Books in Review

Briefly Noted
(October 1997)

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 76 (October 1997): 69-74.

Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. By Jasper Becker. Free Press. 352 pp. $25.

A story that both grips and chills. To this day, the great famine of 1958 to 1962, in which more than thirty million Chinese were killed by Maoist madness, is overshadowed by the Cultural Revolution that followed. Some Western "experts" on China were ignorant of the famine; many others knew about it and, fearful they would be denied access to China, publicly denied it. In this connection, John K. Fairbank of Harvard, the dean of American sinologists, brought particular shame upon himself and those he influenced. The truth was told then by maverick scholars such as Ivan and Miriam London, who paid a steep price in the academy for their impertinence. Becker’s very readable account of mass suffering, including widespread cannibalism, underscores the frightening fragility of social orders. Far from being giants on the stage of history, Mao and his ilk come across as adolescent egomaniacs, puffed up with fantasies about forcing the transition to the Communist utopia within a few months, and totally indifferent to the millions of lives sacrificed on the altar of their make-believe. Highly recommended to readers with strong stomachs.