Michael! What am I looking at!?!?! 😂😍
Thank you, dear.
Wait for the final edits. So many other photos we are going through.
Expressing the shit of this time.
reminds me a bit of this photographer from the 80s / 90s who did black and white stagings
trying to remember his name
My friend in the photos took his inspiration from him but I cannot recall his name.
Such powerful works he did.
Crazy dark stuff with people with disabilities, corpses, etc.
Decapitated corpse heads kissing. This guy.
i wish you could see how stunned with the beauty of these i am.
I met Michael Garza in Guangzhou eighteen years ago. He’s still there, still principal bassoon with the orchestra, also with a woodwind quintet, Pan Pacific Ensemble, we see each other every couple of years when he blows (ha ha) through Europe, and he’s my strongest connection to a city I have a deep love for, as well as being one of my dearest friends.
He sent me these photos a few days ago and like I said, I was stunned. Chinese puppet theatre, butoh, Día de Muertos, deep queerness, heavy memories of AIDS in the ’80s, SARS (which we were both in Guangzhou for, the smell of burning vinegar in the damp winter air, and that train ride with Yunna back from Wuhan in the night, getting messages telling us to stay away from the city because there was a plague). Photos by Gustavo Thomas so ya know.
Michael’s orchestra closed a couple of months ago, long before the rest of the world got over their racist fuckery and thought about taking this shit seriously. (Very aside here, I think the disaster underway in Europe and America is substantially because of the nationalist and white supremacist ideology stretching back to the Renaissance – or late-19th century imperialism and colonialism if that’s too long a time for you to grasp.) Every single artist I know or know of woke up some time in the last weeks and found themselves unemployed, all their upcoming work cancelled, and no idea when they might return. The better-off ones have – for the moment – family and friends to rely on, but there’s a lot, a very large lot who were already doing it hard. Not all of them artists either. I already see this for myself, trans, immigrant, neurodiverse (fuck I hate that word), multiethnic, queer, not in a relationship, there’s a marked difference already. I fully expect, like every other time in European history when shit got bad, people like us are going to be the first to get fucked. Art like this, then, arriving across continents and hemispheres in a messaging app convo, feels good, feels necessary, feels like we’re forcing our way into being remembered, holding on to beauty and love when we’re being told, again, to give it up.
“But habibti, there is only enough here for one month. And why you buy rice in one kilo bag? Wallah! Such disappointment.”
For real, tho, this is what I’m always like. Definitely inherited the ‘casually well-stocked cupboards’ habit. A bit light on the beans though, ’cos people who never normally cook beans fucking panic-skived off with them all. Except chickpeas. Jokes on them, I’m making hummus.
And every other province and land that had self-determination stolen.
Michael’s last day in Berlin. We went to the Stasimuseum in Lichtenberg. Michael wondered if China would ever have a similar museum with exhibitions of how they monitored WeChat and ran the Social Credit System. We decided it would be evaluated as, “70% right, 30% bad, left deviationism.”
Entertaining Michael while he queued in Flughafen Schönefeld for an Aeroflot flight via Moscow to Guangzhou. Recently deceased wild deer meat from the Wildfleischhandel in Kreuzberg.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And it’s back. Same, similar, different. Still the heat and dust, but damper. Where there were tramlines, there’s a canal, tree-lined and dipped into by curtains of dark, knotted, hanging roots, and overlapping deeply green leaves the shape of a boat’s hull seen from above, taking the edge off the heat. It’s fecund, and feels like it’s shivering on the edge of monsoon. The buildings are mostly the same, except one or two stories squatter. My apartment remains on the top floor, but in this city has no balcony. A pity. I know it’s not really my apartment, and I use it only to dispose of it, but familiarity grows a fondness, and balcony or no, I’m glad to see it survived yet another change of the city.
