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.


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: Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, Dorothy Ko (Eds.) – The Birth of Chinese Feminism

This book turned up in my China feeds mid-June, though somehow I picked it up before I was in Vienna – or I’m confused in what I began reading but did not take with me there. There was an interview with Rebecca Karl on Shanghaiist, where the title was “China’s Qing Dynasty anarcho-feminists”, so obviously I was immediately interested, as well as mentions on China Rhyming and Frog in a Well – the former being a dependably good source of new reading for me and usually alone enough to make me put a book on my list. As well, Gail Hershatter, author of The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past one of the best books I’ve read in any field – has some high praise.

The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational History, edited by Lydia H. Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko so far has made interesting reading having just finished Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, the latter part of which covers approximately the same time period of early-20th century and thus a specific global period of colonialism and modernism, particularly in the parallels of feminism in both China and Iran wing formulated in no small way by male authors who locate women and their bodies within the discourse of nationalism. Without getting too involved here, being Sunday, it seems that feminism alone, without a theory or politics of intersectionality lends itself quite easily to fairly conservative ends, after all the concept of gender isn’t so far removed from that of nationalism, especially if it’s grounded in essentialism. Which perhaps is why – and what I’m rather eager to read about in this work – feminism needs some form of anarchist theory in order to expose the inherent biases that comes from working within a social and political situation built on colonialism and nationalism. Pretty much what bell hooks says, though I don’t remember her saying much about anarchism.

冯三七 canton disaster relief blogging

John is responsible for much of my email. He only knows this now. But I read it all, after-all, I was the one who said to him, “spam me with g-town stuff I might wanna blog”, while wistfully nostalgia-ising over my favourite city. I don’t really read the Australian news anymore, or only in the same juvenile context I read trash-mags, so I suppose the storms and floods and other sundry disasters sweeping Lingnan have gone mostly unregarded, though I was sitting in BBQ-heaven a couple of weeks ago (that goes by the completely untranslated name of 大家好…somethingsomething) and watching Hong Kong news while doing a poor commentary on the floods in Sichuan to everyone else at the table, so I guess the news reached some Australians.

Once in the monsoon season in Guangzhou I schlepped into computer city somewhere along Tianhe Road, it was a sultry afternoon, heavy with lighting, more liquid than air. Maybe twenty minutes later I emerged into absolute blackness, not just the blackness of night that exists at a distance, but an enshrouding vacuum rendering dead even buildings mere blocks away. The deluge itself obliterated what remained, and having nowhere to go submerged the wide street thigh deep in a murky yellow-brown swamp, added to by exploding manhole covers and fat geysers of raw sewerage from swollen drains, a street became a torrent. 洪水猛兽, a deluge is a wanton beast.

China: Where’s the disaster relief blogging?

Apparently internet video is huge and growing in China these days. Yes, people want to see video. Interested in citizen reporting that’s relevant but perhaps apolitical? How about the weather?

Back to, now the top Chinese video sharing website. Like Flickr, the space it provides for reader involvement is often used—abused?—for larger discussions. Looking at’s current events channel, the fifth post from the top contains video, photos and personal accounts uploaded by users. Is it blogger coverage of the massive destruction seen all over southern China—where, from Guangzhou, is based—earlier this month? No, these videos, photos and accounts, although posted this past week, all date back to last summer when Saomai, the strongest typhoon to pass through China since the Communist Party seized control [zh], ripped through the country’s coastal east and south.

So where to find live disaster blogging from this past month’s catastrophe? This blogger has looked but still doesn’t know. Is Chinese media coverage sufficient? Project Diaster’s video blog seems to only bring us training videos and clips from old TV shows. So what’s the problem?

— John Kennedy – Global Voices Online


Happy reading for me this afternoon from Mary Ann in Shenzhen, who writes one of the best blogs coming out of China, and certainly one unequaled in Guangdong and Hong Kong. Somehow despite all the misery of China-repressive-dictatorship, I keep on finding it difficult to take seriously, that the southern barbarians are at it again, and when English-speaking western world can barely get its head around women getting the vote, Shenzhen offers you a choice of six possible genders.

yesterday, in my administrative capacity, i was filling out three forms that the shenzhen public security bureau, division of exit-entry (深圳市公安局出入境) requires requires employers to submit for their foreign employees. the one unexpected lining in this otherwise redundant raincloud (we have actually submitted all this information previously, albeit on different forms), was the drop down windows that required me to choose an answer because filling in the blanks was not part of the program. i hadn’t realized that human beings came in six possible “sex-genders (性别)” [female (女), male changed into a female (男性改为女性), unexplained sex (未说明的性别), male (男), female changed into a male (女性改为男性), and unknown sex (未知的性别)], but only four “skin colors (肤色)” [yellow (黄), white (白), black (黑), and brown (棕)]. the data form with the funky drop down windows (外国人居留情况记表 foreigners residence situation form) is available online.

— Shenzhen Fieldnotes

英西峰林走廊攀岩 rock climbing in qingyuan county

Under many different names but mostly known to us as Kowloon as in what Mongkok is a part of in Hong Kong, the Kowloon here is some two hours north of Guangzhou up the 107 highway, a word I use with most fleeting of accuracy, unless a representation of an elevated highway in mortal collapse is called to mind, although if you happen to take the wrong turn at Qingyaun and find yourself breathless in the quite spectacular Feilaixia Gorge before pulling into Yingde, a highway in this case would be best represented by a quagmire or river bed in spate.

Kowloon is a decidedly non-tourist village with a special hairdresser abutting the preferred lodging of climbers, for besides the infrequent on-the-bus-sleep-off-the-bus-photograph-temples tour group cavalcade passing through en route to the nearby hot springs, this is not a town on any manner of tourist trail. But for imbeciles whose idea of a good time is dropping fridge-sized blocks of limestone into cowering bamboo groves, and who don’t want to go to Yangshou to do it, Kowloon is a rock climbers’ undeveloped paradise.

Highlights of my first trip (via the Yingde river bed) early last year include drenching a family on a motorbike in thick slurry when overtaking too fast then our driver stopping to ask for directions, a reminiscence that will bring a smile to those of us in the car that day. Shortly after. we bottomed out in a pothole, losing the rear bumper, a trifle A Biao solved with a couple of swift kicks. Surprisingly enough, we actually fitted in some climbing.

Paul Collis, who put together the Yangshou guide book has done the same for Kowloon, almost fifty routes trad and sport, single and multi-pitch from 5.7 to 5.13 on limestone. This is still a quite undeveloped place, and many of the routes have had few ascents so are still settling down. The potential is vast, with hundreds of routes yet to be climbed. If your idea of a good climbing trip is going somewhere new and finding your own routes, Kowloon is certainly worth a visit on the China/South-East Asia circuit. Download the guide in pdf here.

The following notes, maps and topos form a rough guide to most of the established climbing in the Kowloon (Nine Dragons) area of Qing Yuan County, Guangdong. This guide was updated in June 2006. The climbing was mostly developed from 2005 to 2006 so grades given may not be accurate and there is still some loose rock around. The rock is typical tropical limestone – dark and quite sharp where exposed to rainfall, lighter, smoother and providing great climbing where sheltered from the elements. The area has beautiful countryside giving a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere for climbing.

See attached maps for how to get to Kowloon and the locations of the cliffs with climbing established on them. It is possible to get to the area using public transport. However this is not recommended as it is infrequent and very time consuming. Without private transport it is also difficult to get to the climbing sites.

Most climbers stay in the town of Kowloon. There are two or three small hotels, some restaurants, a supermarket, a wet market and small shops in Kowloon. It is a basic rural town with little tourism infrastructure. However, some mainland group tours come to the area to visit hot springs and take in the scenery. Take care not to confuse Kowloon in Qing Yuan county with Kowloon in Hong Kong. Although they have the same name, they are vastly different places.

