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A Terrific Experience

Living under Mao.

12:00 PM, Jun 14, 2010 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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The New York Times ran an obituary on Saturday for Joan Hinton*.  Hinton was the daughter of prominent American progressives. She grew up to become a physics student who worked on the Manhattan Project, but subsequently moved to Mao's China, where she ran a dairy farm with her husband, who was likewise an American academic inspired by Mao's "workers' paradise." After detailing the life story of this child of the left, the obituary closes with this chilling quote from Hinton:

“It would have been terrific if Mao had lived,” Ms. Hinton told The Weekend Australian in 2008 during a trip to Japan. “Of course I was 100 percent behind everything that happened in the Cultural Revolution — it was a terrific experience.”

In an interesting coincidence, the Financial Times ran a story on the same day about the book Tombstone, a meticulously researched two-volume Chinese-language history that provides an excruciatingly detailed description of Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, from 1958-1961, and its remarkable author.

The book's author, a former Xinhua reporter named Yang Jisheng, spent two decades using his journalistic access to secretly collect an exhaustive evidentiary record of what happened as a result of Mao's efforts to rapidly transform China from a rural, subsistence agricultural society to a modernized industrial one through central planning and collectivization.  It is estimated that 35-40 million people died as a result of the Great Leap Forward - mostly from starvation, and mostly in the rural areas -- making it the worst man-made famine in history.  The whole article is itself a must-read, and it is itself an extract from the excellent new book The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, by FT Reporter Richard McGregor.

There have been some efforts to get Tombstone translated into English, but no translator or publisher has signed onto the project yet. (A translation of the introduction is available here).  This book would provide a useful addition to western scholarship on the Great Leap Forward, but by far the bigger need is for it to be widely available and widely read in China.  Unfortunately, it is banned and only available outside the mainland.

Tombstone was released in Hong Kong in mid-2008, around the time that the late Ms. Hinton made the aforementioned comments about the Cultural Revolution - an equally dark period in China's history, when unknown thousands died, not of starvation but at the hands of their countrymen for political crimes such as "rightist thinking."  In that same 2008 interview with The Australian, the reporter Peter Alford notes that even though the Chinese Communist Party now officially acknowledges Mao's responsibility for the "grave left error" of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, "Ms Hinton and her husband, Erwin Engst, lived through those times but she refuses to acknowledge that history."  Hinton remained a committed Maoist until her death last week.  

Too bad Joan Hinton did not stop off in Hong Kong and pick up a copy of Yang Jisheng's remarkable book, or better yet, spend some time with its courageous author who lives in Beijing as she did.  They would have undoubtedly had a lot to talk about.

*Another interesting coincidence: Joan Hinton is the aunt of Carma Hinton, the producer of a documentary on Tiananmen Square that was the subject of the lawsuit filed by Tiananmen student leader Chai Ling, who was recently profiled in TWS.  Joan Hinton reportedly denounced her niece for making the documentary.

Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that there are currently efforts underway to translate Tombstone.

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