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The Politics of Famine and Reform in Rural China: A Pattern Pointed To

          In Dali L. Yang’s book, Calamity and Reform in China, the Great Leap Famine of 1959-1961 is revealed to be part of a causal pattern including both revolution and reform in modern China.  Emphasis is placed on institutional factors in specific incidences of famine across the provinces in addition to the profound disillusionment with agrarian radicalism that helped to lay the foundation for dismantling the whole commune system.  Any explanation or analysis of the modern reforms in China must include not only the determinants of the Cultural Revolution and the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, but must also involve the impact on rural populations of the Great Leap Forward’s rapid decline and failure.

          This book was written by a native Chinese, and is motivated by an appreciation of societal rejuvenation rather than a zeal to issue blame or focus on the famine’s grotesque and tragic details.  The determinism of other books on this subject that tends to overemphasize the roles of the main leaders in causing the famine is refreshingly absent.  What is left is a description of the famine’s architecture as it applied to rural society, and a careful analysis of the reformative change that this tragedy helped to bring about.

          Elite policies are shown as thwarting the original intentions of collective social engineering, causing untold suffering onto the very people that the Communist Party claimed to serve.  The precarious balance between state and society was constantly tampered with by local Party elites. There was no free press to counter the boastful lies of surplus and bounty that abounded on the local level, and no effective social basis for resistance until the famine was well underway.  Yang establishes the context for looking at the Great Leap Famine very thoroughly, incorporating a variety of factors and contributions to the collapse of the Great Leap Forward.

          The reforms that changed the face of China after the Cultural Revolution first took place in rural areas with the deconstruction of collective agriculture.  Yang makes this point effectively through his extensive research into both primary and secondary sources.  The resulting systems of “household responsibility” paved the way for China’s later capitalist endeavors, and the rural countryside perhaps has not been sufficiently acknowledged for its vital role in China’s emerging status as a major economic power.

          The meticulous nature of the facts explored by the book is interesting in that groups of various versions are held alongside one another.  This allows the reader to see that though there is some consistence and general agreement, the facts themselves cannot be accepted as precise or at face value. A pattern begins to reveal itself of excessively mild figures from official China juxtaposed against exaggerated and swollen figures from later scholars.  Relevant information is shown without the loaded insistence on total belief that has a tendency to arise when dealing with China’s history or politics.

          Alternate theories later on in the book arise in regard to analysis of the Cultural Revolution and the following reforms that are still taking place. Different conclusions have been drawn about the emergence of reforms, and what brought them about.  Much emphasis has been given to the Cultural Revolution serving as the sole springboard for reform, commandeered by the leadership of Deng Xiaoping.  However, this book presents facts that debunk such cut-and-dry, deterministic conclusions.  Contributing factors are investigated as opposed to merely being singled out as truth. 

          Laid out in thorough but not lengthy chapters replete with a vast array of tables and figures, Calamity and Reform in China is a very well balanced and essential text for anyone wishing to know more about the patterns of reform and past failures of the Chinese Communist Party.  The reader comes away with a good feel for where China is headed.

Works Cited

Yang, Dali L.  Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society, and Institutional Change           Since the Great Leap Famine.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996.



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