Warning! If you are not a competent climber experienced in pioneering and new routing don’t use this guide to go climbing.

— Rock Climbing in Kowloon, Qing Yuan County, Guangdong, PRC

超牛b的余震 - Aftershock in Guangzhou

ex-Feng37 has been burning a posting storm through Canton recently, and I suspect he’s moved out of Fangcun and found a better stash of special-K from a higher class of Chaozhou motorbike taxi and is going all fickin’ 牛!! over Aftershock – Contemporary British Art 1990-2006, and that the British Council even slapped together a sina blog for the exhibition in Chinese.

Mislinked by 在桥下流 (that reminds me of the scent of piss flowing under the stinking haizhu bridge), this tranny rockstar space (yeah I try, but more like a tranny windowlicker lounge) is overjoyed that Guangzhou has put on such a show for me first with the documentary film festival, and now with a couple of my favourite artists all hanging out along the 珠江. I’m quite upset I’m in the wrong hemisphere though.

Pretty much every Young British Artist who has gilded the pockets of dealers and collectors over the past 15 years gets a look in, but who cares, most of them are conceptually vacuous crap with no sense of humour unless it’s irony. What I care about is Tracey Emin, as in love, sex, death … rape, abortion, drunkenness, sexual intimidation and violence, and Jake and Dinos Chapman whom I have wanted to screw (either one) ever since Zygotic acceleration, Biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model.

Spanning the years 1990-2006, Aftershock will tell the story of how Britain experienced a revolution in contemporary art. During this period art became a hotly debated topic in the media as young artists injected glamour into the British art world; the art market flourished and audiences for contemporary exhibitions multiplied, culminating in the phenomenal success of Tate Modern, London’s first museum of international modern art which opened in 2000.

— British Council – Aftershock

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2006中国(广州)国际纪录片大会 Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival

A bit slack lately blogging about my favourite city, Guangzhou. Yes I do love it that much. 曹斐 Cao Fei, who is now living in Beijing wrote a few days ago about the 2006 Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival running from 4th till 9th December. The theme of this year’s festival is 关注贫困 Facing Poverty and films are screening at 天河电影城 Galaxy Cinema in Teen Plaza and 华纳金逸电影城 Warner Jinyi Cinema in Pearl New Estate Plaza, the latter of which does the whole teeth-vibrating surround sound and hallucinogenic peripheral vision filling screens. Also there’s films on at 蓝宝石展艺馆 Sapphire Art Space in the Holiday Inn which I’ve not heard of and for the scummy students stuck out in University Town at the 广州美术学院大学城校区 Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts that’s further from Guangzhou than most migrant workers’ home towns.

As for the films, they come from all over the world with a lot from Netherlands, Portugal, Poland and Germany, and a stack from and about China including 秦始皇:中国的缔造者 The First Emperor: The Man Who Made China, 贫困线的挣扎——中国造 A Dollar A Day – Made in China, and a huge number of entries in the Festival’s competition, embarrassing there for all Australians is 太平洋解决方案 which is more usually referred to as the Pacific Solution, and there’s so many docos I’d love to see I think I’ll be blogging about them a bit more.

Naturally though the only one I really, truly care about and am hanging out for, and I know was only programmed because everyone thought I’d be back in Guangzhou and was sort of a welcome home, and I know I’ve disappointed you all by not being there, but as I was saying, I only really, truly care about Heavy Metal In the Country. Ja! Über!

等待戈多 waiting for godot

I really need a category for performance, because sticking Samuel Beckett under ‘dance’ is just a bit weird, not withstanding Breath and Krapp’s Last Tape are among the few theatrical performances to hold my attention and sense of humour. Waiting for Godot though is certainly one work I would use to fill my revised Voyager Golden Record, possibly replacing forgettable non-entities such as Mozart.

胖鸟剧团 Fat Bird Theatre in Shenzhen, is performing Waiting for Godot at the end of December. Big blah for me that I won’t be there, but certainly worth a jaunt on the KCR.