The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
From the airy natural light of the Oldmasters Museum, it was along, down, around, down some more, turn some corners, past some more art, ricochet off the gates of the Chagall exhibition, more stairs. Sort of how the Gründerzeit of the Zeughaus unfolds into the 21st century of I. M. Pei’s Deutsches Historisches Museum extension. Or something like Daniel Liebeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin. Lots of angles. Kinda dim also. Dim with blobs of light. Or occasionally shards of natural light, in whose line delicate paintings were placed rendering them unviewable from the usual position art is viewed from.
Yes, I’m on my regular hate paragraph about shithouse lighting in museums. I actually noticed it when Medieval POC reblogged one of the works from Oldmasters Museum and I was horrified at how shoddy it looked, especially as I’d spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to unshoddify it. The orb of blue glare was strong in the upper parts of too many works in Brussels. But Henri Evenepoel’s De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida which suffered from the ridiculous, “Let’s place a work that’s generally quite muted and dark, with figures who have dark skin, where all the details are in variations of dark tones, let’s place this work, covered with a pane of glass, in the one place on the entire floor where direct, natural exterior light will bounce off it and into the viewer’s eyes.” Did no one stop to think, “Nah, crap idea”? Obviously not. I photographed it from around a 45º angle to the left, underexposed it hugely, and photoshopped the crap out of it.
Ooievaars by Louis Dubois was also in a dim, obscure location. I guess it looked something like this. It was one of my favourites, brooding, eerie, entirely untrustworthy. I don’t think anyone meeting a gang of fowl like that would come out the other side of the swamp intact.
There were a lot—in fact probably one of the two main themes in the museum—of paintings of poverty, poor migrant workers, farmers, exhausted labourers at work or stumbling to and from the factories, single women working alone in ill-lit rooms. Léon Frederic’s triptych De krijtverkopers was one of the strongest, muted colours, lack of contrast, general hopelessness, the expression of the girl in the centre of the middle panel looking out directly at the viewer is incalculably grim.
The other main theme: women alone in similar situations, or in ateliers, or straight portraits. Maybe it was where my attention went. James Ensor’s Een coloriste, Portret van Marguerite Khnopff by Fernand Knopff, Henri Fantin-Latour’s De tekenles in het atelier. If anything marked fin-de-siècle art besides mysticism and romanticism, it’s this acutely political work.
Speaking of mysticism, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ De bruidsstoet van Psyche struck me as the endgame of whiteness in European art. Go back through the museum and there’s works of orientalism in various forms; go back through the history of art and people who aren’t excruciatingly white are regular occurrences. This Pre-Raphaelite piece though pushes skin colour to a particular, uniform monotony (something I do see in the movement’s inspiration, Italian Quattrocento). They’re all exactly the same light tone, all also besides their hair colour have identical faces. I wanted to include it here because it spoke to me so clearly of this complete erasure, and the European fantasy of the pure white woman.
Just after, an utter treat for me: a whole corridor devoted to opera in Brussels, starting with and dominated by Wagner and Parsifal. The staging from Act II, Klingsor’s enchanted castle where the Flowermaidens attempt to seduce Parsifal, where Kundry emerges to face him. This scenography for the Belgian Première, all hot reds, oranges, yellows, looks completely modern, also for the empty blackness of the door, almost a signifier of Amfortas’ wound. Next to this, a commemorative book with Wagner’s profile on the frontispiece. Then the restaurant menu, Parsifal mounted on a horse, Klingsor’s cloud-wrapped castle hanging in the distance. And two large bronze coins, one with the Holy Grail, the other with the dancing Flowermaidens. On the wall behind all this, posters for the premiere, and for other Wagner operas staged in La Monnaie De Munt.
Three other paintings: Théo Van Rysselberghe’s Arabische fantasia. Dumb name for awesome painting. The right half mostly empty sand, a man with a long rifle riding a chestnut horse with white facial blaze. He’s in orange robes and light yellow turban, pulling the horse in, his rifle smoking, mouth open, eyes looking left and down. Behind him a mounted quintet in white all brandishing similar rifles. The thin border on the right is populated with a standing crowd of which two boys stand out. The triangle on the left is full with riders watching the scene, on horses with vermillion harnesses. One in white leans back, his bare arm supporting his weight on his horse’s grey back. Behind him, another rider in grey-blue robes looks out into the viewer’s eyes. Behind all, a white walled city blocks the horizon in a low line, above that, intense blue sky. The painting is from the artist’s second trip to Morocco in 1883/4. All the riders and audience are North African, arabic, muslim.
Then two by Henri Evenepoel, De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida (the horribly lit one), and next to it, Sinaasappelmarkt te Blida, both from the artist’s time in Algeria in 1898.They’re substantially different to Arabische fantasia, brushwork less detailed, blocks of moving colour Fauvist rather than realism and light of Rysselberghe. Thematically also they’re more intimate, smaller, a corner in a market alley, the market itself, but mostly obscured by the figures in the foreground.
Completely opposite this these three works are three by Guillaume Vogels, all dour, grey, winter Belgium realism, skeletal, leafless trees, snow, light only through clouds and low on the horizon, everything a formless, inexact mash. I loved these also, as unique as the harsh light and colour of North Africa.
Lastly, Xavier Mellery’s La danse. I’m not sure what to make of it, it’s kinda ugly, the solid gold background, the female dancers somewhere between dark-skinned and in shadow, but not quite either, moving and jumping yet not quite either, for such a scene of movement it’s annoyingly concrete and unmoving.
And 293 images later (plus another score with Hans and in the theatre) that’s the end of four museums on a weekend in Brussels.
I’ve never liked Magritte. I find his stuff tedious and insipid, exemplary only of the twee French purgatory of symbolism. The three floors of Magritte confirmed it. While Der Blaue Reiter, Die Brücke, expressionism, and all the other radical breaks with conservative ideas was going on, he was comfortable rolling out decades of conservative fantasies. I got through all that in about 5 minutes.
On to the proper fucking art of the Old Masters!
There was so much good stuff here, I ended up having to blog a couple of works separately: Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s De Aanbiddung der Wijze and Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor. The collection here is comparable to the Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie (which I’ve been to several times now), though the gallery itself is nowhere near as conducive to good art viewing. It does flow around in concentric arcs of rooms encouraging diverse meandering, but the lighting, ooh such pain. The ideal of natural light collides solidly with the insane glossy reflectiveness of so very much of art in the past few hundred years. Some of the works suffered terribly, I could barely see them if I stood in front, and was doing severe underexposed and photograph from off to one side tricks to get something part-way useful. I was also a bit shitty after my visit to the poorly curated Jubelparkmuseum / Musée de Cinquantenaire, so when I saw part of the collection was closed, I wanted to start kicking paintings over the balcony.
The first two works, Tafereel van de Septembertagen 1830, op de Grote Markt te Brussel, and Jezus bij Simon Farizeër are in the atrium, along with a few other huge-scale works. Upstairs, in a ring around the space is the Oldmasters Museum. There were so many good works here, I’m not sure what to say on any of them. The panel of the prophet Jeremiah standing on a plinth reading flanked by another panel of Noli me tangere, the background sky a red and blue tapestry. Virgo Inter Virgines, with Saint Agatha and one of her breasts held in pincers like a delectable cake; the two different but both equally beautiful Maria met Kind, especially Quinten Metsys’ one for the expression on her face; the kissing and washing of Jesus’ feet, in Triptiek van de Abdij van Dielegem (the middle panel being again Jezus bij Simon Farizeër), and Jezus in het Huis van Simon de Farizeër; Cranach’s astounding Caritas, the colour of their skin and the shadows almost unearthly.
