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Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  467 ratings  ·  55 reviews
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Chinese people suffered what may have been the worst famine in history. Over thirty million perished in a grain shortage brought on not by flood, drought, or infestation, but by the insanely irresponsible dictates of Chairman Mao Ze-dong's "Great Leap Forward," an attempt at utopian engineering gone horribly wrong.

Journalist Jasper Be
Paperback, 416 pages
Published April 15th 1998 by Holt Paperbacks (first published June 13th 1996)
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4.01  · 
Rating details
 ·  467 ratings  ·  55 reviews

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Ian "Marvin" Graye
Malthusian Catastrophe

"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and swee
Horace Derwent
Jun 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
There is no bottom in China, and no facts

Is there anyone who'd ever read Alan Ryan's Cast A Cold Eye?

How about To cast 40 million pairs of cold eyes?
Michael Connolly
Feb 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed, china
Mao said that the peasant who owned his own land was inherently capitalistic, and he forced four hundred million Chinese peasants to join collective farms. Khrushchev counseled Mao not to repeat Stalin’s mistake of rushing into collectivization too quickly, but Mao ignored his advice. Mao named his next step in the collectivization of agriculture “The Great Leap Forward” after the German philosopher Hegel’s assertion that progress comes in sudden leaps and bounds. In 1958 peasants replaced scien ...more
Jan 15, 2012 rated it liked it
*I wrote this review over a year ago and found it in a notebook and realized I had never typed it out.

This book was fascinating, dark and heartbreaking. I found it almost impossible to read at times. It may be the most depressing book I have ever read, and it is true.

China has had alot of famines. The climate lends itself to droughts, flooding and crops being infested by insects. The difference with Mao's famine was that is was not inflicted by nature, but by man. Mao was evil, manipulative and
Jun 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
One of the most compelling history books I've ever read, period. I'm a lover of history who recognizes that 90% of the books I read make most people fall to sleep - but with 'Hungry Ghosts', I recommend it even to those who typically would never pick up a history book at all.

The modern and recent scholarship of 'Hungry Ghosts' provides a perspective on Maoist China which has only recently been revealed. After reading this book, I must seriously reconsider the conventional wisdom that "Hitler was
Oct 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Excellent book to read along with Lisa See's Dreams Of Joy. This is a real account of what happened in China during Mao's reign. After I read Dreams of Joy, I wanted to know more about that time period and this explained the horror.
Dec 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
"Hungry Ghosts" sets out to explain one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, and as a benefit, helps explain present-day China. Whether the specific numbers are accurate or whether Mao can be held personally responsible for the millions of starvation deaths is something that will be debated for years. However, books written about or by Ch'an monks who lived during that era support much of what Becker asserts (see George Crane's "Bones of the Master" as an example). After reading this, ...more
Peter Tillman
Jul 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
A horrifying and well-researched history of how Mao's "Great Leap Forward" became the worst famine in history, killing perhaps 30 million Chinese (1958 - 1960) -- it appears unlikely an exact fatality figure will ever be known. Which adds to the horror: that millions of people, with hopes and dreams like our own, could vanish without leaving a trace, not even a number, in the world outside their homes. Not to mention uncounted millions of children whose lives were blighted by brain-damage from m ...more
Thomas Armstrong
Jul 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
An incredible story that few people in this country (or, apparently in China) know about. The chapter on cannibalism is hair-raising. Becker writes well, provides lots of ''in the trenches'' accounts as well as providing a narrative that unfolds in horrifying detail the evil that Mao perpetrated upon the peasants he had depended upon to bring him to power. Should be a part of every high school history class.
Oct 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
The most depressing book I've ever read, but also the most shocking because a tragedy of such epic proportions is barely known in the western world and conveniently ignored in the eastern where the Chinese government was directly and knowingly responsible for the deaths of over 30 million of their own citizens during their efforts to implement the perfect Communist society during the late 1950s and 1960s.
Lori Flatland
Dec 02, 2012 rated it liked it
very good depiction of the cost of communism. so compelling and harrowing in it's illustration of the consequences of personality cults. reinforces the belief that humans are meant to have freedom of conscience about all.
Sarah Adams
Jan 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
Really interesting details on how a man made famine comes about, but can't help but wonder how the age/whiteness/outsider-ness of the author influences his perspective.
Mary Catelli
Jun 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
Being an account of the Great Leap Forward famine. Which means that it is, often enough, not pleasant reading. It is, however, thorough and extensive in detail.

It opens with an overview of famine in China, the Communist takeover and plans for the peasantry, and an account of the infamous Ukrainian famines, which he presents as the closest analogue to the Great Leap Forward.

It then goes through the collectivizations and the nonsense science that led to the famine. Ludicrous farming practices. The
Skylar Hatfield
Mar 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Both essential and sickening. Must be read to understand the power of cult thought in politics to destroy the mind, soul, and body of the people. How can people allow themselves to be starved, beaten, raped, humiliated and de-humanized? How can leaders say they would rather a large percent of their population be starved to death as long as the remaining population remains loyal? How can an entire country willingly participate in the deceit that is killing them? Clearly, communism is a tragic, le ...more
Feb 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
Somehow I've been reading this mostly at lunch. Well researched, covers the Great Leap Forward and the deadliest famine in recorded history, with estimates ranging from 30-80million Chinese starved, killed, or not born as a result of Mao's vainglorious policies. Also examines the roots of the Cultural Revolution within the Great Leap Forward and examines reasons why the former is well-documented while the latter remains shrouded in secrecy to an extent that many still deny it ever happened.

