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The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China (2012)

by James Palmer

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745366,438 (3.31)8
When an earthquake of historic magnitude leveled the industrial city of Tangshan in the summer of 1976, killing more than a half-million people, China was already gripped by widespread social unrest. As Mao lay on his deathbed, the public mourned the death of popular premier Zhou Enlai. Anger toward the powerful Communist Party officials in the Gang of Four, which had tried to suppress grieving for Zhou, was already potent; when the government failed to respond swiftly to the Tangshan disaster, popular resistance to the Cultural Revolution reached a boiling point. In Heaven Cracks,… (more)
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This is basically two books in one. On one hand it discusses the massive Tangshan earthquake of 1976. On the other, it discusses Mao's death and Deng's succession. The author tries to tie them together but it doesn't work very well. He shows the devastation of the earthquake and the ineptness of the government's response. He then says that it appeared that the Communist Party had lost the "Mandate of Heaven", but it isn't convincing at all.

The strength of the book is the coverage of the earthquake, which includes a lot of personal stories that he obtained through interviews. He tells a compelling story of the earthquake and the aftermath, with a lot of vivid accounts of individual suffering. But it doesn't make a strong connection with struggle to succeed Mao. The discussion of the succession is actually very good, showing the fall of the Gang of Four and the eventual triumph of Deng Xiaoping, but it doesn't offer much new.

Overall, this is a good book if you want to know about the earthquake but it has a lot of filler and side stories that are only slightly related. It's easy to read but not that informative. ( )
  Scapegoats | Mar 14, 2015 |
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. ( )
  xuebi | May 30, 2014 |
Interesting, but more on the earthquake than the death of Mao and the gang of four, which was my interest. Although not a large book, you have a distinct feeling that the author has had to pad it out with lots of background on the communist rule since 1949, e.g. Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Consequently a better read for someone who knows little detail of this era. ( )
  BrianHostad | Sep 19, 2013 |
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. ( )
  edwinbcn | Jul 13, 2013 |
While this book does deal with the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, to a larger degree it's an overview of Mao's last year and the casting down of the Gang of Four; it's not a bad book but linking the disaster with the proverbial loss of the "Mandate of Heaven" doesn't quite come off. One might argue that what's one more disaster when there had been so many under Mao's regime? Still, Palmer writes with a dry wit and has done the footwork to make this book worth your time; this is particularly if "Mao's Last Revolution" looks a little too daunting to tackle. ( )
  Shrike58 | Dec 27, 2012 |
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For Claudia He, who is incomparable
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On 9 January 1976, He Jianguo left Tangshan and took the train to buy a goldfish.
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When an earthquake of historic magnitude leveled the industrial city of Tangshan in the summer of 1976, killing more than a half-million people, China was already gripped by widespread social unrest. As Mao lay on his deathbed, the public mourned the death of popular premier Zhou Enlai. Anger toward the powerful Communist Party officials in the Gang of Four, which had tried to suppress grieving for Zhou, was already potent; when the government failed to respond swiftly to the Tangshan disaster, popular resistance to the Cultural Revolution reached a boiling point. In Heaven Cracks,

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