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.


beautiful and mysterious luoping

The vast monsoon-saturated billboard, the only unbleached colour in two days of hard-sleeper train from Kunming to Guangzhou said, “Welcome to beautiful and Mysterious Luoping”. Behind, and congealing the heavy mist of two endless raining weeks were a wreckage of factories, a contortion of rusted, oxidised or oil-slicked intestinal metals, sky-gouging brick chimneys, cumulus billowings and ventings of steam, sharp hot-orange volcanic flares burning off gaseous leftovers, and orchre gashes in the enclosing hills where the town ate its land.

Luoping is cradled in the limestone strata of the Yunnan-Guangxi-Guizhou that becomes at its western isthmus the vertiginous accordion folds of Yulong Xueshan, and far east in Guangdong slips quietly into spindly towers amidst rice fields; this contiguous geology also supports recognisably similar aqriculture in the terraced fields, rice paddies, and water buffalo. As an eruption of smallpox pustules, towns like Luoping are avaricious plunderers, divesting the land under their influence in a single swipe before remaining only to rot; the antithesis of cycles of farming dating back millennia.

From Lijiang in the east each night, the sky pulsed ever-nearer with the impending monsoon. Returning from Daju was a special, irregular event as the entire town tended to the fields before the rains arrived. In Guangdong it had been raining for most of a month, and Fujian was partly flooded. By the time I arrived in Kunming, so too had the wet season. From there through to Guangzhou the land was under a desaturating mist, the fields shining with fresh rain, the horizon obliterated, and not uncommonly rivers overrunning their flood plains.


虎跳峡 & 玉龙雪山 tiger leaping gorge and jade dragon snow mountain

Some photos of five days I spent wandering through Tiger Leaping Gorge, some from the high trail, others from when I went off wandering upwards on my own little journey. This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and I’ve been drawn to Yulong Xueshan since I saw photos of it a few years ago. It is more awe-inspiring than any words I could write, the photographs are only poor scratches in dirt beside incomprehensible immenseness, and the desire to catch a farmer’s ferry across the gorge and climb the endless peaks was almost irresistable.

going on holiday

I’m going on holiday. For more than a week, maybe even two weeks… One place I’ve always wanted to visit, mainly because it has a huge mountain there, is 玉龙雪山 Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, near 丽江 Lijiang, or to give the full name, 丽江纳西族自治县 the Lijiang Naxi Autonomous Region. Anyway. Holiday. Art. I’m staying at the Lijiang Artist Studio, and will be showing some stuff from Guangzhou, and extermination.

I’m not planning on blogging, checking my email, taking my phone or iPod until I return. Enjoy the silence.