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.

Reading: Paul A. Van Dyke — The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 1700-1845

Continuing my return to reading China, as with my focus on women in the history of China, so too is there a strand which pays attention to the south, Lingnan, Guangdong, Canton.

So much of what is written on China is in fact only a small part thereof — Beijing as China, Shanghai as China, the eastern core. Other parts of the country are so distant as to be other countries, and despite the ongoing Han homogenisation programme, these other parts still retain their individual histories.

Paul A. Van Dyke’s The Canton Trade seemed like a good place to continue, after reading Julia Lovell’s The Opium War a few months ago, and now, more than half way through reading, I can say he hasn’t skimped on thoroughness.

Reading: Julia Lovell – The Opium War

Canton. The idea is romantic, and unavoidably one of Orientalism. Still, I lived there on and off for a few years, known now as Guangzhou. Whatever centre of the world Canton once inhabited, it has long been overshadowed in China by Beijing and Shanghai to the north, and that city of internationalism and projected fantasies to the south, Hong Kong. It is a city with a history though, and a very long one. I feel an affection to that place I called home, and hoard what I might find on its history, as however much it might be inside China, it has always been the outward-looking southern barbarian.

The Opium War. Drugs, piracy, smuggling, empires and colonialism in Canton from the 17th Century till the communist dictatorship. That’s enough, no?

guangzhou islands, graves, dead rivers and southern barbarians

Reading maps can describe places that have vanished, ghost inscriptions of shifting fringes, more so in places where geography itself is a fluid medium, and where history delineates and overwrites the territory like a palimpsest. My attraction to Guangzhou in part is the illegibility and confusion of this overwriting, both on a human temporal scale where architecture becomes progressively organic through something like a utilitarian condensation, and across greater geologic time scales where history is sedimentary layers. Both these are spectacular in Guangzhou because of the river.

I was comparing a map from the 19th century of Guangzhou with my current large city map. and noticed 大沙头 Dashatou was formerly as recognisable as an island as 二沙岛 Ersha Dao is today. Today, Dashatou is circumscribed by a cancerous Jade-green canal, and some of the more atrocious tile-architecture of the inner city. Yesterday also, in the 广州日报 Guangzhou Daily, was a piece on archaeological excavations in the city, and a map of where the 珠江 Pearl River ran 6000 years ago.



— Guangzhou Daily

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destination prd

In my daily ploughing through a couple of hundred RSS feeds, I read from Danwei, there’s a new quarterly magazine out covering my favourite place, the Pearl River Delta, Destination PRD. It looks mostly aimed at visiting business people, and maybe good for tourists too, and with last years messy demolition of That’s Magazines, leaving I think a fairly poor going-through-the-motions shell of what – when I first arrived in Guangzhou – was an indispensable print and web-based monthly, there’s a crying need for a good English language magazine for Kanton Guangdong.

This magazine was willed into existence by many varied influences. The earliest was the experience of a boat trip from Hong Kong to Jiangmen in February 2004, when the relatively unspoiled potential of the western Pearl River Delta was revealed to an ignorant foreigner. Another was the afternoon spent strolling around Shamian island in Guangzhou, soaking up the innate charm of the old neighborhood, with its Opium Wars-era buildings, and realizing its tourism possibilities while at the same time understanding the ideological obstacles holding back its development. The clincher, however, was at the PRD Conference organized by the South China Morning Post and Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce in Zhongshan, hometown of Sun Yatsen, in September 2004. It came when Hopewell’s Gordon Wu Ying-sheung, who saw the PR D’s potential for bridge-building before most, responded to a question on why he was in the business by saying: “It’s very simple, you see, the Pearl River Delta has a lot of rivers and people don’t like to get their feet wet.”

— Destination PRD


looking at art: 第二届广州三年展 2nd Guangzhou Triennial

I was going to try and find out if Park19 was still alive but only got as far as 二沙岛Er Sha Dao and the Guangdong Museum of Modern Art for the 第二届广州三年展2nd Triennial (don’t bother going to the English section, it hasn’t been updated since the last triennial). It’s been three years since I was in the same place getting quite impressed at times by some of the art in the first triennial, so I was keen to see what’s changed, particularly as I’d not heard great things about it.

Noticably, the curatorship is alot stronger, the theme of the Pearl River Delta as something of a new city or country as part of the wider theme of “BEYOND” is well-considered and coherently underpins the exhibition at the gallery, but the work itself, besides a few bits that showed intelligence tend to be derivative, mediocre, pointless, impenetrable, or exercises in self-obsession or vanity.

In choosing a theme which is geo-political and sociological, much of the work slips out of the realm of art and becomes either architecture or socio-documentary. In both cases the tools used to create the work, photography, digital video, architectural models and demographic analysis representations are ill-considered within themselves and almost represent a return to the most basic use of the medium as a tool of documentation.

This is particularly the case in a number of large-scale photography works and video projections where the camera is dead and what it captures bizarrely mundane. The problem with such minimalism or anti-art in the context of the Biennial is that it does not appear to be the aesthetic agenda of the artists to produce work like that, rather it is just a mediocre, slack-jawed tourism masquerading as something more.

Against this pervasive laziness there were some works that stood out as clever, intelligently conceived and sophisticated. All of these works shared a common, strongly political but non-polemical foundation emerging from the sociological theme of the biennial. Unexpectedly, many of these works also dealt with the nature of identity and more explicitly gender. There have been many artists whose work revolves around gender politics both in the west and in Asia, but this was the first time I’ve seen these kind of works in China and there was something about it that made me very happy, probably that these were the works with the greatest clusters of people around them, most nonchalantly taking photos and filming with camera and phone.

The exhibition feels more solid in retrospect because of these works, which manage to to be deftly political and sly without falling into the embarrassment of self-conscious irony, and as important, take the conceptual and technical understanding of the medium in which they work to a level where it is as considered as the content. What it does also show, is something I saw in Taiwan, which is a very strong collectively recognisable identity of Chinese and Asian art that is responding to the Asian world now and its future.

guangzhou’s tallest building

In Yuexiu Park there is an old drum tower which is most of what remains of the once city-encircling walls. Inside is a brief pictorial history dating back as far as the great opium-trading days and European concessions, and then further back into the past of what is an almost 2000 year old trade centre. Unlike Beijing and Shanghai, or even more archaeologically fashionable suburbs like the three gorges, it’s pretty hard to find much written on the most important southern city in China.

The ground floor of the tower is devoted to a monolithic diorama of the city, remarkably detailed in it’s minor roads and topography. What was always the joke of the entire place though was Tian He. The new city is dominated in the real world by the 90 storey 中国电信, China Telecom building, affectionately known by local Star Trek fans as the Borg Cube. The diorama though, rigorously accurate in all other areas, did not feature the Borg Cube as the tallest building, instead further south near the river was a laughably monstrous black tower, a Jeff Stryker dildo planted splat in the middle of downtown.

Except now the joke is on us. News of the day is that Guangzhou plans to build a 600 meter skyscraper right on this site, and while the news is ricocheting around the internet with all usual breathless haste, every Guangzhou local it seems, who goes to Yuexiu Park has known about it for years. China Daily makes background noise out of what is a essentially a vanity project in a city littered with derelict and unfinished 30+ storey buildings, emblematic of the rampant corruption, short-sightedness, and vacuous lack of town planning.

Construction of a television tower that is claimed to be the world’s tallest TV tower is due to start in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province next month.

This landmark tower, which could be up to 600 metres high, is expected to be a new tourist attraction, competing with the 320-metre-high Eiffel Tower in Paris and the 468-metre-high Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower in Shanghai.

The Guangzhou municipal government is currently busy selecting a design from three foreign companies that have entered the final round of competition, according to Huang Jiatian, deputy director of the General Office under the Headquarters for the Construction of Guangzhou New TV Tower.

A total of 13 domestic and overseas companies have participated in the public bidding for the design of this massive project, said Huang.

The final three companies come from Germany, Britain and France.

All three designs for the new TV tower require the project to reach between 580 metres and 600 metres, becoming the world’s tallest TV tower.

Located on the banks of the Pearl River in Guangzhou’s Tianhe District, the new TV tower will reach a construction floor space of 100,800 square metres. And it will occupy a ground area of 84,880 square metres in Guangzhou’s premier business district.

About 200 families will have to move away from the site, Huang said.

The Guangzhou municipal government has agreed to pay compensation to most people living in the area and relocation work have already started.

2030 pearl river mega-city

By 2030, in a study reported on in the HK Standard, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong will have merged into one Pearl River Delta spanning mega-city, home to some 50 million people. Anyone travelleing on the KCR will have the disturbing feeling this has already happened. From Guangzhou Railway Station, all the way to Dongguan, halfway to Hong Kong is an unbroken artery of industrial cities and manufacturing belts that wouldn’t be out of place as Saruman’s orc mines in Lord of the Rings. From there to Hong Kong, besides some scant pieces of rapidly vanishing remnants of tropical forest, mostly on the Hong Kong side of the border, it’s exactly the same.

Even before the borders between Hong Kong and the mainland are scrapped, Shenzhen’s existing downtown would have moved west to Baoan district, an area currently outside the “second border” that separates Shenzhen from the rest of Guangdong.

This new area, which would be bordered by extensive land reclamation, would have begun to attract leading Hong Kong commercial institutions as tenants. The existing central business district in Luohu and Futian districts would become, in effect, Shenzhen’s suburbs.

territories at para/site

Para/Site Art Space new gallery in Hong Kong has just celebrated its opening with the multi-media installations of Hong Kong-based French Architects Laurent Gutierrez + Valerie Portefaix, Territories, covered in NonStarving Artists this week.

Territories presents a large scale, dense, fast, panorama of urban development and architectural structures in China. The expression of this new spatial condition related to the notion of development, is clearly embedded in specific cycles of production and distribution.

Territories explores these dynamic and multi-dimensional forces that quickly spread across the surface of the territory. These characteristics, visible traces marking the land, appear as paradigms of contemporary civilization, and are evident in the simple inventory of a commodified society labeled ‘Made in China’.

For Territories, the Pearl River Delta region functions as an important focal point for the display of current processes of spatial production. This territory is made of unrelated fragments of urbanism, each ignoring the conditions of its surrounding. Each fragment forms an island; determined and transformed autonomously. These islands are programmatically independent; they may receive a concentration of a particular building type or a mix of various functions depending on their particular conditions.