Today I’ve been reading about Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which took place between 1958 and 1961. Mao’s drive for rapid modernisation was a catastrophic disaster, resulting in over 30 million deaths and untold hardship. The majority of the victims died of hunger, as famine ravaged the country. However, this famine was entirely man-made: as villagers died in their thousands, local Party-controlled grain stores were packed full of wheat, much of which was left to rot, or exported to demonstrate the success that communism had brought to China. Elsewhere, grain harvests were down as Mao diverted manpower away from harvesting crops, instead concentrating on a pointless campaign to raise steel production by encouraging everyone to melt down any metal they could find – this was done in backyard furnaces, which led to the first of China’s three main deforestation disasters. The Great Leap Forward also saw an explosion in the number of water diversion and catchment projects: peasants were encouraged to build dams by the dozen. Made with mud and stone, most of these were washed away within a couple of years.

What I’ve found most disturbing is the widespread cannibalism that people resorted to in their madness for food. Families would boil their children and eat them – this could be made easier (psychologically) by swapping the corpses of their freshly-murdered (or starved) children with their neighbours. Human flesh was sold on the black market as pork: dumplings could be bought – containing fingernails.

It sounds like something out of a horror movie, or some ancient war narrative. But this was 1960s China. My parents were adults then.

I find myself wondering why no-one assassinated Mao. Without him at the head of the party terrorising (or killing) all those who voiced disagreement with him (and thus demonstrating rightist tendencies), the system would have crumbled – millions of lives would have been saved. I find it extraordinary that this one delusional man was permitted to cause such suffering to a fifth of the world’s population – suffering on a par with that of Hitler, and get away with it. (I also find it incredible that I didn’t know anything about the Great Famine until now).

Mao was of the opinion that Man could control nature, that the power of dreams could overcome any resistance that reality posed.

I think it’s important that I not forget that when dreaming, one must never go so far as to completely reject established norms to the extent that one loses touch with reality entirely. Of course, I don’t see myself taking control of the UK and encouraging everyone to plant their potatoes in hand-dug trenches that are 10 foot deep (increases the yield don’t you know) …but I do take it as a timely warning that an over-indulgence in ego-licking and the denial of the opinions of others can lead to selfishness – and in extreme cases, the deaths of millions of people.

Hmm. All very jolly.