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Mao Zedong and Hua Guofeng, by Tilman Schalmey

China's catastrophe

Ellen Lammers | 06 July 2011

I take the tattered copy of Wild Swans from my bookcase. A business card from a hostel in Kerala reminds me that I read this during a summer in India in 1994. A year later I joined SOAS in London and was rather awed to learn that Jung Chang, the author of the 1993 British Book of the Year that sold more than 10 million copies, was a teacher at my new university.

I take the tattered copy of Wild Swans from my bookcase. A business card from a hostel in Kerala reminds me that I read this during a summer in India in 1994. A year later I joined SOAS in London and was rather awed to learn that Jung Chang, the author of the 1993 British Book of the Year that sold more than 10 million copies, was a teacher at my new university.

Yesterday a SOAS scholar once again won a prestigious British prize. And again with a book about China’s troubled 20th century. Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine. The history of China’s most devastating catastrophe won the Samuel Johnson Prize, one of the UK’s most prestigious prizes for non-fiction.

I learn this from a Dutch newspaper – the heading on page 3 reads ‘Nederlander wint prijs met Mao-boek’. Dikötter was born in the Netherlands, never lived here for very long I think, but we are nevertheless happy to claim part of the fame. His book was reviewed in the same Dutch newspaper earlier this year by China-reporter Oscar Garschagen. It deals with the years 1958 – 1962, when Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward – an experiment to turn agrarian China into an industrial society – led to the death of, so Dikötter’s research of provincial archives that for half a century were inaccessible shows, 45 million people.

Ben Macintyre, chair of the Samuel Johnson prize, said, as reported in the Guardian, "This is not just an important book now, but it will become in some ways more important, as China becomes more powerful in the world and a greater part of global consciousness. To understand why China is the way it is, you almost have to read this book. If you want to understand why it's a materialistic, non-ideological place, you need to realise that just a generation ago, this appalling, manmade catastrophe was visited on its people".

I was one in a class of fifteen medical anthropology students who took Dikötter’s course ‘The History of Medicine’ at SOAS that year. His classes about race, identity and eugenics were rather intriguing – he was one of the younger teachers but so obviously way ahead of us, his eager audience. A couple of months ago I contacted my erstwhile teacher, who is now based at the University of Hong Kong, to ask who would be the right person to write an article on China’s foreign policies today for our Emerged Powers series (with recent articles on Brazil and Turkey). That article, by the author he suggested, Arthur Waldron, will be published later this summer.

Photo credit main picture: Mao Zedong and Hua Guofeng, by Tilman Schalmey