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.
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 was aiming for Dian H. Murray’s Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810, which is probably the definitive work on the subject in English. Alas! Have you seen the price for that? It’s like reading Michel Serres when the only translations were hardcover university press, for which said universities charged obscene amounts and I was reduced to photocopying below the sign that said “Do Not Photocopy Entire Books!” and accompanying security camera (thankfully now reprinted at normal person prices). Even I balk at haemorrhaging such quantities of euros for a book. So I settled on the second on the list, Robert J. Antony’s Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China.
Mainly I wanted to read this for the Cantonese pirate Jihng Sih (or Zhang Yi Sao) the wife of a pirate who rose to command hundreds of junks and tens of thousands of pirates. Sadly there wasn’t much, as Antony seemed to regard her husband Cheung Po Tsai (Zhang Bao) as the real leader, which doesn’t agree with what I’ve read to date. Nonetheless, Antony introduces me to a couple of other formidable woman pirates who made things miserable and provided much-needed trade along the South-China coast.
I still have my eye on Dian’s book, but in the meantime, for a quick, well-researched (though a little dry) introduction to the subject that is also affordable, Like Froth Floating on the Sea does the job.
I came for the pirates, particularly Jihng Yāt Sóu, otherwise known as Zheng Yi Sao, the wife of Zheng Yi, bisexual Cantonese pirate. Sounds brilliant if I stop right there! Once I discovered the world’s foremost pirate was both a woman and from the city of my heart, Guangzhou, I knew I’d be devoting a meandering number of years to tracking her down. It’s proved remarkable difficult. European pirates are far better known, even the female ones like Mary Read and Anne Bonny are equal to Blackbeard, but Ching Shih, she commanded hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors and wow but it’s hard to find stuff on her.
I’d hoped Wensheng Wang’s White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates — Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire was going to say more than the one paragraph plus some lines that it did on her, though it has presented a good summary of South China Sea piracy from mid-1600s to the demise around 1810, enough for me to better decide what I’ll read next on this subject. The book itself is a little dry, even for my usual academic reading, and I even find myself disagreeing with Wang, for example with his description of Lingnan as a economic macroregion and therefore explicitly part of China and Chinese, whereas I’d see it perhaps better understood as a state under colonial control of China, yet fundamentally not-China and outwardly-directed across the South China Sea in its inter-state interactions. Possibly picking at straws here.
The history of the White Lotus Sect and the Qing Dynasty around the early-1800s is fascinating for me, but work is nowhere near the standard of Susan Mann or Gail Hershatter (despite the very nice cover). And the absence of a proper bibliography is either a mistaken omission or if intentional is bizarre.
A stack of books waited for me while I was in Bologna, and yesterday I had my first riding in snow of the year to pick them up. I didn’t know which one to start with, so I started with them all; I think the word for that is gluttony.
I Sailed with Chinese Pirates, I discovered this on China Rhyming, a blog responsible for a not insignificant number of the books on China I pick up (and yes, the actual work being discussed there, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, is also on my list). I’ve had a thing for southern Chinese pirates ever since I discovered their leader for a period in the Qing dynasty was a woman named Jihng Sih (or Ching Shih in Mandarin), who commanded hundreds, or maybe thousands of junks and tens of thousands of crew, and despite appearances in popular culture has not had much written of her in the way of biography. Jorge Luis Borges though wrote a story about her, “The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate” in A Universal History of Infamy.
As for Aleko E. Lilius, he was one of those comically hard journalists who threw himself into highly improbably situations and lived to write about them, somewhere between Peter Hopkirk and Ernest Hemmingway, though unlike the latter, he’s not embarrassed to write of his terror when the pirate junk he is sailing on goes into battle with canons pounding.
Originally published in 1932 during the Republican era, I Sailed with Chinese Pirates was republished in 2009 with a short forward by China Rhyming’s Paul French, who also wrote about the book, which makes for a good read as well. And what else? It’s full of photos! Photos of Cantonese pirates and southern China from the 1920s! It’s also a very fast gallivant of a read; I’ll probably finish it tonight.
Because I’d never seen a photo of him, I imagined Shanghai-based scrap blogger Adam Minter was one of those gruff, 40- or 50-something American expats who manages to keep a blog of his life in China, like not a few others I’ve read over the years. How I came to be reading him … I have no idea, though possibly a connection to Shanghai Street Stories – in a different, older incarnation. Anyway, writing about trash, recycling, junk, waste, rubbish, the burning pits of Mordor, occasionally venturing to Guangdong and the cities I’d been through, of course I’d be reading him.
I’d been waiting for this book for quite some time, one of the many such that have coincidently all been published in the same couple of months. Partly because I have a curiosity for those desolate factories I sped past on the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, or the ones I drove through or spent time in, Qingyuan, Shaoguan, Dongguan, anonymous cities of millions that sprouted from nothing in the space of a pair of decades.
Also it occurred to me as Adam described his own family history of the junkyard that I seem to have one somewhat similar. My father, mechanic until it ruined his back (or at least, that’s the limit of what I know of him), had a factory in Scarborough dealing in waste paper. Not recycling it, just that intermediate step of gathering together all the sources and compressing it into massive bales. The old compactor was like a wire-frame elevator, going only down one floor. Paper went in and down; compressed and wrapped bales came up and out. There was also a freshly-concreted long pit, where the new, automated compactor was to go. And a forklift, which he tried to teach me how to drive at age 4. Almost ended in the pit. Though I did get enough of a hang of it for him to slap a pallet on the forks and me to take him all the way up so he could work on the roller door. Perhaps then a more accurate description of him is former mechanic in the scrap trade.
Minter’s book is a surprisingly light and fast read compared to his blog; it’s a different audience of course. A blog assumes a readership which allows for a shorthand when discussing its topics, giving more space for detailed remarks. A book on the other hand, especially one with a particular readership in mind, one that is unlikely to consistently enjoy reading about the Chinese recycling trade for years on end, keeps things much simpler and moving along. And he does move. Across the United States, across China, back to America, back to China, all the time meeting people from across the Americas, Asia, Middle East, Africa, pretty much anywhere people throw stuff out and other people see a way to make a living from that.
When I was in China, it because swiftly apparent to me the dominant narrative on many issues circulating around consumerism were highly problematic. To be stridently against sweatshops while living a first-world life, for example entirely misses the reality that doesn’t fit neatly into a slogan. Even the next level of narrative, that people in Guangdong, the manufacturing capital of the world, would choose to work in such factories simply because it was better than any other available option is an oversimplification. While it’s not David Graeber’s Debt, Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade does go a long way beyond these simplifications, showing how recycling actually works on a global scale, and for anyone with only a passing familiarity of the topic it’s definitely worth a read. Oh, and Adam is actually a cherub-faced young one.
Like Japan in the ’90s or Afghanistan until Bush Jr. was ousted and the ‘current affairs’ readers stopped caring, China has been for at least the last decade the subject of endless mountains of books, each anticipated, packed, and sold as the last word, the real truth on the Middle Kingdom, most heading quickly for the forgotten bargain bins and pulping. It’s really difficult to find better-publicised works that are of substance, that aren’t simply a rehashing of secondary sources, that are written by people who fundamentally know what they’re talking about and have devoted their lives to their field.
I’ve already finished Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, a work I’d been waiting for, and I could probably dispense with the post-reading praise as it’s not really possible at the moment for him to write something not worth reading. I’d previously read The Age of Openness: China Before Mao – the only disappointment there being lack of pages – and Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, written before this one but chronologically coming directly after. There is one more to complete this trilogy, covering the Cultural Revolution, which will probably arrive in three years.
Both of the first two in this trilogy are masterworks, drawing on recently opened Communist Party archives across China, and pieced together from the often partial and incomplete information available. That this is even possible at all is remarkable, as it is the same party that committed these crimes which remains in power, and it is the descendants of those criminals who sit as rulers.
I find it strange and disturbing when I walk into my favourite bookshop and there’s a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, or for example the Elizabeth Bear collection I’m now reading she whimsically names a synthetic cat Chairman Miaow. It feels to me as if there’s a disjuncture in understanding Mao’s place in the pantheon of 20th Century despots, an understanding that for most Europeans, Anglo-Americans and the general English-speaking part of the world would be self-evident if they walked into said bookshop and it was Hitler’s Mein Kampf, or the cat was named Führer Adolph. Even Stalin suffers (or perhaps gains) from an ambivalence or even disinterest in recognising his place in the history of terror, possibly because however close to Europe Russia is, there is a sense it is still Other and so the suffering he inflicted upon the Soviet Union was not necessarily part of the history of Europe and not quite as worthy.
Mao then – and the Chinese Communists – being even further east and perceived as entirely un-European (despite whatever basis his brand of Year Zero communism had in Marx, or that China had been a quasi-colony of Britain for quite some time) seems to be more a subject of patronising carelessness than a person and political party that did to China – and Tibet, and the other peripheral countries that became provinces after Liberation – ten times over what Hitler and the Nazis did in Europe, as well being directly responsible for what happened in Cambodia, Vietnam, much of South-East Asia, and North Korea. Unsurprisingly, it was Euro-American racism and post-colonial political meddling that in no small way abetted his rise to power.
The Tragedy of Liberation fills in the ten-year period from Liberation in 1949 to the end of the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the start of the Great Leap Forward, additionally covering the period of the Japanese occupation, and civil war. It is entirely grim, horrific reading. There is no pleasure to be found in the documenting of a country being ransacked and ground into the dirt, its people destroyed by the tens of millions, especially that this decade was just the beginning of a horror that did not begin to abate until the end of the ’70s. Even today the political decision-making and ruling frame remains substantially unchanged, merely a policy that resulted in the country being driven into the dark ages has been replaced by unmitigated capitalism. A history of China post-Mao I suspect will eventually show these most recent three decades to have been as destructive in their own way as the previous three.
Another year of this, six now, since I decided to just post the covers of the books I was reading, with nothing more said, which then became a quick couple of lines – not a review! merely describing how I came to be reading the book – which then became … so now it’s verging on essays at times. Still not a review! Not a preview either. Somewhere between, usually once the first pages are passed, and also usually before or around the 1/3 mark, so at least I admit I am writing about what I am reading, and not only how I came to it.
This year then, at least 54 books dealt with (wow! one more than last year!), most cover to cover, a small few endured till the last page, and fewer still abandoned. Some still being read. A couple it seems I haven’t mentioned. Oops. Well, they can go onto next year’s list. Besides my semi-regular re-reading of Iain Banks, Charles Stross, Harry Potter (not in the last year for a change), I owe my gluttony to one person alone: Paul at St. George’s Bookshop. Yes, a couple were acquired in Vienna, but to clear, I have yet to find a better english-language bookshop in my Europe travels, and while I may be parochial compared to some people’s haunting of such shops, it’s the best I have been to in the ten countries where I have bookshopped.
It’s surprising that this is already the sixth year I’ve been blogging my reading, and that every year I’m made some sort of effort at encapsulating my reading experience of the previous twelve months. In the last year I found myself somewhat tired with the works coming out on China, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Trans/Queer/Feminism, as well as Skiffy (that’s sci-fi pronounced properly) … my usual reads; turning my attention to Iran and the Caucasus was partly an attempt to regain some enthusiasm – also to veer along reading paths I know less of – as was a notable uptick in reading Fantasy. I am still diligently, unashamedly in love with print, the weight and texture of the paper, the bindings glued or stitched, the cover art – embarrassing or magnificent, the width of the margins, the typography and typefaces, the smell – richest from the gutter when opening the book for the first time, the sound of the spine creaking and pages rustling, the need for a light to read at night. Yes, still spilling food, crumbs, stains of drinks, smudges from dirty fingers, corners folded to mark my place, thrown into bags and taken to the toilet; books are made to be read even by the meanest of hands. And still despising, utterly despising shoddy proofreading, especially in volumes from university presses, not infrequently combining that unique meeting of unremarkable paper stock, Helvetica, mediocre cover art and eye-gouging price.
On to the books then.
But firstly, I’ve been wondering about the purpose of anointing one or two books my Book of the Year, when the idea of such competition in dance makes me queasy, so why would I suffer another art form to this? It may be that this year no one work materialised I think of as sublimely beyond all others; it may be equally that there is a limit to ‘how good’ a book can be, based on whatever qualities and attributes I measure by, and simply the 6 non-fiction and 8 fiction are occupying that region in a way that comparisons of ‘which is better’ become meaningless. There’s definitely some that are ‘pretty good’ and others that are ‘fuck! wow!’ so perhaps I will yet convince myself that one or two are unquantifiably superior and deserve the crown.
Anyway, the books:
I re-read a lot of Skiffy and fantasy this year, mostly Iain M. Banks, then a stack of Terry Pratchett, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s usual ones. Mostly these don’t figure in this anniversary, because then every second year Feersum Endjinn would be my book of the year, so I try and concentrate on new stuff. A lot of fantasy then. This is because a) Iain Banks died, so there’s no impending Culture books in the immediate future; b) Charles Stross only published one new work; c) China Miéville didn’t publish any; and d) my other regular authors also were absent or discarded (William Gibson, Neal Stephenson in the latter camp) combined with vague miasma of boredom with the new ones I did try.
The non-fiction, serious stuff.
Well, Skiffy is often serious, or at least I think the stuff I try and read is. I felt a little disillusioned with my non-fiction reading this year, perhaps having been spoiled by some truly exceptional works in recent years, like … ah just look at my previous anniversaries. I was anticipating stuff of this quality, and found myself often veering too far in both directions: some academic texts were so specific and specialised I could only nod and smile and agree they knew what they were talking about and I was at most a distant observer of the intended audience. Others were populist masquerading as academic, or even convinced they were academic but really lacking in the kind of intellectual rigour I expect from such writing.
But on to the good stuff, because there were some and my upcoming reading is full of even more. A surprising absence of philosophy, which I’ve been thinking of returning to with Michel Serres; some works on China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, but notably less than other years, the same is true of Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Caucasus was new for me though, and Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus was a significantly good introduction for me (and the way Russia lurks behind everything from Europe to Japan makes me think eventually I will have to tangle with that place). Iain Banks – who I re-read a lot of this year – delighted me with drinking and driving (possibly not intersecting sets) in Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram. Jumping into some reading of 20th century classics, bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center an unexpected addition a couple of months ago has been more than useful in thinking about feminism that doesn’t default to narrow Euro-American definitions and exclusions it seems to regularly fall to.
The good ones, the really good ones are three: Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany introduced me to the Alevi, and subsequently a profoundly more nuanced understanding of Turkish history in Germany, as well as prodding me to observe some of Ramadan this year. It compliments Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin extremely well and anyone interested in a serious reading on these topics would do well to start with these two. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (which I have only just finished reading) is similarly a profound work on the history of identity and sexuality in Iran (she also has a work to be published soon on transsexuality in contemporary Iran, which is already on my list), with much that is also very applicable to understanding this in euro-american feminism. The last of the three, Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet is a return to one of my long loves, geology, and is an excellent monologue on his love of the science, climbing, mountains, and the people who live in these regions. Not coincidently, it was geology and pouring over geological maps of the Karakoram, Pamirs, Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan that was my introduction to these places, and to have a book such as this to enjoy was glorious.
The fiction, equally serious stuff:
I enjoyed a brief return to Terry Pratchett, consuming ten of his Discworld books, some re-reads, some new, in the course of a month or so. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was one of my favourites, and seems to show that often childrens’ or teenage fiction can be far more apt in describing morality than unending tonnage of ‘serious’ literature. Hannu Rajaniemi had a sequel to The Quantum Thief, much awaited by me: The Fractal Prince. It was pretty good too, but perhaps I should read it again as it’s a little hazy in my head. I decided to embark on the six-volume version of The Water Margin, John and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an’s and Luo Guanzhong’s The Broken Seals: Part One of the Marshes of Mount Liang and yes, was not disappointed. This is a classic, not just of Chinese writing, it’s up there with Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and drinking swearing fighting swearing drinking eating … brilliant!
A newcomer, Saladin Ahmed got me with Throne of the Crescent Moon, which I love not just because it’s a massive antidote to the insipid fantasy tropes built on western European monarchy and the age of chivalry; on its own it’s a rollicking tale which should have won the Hugo this year, and I will certainly be buying whatever he publishes next. Charles Stross published a somewhat-sequel to Saturn’s Children, – one of my favourites of his – Neptune’s Brood, which is a Skiffy meditation on interplanetary finance scams owing much to David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, as well as reminding me of Stross’ earlier work, Iron Sky. It hasn’t had a re-read yet, but it just occurred to me I have a weekend staring at me and not much in my reading pile.
Finally, and finally. Iain M. Banks. Had The Hydrogen Sonata been his last work, his dying would be read into it in some manner as it was in The Quarry, obviously not as literally, but Subliming, departure, ending, loss, what remains after is the story here. Iain’s M. writing, the Skiffy stuff, Culture or non- since the mid-2000s had entered a new period beginning with The Algebraist, then Matter, Surface Detail, and lastly The Hydrogen Sonata, four only but what a foursome. OK, let’s make it five-ish, Transition fits into these also, and The Steep Approach to Garbadale and Stonemouth from his non-M. side I think show this clearly. It’s not simple or fluent for me to write about him, a lot of staring out the window pondering what an influence he has had on me, and this, his last Culture novel. Well, it’s a good one, not the untrammelled raucousness of Excession, but to be honest, the more accessible sci-fi novels are also for me not the most likely to cause introspection and critical thinking on the themes he builds his worlds upon. Against a Dark Background, which I also read this year is a good example of this, also Look to Windward. I’ve read The Hydrogen Sonata twice already and it feels fresh enough that I’ll probably make a third run of it soon.
Somehow I feel fortunate that I can read a book a week, and of those at least a fifth are bloody brilliant. So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.