Overture. Intermission. Coda.

Overture.

Today the city was overgrown. Gone. Become once again forest.

Today the city is humid, tropical — if such a thing can be said to exist — the rich warm scent of overstuffed life, the rotten oily black stink of canals laden with centuries of effluent.

Today the city is shaking in its bones. Not quite in possession of itself. Rain falls. Endless, steadily, plucking at leaves in the verdant street canopy with such all-encompassingness that it fills the edges of hearing with a peaceful sshhhh… an ocean heard from afar.

Today there is no city. I wake up naked, lying on my back, limbs in somewhat disarray, looking up at the dusty orange-blue heavens. Darkness. The ground is near flat, surfaced with a fine, wind-blown clayish sand-ish humus rime I can feel acting as a dry lubricant when I push-pull my fingertips on the grit. A shiver of cold walks across me, the cold of a slight breeze on exposed skin, cold of the thrill and fear of anticipation, of the inevitable, of my death.

Noisy, dusty, orange-blue. Not smooth. Is it my eyes? Orange-blue night lit from an eruption below. From above, prick points of light, pure, faint, unvarying and unwavering sources. Patterns made clear by washing out their background. Constellations. Not a river of stars at all. The dark above pushes down, bearing its weight into the illumination rearing up from underneath. And I, I float in an emptiness between light and noise and this vault above. I am an island here. The roof of the apartment a shield at my back. The encircling silence folds back the city I hear like a torus around me, outside me. I am the hole in the middle. I am the centre of everything.

The sky above the horizon to the north-east, above and behind my left ear, is smudged as though a giant thumb had pushed and worn the night thinner. The day which barely left is returning. It circles around, dizzying. It is still night though, so enough time for this.

This is the story of my death. It takes place in the instant of falling. It is an acceleration. I remember the story as I write it, in that instant. How long do I have? That is a question, indeed. Not long at all. My fall starts on the flat roof of this apartment block, six stories up. Six high stories, so I have slightly more time than if the architecture was meaner. The ground I wake up on is the rough black tar and shingle, rolled out in sheets and pressed into the form of the roof. It is coated in the talcum of weeks without rain, ceaseless days and light, heat and cavernous vastness of sky and sun. Between me and it, a rough wool blanket. I am unclothed because I sleep the pair of hours of true night here, when the horizon to the north does not glow with dusk, the dry heat is almost bearable, and breathing is not putting face to furnace. I am naked because it doesn’t matter and there is no one to see.

As no one can see me, so can I see no one, no city. Only the endless shifting tones of blue and orange, the endless depth my eyes cannot focus on. If I were to turn my head slightly one side or the other, or slide my eyes over, the city would hove into view as a horizon, a periphery. I stay with infinity a while longer.

My mouth is dry, tongue plated to roof and whether I am terrified of what is to come or just slightly dehydrated, it doesn’t matter. In a minute or so, perhaps longer, I will sit up, pull on thin loose pants I’ve been using as a pillow, the kind you do not wear for public, pull on a thin loose sleeveless top which shows my arms and shoulders in a way never for public, and coming to standing, with the air alive over my skin, I will take a misstep and fall backwards, my headscarf a banner I am waving in one hand. Backwards and down. Into the public. Into the city. Dressed like this.

I am going to die. I should be afraid. But I already know how this ends.

I will tell you a secret: I waited longer. Until the sun was poised to shove itself over the horizon. I was feeling lazy in my death; I wanted these last minutes for myself. And another: I did not misstep. A single misstep for all that distance covered? I think not. I leaned back into that void and made it look convincing, let the world rotate around me. I am a good liar, even in dying, but I did not hide a smile from myself as I fell. It was a good performance.

Intermission.

How long do I have? How long do I need? Let’s continue.

I am still falling. My heel sank into nothing, fingers grasped for an edge. Missed. I felt terror lurch upwards in my belly as swiftly as I tumbled. I looked over my shoulder in my back-flip, to my glass-enclosed balcony, grey metal frames and rectangular panes on the shotcrete bathtub of a box protruding out into the air. I rotate some more and for a second it juts upwards, the vertical surface of the facade becomes a flat plain. Did I hope to see someone, who would see me, change my fate? Could they push me back to safety by force of their gaze, unwilling to accept what they see? What could they do other than witness my velocity? I chose this, and I am harder than the bones of this city, but that does not mean I don’t feel fear when I am in the instant of committing.

While I am passing my balcony, now rotated to the steep angle of a mountain’s flank, and the almost risen sun wobbles bright reflections like water on the uneven glass, I will tell you a little more of what’s going on.

