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 last of the Brussels museums. I visited the Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum the same day as I romped through the Musée Oldmasters Museum, the day after I’d been to Jubelparkmuseum / Musée du Cinquantenaire and Autoworld Brussels. Four museums in a weekend, no wonder it’s taken me almost two weeks to get through them all.
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.
As usual when I wander into my favourite bookshop, I cannot resist orbiting the gravity-sucking walls of books. I tend to not buy books impulsively, half because my list of books I want to read is already in the three figures, and half because — well, mostly it’s that reading list — but occasionally …
What an odd book to find on the shelves of St George’s. Someone probably thought, “Oh, that’d be something Frances would read,” or maybe it’s entirely automated and whenever a new shipment of books arrive, there is a small, random assortment that the regulars, like me, have a high probability of not leaving the shop without. Obviously the title was immediately intriguing, one of the periods of Chinese history I enjoy greatly, and subject itself, I immediately thought it would fit in with Gail Hershatter and Susan Mann. Which it does, because as Emily Honig describes in her acknowledgements, she was part of a group at Stanford University in the ’70s which included Hershatter, and both Hershatter and Mann were involved in the research and writing of this work.
This then is a situation when I impulsively buy a book. Sisters and Strangers: Women in the Shanghai Cotton Mills, 1919-1949 has a very narrow focus, much like the works from Mann, Hershatter, Janet Chen, all of whom individually I think are doing some of the finest research and writing on China in the last couple of decades. It’s not an easy, casual read, but it is very rewarding, and I’m enjoying it partly just to discover another one of this group.
Unlike Iain Banks, Janet Chen’s Guilty of Indigence — The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953, has more in common with Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory, and shall not be inhaled in a 24 hour period. It’s possible, but I suspect I’d lose any attempt.
I read about Guilty of Indigence on The China Beat, where the author was interviewed, and figured there would be a lot I’d find interesting. For a start it’s Chinese scholarship written by a women, and having spent more than a decade reading predominately this field written by men before discovering Hershatter, Susan Mann and others, it’s obvious to me my renewed interest has been entirely due to women academics.
Secondly, it covers an era that I find has in general been under-represented – certainly in more popular writing on China – being sandwiched as it is between the Qing Dynasty and Mao. Too often this is referred to as the warlord era – even Wikipedia does, (and it irritates me immensely I can’t refind the brilliant essay deconstructing the term in the context of its use in Afghanistan, as it is eminently applicable to China during this era), used to cover the entire Republican era rather than just the twelve years post-WW1 when the country was split under various military fiefdoms (cliques, hegemonies, etc). I don’t have an alternate suggestion for a name for this era, but I find not reducing it to the preconceptions inherent in the word ‘warlord’ helps to think and write about it with a little more subtlety.
As for the China part itself, Janet concentrates mostly on Beijing and Shanghai, which in general in almost everything I’ve read on China is what is meant by ‘China’; a cluster of provinces, Hebei to Zhejiang, and rarely further west than Henan. Yes, I have a fondness for the Southern Barbarians, and all things border-ish, so experienced small but not unexpected disappointment at absence of Canton in the index, though of course if any book tried to be even slightly all-encompassing when it came to Chinese scholarship, it wouldn’t be finished in this lifetime.
Anyway, it’s beautifully bound, the cover and layout are very attractive, and I think I shall take a pause now to begin reading.
The New York Times is running a series of articles, The Great Divide, on the widening gap between the affluent urban residents and the rural poor who increasingly are unable to have any part of the wealth and opportunity. The first lengthy article focusses on the suicide of a student too poor to afford to continue his education, and the failure of the government to care for the most disadvantaged in society.
China has the world’s fastest-growing economy but is one of its most unequal societies. The benefits of growth have been bestowed mainly on urban residents and government and party officials. In the past five years, the income divide between the urban rich and the rural poor has widened so sharply that some studies now compare China’s social cleavage unfavorably with Africa’s poorest nations.
For the Communist leaders whose main claim to legitimacy is creating prosperity, the skewed distribution of wealth has already begun to alienate the country’s 750 million peasants, historically a bellwether of stability.
The countryside simmers with unrest. Farmers flock to the cities to find work. The poor demand social, economic and political benefits that the Communist Party has been reluctant to deliver.
To its credit, the Chinese government invigorated the economy and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty over the past quarter century. Few would argue that Chinese lived better when officials still adhered to a rigid idea of socialist equality.
But in recent years, officials have devoted the nation’s wealth to building urban manufacturing and financial centers, often ignoring peasants. Farmers cannot own the land they work and are often left with nothing when the government seizes their fields for factories or malls. Many cannot afford basic services, like high school.
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.