Later many works by Pieters Brughel the Younger and the Elder, the glorious De Aanbiddung der Wijzen met Sneeuweffect and others completely overshadowed by the uncompleted De Aanbiddung der Wijze. In Triptiek van de Familie Micault, the colour of his skin is distinctly that of a dead person, which is to say there was a particular tone and colour used to represent a person as dead even when they were prancing around. Also the guy on the left panel in the cat clothes. He is totally meme-worthy. Triptiek met de Deugd van het Geduld is one of many that has camels. Camels everywhere. I’ve never seen so many (if any at all) camels in late-mediæval art as I have in Brussels.
The works change to more recognisably Flemish and Netherlandish in Jesus bij Martha en Maria and De Keukenmeid. Both, along with Keukenstuk and Warmoezeniershof are as much about the colour and form of still-lifes of meat, vegetables, fowl as they are about the women in the scene—and women are presented as succulently as the food. It’s kinda debauched.
A couple, Portret van een Bejaarde Dame and De Bankier met zijn Vrouw I liked for themselves though could have excluded from my ridiculously long archive of images, but I kept in because I like them and because of the works’ titles. “An old woman” “his wife” both women are unnamed yet in the former obviously she is someone of bearing and importance—anyone who called her ‘old woman’ she’d just level that withering stare and their cocks would shrivel up. In the latter, the lighting, the strong red of her clothing, him in shadow and almost blending into the background, her attention pulled away from the book to him examining a coin, it seems to me it’s rather the other way around: he is hers; she is the subject.
A quick diversion into Juno voedt Hercules which at first I thought was a Maria lactans, and I suppose Rubens can pretend all he likes it’s not but everything about this work makes it obvious. The prodigious gushing of milk from her breast sprays out into the background covering it like the milky way in night sky. It’s so excessive, almost an equivalent to the bloody Jesus paintings and sculptures of the Northern Germanic middle ages.
Het Atelier van de Schilderessen, differently titled in French as L’atelier des Femmes Peintres, I couldn’t get a full image of it thanks to horrible lighting, but the group of female painters surrounding the model with her massive bludgeon and bearskin, its mouth over her head like a cowl, one of them reading, five of the others drawing and painting her, it’s the two with glowing cigarettes jammed in their mouths I love the most, and I do love everything about this work.
There were other works (oh so many others), as I finished this museum and meandered down, along, up, into the Fin de Siècle Museum (ignoring the Chagall exhibition—far too expensive). Those images are still pestering me to get on and edit, thankfully not so many. Nonetheless, this for the moment is an incomplete account of visiting a museum.
A couple of months ago, everyone was amazed that a book which chronicled the shitty lives, abuse and endemic corruption of peasant farmers had been published in China. Now, the book has unsurprisingly been banned, media coverage ceased and the authors are facing a libel suit by a local official who didn’t come off looking too good. The New York Times ran this excellent piece on the book 中国农民调查 Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha – An Investigation of China’s Peasantry, and the husband-and-wife authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has ordered the government to address, in the latest slogan, “three peasant problems”: farmers, villages and agriculture. But he and other officials rarely emphasize what many rural experts consider the biggest peasant problems: corruption and abuse of power.
“An Investigation of China’s Peasantry” deals with little else. It praises the spirit of central government efforts to reduce the rural tax burden and raise farm incomes. But it shows how such policies are sooner or later undone by local party bosses determined to line their own pockets.
It also details how local officials deceive China’s top leaders, including Jiang Zemin, the retired party chief who still leads the military, and Zhu Rongji, the retired prime minister. Even Mr. Wen, whom the authors credit with understanding rural problems better than other leaders, is portrayed as being unable to penetrate the local officials’ Potemkin displays of fealty.
Propaganda authorities evidently felt the book went too far. Even as a media frenzy built in March, the government-owned publisher got a verbal order to cease printing. Media coverage ended instantly. The authors estimate that the book has sold as many as 7 million copies, but they earned royalties on only the 200,000 legal copies sold before the ban.
More disconcerting to the authors, a disgruntled local official named in the book, Zhang Xide, filed a libel suit against them seeking $24,000 in damages. As Chinese officials rarely file court actions without the approval of superiors, Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu say they effectively face prosecution by Anhui Province.