The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying what had gone wrong in China as they were growing up. Especially after the Tiananmen massacre, many stayed on after their Ph.D.s, some to become professors.

But when Chinese began arriving in the US in significant numbers as college freshmen in the late 1990s,1 the situation was different: the Cultural Revolution had ended before they were born, Tiananmen was a blurred memory, China was booming, and many, perhaps most, planned to return home after gaining work experience in a laboratory or on Wall Street. In addition to having to adjust to different educational methods and lifestyles, Chinese undergraduates, like their graduate student predecessors, had the opportunity to learn about their country’s recent history untrammeled by the requirements of Party propaganda. Unlike their predecessors, however, the undergraduates had concerns.

The natural thing for students everywhere is to learn their nation’s history from their countrymen. Why would Westerners know better about modern Chinese history? Would American professors insult Chairman Mao? Would they too offer up propaganda, only anti-Chinese? And yet most Chinese students realized that there were important periods of China’s past of which they had been taught little. The Cultural Revolution was a subject on which their parents and grandparents rarely dwelled, and most Chinese professors covered it only in passing.2 Further back in time there were the “three bitter years” between 1959 and 1961, brought about, according to official texts, by “Left” errors, characterized by excessive economic targets, the issuing of arbitrary directives, boastfulness, the stirring up of a “communist wind,” “a succession of natural calamities,” and the “perfidious” withdrawal of Soviet aid.3

But those texts do not spell out the terrible human costs of the famine brought about by the Great Leap Forward (GLF) of 1958–1960, or indicate that, even at the time, most peasants and some officials recognized that the catastrophe was largely man-made, and not by Russians but by Chinese. For those Chinese students who want a reliable and readable account of what really happened, my standard advice has been to read Hungry Ghosts, by the British journalist Jasper Becker.4 But Becker’s work has now been largely superseded by the pathbreaking Mao’s Great Famine by the social historian Frank Dikötter.

Dikötter is a polyglot scholar on leave from the London School of Oriental and African Studies who is currently chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong. From this base on the South China coast, he and his colleague Dr. Zhou Xun have made frequent forays into the interior and managed to gain access to archives in thirteen of China’s thirty-one provincial-level administrations, and to fourteen municipal or county archives, including the important cities of Canton, Wuhan, and Nanjing.5 As far as I know, such widespread access is unprecedented for unofficial academics, especially a foreign researcher, especially on so sensitive a topic. This is a first-class piece of research. Dikötter, who also consulted East German and Soviet archives as well as the British Public Records Office, describes and analyzes the value of his Chinese documentary treasures in an essay on sources in this volume.

In the various Chinese archives, Dikötter and Zhou discovered a mother lode of reports by local government officials and, more importantly, by investigation teams dispatched by Beijing in belated attempts to discover what was really happening at the rice roots. It is mainly on the basis of these reports that Dikötter has fashioned his fascinating but gruesome narrative of the oppression and famine foisted upon the people of China by their leaders during the terrible times of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

* * *

Ironically, the inspiration for the policies that led to the famine came from a man whom Mao came to despise as a traitor to the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism: Nikita Khrushchev. At the Moscow celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1957, Mao heard Khrushchev vow to overtake the US in important economic indicators within fifteen years. The Chinese Party chairman had long espoused the idea of high-speed development, but in 1956 Premier Zhou Enlai and other economic planners had managed to rein in the overheating economy that his policies had produced.

Now, encouraged by the boasts of the leader of the Communist world, Mao was inspired to try again. He told the assembled ranks of international Communist leaders that China would emulate the Soviet Union by overtaking the United Kingdom over the same period. Back home, Mao was ruthless, cowing Zhou and the other planners into humiliating self-criticisms. With potential opposition squelched, Mao’s promise became the fateful harbinger of the Great Leap Forward launched in 1958.

