irresponsible sensationalism and a thorough portrayal of Communism as evil incarnate, Becker states many aspects of the truth of the period while insisting on an absolute and deterministic reliance on them.  It is a well-written book, but also must be considered as written with certain grudges and biases.

          An initial warning to these tendencies on the part of Becker is the first claimed statistic of the book.  Victims of the Chinese famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward are stated as being at least 30 million in number.  It is established that many millions of Chinese had indeed starved to death during this period, but Becker’s statistic, like all statistics, cannot be taken at face value.  This statistic in particular is the result of the work of American demographers in the mid-1980’s, studying Chinese population records of the time period in question.  What must be understood is that the Chinese records of this period cannot be assumed to be concrete fact.  They took place in a time when truth in governmental information was very much of a fluid nature, an observation that Becker curiously ignores.  A pattern of assumed truths and carefully selected eyewitness accounts that may have their own agendas begins to emerge.  Thus perhaps the greatest tragedy of modern China is both explained and slightly embellished.

          Truly the Maoist attempt at Communist utopian engineering resulted in a catastrophic failure.  China, finally unified, finally out from under the yoke of foreign oppression, as a nation felt a fervent need to catch up to the rest of the world.  This was especially true in the context of aspiration to equal and even surpass the idealized Stalinist state to the North.  The Chinese Communist Party had much to prove to China and the world; tragically no reform seemed fast enough, especially as the cult of personality surrounding Mao grew to emperor-like proportions.  Becker did a respectable and comprehensive job at establishing the context for Mao’s oncoming hubris.

          The nature of the Great Leap Forward is well documented by the author, who puts it into an historical context that sets the pace for the rest of the book.  He exposes in glaring detail the architecture and foundation for the coming famine, and even goes as far as exploring the history and pattern of localized famines and droughts that have plagued China for thousands of years.  The concept of land reform in the history and establishment of the Chinese Communist Party is also explained, including the pervasive importance that Mao and his colleagues continually placed on the peasants of China and their advancement from the former slavery of foreign imperialism.

          The Stalinist attempt to collectivize agriculture had led to over 11 million deaths, but Maoist thought had been inspired by Stalinism at many levels, including admiration for these sweeping economic measures.  The author devotes an early chapter of the book to investigating the Russian legacy that was to serve as part of the inspiration for the Great Leap Forward and may of the irrational claims made by the cadres, or Communist officials.

          In this context, the Great Leap Forward was launched to achieve nationwide collectivism in as little time as possible.  With the same drive and passion that the Long March had been achieved, this bold but intrinsically flawed project was launched.  Statistics were quickly exaggerated to win support within the Party, which was to set off a chain reaction that would later lead to the famine itself.

          The establishment of collectivized agriculture was pushed forward at a feverish pace, coupled with a pseudo-science that claimed superhuman feats and asserted dangerously that the basic truths of agriculture could be changed by sheer will power and massive effort.  Infused with this drive was a desire to produce steel at the village level.  The untrained peasants that made up the vast majority of Chinese citizens were forced into believing that they could create totally self-sufficient communities almost instantly.  Massive collective projects for reservoirs, irrigation, and dams were rushed to completion without any sort of engineering research, ending up in dismal and massive failure.   These reforms were accepted as having a mystical quality known as “Mao’s thought,” which could solve, treat, or transcend anything, reminiscent of the gong fu that rendered the Boxers supposedly immune to bullets in 1900.

          Exaggeration led to exaggeration, as outlandish claims of grain production made by local officials sought to support the miracle that the Chinese Communists wanted so badly to believe in.  These claims, though incredibly false, were backed up by an insistence on exporting grain to other countries.  While peasants ignored their fields to work in their newly established backyard furnaces, the Chinese people ate more than they ever had before, convinced that the exaggerated harvest statistics were true.  Grain stores were rapidly used up, and the forced seizure of grain from the peasants began as a way to back up the claims of the local Party officials.

          Soon, peasants themselves were seen as enemies of the Party, and accused all over China of both stealing and hoarding grain.  The significant perpetuation of both lies and terror against the people began, a tale interwoven with Maoist politics that Becker does an excellent job at explaining.  However, this is offset by the awkward placement of an entire chapter dedicated to the physical description of starvation.  What could’ve been explained in a few paragraphs becomes a section of the book that only serves as shock-value, a sensationalism and fascination with the grotesque reminiscent of schlock horror as opposed to an investigation of history.

          The 1988 edition of the book finishes with an observation about the ongoing famine in North Korea.  Parallels and warnings emerge from Becker’s observations.  The reader may be left with noticing that the author’s work took place before the 1989 student uprisings in China.  One cannot help but wonder what sort of postscript Becker would compose in the present, especially considering his position as Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post. 

          The fundamental question readers of this compelling book must answer for themselves is an inquiry into Becker’s motives and goals.  It is as easy to demonize major historical figures as it is to glorify them, and surely any book that places halos or horns on human beings must be examined closely. Although this political famine was a horrible human tragedy involving millions, so indeed were the voyages of Columbus and the subsequent slavery and genocide that were aspects of the formation of the United States of America.  There are many truths in history, and more often than not we perceive only the ones most comfortable to our own cultural legacy.

          The truths that give Becker comfort, however, do have a remarkable relevance and clarity about them that give credit to both his painstaking and impressive collection of data and his straightforward writing ability.  His personal interviews with survivors of the famine are interspersed throughout the text, mingling with his academic explorations to form a cohesive image of physical, ideological, and political aspects of this time in Chinese history.  Therefore, the inner workings of the origins, perpetuation, and impact of the famine are definitely explained in a very comprehensive manner.  This makes Hungry Ghosts a book worth reading for anyone who wishes to understand this horrific time in China’s past. 

Works Cited

Becker, Jasper.  Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine.  Rev. ed. New York: Henry Holt,           1998.



Diary: Index: Writings: Inner Pages: Research:Teachings:

Happenings: April Archive: March Archive: Feb. Archive:

Passions: Link Archive