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.
One of the first books I ever read on the Silk Road (Roads, Routes), was a biography of a wandering Buddhist, which I barely understood at the time, and forgot the title almost immediately. I’ve been hoping I’d find it again through a process of random elimination by reading all academic-ish books on Tang Dynasty Buddhist pilgrims in Central Asia. So far, my approach has failed.
Sally Hovey Wriggins’ Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road at least indicates whoever it was, they weren’t Xuanzang. Also in one of those pleasant surprises I often get when a book arrives, it isn’t heavy academia. It’s larger, almost square, a quick read, and heavily illustrated.
Xuanzang stole out of China proper around the same time Hild (she of Nicole Griffith’s excellent novel) was caught up in the conversion of England to Christianity. I’ve only recently started reading European mediæval history (let’s say, 600-1400 CE), and this simultaneous reading alongside China and Central Asian history (I’ve yet to properly read on the Middle East in this era) is the most inspiring and fascinating I’ve had since my first filling in of that vast blankness between Japan and Europe. More popularly, Xuanzang became the character in Journey to the West, adapted in one version for television as Monkey Magic, beloved of crusty ravers the world over.
I’ve forgotten where I first saw Wriggins’ book mentioned, but I think it was on Tang Dynasty Times in 2009, when there was a piece on the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan which the Taliban blew up. (The 2013 post, how should we think about bamiyan? (巴米扬) has some of the original, and quite a bit more.) It’s been on my To Buy List for that long. (There’s usually about 100 books on that list. I periodically trim it to maintain the pretence of reasonableness.)
As much as I try for impartiality while atheistically regarding religions, when reading about Buddhism in Central Asia, I can’t help but wish the ebb and flow of religions in this period had been reversed, and it was to Buddhism that the Islamic and Semitic regions had converted to rather than the other way.
Yesterday I took myself off south-west on a journey I have had far too much time to do before now yet have never done so. Dahlem Museen has one of the wonders of Central Asia, depending on how one looks at it, pillaged from Xinjiang and other ~stans, or saved from the Cultural Revolution, or well, yes saved from that but even before destroyed in the Second World War. And even before all that, some time when Islamic zealots were being rigorous in raining righteous vengeance down on idolatry (i.e. around a millennium before the Taliban at Bamiyan), most of the faces of Buddha were methodically bashed out.
So of what’s left, besides what Auriel Stein picked up for the British Museum and other Great Game ethnologists in Paris and Beijing, the Grünwendel and LeCoq purloinments ending up in Berlin comprise one of the largest collections of Central Asian, Silk Route, and Buddhist art in the world. Mmm, yes, why I have waited four years to drag myself half and hour to Dahlem is a mystery.
Maybe because the exhibition halls are so vast and many. I spent five hours there yesterday and barely passed over the contents of two of the halls, of which there are around eighteen. I had to take a pause mid-way also, before climbing the stairs for the Chinese collections of red lacquer, ceramics, tea ceremony objects, purposefully avoiding anything not absolutely Central Asian or Chinese (besides some Japanese stuff), just to be able to be thrown out at closing having seen at least some of what I went there for.
And then to the Konzerthaus, picking up Dasniya fortuitously in the U-Bahn, to see the Kammerorchester Berlin and our friend and Contrabass player Jochen work their way through 90 minutes of Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi.
And somehow this beautiful Bodhisattva Guanyin of all the masses of heartrendingly beautiful art quite grabbed me. And this tea ceremony water pot also.
Regarding the two-score books of the last year, it is surprising which of the non-fiction – a term I use somewhat lightly given the nature of the fiction I read – I think is the most important. Not to say best, because it is simply not possible to compare G. Whitney Azoy’s Buzkashi – Game and Power in Afghanistan with Hanna Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor – Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, besides perhaps to consider the strong anthropological authorship in each.
I think perhaps I’ve been reading more science-fiction than I should in the past few months though; somewhat akin to my previous chocolate indulgence, put paid to by immanent risk of gaping holes in teeth. Charles Stross is, as in the last year, well-represented, though slogging through all six volumes of The Family Trade series doesn’t exactly count. With three other books devoured this year, he nonetheless pads out the numbers.