The basic strategy of the GLF was to substitute a plentiful factor of production, labor, for a scarce one, capital. During the winter of 1957–1958, the Chinese Communists had organized millions of peasants to undertake large-scale water conservancy and irrigation schemes throughout the country, schemes that, as Dikötter points out, were often useless or even damaging to local ecologies. In the spring, Mao turned up at the Ming Tombs Reservoir near Beijing to provide an exemplary photo-op of a leader performing manual labor (briefly). However, this flagship project “was built in the wrong location, it dried up and was abandoned after a few years.” According to an official report, three large, nine medium, and 223 small dams or reservoirs collapsed in 1960 because they were badly built. The two dams completed in 1959 to harness the Huai River broke during a typhoon in 1975, drowning an estimated 230,000 people. But at the time the Party cadres impressed themselves and their leaders with their continuing ability to organize large masses of people for such major projects. As they saw it, the only problem was having to recruit labor from many collective farms for the campaign.

The conclusion was reached that the recently formed collective farms were not big enough for organizational purposes. Amalgamated collectives were tried out, and these were transformed with Mao’s blessing into a new type of rural unit, the commune, an ideological leap toward communism in which families would be broken up, and men, women, children, and old folks would be housed in separate facilities, and husbands and wives would come together only to eat in collective canteens. As one county Party secretary explained, “Now that we have communes, with the exception of a chamber pot, everything is collective, even human beings”; or as a very senior provincial leader put it: “Even shit [for fertilizer] has to be collectivized!” The labor force was “militarized, combatized and disciplined.”

By this time, the Chairman and his enthusiastic deputy Liu Shaoqi were living in a fantasy land. They thrust Britain aside as a target: China would be overtaking America in steel output in a few years, and the communes would be the way by which the Chinese would thrust the Soviets aside en route to communism. When thousands of county cadres in Shandong province pledged to pass over the bridge to communism by 1960, Mao commented: “This document is really good, it is a poem, and it looks as if it can be done!”6

By the end of 1958, collectives everywhere had been combined into 26,000 huge communes. Though only a minority had formally advanced all the way toward the post-Soviet collectivist and egalitarian ideal, as in every CCP campaign, local cadres at the provincial and subprovincial level strove to overfulfill the targets set by the center. Even where peasants were still supposed to be paid according to their labor, sometimes they received little or nothing; work points, the official indicator of wage entitlement, became devalued; savings were spent on conspicuous consumption for fear they would be confiscated; livestock was slaughtered and eaten before it could be collectivized. In Guangdong the saying was: “What you eat is yours, what you don’t is anyone’s.” In the new canteens, too, “to each according to his needs” was taken literally and people stuffed themselves. The reckoning was not long off.

The euphoria of Mao and his senior colleagues in 1958 is accounted for in large part by a bumper summer harvest that year, an indication that the main harvest in the fall would also be excellent. It was, but it rotted in the fields.7 All over China, citizens had been mobilized to make steel, peasants along with everybody else. There was no way the projected doubling of steel output could be achieved by the existing plants; instead “steel” would be made in primitive backyard furnaces, three or four yards high, built of sand, stone, fire clay, or bricks. By September, 40 million workers were operating 500,000 furnaces nationwide; according to Mao, the total later rose to 90 million, all making an iron that was brittle and useless.8 Moreover, millions of peasants had been drafted into urban industrial plants. Only the aged and children were left behind in the villages to tend the fields. There was no way they could bring in the harvest.

Citing data from the Yunnan archives, Dikötter points out that already in 1958 there were many cases of starvation in the province; the death rate was more than twice the national average. The head of a model commune in Hebei province had created a labor camp for those who failed in their duties, but despite his draconian measures, including executions, he had to confess to Premier Zhou that the commune was effectively starving. Chinese leaders who had emerged victorious after twenty-eight years of civil war and foreign invasion were not deterred. As Marshal Chen Yi, Politburo member and foreign minister, put it:

Who knows how many people have been sacrificed on the battlefields and in the prisons [for the revolutionary cause]? Now we have a few cases of illness and death: it’s nothing!9

* * *

But there was worse to come. The first two sections of Dikötter’s book are a useful chronology of the politics behind the GLF and the beginnings of recovery measures. There is new material here, but the general outline of the period is well known and has been written about at length and with more nuanced analyses by many Western scholars.10 But Dikötter is less interested in elite politics at “Mao’s court” than in the history of the vast society that is China.11 The heart of his volume lies in the subsequent sections in which he details the destructive impact of the “three bitter years”—on different areas of the economy, on social cohesion, and on vulnerable segments of the population. His concluding section describes how people died during the famine.

It is an irony frequently remarked upon that Mao and his colleagues came to power on the back of a peasant army, and indeed were themselves largely of peasant origin, but dealt far more harshly with the countryside than the cities once they established the People’s Republic. “Urban bias” is inevitable in developing countries,12 and the PRC, unlike the Soviet Union, did not have rich natural resources with which to supplement grain exports to pay for industrial equipment from abroad. But as Dikötter makes clear, the degree of exploitation of the peasantry during the GLF and into the famine was so unprecedentedly excessive that provinces were left with virtually no food for the people who had produced it.

iconAFP/Getty Images

From left to right: Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping at the Party conference known as the Seven Thousand Cadres Assembly, January 1962. It was at this conference, Frank Dikötter writes in Mao’s Great Famine, that Liu openly blamed ‘human errors’ rather than ‘nature’ for the famine.

Grain procurement—the amount the government required be shipped out of the area in which it was grown—had varied from 20 to 25 percent in the years before the GLF, but now it rose to 30 to 37 percent. Dikötter has located in the archives a report of an in camera statement by Mao at a meeting on March 25, 1959: “If you don’t go above a third, people won’t rebel.” Some of the procured grain was sold back to the peasants at a premium, but most was used to feed the cities, provide aid abroad, and pay for industrial imports. The breadbasket province Sichuan was led by an ultra Maoist whose willingness to overfulfill procurement quotas helped to worsen starvation. In 1959, 1960, and 1961, the province had negative population growth rates of 30.26, 42.24, and 17.61 per thousand.13 Dikötter reports that there were at least 7.9 million “excess deaths” in the province, and believes that figure to be a considerable underestimate.

The desperate rural situation was compounded by the forced transfer of new agricultural techniques from experimental plots to fields across the country, no matter what the local ecology. These technologies included deep plowing and close planting, which tend to exhaust the soil and require additional labor; and allowing one third of the land to lie fallow because the Chairman thought that so much grain was being grown. Animal husbandry and fishing also declined drastically due to bizarre cadre orders and peasant carelessness with collective property.

Dikötter’s accounts of the tornado of destruction that the GLF unleashed continue with industry, including the trashing of a modern iron and steel plant in the capital of Shandong province; with commerce and the breakdown of the transportation system; with housing and the destruction of between 30 and 40 percent of all dwellings, rural and urban; and with the environment, including the decimation of forests to provide fuel for the backyard furnaces and for homes and construction.

As he remarks:

The damage varied from place to place, and even in the archives statistics are political artefacts rather than objective reflections of reality. What is certain is that never before had such a large diversity of forests, from the bamboo groves in the south to the alpine meadows and boreal stands of fir and pine in the north, suffered such a prolonged and intense attack.14

* * *

For the fortunate, mainly Party members, the direct human cost could be low. Officials attended as many meetings as they could, staying and eating at the state’s expense; some conferences lasted over a month. Shanghai was a favorite venue—the number of official visitors rose from 50,000 in 1958 to 100,000 by 1960—but humbler settings had their perks: Mao’s Great Famine tells how in one county in “famine-ravaged Guizhou province, 260 cadres spent four days working through 210 kilos of beef, 500 kilos of pork, 680 chickens, 40 kilos of ham, 130 litres of wine and 79 cartons of cigarettes as well as mountains of sugar and pastries.”