Dec 29, 2011 rated it liked it
Apparently this was the first book (in English) to chronicle what really happened during the Great Leap Forward in China (1958-1962), when 45 million people died during a time of peace and without natural disasters.

Mao wanted to surpass the Soviet Union in all ways possible, including grain and steel output. So to show the USSR it meant business, China exported more grain to the Soviet Union than it could afford to give up. Peasants slaved in the fields to work miracles, and as a result grew so
Mar 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Journalist Jasper Becker, formerly the Beijing Bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, reconstructs the history of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the resulting famine that devastated China in this historical work. Drawing on interviews with survivors and Communist Party officials, government documents, memoirs, and secondary literature, Becker provides a detailed, panoramic account that includes China's past experiences with famine; the collectivization of agriculture under ...more
Sep 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
This book was fascinating, dark, and heartbreaking ! If anyone has questions about whether Communism is a great idea, this should put that question to rest. Mao turned his country upside down, inside out, and truly perverted the truth beyond recognition with his great Communist agricultural projects. He collectivized private property and then used junk science to force on China agricultural practices and programs that most KNEW were disastrous to the growing of food. When the programs began to ...more
Oct 20, 2009 rated it did not like it
Jasper Becker in Hungry Ghosts: "North Korea seems in the grip of a death-cult psychosis that leaves it impervious to rational notions of self-interest" (339).

Bruce Cumings on the kind of racism that is allowed to run free when talking about North Korea: "Prominent Americans lose any sense of embarrassment or self-consciousness about the intricate and knotty problems of racial difference and Otherness when it comes to North Korea and its leaders" (49).

I'm sure there are better books about the G
Jan 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
I really liked this book. It tells the story of Mao Zedong and what he did to China during his reign. Mao kept anybody outside of China in ignorance of what was happening in the horrific famine. His man-made famine is something very few people know about, even now. As my daughter said"How could something like that happen (45 million dead in 3 years) and I never learned about that in school?" This book will open your eyes.
Oct 25, 2007 rated it really liked it
I really enjoy Becker's writings. This is probably one of the few books that I could say changed my life and it began my interest in studying modern Chinese history. Mao was both evil and incredibly manipulative, but nonetheless brilliant. I especially enjoyed the postword on North Korea and how they are going through the exact same thing as China did forty years ago. And we are doing nothing about it.
Charles Redfern
Aug 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
The so-called "Great Leap Forward" brought unmitigated disaster on China and a great leap backward. Mao forced new farming methods on his people and ignored reports of starvation. The result: 12 million died, a greater toll than that of the Cultural Revolution. The breaks the myth that communism brough a better life for most Chinese.
Nov 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a very detailed account of what was done to the Chinese people by Mao & his operatives in the government and covered the devastation of the people on a very personal level. My sons kept asking when I would start reading something happy, so Riordan's Lightning Thief was next.
Mar 01, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A book i read in college. I took so many Asian history classes because their history is astounding and long! I love it and this book captures a darker side of the history. Not for the weak hearted, but for the truth seekers and realists.
Jul 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: asia
Someone is to blame for the death of 30 million Chinese. That someone is Mao Zedong. I've never read such an exhaustively researched compulsively readable historical account. Becker makes no bones about it - he calls Mao "the architect of the famine." Highly recommended.
May 26, 2018 rated it liked it
I was torn between giving this book four or three stars, and settled for the latter because of some questions it slighted. This was written in the 1990s, when Western academia was flush in triumphalism over "the end of history", with itself at the apex of all human destiny. We've had a couple of humbling decades since then, which can give a deeper perspective on this tragedy.

Mr. Becker took it for granted that the Chinese famine was proof that socialized farming was in itself a failure and disas
Dec 21, 2017 rated it liked it
Well researched book which details the horrifying consequences of Mao's "Great Leap Forward" from 1958-62 which was meant to "modernize" China but instead resulted in mass famine due to poor agricultural techniques (insufficient fertilizer, poor planting schemes, inefficient irrigation systems) and droughts. Very hard to read some of the stories of parents struggling to feed their children.
Harry Casey-Woodward
A detailed, gripping and despairing read. Is it wrong that I read this on my lunch breaks?
Stephanie McGarrah
Mar 09, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Interesting personal accounts of life under Mao and the CCP, focusing on the devastating famine that occurred between 1958 and 1962. It reads a little too much like a textbook, there's a lot of repetition and as much depth as I would have liked, but it was a good overview for me since I didn't know much about the famine itself.

I've been on a big anti-utopia kick lately, and after reading about the war on sparrows and insects under the "four pests campaign" and the ecological catastrophe that fo
Feb 05, 2009 rated it liked it
A lengthy account of the suffering and deaths that resulted from Mao's "Great Leap Forward" in which as many as 30 million people may have died. The author, who lives in Beijing, spent years interviewing survivors and has recorded details that were unknown to the world outside China for many years.
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Jasper Becker is a British journalist who spent 30 years covering Asia including 18 years living in Beijing. His reporting on uprisings, refugees and famine in China, Tibet and North Korea garnered him many awards and he is a popular speaker and commentator on current events in Asia. He now lives in England and has just finished his tenth book, tentatively called The Fatal Flaw. Earlier books suc ...more
“The Communist Party’s explicit aim was to destroy the family as an institution: The framework of the individual family, which has existed for thousands of years, has been shattered for all time... We must regard the People’s Commune as our family and not pay too much attention to the formation of a separate family of our own.” 0 likes
“Marxism claims, above all, to be a ‘scientific’ philosophy, one which applies the principles of science to politics and society.” 0 likes
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