“Cutting it fine there, sis.” I turn at that voice and she’s there, hair like dark wood and skin I know like my own. “Get your shawl on,” she chides with a tease, “What will the neighbours think?” She pulls my scarf around my shoulders, covering the lower length of my hair, slides a hand along my arm to palm my own. A proper touch, so unlike the ones I skimmed in avoiding in that barely gone but terminally ended city. “How’s your finger?” she asks, rubbing my palm with her thumb. “What do you mean?” as I look down to see a chunk of nail and skin cleanly missing from the edge of my left ring finger, and a little finger that finishes a bit after the first joint. “Oops,” I say, “ai, cutting it fine alright. That gonna be a problem, ya reckon?”
“It’s gonna sting. But, nah, unlikely. You were data-mapping non-critical and noise to extremities, ya?”
“Yeah, probably mostly shite jokes and insults.”
“That’s a lot of space for shite jokes and insults, sis.”
“You know me, in with mouth before brain.”
“Better your finger gone than your mouth. You’d look dead stupid.”
I can feel the crows busy in my Mnemorium, two-legged hopping around, getting everything orderly, preening gloss-black or grey feathers and stabbing with beaks while giving me the eye. I leave them to it, the more I can do without thinking the better.
“I need breakfast—” I shudder under hammer-strokes as I’m thrown back into that lurching fall and thrown out again. The crows burst into the air in a black flurry, caw-ing and making bedlam.
“You alright there, sis? Debriefing?”
“Yeah, someone just went amateur-hour on the replay.”
“Shame you lost your finger or you could proper insult them.”
“Ey, sis, I like how you mock misfortune.”
“Imagine if all I gave you was, ‘there there,’ and, ‘poor thing,’ you’d be as miserable as a shit in a bog. Here,” she disengages hands and slides her daypack off one shoulder, twisting and sliding arms through the loops to wear it on her front. She pulls a pair of light sandals out, and a delicately light, long-sleeved pullover, “Not having you traipse around in public looking like that.” We grin at each other. Morning is quieter here, in this version of the city. What was a main thoroughfare bordered by tram yards feels here like a pocket around which everything moves. Or, as with the city changing itself, so too does it change the people, their time and rhythm bound to the architecture as geology is to climate.
We walk arm in arm, eastwards, under the railway bridges, coming to a dingy set of stairs that hang off the side of the embankment, parallel to the tracks, one of those de facto right of ways that will one day either be gone or be formalised. This set of tracks and bridges only has one in use, the others grey-orange oil-soaked sleepers deprived of rails, or rusting pans stripped of their burden, pockets corroded through to the canal beneath. The ones still containing ballast are like long, narrow fields, ankle and knee-high grass curved from the prevailing wind, young trees pushing up. We cross on the one beside the live track, high enough here and exposed from the empty flat of the shunting yards to be cooled by the breeze. It’s the same time here, barely past dawn, the hard sun filtering through smog, I’m glad at least I’m in another hot climate city, or rather, the city chose to continue its run of hot cities.
On the northern side, a half-hearted chain-link fence bows in the middle, we high-step to cross, then cut across the hectarage of empty freight and goods yards, split down the middle by the high-speed rail conduit to the west. On the far side the land is stripped and sandy rubble, one of the missing teeth in the punched face of the city. Our side though, is as wild as any forest or glade beyond the city’s boundary.
“Proper calm, eh,” she says, “I’ve been waiting for this.” I make an agreeable grunt. “Ai, look at that, wild boars been here.” I follow her finger to a shallow dip stripped of grass and thickly dark with mud and water, the edges all churned up with trotter pockmarks. I would stay here forever if it meant not having to pick away at the edges of a fight I’ve been willingly and loyally rushing into for so long I forget if I ever did not. I’d become like the boars, swim in the mud, eat berries and rabbits, and slough off this version of myself.
“The eastern shipyards are being brought down today, we can make it if we hoof it, get some breakfast on the way, bit of destruction for entertainment.”
“I am all in for collapsing old buildings,” I say, thoughts elsewhere, away from the piggy mud-bath, back on my missing finger. Careless of me. Worth it, but careless. I caught three more, those three on the roof for that half-finger and bit of flesh. Was there anything of value in it? What if it survived? I expect nothing less than meticulous forensics from them, so yes, it survived, they found it after, or extracted it before the snapping closed of that city. Shite jokes and insults. What else? Am I a liability now? I sanitised my apartment, but did I attend to myself with the same care?