This is a discussion on identity. self, other, authenticity, original. It is also a discussion on morality of identity. It is a story of someone who is — in the vast churn of events — unimportant. When the behemoth of history rolls atop her, she won’t yield; she will be the debris on those large and significant enough to be torn and gouged and routed and erased, to be washed away when the mess is hosed down. She is nothing, Somehow that makes her fortunate, because in this sense she is mostly too unremarkable to be noticed. Though unnoticed, she is dragged along with all the rest in the undertow, and while important and earth-shattering things happen around her and to her, in the final measure, they don’t signify at all.

It’s not a story of a young woman who comes from nowhere and becomes the fulcrum of events; it’s the story of a someone who comes from nowhere and loses her life to things beyond her comprehension, things she had no idea were even in play, for no reason, purpose, or meaning. Sometimes it’s nice to tell such stories though, of the ones who aren’t heroes or prime movers, even if they end up in a weighted sack in the canal or thrown off a roof, because sometimes these stories tell us more about what happened than the history we are left with.

I see the orange and blue dawn break into sunrise as real as if I were looking at it in the reflection of one pane. It hovers there as I do.

One more thing as I continue my descent: When I say, ‘discussion’, I mean war. And just because it’s decided this is a particular type of story, does not mean I will not lean into the punch until I change it, that I will not use this story to unravel and sunder that history entirely. I am the irresistible force and I glory in mayhem.

Coda.

And here am I, still falling. I am not dead yet. Not yet. Close though. Nearly there. If I reach with my toes, I will scrape the ground. It is as if I was jumping. I am the same height as the faces which stare at me, the idea of shock yet to boil across their expressions, almost beginning the thought of getting out of the way, of flinching, of reacting. They’ve seen me. They are too slow.

The sun has not reached here yet, in the canyon of apartments, in the street which is itself a gully or cutting, making space for the dark, oil and rust girders of rail bridges that suture its length. Even in this rainless summer water leaks from joints and cracks in the sidings, it is a city built on water and marsh after all. I would feel colder if there was time, and I do feel the first register of the transition to shade, as much as I have the capacity to attend to any sensation now. I see the light change, and hear the city. These things I don’t need to interpret. They are as present and real as it is possible to be here.

If this was a photograph there would be a cluster walking eastwards, part of a family facing the viewer like a portrait, staggered heights and varied dress, shop windows curtained in the morning on the left, and there’s the entrance door to my apartment, countersunk into the façade. Tram tracks inscribe the centre of the road on the right, mirroring their overhead lines, opening out to the empty ghost of the shunting yards those bridges run to. In the background, more of those rail bridges, and the road dips to pass under. You might notice the uneven rectangles of concrete slabbing making up part of the footpath, edges, corners, and fractures worn smooth, or the grey cobbles, each the size of a child’s fist, each struck into the sand by a hand wielding a metal hammer, the clinks filling the city like birdsong in summer. You might, because it looks like I am springing upwards. Why would I be leaping in front of them? Am I impromptu performing for them? You can’t see what they see because my back’s to you. Are their emerging expressions shock at my state of dress? Laughter at my physical joy? Confusion at who shows arms or shoulders, or hair loose in the morning? I can draw this moment out for as long as I need, but I am done.

I look at that quartet. They are a poisonous family, helmet to boot in matt black, not walking this street in the early morning, but blocking the entrance to the stairs leading to my apartment and the larger, double doors to the courtyard. If I could look around corners into the side-streets, I’d see more at other entrances, sealing up my egress. I am no small prize. I look at each of them in turn as I hover in this instant, remembering their faces and distinguishing characteristics. They are un-numbered, of course, and all look so very alike, yet each has unique marks, the kind crows love to pick over and horde.

I flick between states, looking forward, and looking up. A saccade of head and eyes. There’s a trio of torsos in silhouette peering over from where I just departed. I do the same to them, peering back, picking over their details and storing them for later.

When I said I was being lazy, wanting those last minutes ending dawn to myself, there’s a little more to it than that. I was waiting for them; and I was making them wait. I was waiting for the city also. I wanted the slow unravelling of night, to feel each instant shifting the temperature, brightening, the city coming awake. I won’t visit this exact version of the city again, and even though I am here only for work, I have grown attached to this home. My body thrived here. It drinks the warmth and dryness of the day, persevering through the heart of the inferno, I can feel it opening up and becoming itself in ways the cold climate I come from closes down. I can feel the heat and light change my thinking, change who I am. The pulse of the seasons, more than four and the movement between each, is a different time and life than the abrupt quarters of the north I am used to. So I want this last morning for myself. It is an agreement I make, with myself, for the work I do: some moments are for me alone.

Those three, peering down. I heard them trampling the stairs, six boots in complex rhythm. This is also why I slept on the roof, so I could feel and hear them coming, so I could choose my line of escape. After the clattering reaches my apartment, I heard them pause, then more carefully, apprehensively, take on the last, steep and narrow flight to the wooden door leading to me, the vertical on a right-angle triangle protruding out of the roof.