Perhaps to start with disappointments. William Gibson and Zero History. It’s curious to find a writer of near-future speculative (science-)fiction (hence my remark about the ambiguity of a fiction/non-fiction division) feeling dated and behind the times even on the day of publication. I’m sure I’ll read him again, but this was unexceptional, in no way saved by the pseudo-MacGuffin. Charles Stross’ Family Trade series also wallowed adrift for the second trio, and many intriguing ideas hinted at in the earlier ones (and outlined on his blog) remained undeveloped or abandoned; instead veering off on an un-engaging Bush-era terrorist spiel.
On the non-fiction side, Christopher I. Beckwith, who is indisputably a formidable scholar on Central Asia and Tibet frustrated me in twice. First in Empires of the Silk Road for his ceaseless tirades agains post-modernism and other failings of scholarship, which is especially jarring when I’m trying to concentrate on the lineage of Mongolian barbarians. The second is for confusing said lineages with history. I was deeply thrilled to receive The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia, anticipating much excitement (and winter fashion) with the Goloks. Instead I was beaten into submission by the feudal slaughter equivalent of biblical begatting. History is not an ad nauseum which man with an army ground which other underfoot.
Lucky The Tibetans, while not so much an an in-depth academic text, manages to avoid this monotony and thus far is the best generalist volume I’ve read on the region. Still, I am searching for more substantial books, be it eastern Tibet, Amdo and the Goloks, or western and the mountain passes into the -stans. I haven’t really begun reading The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan, which I hope might bring a little more enlightenment… I’ll have to wait for next year’s anniversary to discover that.
Many other books I’m very happy to have at least attempted this year. Edward Said’s Orientalism falls into this category. I expect I’ll slowly absorb it by sleeping near than by overthrowing it in a week-long siege. Some out of China also, Voices from the Whirlwind, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China and The Age of Openness: China Before Mao filling out my sino-reading – something I’ll need to do more of in the next year if I wish to get through even a portion of my reading list.
Surprisingly, the non-fiction book of the year isn’t some Sino-Tibetan / Central Asian monograph on horse sport, but one which many people I know have read: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. That it made me question and change my already infrequent meat-eating, as well as dispose of much dairy product consumption through reminding me why I became vegetarian and vegan in the first place is only part of the reason. That it is causing in my friends similar responses is perhaps the greatest achievement. And to think I read it out of boredom in an evening lying on a sofa in Vienna.
To say a little more. It is beholden upon us and our generation to instigate change. The governments, politicians and businesses who nominally are our seniors and act in our interests have categorically failed to act in any meaningful or decisive way on what is unequivocally a great catastrophe facing the planet. To reduce this catastrophe to the term, ‘global warming’, while certainly affording attention to one aspect, fails to include myriad interconnected impending disasters which are the singular result of our lifestyles. When confronted with the reality of the ecological vandalism and destruction eating meat involves – even before raising the issue of the suffering it causes and our complicity therein – it becomes unarguable that the single biggest, immediate difference a person – we – can make to bring about change, to attempt to avert or at least partially ameliorate this coming ruin, is to comprehensively and permanently change how we eat.
On, then, to science-fiction.
Charles Stross has provided many hours enjoyment this last year; The Fuller Memorandum was consumed twice in quick succession, but it was Saturn’s Children that came closest to fiction book of the year. He, like Iain Banks attracts my attention because he writes strong female characters (even if the females are sexbots from after the demise of humans) and like Banks and Miéville has an obvious social and political agenda in his work that I find an affinity for.
Iain (M.) Banks provided similar pleasure with re-readings of many old favourites and the new Transitions and (just finished) Surface Detail. Both are very good but don’t quite get up to the level of wild brilliance of earlier novels. Yet, they do seem to – along with The Algebraist and Matter – point to a new period in his writing and I’m already looking forward to his next.
Further on the unambiguously fiction side, by which I mean science-fiction or science-bloody-horror-no-near-future-speculative-fiction-here-fiction, the book of the year though is the quite brilliant, verging on genius for the two most terrifying thugs in London – far better than The City and The City which won a Hugo this year – China Miéville’s Kraken. If I’ve managed to persuade you to read Iain (M.) Banks, this isn’t quite Feersum Endjinn, my book to take if I can only take one book, but it’s close.
Finally adding a Reading category, almost all the books I’ve read in the last couple of years can be found there. Otherwise, some of the many books I’ve enjoyed this year…
(Oh, I started the ‘Reading … ” thing here in October, 2007 (with William Gibson’s Spook Country), which is why ‘Book of the Year’ arrives in October (the 16th or so) instead of on some other temporarily significant yet nonetheless arbitrary date such as the end of the year.)