“You’re being hard on yourself. I can hear you beating yourself up.”
“I don’t want a story where a fucking finger — half a finger — brings us down.”
“Shite story, that.”
“I have to change my protocol. Even if I left nothing, how I cleaned up is unique, and they’ll be using that to match partials on other work, and use that to predict what it will look like when I start new work.”
“We can sort that.”
“Sorting that means decontaminating habits, you know what that’s like.”
“Like watching yourself being murdered. There’s enough of us here, we can patch with a generic variation of all of us.”
“Better than full decontamination, I suppose. Funny I’m good with throwing myself off roofs but losing habits fills me with dread.”
“Funny, ha ha.”
“Tell me to harden up.”
“Harden up ya whiner. It’ll be fine.”
“It’ll be fine.”
We keep walking, the swish of long grass being rustled by wind and our passing, the grinding of railway ballast with out steps filling over the fragile sounds of life. Further out, that torus of the city’s life, and in-between, that stillness I find around me in every city. We cut across, heading further eastwards to a ragged line of mature trees, their greens and browns hidden under a grey dust like a cement factory belched along their length.
There’s the bus, end of the line so it sits there, engine off, doors open, windows slid down, airing itself under mango trees, a short, ragged queue outside, and a few, early set-grabbers already in, suffering the still interior heat now for ventilation once we get moving and packed. We exit the yards by pushing through a padlocked gate at the top of grimy concrete steps, metal scraping on corroded aggregate, attracting stares only from those new enough to the neighbourhood not to know better. She grabs a plastic bottle of sweet ice tea from the pillbox kiosk before we board — I remember my mouth was stuck dry only hours ago and I haven’t drunk since then — leads me to one of the empty benches on the left side, which will stay in shade for our trip west, and pushes me into the window seat. I pull the pane down all the way so I can prop an elbow on its ledge, and take a sip that becomes a gulp of the cold tea, the plastic sweating and dripping. We look at each other and grin, she squeezes my hand. I look down, see your fingers interlaced, the same but different.
“Thanks for picking me up, sis.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it.”
Of all my sisters she is my favourite — I think. There’s so many of us, in versions and layers of the city, in memories and dreams, all of us real, and more of us all the time. We’ve gotten better at escape. If I ask her, “Were you in such-and-such a place with me?” she would likely answer in the negative and be saddened I struggle so with telling us apart. So, this variation is my favourite, would be more precise. And of this variation, this one, because I notice a short scar like a faint maggot on the first joint of her thumb and remember where I’ve seen it before. It’s always her, when I extract myself. She’s always happy to see me, no matter what state I’m in, missing fingers or not. What she does when I’m not here, I have no idea. We keep these things separate. She’s the tough one though, making me laugh when others would try and console.
“Where did you get that scar?”
Her smile vanishes, she looks at me hard and dumps a slab of memory on me.
“Oh!” I say, raising eyebrows.
“Yes. Oh.” She replies, “I’m glad you led with ‘Where did you get that scar,’ and not ‘Were you in…?’ this time.”
I look at her with a nauseous mix of not understanding colliding with knowing exactly what she’s talking about, “Ai. Very embarrassing.”
“Too easy,” she laughs and taunts at me, “Brains all back? Know who you are again?”
“Brains, plus feeling of stupidity for getting so upset about decontamination, plus high embarrassment at all the ‘I am a weapon’ and ‘mayhem’ carry-on.”
“I swear, every time I think I’ll get tired of this, it’s like the first.”
“You are enjoying my discomfort?”
“Yes, I am,” she thumps me on my shoulder, hard enough to feel like a punch, “And that’s for the stupid finger shite.”
“Deserved. Was worth it.”
“Drink up, we’re on holiday.”
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.
An additional note a couple of weeks later: I decided to add in a fourth section, ‘Afterwards’, which continues her story immediately after where the original three ended. This mainly to elaborate on the city changing itself, and the multiple versions of herself which populate it.
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.