This is where I sit up, unpillow my pants and slide a leg into each, walking my hips in, pull on my singlet, fold my legs under and push to standing. The first of them is turning on the tight, half-way landing, and looking up the last run of steps to see light through the ill-fitting door. I wait a while more, letting my blood equalise, seeing the city as it is, poised on the cusp of daybreak, still pouring a torrent of light upwards from itself, streetlights, windows of early-risers and the up-all-night, running lights of trams and trains, spiked with bursts of lightning as their rails jump on the overhead lines, factories and industry that never pauses, gouting illumination and torches from their flare stacks, patches of darkness in parks and empty land. If I was higher I could see this streak of lightlessness and the bifurcation of gas light and electric marking the city’s partition.

My last morsel of waiting. I hear them cluster on the upper landing, see the first breath of the door moving, and I cover the distance from centre to periphery in a blink. I have my scarf in my hand, and as they push open the door fully, they will see its trail flutter down past the edge, prey leading the predators. They will see my wool blanket, hear the snapping departure of my scarf, and run to the brink, to see me looking back at them as I touch down. I know who they are now, in this world. I will pass that on, and see it used against them wherever else we find them, used to expand the trawling. What they will say now, here, is the story I prepared for them: “She ran and slipped. We lost her. Nothing is recoverable,” and the city will slam shut.

Time enough for one more thing.

Where did I write my story in this moment of falling? Here. It is inscribed on me. In me. I am cut and pared and flayed with my life. Lives. Open me up and look inside, more again. I am rearranged. By the time I hit the ground I will already be gone. I have written myself out. I am long already barely here. Another ghost. I have given my body because it is all I am, all I have. Will I live? This me in this city? No. I am still fighting against that arriving truth even as I embrace it. Will I be known, in my entirety? Even the microbes in my gut, the ecosystem like a halo around me? All this, yes. When I land it is not me who will end, who will shatter, but the city. This is war and I am a weapon. I destroy worlds.

I see the sky for the last time, orange and blue. A fluttering of lips and breath, quick as I can, words faster than falling, my exit. My toes compress and stub into the flecked grey granite cobbles, and the city’s gone.


A short explanation: I’ve been working on a novel, on and off, for more than a couple of years now. It’s a science-fiction novel, also bound to the cities I’ve lived in: Berlin, and Guangzhou in particular. I don’t have one of those pithy, one-sentence lines of what it’s about; I’m not sure even a paragraph would suffice, so I’ll stick with saying it deals with history, and identity, and how these are created. As it’s sci-fi, naturally it takes place on a different planet around a different star, sometime in the near-ish future, and tries to imagine an archaeology of the world I’ve lived through and studied.

These three sections I originally thought split the novel as overture, intermission, and coda, though it’s possible there could be more, or less, or it all gets rolled into one. The person on the roof I have very clear ideas of how they look and live, and anyone who knows me moderately well, or visits here enough to know my positions on things, can take as given aspects of this person without me explicitly saying here. I get explicit in the story — for me at least.

A couple of other things: She really does write out herself on herself, it’s not a metaphor or some such, think of it as a sub-atomic encryption and compression of data onto whatever strata is closest to hand, which happens to be herself. She doesn’t kill herself, it’s not suicide — though I’m aware it read like that, particularly before I rewrote and lengthened the coda — the best way I can describe it for now is an elaborate deception by someone who is playing multiple levels of subterfuge. There’s more than one of her, way more than one. The city really does change entirely from day to day (or on its own inscrutible timetable), and I lose track with how many versions of the city are extant.

Reading: Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976

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.

Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976
Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976

Quote

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as ab…

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as about 1,800 factories were set up in the hinterland to prepare for war. As one scholar has noted, since about two-thirds of the state’s industrial investment went to the project between 1964 and 1971, it constituted the main economic policy of the Cultural Revolution. […] It is probably the biggest example of wasteful capital allocation made by a one-party state in the twentieth century. In terms of economic development, it was a disaster second only to the Great Leap Forward.

The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976, Frank Dikötter

Reading: Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

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.

This fits in closely with Wensheng Wang’s White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates, and is so far the most concise and well-researched book on the subject (for which I have an unhealthy fascination) that I’ve come across. Antony describes his approach to history as coming from the bottom up, a little perhaps like Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, an approach that is by far my favourite; there are only so many books you can read on important men fighting each other before you get the general idea on a subject. Mostly I think Antony achieves this, though definitely not with the same depth and rigour of Hershatter.

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.

Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China
Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

Reading: Wensheng Wang — White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates

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.

Wensheng Wang — White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire
Wensheng Wang — White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire

Reading: Aleko E. Lilius — I Sailed with Chinese Pirates

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.

Aleko E. Lilius – I Sailed with Chinese Pirates
Aleko E. Lilius – I Sailed with Chinese Pirates

Reading: Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade

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.

Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade

Reading: Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957

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.

Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation
Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation