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 WalkerGod Is RedFor 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

Reading: Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng (eds.) — The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia

I am getting such a kick out of reading this. Definitely going to be on my Book of the Year list.

The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng was published last year, so it’s been on my Want List for, I dunno, pushing a year, I guess. And I have no idea where I heard about it. Not io9 with its monthly list of what’s new (and what will I do for skiffy if io9 vanishes — any more than it already has?); not on Islam and Science Fiction, so that rules out the obvious ones; possibly on Twitter, but searching social networks is the 4Chan of the internet, so, no idea. Whoever brought it to my attention, and into my grubby mitts, well done!

Bill Campbell is responsible for The Sea is Ours, he of Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, which at the time I wasn’t so into. He’s also Rosarium Publishing, where these anthologies are published. And it’s worth mentioning the publication costs were crowd-funded on Indiegogo: a mere $10,000 brought this rather good collection to print.

Funny thing is, I’m not much into either steampunk or short stories, yet here am I blabbing about both. My ambivalence for short stories I have a feeling I’ve mentioned recently; it’s primarily that I like sinking deep into a story and the characters, for at least a day, ideally much longer, though my reading speed nixes the latter. Short stories at 15 minutes a pop leave me wanting more, it’s like reading the first chapter and being denied the novel.

Steampunk on the other hand, in its typical form, there’s no ambivalence: I find it contrived, a literary and cultural cul-de-sac dangerously uncritical of itself. And this is me talking about context again. The signifiers steampunk plays with are rooted in high industrial colonialism, sliding between mid-19th century Age of Steam proper, and early 20th century post-steam final years of the European imperialism. In fact while technologically rooted in a non-internal combustion engine alternate timeline, steampunk often sits firmly in pre-war 1914 in cultural, social, political signifiers. And I’m basing this on a rather small population of books read, but of those I have, and of my other reading, this is my impression. I also just don’t get the brass, clockwork, steam aesthetic. Partly because the era it fetishises sits atop colonialism and genocide in the real world, and partly because for me it’s even less plausible than dragons and magic.

So, we’ve established my hostility to short stories and steampunk, and yet here we are, me saying this is an excellent collection, I’m loving reading it, I want another, Volume 2: The Sea is Still Ours (2 Sea 2 Furious, or something). I love it because of the list of countries I’ve categorised and tagged this post under, countries I don’t mention enough these days, and though I never lived in any of them, I passed through most at one time or another when Guangzhou was my home. There’s a familiarity in the writing and stories, it’s like coming out of Hong Kong airport into the glorious damp heat on Chek Lap Kok and physically remembering where I am.

There’s another thing in the stories I’ve read so far (about half), which is requisitioning the signifiers of steampunk for use by the other side. It’s another alternate timeline, where the colonised got their hands on the technology of the European empires, merged it with their own technology, culture, world, and turned it against the aggressors. A world where the Maya civilisation resisted the Spanish empire enough to trade with the Philippines, where the Philippines themselves charted a different course. When I’m reading these stories, I keep thinking steampunk was made for this, using the technology of the age of colonialism to imagine other potential histories. It’s a far more satisfying genre written like this.

I was also thinking — and this is thanks to the work of editors Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng — how refreshing it is to read stories that aren’t coming out of the United States (putting aside that it was published there, by an American publisher, and that a couple of the writers live there). Dasniya and I spent an afternoon on the grass in front of the Reichstag yesterday soaking in the warm sun, the conversation moved — as it usually does — to those awkward words, inclusion, diversity, how to talk about one’s work while avoiding the reductionism of these terms yet also needing to make clear that the concerns these terms signify is central. And this is where this collection succeeds for me: certainly within the domestic situation in the States it would be categorised using these terms, but the stories themselves, it’s like a chorus of an entire world from somewhere else, and in this world these words — if they even appear — are framed on their terms. It’s like when I made the fantastic shift from reading feminism coming from Anglo-Euro-American countries to that coming from Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Chinese writers and never looked back.

Bill Campbell, Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng: more please! And I’d love one with Taiwanese, Cantonese (Jihng Yāt and steampunk pirates!), the sea-facing countries of the north.

Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng (eds.) — The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia
Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng (eds.) — The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia

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: 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

Reading: Jonathan Chamberlain — King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong

Some of the books on my reading wish list, which is now close to six score, have been there for some years. I maintain a certain orderliness when it comes to sorting, cataloging, filing, and I’ve been using Bookpedia for ages to keep track of my books, if for nothing else than to prevent me buying the same book twice, but an equal disorder when it comes to recalling what caused me to add a book to the wish list in the first place.

Jonathan Chamberlain’s King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong should be fairly obvious as to why I wanted to read it, covering my favourite China stuff: Guangdong, Canton, the Republican Era, pirates, opium … Hong Kong, well, there’s so much written on that city compared to the ones starting a half hour north that it’s not such a specific interest, also I think a significant amount of Hong Kong writing is precisely because it was a British Colony until ’97, and if there’s one thing readers of the english language tend to love with scant reflection, it’s stories about exotic places ‘we’ used to own; that is to say, it’s the Orient is only interesting when it’s about us.

So back to the man and his opium. It turns out I first read about it in 2008, or at least that’s when it was mentioned on Xujun Eberlein’s Inside-Out China (then in a different incarnation) and I filed away her post in my reading archive. And recently, being desperate for something to read, I trawled my wish list and decided this seemed like a good choice, of course having forgotten all the details.

It’s accompanied me to Vienna, where I have been using it as an aid for breakfast and putting myself to sleep. It tends to fail in the latter as it’s a fantastic tale. It’s an oral history, and reads like a cleaned-up audio transcription, something I’m not so used to reading for an entire book. Hui is one of those fine hetero male raconteurs though, and Chamberlain’s editing and pace make this a fast, visual read.

As to Hui’s stories, Chamberlain states he believes they are true, saying that Hui repeatedly told him these over some years and remained consistent however wild and unbelievable they sound. Me being around half-way through I am unevenly split between accepting this, or thinking that some of this is true, some happened to people around him and he placed himself in the main role, some is exaggeration, and a small amount is lies which Hui has come to believe is true through years of retelling.

To be clear, I find him quite egocentric, narcissistic, and self-deceiving; probably not someone I’d find interesting for long. He was also incontestably a Japanese collaborator during the Second Sino-Japanese War (or WW2 as the Euro part of the world calls it), corrupt, and given the wealth and life he started with, a fool. Not that this distracts from a vivid description of Canton and Hong Kong through the last century, and I’m enjoying for both that and this charmingly sleazy man.

Jonathan Chamberlain — King Hui: The Man who owned all the Opium in Hong Kong
Jonathan Chamberlain — King Hui

Reading: Tonio Andrade — Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West

Which is the one I’m ripping through at the expense of Women with Mustaches, Men without Beards, which I heard about on China Rhyming late last year – a blog that has been responsible for quite a bit of my book reading as Paul French’s meandering interests often suit mine.

Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony is a bit of a gap-filler for me. Much of my reading on China has been mid- to late-Qing Dynasty, mostly in the 19th Century, dealing with the Opium Wars, or Republican Era, and despite knowing a little of the Ming Dynasty, it’s something of a blank – especially when related to Taiwan. Taiwan where I discovered southern Chinese cuisine was curiously laced with Portuguese herbs, and where acquaintances would announce their cultivated bonafides by declaring they were descended from Ming Dynasty migrants rather than the upstart Kuomintang rout.

I’m probably going to finish this book in the next couple of days. It’s one of those popular-scholarly works, nowhere near as dense as Afsaneh Najmabadi, more in keeping with, say, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, or The Canton Trade, though I think perhaps lighter than either. It suffers too a little from this strange populism that I’ve found in a couple of other authors, where references to specific, usually American, politics or current affairs turn up which might be comprehensible for someone who reads the news obsessively, but for others – particularly english speakers who aren’t American and don’t have an interest in Americocentricism – it comes across as odd and misplaced. I suspect though this has something to do with ‘appealing to the wider market’. It’s also got a quote on the dustcover from Jared Diamond, who has very recently been playing uncomfortably fast and loose with anthropology.

Anyway, another book, and one of several landing on me at the moment. I’ll read this one with a bit of distance, enjoyable as it is.

Tonio Andrade — Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory over the West
Tonio Andrade — Lost Colony