Reading: James Palmer — Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China

The last of my current batch of reading … more soon to be procured. It’s a little gluttonous, no?

Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes arrived shortly after I finished The Bloody White Baron, and it had been a book I’d heard about every so often, so I was hoping for something … well, earthquakes, the Great Helmsman; as a follow-up to the Baron I was hoping a for a lot.

I am supposed to write these things before I read, and any reviewing that may or may not be done, is done once a year in October; I’m getting sloppy here.

While my attention for all things Sinological is gradually drifting conspicuously south, and my personal feeling is that in another, slightly different outcome of history, China would be something between the idea of the EU and the reality of Confoederatio Helvetica; so it just helps to think of at least the provinces surrounding Han proper like a misshapen ‘C’ as individual countries (they are big enough, after all), and so while my interest is more towards Canton and the inner asian frontiers, I’m never too far away from picking up any book remotely Chinese.

The premise, that the Tangshan earthquake via invocation of the Mandate from Heaven was part of a series of events leading to not only the end of almost thirty years of Maoist destruction, but equally to the de facto abrogation of Maoism, for me was an attractive subject for a book. Much of this because there hasn’t been much written on one of the most devastating earthquakes in history, and how it affected a country, and I do also have a long-standing love affair with geology — my mental image of China and Central Asia is usually one overlaid with geologic and topographic maps.

I think the initial disappointment for me came around a third of the way in, when background events leading up to Mao’s death and the earthquake were still being worked through. It occurred to me that perhaps with all the reading I’ve done on China, I was not exactly the audience. I was wanting to get stuck in from the first page to some chunky primary source research from provincial and county archives along with fault plane solutions and other geological delights, as I have been in some other recent works, and instead found a summarising of the main events of Mao.

Which James does very well, and if I was coming to this stuff for the first time – when I tend to read a lot of works like this to get the broad idea plus some specifics – this would be a more suitable read for me. From my perspective though, I felt that the connection between earthquake and Mao, was not presented in a way where I was convinced of more than a tenuous, or generalist correlation.

Being more critical, there were a couple of things in James’ writing style that irritated me, being occasional slips into vernacular, and the use of various pop culture references as similes. Which makes me sound like a stuffy old toff decrying the loss of Queen’s English, but references to The Godfather and Dad’s Army while clever or apt have a tendency to limit the audience, and to render the both the simile and intent incomprehensible for anyone not familiar with the allusion.

As with the Baron, the concluding section summarised and put into context the aftermath of the events up to the current day (around early 2011), also drawing comparisons with the state of the Communist Party and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Again, mirroring the lengthy lead up to the earthquake, I had this sense I was not really the intended audience, though equally, for a reader coming to this for the first time, he gets through many of the main points in an engagingly readable way.

As an aside, somehow I was expecting a mention of Ai Weiwei, considering the various artists, poets, writers who James mentions around the Tangshan era; for me Wenchuan is quite fixed in my mind with him.

Late in the book, there is a reference to the Republican era which is a common one, describing it as “the warlord era”, and by implication with “the Japanese invasion [and] Maoist insanities”, a very Bad Thing. This is also the Communist narrative and being an era I’ve been reading somewhat on lately-ish (Gourmets in the Land of Famine and The Age of Openness are two I’m thinking of) I would say even given that it was one very broad remark covering the entire Chinese 20th century in a score of words, it is a sloppy and poor choice of words. The mention of R. J. Rummel a couple of pages later, whom I’ve written about previously, also doesn’t help.

So now I feel like I’ve been rather harsh. I was wondering if I felt let down after the Baron, but contra that, if my knowledge of Mongolia and Siberia were commensurate with China, I would have found that work also lacking. I didn’t, because it was a new-ish topic for me — my reading for north of the Tian Shan tends more to the Xiongnu than anything as recent as the Russian Civil War.

Maybe to say that this is one of the better recent books on China you could read which covers both the Maoist era and the 35 years since, without missing many of the main points, and with enough to go on with further, more detailed reading if your attention is taken. I would though like to read the next book from him going to a similar level of research and detail as someone like Susan Mann, Gail Hershatter, or Paul A. van Dyke.

James Palmer — Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes
James Palmer — Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes