top of page

Comparative book review: 'Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China' and 'Mao’s Great Famine'

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Written by Ralph A. Thaxton Jr. and Frank Dikötter, respectively.

Rice Fields © Quangpraha/ Public Domain / Pixabay

In 1958, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under Mao Zedong’s chairmanship, began a campaign of unparalleled magnitude to overtake the United Kingdom in steel production and finally implement communism. This Great Leap Forward (GLF) would show the superiority of the command economy, highlight Mao’s superior vision, and turn the PRC into the leader of the communist world. However, despite the initial enthusiasm and the multitude of grandiose projects, the shortcomings likely outweigh its achievements by more than ‘one finger out of ten’. By 1962, as the famine receded, over 30 million excess deaths had occurred, and China’s economy was in shambles. As Marshal Lin Biao - a hero of the Civil War who would later become the officially designated successor of Mao - succinctly put it, the GLF was “based on a fantasy, and a total mess” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 123). He wrote this in his private journal moments after publicly backing Mao’s removal of fellow Marshal Peng Dehuai at the 1959 Lushan conference. Peng had dared to suggest the party should learn from the GLF’s mistakes.

At the core of both Thaxton’s Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China, Mao’s Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village, and Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, the History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958 – 62 is the unprecedented level of destruction and suffering the GLF brought upon China, and the effect it had on its inhabitants. Both focus on the experience of ordinary citizens, which they explore in radically different manners.

Two ways of writing history

Thaxton’s Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China is essentially the study of Da Fo village, located in Dongle County, Henan province, during the GLF. The isolated and marginalised village nicknamed “the old headache” is a former market village and was a bastion of radical Maoist during the GLF. This choice was suggested by farmers of a neighbouring village, against the advice of CCP supervisors, and because of its history of resistance. The geographical scope of Thaxton’s study is limited to Da Fo, broader Chinese history is only mentioned through the direct consequences it had on the “Great Buddha” village.

Compare this with Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine – the first opus of his People’s Trilogy. It opens with the death of Stalin, followed by a short summary of his relationship with Mao and continues with one of Mao’s trips to Moscow. Dikötter’s book aims at providing a complete picture of the suffering and provides relatively detailed accounts of relevant important events.

The difference in geographical scope reflects radically different methodologies. Trained in agrarian studies and politics, Thaxton is not a historian, although he specialised in Chinese politics and contentious politics. To write this book, he conducted research in rural northern China for over thirty years, where he discovered the enormous space the GLF occupies in popular memory. He “conducted and/or supervised approximately four hundred in-depth interviews with villagers aged twenty-one to eighty-five in Da Fo”, enabling him to retrace the history of the village from the beginning of the Republican period to the1990’s. This quasi-anthropological approach of “micro history” is the central interest of this book.

Compare this with Dikötter, who seeks to establish a broader picture of the GLF and provide instances of abuse across the whole of China. His book therefore constitutes an assemblage of archival evidence, classified by the author in various sections (strategies of survival, ways of dying, …), painting a nation-wide picture of the GLF.

To brush this picture, Dikötter uses a wide range of primary sources, many of which have only recently been opened to non-party historians. He gained access to some provincial and county level archives, which contain a wide variety of material of varying quality. He, therefore, focused on a handful of provinces and county (or city) archives, which he claims “represents a good spread of provinces in terms of population density […], severity of the famine […], and geography” (Dikötter, 2011, p.381). However, the reader might find that this collection of facts lacks contrast and hierarchy.

The two books largely echo each other: the strategies of survival depicted by Da Fo villagers were adopted nationwide in China (with of course some regional disparities: the rice-producing south could, for example, not rely on chi qing to the same extent as in the north), the violence of party members was not idiosyncratic to Da Fo, and the various ways of dying occurred with macabre regularity across the country. Thaxton was careful about his findings, as they resulted from the study of a single rural village and could, therefore, not be extended to the entirety of China. Dikötter’s account shows that many could be extended nationwide.

The tragedy

The books are first and foremost concerned with portraying the GLF as a tragedy. The authors adopt a human-level approach ensuring that despite the staggering scale of numbers, the reader realises statistics hide millions of omnipresent individual calamities. Those countless catastrophes accumulated until the GLF amounted to the deadliest and most destructive event of modern China. Indeed, not only was the ensuing famine one of the most fatal in recorded history, but the GLF also saw a rise in violence and an erosion of the social fabric. Truth and science were abandoned altogether, just as a maddening fever engulfed China.

Both books provide countless examples of personal tragedies, painting a landscape of absolute devastation. Part six of Dikötter’s book titled “Ways of Dying” is chilling. Starvation was ever-present, inducing oedema “everywhere” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 305). Individuals were forced to work until exhaustion, which not only aggravated the famine but was also the cause of accidents. The latter was also caused by cutting corners, ignoring safety regulations (a “rightist conservative” concern (Dikötter, 2011, p. 305)), and inadequate quality standards. The countryside was not spared, as shown by Thaxton’s fourth chapter: “the village’s Communist cadres escalated the party’s procurement claims until they precipitated a famine” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 119).

Alongside the famine was the destruction of property. The steel campaign commandeered any metal items, from individual pots (preventing individual cooking) to door hinges. Whole houses were committed to the furnaces, whilst megaprojects forced the relocation of entire villages. Similarly, traditions (even the most ingrained ones, such as the burial of the dead) were denied.

Unlike in the 1942 famine, violence became endemic and the cause of many deaths. Everywhere, local cadres would beat and terrorize the population. Few were spared, although the degree of violence varied widely. In Da Fo, boss Bao was “a major proponent of turning the tables upside down on the targets of public criticism” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 148), whilst other Commune leaders would violently beat villagers, sometimes depriving them of their food ration. This pales in comparison to some of the accounts of Mao’s Great Famine, which include acts such as mutilation, torture, humiliation, and other gruesome punishments. Self-criticism sessions were often the site of the worst exactions.

Some who dared oppose the GLF would be sent to laogai, or the laojiao, or respectively “reform-through-labour camps” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 322) and “reeducation-through-labour camps” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 323). Life inside the labour camp was miserable, as those condemned were faced with the most arduous of work and the worst of conditions. As Dikötter explains, “many ordinary people faced a spell of one to five years in a camp for the slightest misdemeanour” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 322). This forgotten gulag archipelago appears to have reached various extents in different regions and was sometimes indistinguishable from ‘normal’ projects such as the Ji County irrigation project, which “was equated with death” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 152) and was a dreaded assignment for ordinary villagers. Compare this with Gansu, where “82,000 prisoners worked in a hundred reform-through-labour camps in June 1960” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 320).

Institutional policies and ‘rational’ madness

In a country led by a party adept of the belief that “the end justifies the means”, the exploitation of labour and the enslavement of the population was seen as the just pursuit of the communist dream. Thaxton even depicts the GLF as a war between peasants and the state over control of the grain. As Tan Zhenlin summarised: “You need to fight against the peasants… There is something ideologically wrong with you if you are afraid of coercion.” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 86). So little afraid of coercion was the CCP that it artificially created a famine by procuring excess grains, whose production numbers were exaggerated at all levels of the apparatus. Thaxton clearly explains this process, as well as that of double (compounded at every administrative level) accounting, whilst Dikötter provides the remaining pieces of the puzzle, explaining that grain was exported to pay for various industrial machines, raw materials, and debts. However, the policies and their rationale are not fully explored in any of the books.

At the lower echelons of power, little, if any, emphasis is put on indoctrination and propaganda, which not only contrasts with the leader’s emphasis on “communism [being] around the corner” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 78), but also with the countless slogans and propaganda posters which spawned over the country. At least in the early stages, it appears reasonable to assume that some enthusiasm, especially in the cities, existed (see Jung Chang’s (2003) autobiography, which details in great length the feverish madness engulfing China at the time). Instead, Dikötter puts the blame squarely on pressure from above to fulfil production targets, which reverberated at every echelon.

Thaxton’s work is more enlightening in regards to the local power structure and low-level cadre’s rationale. The history of the CCP leadership in Da Fo provides us with two key explanations: Lumpen Leadership, and War Communism. First, the more educated elements joined Da Fo’s first pole, which through death, promotion, and conscription, gradually disappeared. Thus, Da Fo’s militia-centred second pole, which was composed of fringe, marginalised, uneducated elements, seized power. Second, fighting in the War of National Resistance required an extremely hierarchical command structure, bathed in secrecy. Path dependency meant that “war communism” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 327) survived the liberation to become the new normal.

Pressure from above certainly existed in Da Fo: “If Da Fo’s party leaders did not yield to the pressure to report exaggerated yields to make the commune and county leaders look good in the eyes of Wu Zhipu and the Henan Maoists, they too stood to become candidates for public criticism.” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 145). Fukua feng (wind of exaggeration) thus likely found parts of their explanation in the repressive nature of Maoist China

Yet, no account of the incentives which might have existed is reported. At the communal level, Thaxton mentions Bao Zhilong’s extensive network of clients, which could receive advantages for following his orders. To explain mounting violence, Dikötter claims that “with far fewer carrots to offer, the party relied more heavily on the stick” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 327). This is not entirely true, as there were carrots for local cadres: career incentives (Chen & Kung, 2011).

Chen and Kung construct a biographical dataset of upper-echelon party members. They show that alternate members of the central committee of the CCP tended to be much more radical (excess procurement ratio of provinces is more than 3% higher) than full members because they were hoping to climb the career ladder by following GLF policies by the book. The authors find that political rank explains 16.83% of the excess death rate. To control for idiosyncratic “personality effects”, they compare full members with Politburo members. They find that revolutionary credentials (e.g., Long March experience, Guerrilla Warfare experience, …) of alternate members and full members are not significantly different (thus leaving an opportunity for promotion), whilst the difference between Politburo members and the rest is huge).

In Da Fo, the communal leadership certainly had carrots to offer in the form of additional food (see Thaxton, 2008, p. 237 for an account of Bao Zhigen’s sexual adventures). Rationales and incentives should have been further studied in Dikötter's book.

This is likely its major shortcoming. The few chapters discussing policies focus on the top leadership. Understandably, central archives remain “far removed from the eyes of prying historians” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 371). Dikötter nonetheless fails to explain why the GLF started – barring the overbidding between Mao and Khrushchev. He states that by early 1958 Mao was aware of some of the shortcomings of the GLF ((Dikötter, 2011, chapter 9 Warning Signs). Similarly, at the Lushan Conference, Mao and the top party leadership not only ignored worrying reports but chose to punish the critics (Dikötter, 2011, chapter 12 The end of truth). But Dikötter fails to describe why, in spite of the clear signs of catastrophe, and the failure to achieve “the end”, the central leadership persisted in its disastrous policy.

The reader understands that Mao has a fundamental disregard for human lives, and his paranoid nature makes any criticism impossible, whilst other party members such as Zhou Enlai or Deng Xiaoping are described as obedient, colourless characters. Liu Shaoqi, who was recently promoted to head of state, did not “have the courage to speak out” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 114). Why they acted in this way is only explained through the fear that Mao inspired. And why Mao refused to listen is blamed on his psychology. The reader is left feeling that Dikötter is prosecuting Mao and the CCP leadership but fails to balance his account. The extent of the understanding of party leaders, and the explanation for their behaviours would have deserved further explanation.

Strategies of survival

A central aspect of the famine receiving deserved attention from both authors is the identification and assessment of the various survival strategies adopted by ordinary people. Their findings are similar: those who survived relied on their “ability to lie, charm, hide, steal, pilfer, forage, smuggle, slack, trick, manipulate, or otherwise outwit the state.” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 224). Since rations provided by the state in collective canteens were inadequate, individuals adopted a wide range of strategies to secure alternative sources of food and save energy.

Substitute foods, from wild vegetables to straw, domestic animals, or even other human beings, were widely consumed. Leaves were pulled from trees, chemicals were used to kill fishes, the grass was pulled from ground imposing a great toll on nature. This was not enough.

Theft was at the core of survival, whether in cities or the countryside; as Zeng Mu recalls “Those who could not steal died. Those who managed to steal some food did not die” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 239). In the countryside, farmers would steal crops, glean it, conceal it, or eat green crops before it was ripe. This last strategy - chi qing - was especially significant in Da Fo, where over half of the 1960 June wheat crop was eaten before the harvest. In fact, we can hypothesise that the decrease in crop output (shown for Hunan in Table 5 of Mao’s Great Famine (Dikötter, 2011, p. 154)) in 1960-61 was to a certain extent attributable to chi qing, a strategy involving “comparatively minimum risk” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 204), which “was so widespread that it crippled the capacity of the commune officials to enforce procurement in accordance with Maoist state claims.” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 206).

