The best books on the Great Leap Forward

Many authors have picked their favorite books about the Great Leap Forward and why they recommend each book.

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By Yang Jisheng, Stacy Mosher (editor),

Book cover of Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962

Yang, a recent graduate of an elite Chinese university, was a reporter for the official New China News Agency during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1960, and he witnessed first-hand the tragic consequences of misconceived agricultural policies that generated a well-documented 30 million deaths due to starvation, the greatest famine in Chinese history, almost entirely man-made. Yang’s vivid and heart-wrenching first-hand account, well-grounded in long-classified official documents, lays bare the suffering created by a bureaucratic machine that accelerated out of control, forcing peasants to turn over grain to the state even as they starved.

Who am I?

I took my first course about Chinese politics in 1973, when the country was still in the tumultuous last years of the Mao era. In a teaching career that began in 1982, I have spent long periods of research and teaching in China and Hong Kong. China’s shifting course has been a constant source of fascination, encouragement, and at times dismay. It is hard to imagine that the impoverished and unstable country of the 1970s would rise to become such a major economic power, one that despite its impressive expansion still faces intractable barriers to its future advancement.

I wrote...

China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed

By Andrew G. Walder,

Book cover of China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed

What is my book about?

China’s Communist Party seized power in 1949 after a long period of guerrilla insurgency followed by full-scale war, but the Chinese revolution was just beginning. China Under Mao narrates the rise and fall of the Maoist revolutionary state from 1949 to 1976—an epoch of startling accomplishments and disastrous failures, steered by many forces but dominated above all by Mao Zedong.

Mao’s China was shaped by a Party apparatus that exercised firm (sometimes harsh) discipline over its members; and a socialist economy modeled after the Soviet Union. Although a large national bureaucracy oversaw his authoritarian system, Mao intervened strongly at every turn. The doctrines and practices that produced Mao’s greatest achievements—victory in the civil war, the creation of China’s first unified modern state, a historic transformation of urban and rural life—also generated his worst failures: the industrial depression and rural famine of the Great Leap Forward and the violent destruction and stagnation of the Cultural Revolution. This book explains how and why the achievements and disasters had a single cause, frustrating Mao’s aspirations and forcing his successors to choose a radically different path.

Telling the Truth

By Yang Songlin, Baohui Xie (translator),

Book cover of Telling the Truth: China's Great Leap Forward, Household Registration and the Famine Death Tally

The accepted wisdom about the Chinese Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961 both in and outside of China is that the Great Leap Forward famine death toll was 30 million. This book challenges this wisdom. The book’s argument is based on the research of Professor Sun Jingxian who is a mathematician, who, after having examined the domestic migration pattern during the period, comes to the conclusion that the famine death toll was about 4 million.

Who am I?

I currently teach Chinese studies at the Department of Asian Studies of the University of Adelaide. My publications include several books, and over a hundred book chapters/articles. My book Mandarin Chinese: An Introduction is a standard reference for learners of modern Chinese in English-speaking countries. Two of my books Gao Village: A Portrait of Modern Life in Rural China and Gao Village Revisited: Life of the Rural People in Contemporary China are case studies of Gao Village where I came from. Other books include the Battle of China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution and Remembering Socialist China 1949 – 1976 which are reassessments of the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution. 

I wrote...

Constructing China: Clashing Views of the People's Republic

By Mobo C.F. Gao,

Book cover of Constructing China: Clashing Views of the People's Republic

What is my book about?

For years now, China's economic and political rise has provoked fear--even paranoia--around the world. But how do we get our information about China, and how are our understandings of it actually produced?

Constructing China presents a detailed examination of the means through which our knowledge of China is created. Rejecting the supposed objectivity of empirical statistics and challenging the assumption of a dichotomy between Western liberal democracy and Chinese authoritarianism, Mobo Gao dissects the political agenda and conceptual framework of commentators on China and urges those on the right and the left alike to be carefully critical of their own views on the nation's politics, economics, and history.


By Yang Jisheng,

Book cover of Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine

Yang Jisheng is a Chinese journalist who worked for the state news agency, Xinhua reporter, but diligently spent many years researching the archives to pull together a detailed story of the Great Leap Forward famine, on a province-by-province basis. It is extremely rare for anyone in China who works for the state to paint such an unflinching look at the Chinese Communist Party’s actions. It gives the account unassailable credibility. However, Yang struggles to place the story in the context of the full global history of communism, and attributes the folly to China’s culture and Mao’s shortcomings.

Who am I?

Jasper Becker is a foreign correspondent who spent decades reporting on China and the Far East. His the author of numerous books including Hungry Ghosts – Mao’s Secret Famine, Rogue Regime – Kim Jong Il and the looming threat of North Korea, City of Heavenly Tranquillity, and most recently Made in China – Wuhan, COVID and the Quest for Biotech Supremacy.

I wrote...

Made in China: Wuhan, Covid and the Quest for Biotech Supremacy

By Jasper Becker,

Book cover of Made in China: Wuhan, Covid and the Quest for Biotech Supremacy

What is my book about?

What might COVID-19 mean for, and reveal about, China's place in the world? The coronavirus pandemic started in Wuhan, home to the leading lab studying the SARS virus and bats. Was that pure coincidence? This book explores what we know, and still don't know, about the origins of COVID-19, and how it was handled in China.

We may never get all the answers, but much is already clear: China's record as the origin of earlier pandemics, and its struggle to bring contagious diseases under control; its history as both a victim of biological warfare and a developer of deadly bioweapons. When Covid broke out, Wuhan was building science parks to realise Beijing's ambitions in biotech research. Whoever achieves global leadership of the gene-editing industry stands to harvest great power and wealth.

Seeing Like a State

By James C. Scott,

Book cover of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Have you ever wondered why we can’t just make the world better? Sure, we’ve made enormous strides in agriculture and medicine over the past few centuries. We can generate electricity and move around the world in a day. We can feed and heal people. But why haven’t we just sat down and figured out the right way to live? Planned it all out on a clean sheet, like an architect.

Seeing Like a State is a book about why it’s impossible for ambitious programs of top-down control to succeed, and why they so often end up with millions of people dead. The world is always more complicated than the maps you make of it, and in a lot of situations, it turns out that complexity matters. You can’t design and build the perfect city. You have to grow it.  

This book matters to me as an artist because it…

Who am I?

As a writer, I’m much more interested in characters who want to change the world than those who want to defend the status quo. In popular storytelling, villains are usually the ones who want to radically remake everything. But as we hurtle towards a climate catastrophe that threatens to undo so much of our growth as a species, it’s clear that we need heroes in favor of radical change now. And you can’t make good change without understanding what you’re changing. Despite all the books I’ve recommended here about the failures of our own cognition – I think our only chance to make a better world is to figure out how the world operates and where we’re going wrong.

I wrote...

The Traitor Baru Cormorant

By Seth Dickinson,

Book cover of The Traitor Baru Cormorant

What is my book about?

Game of Thrones meets Guns, Germs, and Steel. When the Empire of Masks arrives to colonize her island home, young Baru Cormorant fights back the only way she can. She joins the Imperial civil service and devotes herself to destroying them from within.

As a final test of her loyalty, Baru is dispatched to infiltrate and destroy the rebels in the seditious province of Aurdwynn – using only the art of high finance. But the rebel duchess Tain Hu is dangerously intriguing. And even as she manipulates Aurdwynn into civil war, Baru finds herself trapped between her own ruthless ambition and her yearning for a woman she can never have.

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