Mao's Great Famine

Advance Praise and Synopsis

'The most authoritative and comprehensive study of the biggest and most lethal famine in history.  A must-read.' - Jung Chang, author of Mao: The Unknown Story

'By managing to gain access to unplumbed regional Chinese archives and other new materials, Frank Dikötter has helped throw back the shroud on this period of monumental, man-made catastrophe. With both narrative vigor and scholarly rigor, Mao's Great Famine documents how Mao Zedong's impetuosity was the demise of tens of millions of ordinary Chinese who perished unnecessarily in this spasm of revolutionary extremism.' - Orville Schell, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley

'Mao's Great Famine is a gripping and masterful portrait of the brutal court of Mao, based on new research but also written with great narrative verve, that tells the riveting story of the man-made famine that killed 45 million people from the dictator and his henchmen down to the villages of rural China.' - Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

'A direct, hard-hitting study of China’s Great Leap Forward in light of newly opened archival material… A horrifically eye-opening work of a dark period of Chinese history that desperately cries out for further examination.' - starred review from Kirkus Reviews


An unprecedented, groundbreaking history of China's Great Famine that recasts the era of Mao Zedong and the history of the People's Republic of China.

'Between 1958 and 1962, China descended into hell. 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 the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives.'

So opens Frank Dikötter's astonishing, riveting, magnificently detailed chronicle of an era in Chinese history much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives has long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law has opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that 'fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era'.

Dikötter makes clear, as nobody has before, that far from being the program that would lift the country 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. It 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.

In a powerful meshing of exhaustive research and narrative drive, Dikötter for the first time links up what happened in the corridors of power – the vicious backstabbing and bullying tactics that took place among party leaders – with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, giving voice to the dead and disenfranchised. His magisterial account recasts the history of the People's Republic of China.

Bloomsbury, September 2010, pp. 440 

Translations in Dutch, Finnish, Danish, Swedish, German, Polish, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Bahasa Indonesian.

Translation, Film/TV: Andrew Wylie