Suitcase arrived. Panda looking well smug after 24 hour solo flight from Helsinki. Sunset as the change moves in on the end of a 30° summer day. I know this weather.
Bumped into window seat of first row in Business Class on the hope it’d get me out the door quicker to catch my Hong Kong connection. Skansfjärden, Salmen, Rönnskär, Kyrkogårdsön, Porkkala, Lillkanskog, Björkholmsfjärden, Friggesby, Gunnarskulla.
Arrived. Panda’s taking the long way around, tho’.
Ten years since my last pass through here. Too long. Way too long. The flight went over Guangzhou, I thought of my friends I haven’t seen for all that time, Michael Garza, Long Yunna, Izumi Nikaido, Tian Yaping. Next time, and make next time this year.
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
I started with him in 2010 with The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, followed that up a few months later with the first proper of the trilogy, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, then The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 in 2013, and finally this. Unlike Mao’s Great Famine, or The Tragedy of Liberation, the Cultural Revolution has been covered by far more historians, and sits fresh in the memories of people in their forties. Writers like Liao Yiwu (The Corpse Walker, God Is Red, For a Song and a Hundred Songs) and others of the large crop of early-’00s writers covering Tiananmen Square and post-Tiananmen politics if not explicitly writing about this period nonetheless reference it. And if anything this is its weakness.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
I am getting such a kick out of reading this. Definitely going to be on my Book of the Year list.
The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng was published last year, so it’s been on my Want List for, I dunno, pushing a year, I guess. And I have no idea where I heard about it. Not io9 with its monthly list of what’s new (and what will I do for skiffy if io9 vanishes — any more than it already has?); not on Islam and Science Fiction, so that rules out the obvious ones; possibly on Twitter, but searching social networks is the 4Chan of the internet, so, no idea. Whoever brought it to my attention, and into my grubby mitts, well done!
Bill Campbell is responsible for The Sea is Ours, he of Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, which at the time I wasn’t so into. He’s also Rosarium Publishing, where these anthologies are published. And it’s worth mentioning the publication costs were crowd-funded on Indiegogo: a mere $10,000 brought this rather good collection to print.
Funny thing is, I’m not much into either steampunk or short stories, yet here am I blabbing about both. My ambivalence for short stories I have a feeling I’ve mentioned recently; it’s primarily that I like sinking deep into a story and the characters, for at least a day, ideally much longer, though my reading speed nixes the latter. Short stories at 15 minutes a pop leave me wanting more, it’s like reading the first chapter and being denied the novel.
Steampunk on the other hand, in its typical form, there’s no ambivalence: I find it contrived, a literary and cultural cul-de-sac dangerously uncritical of itself. And this is me talking about context again. The signifiers steampunk plays with are rooted in high industrial colonialism, sliding between mid-19th century Age of Steam proper, and early 20th century post-steam final years of the European imperialism. In fact while technologically rooted in a non-internal combustion engine alternate timeline, steampunk often sits firmly in pre-war 1914 in cultural, social, political signifiers. And I’m basing this on a rather small population of books read, but of those I have, and of my other reading, this is my impression. I also just don’t get the brass, clockwork, steam aesthetic. Partly because the era it fetishises sits atop colonialism and genocide in the real world, and partly because for me it’s even less plausible than dragons and magic.
So, we’ve established my hostility to short stories and steampunk, and yet here we are, me saying this is an excellent collection, I’m loving reading it, I want another, Volume 2: The Sea is Still Ours (2 Sea 2 Furious, or something). I love it because of the list of countries I’ve categorised and tagged this post under, countries I don’t mention enough these days, and though I never lived in any of them, I passed through most at one time or another when Guangzhou was my home. There’s a familiarity in the writing and stories, it’s like coming out of Hong Kong airport into the glorious damp heat on Chek Lap Kok and physically remembering where I am.
There’s another thing in the stories I’ve read so far (about half), which is requisitioning the signifiers of steampunk for use by the other side. It’s another alternate timeline, where the colonised got their hands on the technology of the European empires, merged it with their own technology, culture, world, and turned it against the aggressors. A world where the Maya civilisation resisted the Spanish empire enough to trade with the Philippines, where the Philippines themselves charted a different course. When I’m reading these stories, I keep thinking steampunk was made for this, using the technology of the age of colonialism to imagine other potential histories. It’s a far more satisfying genre written like this.
I was also thinking — and this is thanks to the work of editors Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng — how refreshing it is to read stories that aren’t coming out of the United States (putting aside that it was published there, by an American publisher, and that a couple of the writers live there). Dasniya and I spent an afternoon on the grass in front of the Reichstag yesterday soaking in the warm sun, the conversation moved — as it usually does — to those awkward words, inclusion, diversity, how to talk about one’s work while avoiding the reductionism of these terms yet also needing to make clear that the concerns these terms signify is central. And this is where this collection succeeds for me: certainly within the domestic situation in the States it would be categorised using these terms, but the stories themselves, it’s like a chorus of an entire world from somewhere else, and in this world these words — if they even appear — are framed on their terms. It’s like when I made the fantastic shift from reading feminism coming from Anglo-Euro-American countries to that coming from Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Chinese writers and never looked back.
Bill Campbell, Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng: more please! And I’d love one with Taiwanese, Cantonese (Jihng Yāt and steampunk pirates!), the sea-facing countries of the north.