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.

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.

Reading: James Palmer — Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China

The last of my current batch of reading … more soon to be procured. It’s a little gluttonous, no?

Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes arrived shortly after I finished The Bloody White Baron, and it had been a book I’d heard about every so often, so I was hoping for something … well, earthquakes, the Great Helmsman; as a follow-up to the Baron I was hoping a for a lot.

I am supposed to write these things before I read, and any reviewing that may or may not be done, is done once a year in October; I’m getting sloppy here.

While my attention for all things Sinological is gradually drifting conspicuously south, and my personal feeling is that in another, slightly different outcome of history, China would be something between the idea of the EU and the reality of Confoederatio Helvetica; so it just helps to think of at least the provinces surrounding Han proper like a misshapen ‘C’ as individual countries (they are big enough, after all), and so while my interest is more towards Canton and the inner asian frontiers, I’m never too far away from picking up any book remotely Chinese.

The premise, that the Tangshan earthquake via invocation of the Mandate from Heaven was part of a series of events leading to not only the end of almost thirty years of Maoist destruction, but equally to the de facto abrogation of Maoism, for me was an attractive subject for a book. Much of this because there hasn’t been much written on one of the most devastating earthquakes in history, and how it affected a country, and I do also have a long-standing love affair with geology — my mental image of China and Central Asia is usually one overlaid with geologic and topographic maps.

I think the initial disappointment for me came around a third of the way in, when background events leading up to Mao’s death and the earthquake were still being worked through. It occurred to me that perhaps with all the reading I’ve done on China, I was not exactly the audience. I was wanting to get stuck in from the first page to some chunky primary source research from provincial and county archives along with fault plane solutions and other geological delights, as I have been in some other recent works, and instead found a summarising of the main events of Mao.

Which James does very well, and if I was coming to this stuff for the first time – when I tend to read a lot of works like this to get the broad idea plus some specifics – this would be a more suitable read for me. From my perspective though, I felt that the connection between earthquake and Mao, was not presented in a way where I was convinced of more than a tenuous, or generalist correlation.

Being more critical, there were a couple of things in James’ writing style that irritated me, being occasional slips into vernacular, and the use of various pop culture references as similes. Which makes me sound like a stuffy old toff decrying the loss of Queen’s English, but references to The Godfather and Dad’s Army while clever or apt have a tendency to limit the audience, and to render the both the simile and intent incomprehensible for anyone not familiar with the allusion.

As with the Baron, the concluding section summarised and put into context the aftermath of the events up to the current day (around early 2011), also drawing comparisons with the state of the Communist Party and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Again, mirroring the lengthy lead up to the earthquake, I had this sense I was not really the intended audience, though equally, for a reader coming to this for the first time, he gets through many of the main points in an engagingly readable way.

As an aside, somehow I was expecting a mention of Ai Weiwei, considering the various artists, poets, writers who James mentions around the Tangshan era; for me Wenchuan is quite fixed in my mind with him.

Late in the book, there is a reference to the Republican era which is a common one, describing it as “the warlord era”, and by implication with “the Japanese invasion [and] Maoist insanities”, a very Bad Thing. This is also the Communist narrative and being an era I’ve been reading somewhat on lately-ish (Gourmets in the Land of Famine and The Age of Openness are two I’m thinking of) I would say even given that it was one very broad remark covering the entire Chinese 20th century in a score of words, it is a sloppy and poor choice of words. The mention of R. J. Rummel a couple of pages later, whom I’ve written about previously, also doesn’t help.

So now I feel like I’ve been rather harsh. I was wondering if I felt let down after the Baron, but contra that, if my knowledge of Mongolia and Siberia were commensurate with China, I would have found that work also lacking. I didn’t, because it was a new-ish topic for me — my reading for north of the Tian Shan tends more to the Xiongnu than anything as recent as the Russian Civil War.

Maybe to say that this is one of the better recent books on China you could read which covers both the Maoist era and the 35 years since, without missing many of the main points, and with enough to go on with further, more detailed reading if your attention is taken. I would though like to read the next book from him going to a similar level of research and detail as someone like Susan Mann, Gail Hershatter, or Paul A. van Dyke.

Reading: Gail Hershatter — The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past

This is the book I was so intimidated by I went off and read Charles Stross and Harry Potter for a couple of weeks. I heard of Gail Hershatter in 2008 (if I was paying attention), but it was an interview in The China Beat that made me put this book at the top of my next-to-buy reading list.

It’s been sitting there for quite a few weeks, now, as it reminded me of Susan Mann’s The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, which I’d never finished, so began once again and was utterly taken. So for the next two weeks in Brussels I needed something I wouldn’t finish in a night (Harry Potter) requiring me to buy something new.

The cover of The Gender of Memory is a thing of beauty in itself, and then to open it … 488 pages set in a very small typeface, of which perhaps a fifth are notes, appendices, bibliography.

I’ve begun reading it perhaps three times now, only getting to the second page before being distracted for a day or two, necessitating a restart. Not to say it’s turgid, on the contrary, it’s so dense and fascinating I’d rather go back and make sure I recall some details than adopt she blasé reading habit.

As for why I am reading this, I have decided to make a specific shift in my China, Asia and Central Asian reading, to concentrate as much as possible on the often missing 50% of the human population: women. I notice this especially when reading on Afghanistan, which has been one of the regions I’ve concentrated on the last ten years or so, where voices of women in the historical narrative, in the contemporary political and cultural situation, in both academic and more generalist texts are substantially, if not wholly absent.

Much the same can be said for all of Central Asian and Chinese scholarship, as well as much contemporary european writing. Or perhaps another way to phrase it is, that if a writer neglects to consciously include the situation of and for women in a particular context, under the supposition that his writing by default is inclusive, he is sorely mistaken and has managed to exclude half the population whose experiences do not necessarily accord to the default, male narrative. Additionally, one chapter devoted to the subject of women out of a whole book does not make things right.

So this book, along with Susan Mann’s form part of a new direction in reading for me on my favourite subjects. Which is not to say I’ll only be reading a book if it meets these unfortunately stringent criteria. There are several Southern China works sneaking up on me which are unlikely to entirely or even partly satisfy this. Nonetheless, Gail Hershatter’s work from the few pages I’ve read so far is likely to be among the best reads I have this year.