In the city and the countryside, the black market was also crucial for survival. Food coupons began to replace paper money as a medium of exchange, and spontaneous black market operations flourished across China. Not only was food on sale, but also “bricks, clothes, and fuel” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 232), as well as blood and human beings. In Da Fo, villagers resumed their long tradition of salt-making, but were forced underground by party crackdowns. Thaxton claims that “loss of entitlement to this non-farm income, however small, to Communist Party repression was a critical factor inducing the subsistence crisis of 1960.” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 176)

Resistance and disengagement

The authors’ interpretation of the significance of these survival strategies differs radically. This likely reflects the difference in the temporal scope of the books, as Thaxton analysed the long-lasting effects and memory of the famine, especially those on party legitimacy, whilst Dikötter focused exclusively on the buildup to the GLF and the famine itself.

Turning to the market to survive famines was part of the peasants’ traditional survival strategies, alongside migrations, chi ching, and resting. The CCP disrupted those by regulating the life of villagers: “The difference was that in 1960, they still were required to work in the fields all day.” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 132). Not only did the CCP enslave villagers, but it also starved them, seizing their properties and forcing them into collective dining halls, which provided inadequate food rations. The Commune systematically eliminated traditional strategies of survival. Worse, Da Fo’s local cadres were largely exempt from hunger, and Bao Zhilong’s clientele was systematically favoured. In the eyes of villagers, the CCP had abandoned the Mandate of Heaven.

Crucially, this formed the basis of long-lasting resistance against the party, ranging from arson (in the 1990s) to beatings (during the Cultural Revolution) and economic and political disengagement, Thaxton claims. Dikötter, on the other hand, focusing solely on the GLF period, states that “Some historians have interpreted black-marketeering, obstruction, slacking and theft as acts of ‘resistance’, or “weapons of the weak’ pitting ‘peasants’ against ‘the state’. But these survival techniques pervaded the social spectrum, so much that if these were acts of ‘resistance’ the party would already have collapsed.” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 236). This might have been the case during the GLF, but in Da Fo, those persisted past 1962 and became part of the “righteous resistance”.

This disengagement was crucial since it – coupled with chi ching – enabled the famine to recede in Da Fo, long before the sanzi yibao. Villagers “recaptured small family-centred entitlements unreachable by high socialist rulers” (Thaxton, 2008, p. 230).

Thaxton, thus, claims that the legacy of the GLF is dual: it opened interstices which prefigured de-collectivization and tarnished the legitimacy of the GLF. Even the yiku sitian could not erase the memory of such a traumatic event. Indeed, “rural China under Mao, took a great leap backward” (Thaxton, 2008, p. xvi), the significance and scope of which is still not fully understood. As Dikötter explains: “How many died? There will never be a satisfactory answer to that question” (Dikötter, 2011, p. 361). And whilst his final tally calculations appear rather lopsided, his use of new archival material ushers a new era of renewed research in this gruesome topic.

About the Author

Nicolas Guignard is a master student candidate within the Economics and Public Policy

track of Sciences Po’s school of Public Affairs. He holds two bachelor’s degrees from

Sciences Po and the University of Hong Kong (in Economics and Finance). His experiences nurtured his long-time interest in China’s development framework. His main area of expertise revolves around economics and economic policymaking. He currently works for Amundi Asset Management as a macroeconomic researcher. You can find him on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

Do you have an article you would like to share? Write for us.


Chang, J. (2003). Wild swans. Harper Collins Publishers.

Dikotter, F. (2011). Mao's great famine: The history of China's most devastating catastrophe, 1958-1962. Walker & Company.

Kung, J. K.-sing, & Chen, S. (2011). The tragedy of the nomenklatura: Career incentives and political radicalism during China's Great Leap Famine. American Political Science Review, 105(1), 27–45.

Thaxton, R. (2008). Catastrophe and contention in rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the origins of righteous resistance in da fo village. Cambridge University Press.

bottom of page