Canteen staffs were also fortunate: they could pilfer provisions. But the survival of an ordinary person came increasingly to depend on “the ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, cheat, pilfer, forage, smuggle, slack, trick, manipulate or otherwise outwit the state.” The chapter “Wheeling and Dealing” gives multiple examples of popular ingenuity as state mechanisms broke down. And if wheeling, dealing, and petitioning local or national authorities failed, a final recourse was robbery or even rebellion.

Dikötter cites examples of attacks on state granaries in various areas and the revival of secret societies banned since the CCP conquest. But he seems uncertain about how to describe the situation. At an earlier point he had written that “through a combination of destructive policies initiated from above and covert forms of self-help pursued from below, the country imploded.” But later, having rightly pointed out that starving villagers were not in a condition to rebel and that rioters were brutally suppressed, he adds: “What also prevented the country from imploding, even as tens of millions perished, was the absence of any viable alternative to the communist party.” Are these different kinds of implosion? And anyway, rebels are never put off by the possibility that their victory might leave a country in an anarchic state because there would be no nationwide institution to govern it. Starvation and repression were the keys to the CCP’s survival.

The groups most vulnerable to the famine were children, women, and the aged. Children in deplorable care centers died of disease and neglect; even worse, parents sold, abandoned, or murdered children they could no longer feed. Women, in addition to being raped, were subjected to various humiliations such as working nude in some factories. For a peasant woman who escaped to a city, prostitution or a bigamous relationship were common survival strategies. There was also trafficking in women, with teams from Inner Mongolia “spread out over the country, hauling back hundreds of women every month.” As for the aged, the “happiness homes” established for them during the early GLF were as subject to abuse by the cadres who ran them as the child care centers. As the famine deepened, the aged were regarded as burdens by cadres and even by their own families and often left to starve. In some cases, the dead were eaten by the living; in a few cases uncovered by Dikötter, the living were killed to be eaten.

Starvation was the major killer during the famine: “The archives are replete with reports about oedema [swelling caused by excess fluids] and death by starvation.” But it was not the only way people died. In the early frenetic days of the GLF, accidents were frequent and sometimes fatal. Epidemics common to many other famines were not conspicuous on a large scale in the GLF famine, though there were localized outbreaks of typhus, cholera, plague, measles, polio, meningitis, hepatitis, malaria, and diarrhea caused by poor hygiene in the food industry. Dikötter suggests that the speed with which the military was called in to quarantine disease-stricken areas may have prevented nationwide epidemics.

In addition to starvation and disease, there was violence, which

became a routine tool of control…. It was directed systematically and habitually against anybody seen to dawdle, obstruct or protest, let alone pilfer or steal—a majority of villagers…. The stick was the weapon of choice in the countryside.15

Dikötter gives sickening examples. In Xinyang prefecture in Henan, a disaster area so horrific that it was later investigated by a team led by a member of the Politburo, over a million people died, of whom 67,000 were beaten to death by the militia. This emphasis on the terror component of the GLF and the famine is consistent with the findings of Yang Jisheng, a senior journalist whose father starved to death. In his book Tombstone, he has written the major Chinese account of the famine.16 Dikötter and Yang have enlarged our understanding of the full ramifications of the famine.

* * *

How many died during those terrible years? Dikötter correctly concludes that there will “never be a satisfactory answer to that question, if only because in the midst of the great famine so few reliable statistics were kept.” He discusses the range of estimates, most based on public official statistics. In 1984, the demographer Judith Banister estimated some 30 million excess deaths, and this has been the solid academic analysis that other writers have used.17 Yang Jisheng suggests 36 million. Perhaps the crucial source is the finding of a team of two hundred officials sent out by Premier Zhao Ziyang at the beginning of the reform era in the 1980s to assess the human impact of the famine. They visited every province and examined the records of the Party committees, the public security offices, and the statistical bureaus. The report was never published, but according to a senior member of the team, Chen Yizi, in exile in the US since the Tiananmen events, the conclusion was that the number of excess deaths ranged from 43 to 46 million.18 On the basis of his archival work, Dikötter concludes that Chen’s is a good ballpark figure and gives a minimum of 45 million as his estimate. Dikötter’s extrapolations from the minority of archives to which he obtained access seem reasonable, but we will not get a satisfactory estimate of the death toll until all the archives are open to independent scholars, Chinese or Western.

