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  Rebutting Mao's apologists: A queue at a soup kitchen

"A 41-year-old woman, Pan Suhua, in March 1960, dug up the body of her husband after he had committed suicide, and apart from cooking and eating his flesh, sold 5.875 kilograms of his bones as bear bones at 75 fen per kilogram."

"In the spring of 1960, a four-member family had been reduced to just the mother and her emaciated daughter. Driven to madness by starvation, the woman killed her daughter and cooked her flesh to eat, after which she became completely deranged and repeatedly cried out her daughter's name."

"When [the brigade leaders] went inside they saw something being cooked in a wok, and when they raised the lid they saw it was human flesh. The wok contained an arm that still had a hand attached, from which I could see that it had come from a child."

There is more. The fullest and most authoritative account ever published of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, the biggest manmade disaster in history, is not an easy read. Frank Dikötter's book Mao's Great Famine appeared in 2010 and was rightly awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize. Yang's conclusions are similar, though his approach is different, and concentration on the documented and on first-hand accounts enhances the impact. It is safe to say that you will never have read a book like it, or one that is more horrific. 

First published in Chinese in Hong Kong in 2008 in two volumes, it was reprinted eight times in two years. The author's personal and professional credentials could not be bettered. He worked for many years as a senior journalist at the official Xinhua News Agency, allowing him to amass archival and first-hand oral material. He also has firsthand experience.

As a young man he saw his own father die of hunger in 1959. It is a measure of the psychological deformation of an entire society that Maoism produced, especially with regard to the family ("a historically produced phenomenon", in the Chairman's words, "that will be eliminated") that Yang, busy promoting the Great Leap in the Communist Youth League at the time of his father's death, did not blame the system. Only when the Chairman launched into his second murderous folly in the Cultural Revolution seven years later did he begin to understand. 

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