The Death of Mao : The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China, Hardback

The Death of Mao : The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China Hardback

2.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


In the summer of 1976, Mao lay dying, and China was struck by a great natural disaster.

The earthquake that struck Tangshan, a shoddily built mining city, was one of the worst in recorded history, killing half a million people.

But the Chinese Communist rulers in Beijing were distracted, paralysed by in-fighting over who would take control after Mao finally died.

Would Mao's fanatical wife and her collaborators, the Gang of Four, be allowed to continue the Cultural Revolution, which had shut China off from the world and reduced it to poverty and chaos? Or would Deng Xiaoping and his reformist friends be able to take control and open China up to the market, and end the near permanent state of civil war?

Palmer recreates the tensions of that fateful summer, when the fate of China and the world were in the balance - as injured and starving people crawled among the ruins of a stricken city.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 288 pages, Illustrations
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Asian history
  • ISBN: 9780571243990



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Review by

The death of Mao. The Tangshan earthquake and the birth of the New China is an incredibly shoddy piece of historicism. The author, who claims to have read History, should really know better than to publish such an ill-researched and carelessly edited book. It is only by a small margin that the author, James Palmer, belongs to the so-called balinghou The Chinese equivalent of Generation X, which, as Palmer wrote elsewhere "They do not bother to check the details." This harsh criticism applies very much so to Mr Palmer's own book.Living in Beijing since 2004, Mr Palmer is apparently unable to read Chinese. According to the acknowledgements, pp. 250 ff., Palmer gathered the materials for his book by asking Chinese people to interview Chinese eye witnesses, and had these interviews transcribed and translated, to be used as the basic material for his book. This work was supplemented by archival and photographic research by his assistant. While in itself, this research method is valid, and very interesting, perhaps even novel to China, the author should realize that it is a potential source of inaccuracies, and that many details need to be checked.Apparently, this has not happened, or was not done carefully enough. Thus, The death of Mao. The Tangshan earthquake and the birth of the New China is full of mistakes. The distance from Tangshan to Hebei is not 800 miles (p. 169), but 465 km (289 miles); Henan Province does not border on Beijing, but Hebei does. The system of Foreign Exchange Certificates was not abolished in 1998, but on January 1, 1995. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck at 2:28 PM, not 2:48 PM. These are just some of the many facts that jump into the readers eye, which suggest that careful checking of other facts may reveal many more inaccuracies. Many of these facts can easily be checked.Furthermore, some facts are circumspect, with questionable accuracy or apparent irrelevance. In a chapter describing the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s - early 1960s it is rather difficult to tell what the relevance is of the fact that "bad families" in 1976 were entitled to 500 kg rice and 50 kg of cooking oil for a family unit of six people. Officially, in 1960, "office workers were entitled to 30 pounds of grain per person per month, labourers slightly more (...) and two ounces of cooking oil" (source: The Man on Mao's Right. From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square. My Life inside China's Foreign Ministry by Ji Chaozhu, published in 2008. In 1984, rice consuption in China stood at 104 kg per person per year.Another problem with The death of Mao. The Tangshan earthquake and the birth of the New China is that it lacks a clear focus. The book tries to deal with two historical events, which would each better be served separately. This indecisiveness, most likely pushed by the publisher, is reflected in the numerous titles by which the book was published in different editions, e.g. Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao's China, The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China and The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China. Obviously, the "Death of Mao" is not the same as "the Death of Mao's China". The use of the term "the New China" is quite inaccurate when writing about the modern history of China, as the "New China" is defined as the founding of the People's Republic of China. These confusing titles are the result of the faint traditional Chinese notion that earthquakes and other natural disasters are an indication that the ruling dynasty has lost "the mandate of heaven". Palmer very clearly want to force this link onto the readers' consciousness.The structure of the book consists of six chapters, alternating dealing with the Tangshan Earthquake and the history of China under Chaiman Mao. In chapter 7, named "Aftershocks" the author describes China's history since 1976. This chapter consists of unashamed China-bashing, a compilation of facts, rumour and hearsay to demonstrate that "nothing changed fundamentally: The birth of the New China by Caesarian section in the Square of Heavenly Peace.It is to be hoped that Mr Palmer spends a little bit more time on checking his facts when writing about China, and be more concerned with the quality of his work than sales.

Review by

Palmer begins by discussing the utterly devastating Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 and weaves that with the narrative of the death of Mao Zedong and the factional infighting that followed. With eye-witness statements and well-written research, Palmer is able to argue that 1976 marked a watershed in Chinese politics, although his focus on the eye-witness and personal stories mean that the political infighting that followed Mao's death is not explored fully. Nevertheless, Palmer's account of natural disaster and politics is good historical research and very readable; and with an epilogue focusing on the Sichuan earthquake, he draws parallels between China then and now.

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