Nevertheless, a verdict can be passed on Chairman Mao. He seemed to relish being compared to Qin Shi Huangdi, the harsh ruler who welded warring states together into China’s first empire, but with such draconian measures that he has been excoriated by Chinese historians down the ages. On one occasion Mao admonished Marshal Lin Biao for implying that the CCP had treated intellectuals less oppressively than the emperor had! But Mao can rest easy. He will be remembered as the ruler who initiated and presided over the worst man-made human catastrophe ever. His place in Chinese history is assured. Dikötter’s book will have done much to put him there. If Chinese undergraduates hesitate to accept Dikötter’s severe indictment, they will be able to turn to Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone.

  1. According to the Institute of International Education, there were 8,000 Chinese undergraduates in US colleges in 2000–2001 and more than 26,000 in 2008–2009; see Dan Levin, “The China Boom,” The New York Times, November 7, 2010.
  2. In fall 2006, I gave a guest lecture at Shanghai’s Fudan University in what I was told was the first course on the Cultural Revolution anywhere in the country.
  3. Resolution on CPC History (1949–81) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1981), pp. 28–29. This was the Party leadership’s explanation of past disasters, mainly the Cultural Revolution.
  4. Free Press, 1996.
  5. Beijing and Shanghai, to which they also gained access, have provincial status.
  6. Mao Zedong sixiang wan sui (Long Live Mao Zedong Thought) (n.p., 1969), p. 240.
  7. For instance, in Liu Shaoqi’s home village.
  8. Chinese Law & Government, Vol. 1 , No. 4 (Winter 1968–69), pp. 39, 41.
  9. Dikötter, p. 70.
  10. Dikötter lists many in his essay on sources, p. 348, but somewhat ungenerously says that most look “rather dated.”
  11. The concept of Mao’s court was most strikingly advanced by Frederick Teiwes; see his Politics at Mao’s Court: Gao Gang and Party Factionalism in the Early 1950s (M.E. Sharpe, 1990).
  12. See Michael Lipton, Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development (Harvard University Press, 1977).
  13. Quanguo gesheng, zizhiqu, zhixiashi lishi tongji ziliao huibian (1949–1989) (Compendium of historical statistical material for the nation’s provinces, autonomous regions, and cities directly under the central government, 1949–1989), edited by Guojia Tongjiju Zonghesi (Beijing, 1990), p. 690.
  14. Dikötter, p. 178.
  15. Dikötter, pp. 292–293.
  16. Yang Jisheng, Mubei (Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, two volumes, 2008); a shortened English version is being prepared by American scholars. I have been asked to collaborate on a foreword to Mubei.
  17. See, for instance, Becker, Hungry Ghosts , p. 270; see also my Origins of the Cultural Revolution: The Coming of the Catastrophe, 1961–1966 (Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 4.
  18. Becker, Hungry Ghosts , pp. 271–272. The figure vouchsafed to me by Mr. Chen was 42 million.
Roderick MacFarquhar is the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science and formerly Director of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. His...
Reviewed in This Article

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962
by Frank Dikötter
Walker, 420 pp.

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This article was first published in the February 10, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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In the Northwest corner of Beijing’s old city is a subway and bus workshop. It was built in the early seventies on the site of the Lake of Great Peace, which was filled in as part of a plan to extend the city’s subway system. In the bigger picture of the destruction of old...

The Man Who Got It Right


1.Near the beginning of Simon Leys’ marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He...

Censoring the News Before It Happens


Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links,...

Faking It in China


One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. In many Chinese cities,...

Chen Guangcheng in New York


Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...