No Ordinary History
Author Frank Dikötter’s China trilogy offers fresh insight into some of the most turbulent periods in Chinese history.
09 July 2014
Frank Dikötter will be among the English-language authors featuring at this year’s HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair, 16-22 July. The Dutch historian is the author of nine books, including The Discourse of Race in Modern China and the more recent Mao's Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, which won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Its follow-up, The Tragedy of Liberation: a History of the Chinese Revolution, was selected as one of the Books of the Year by the Economist and the Sunday Times, and was short-listed for the Orwell Prize. He is now working on the final volume of his trilogy, on China’s Cultural Revolution.
The author moved to Hong Kong in 2006 to take up the post of Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. Prior to that, he was Professor of the Modern History of China at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. In Six Questions, the historian explains how new archives released in the last few years are helping to shed light on some of modern China’s watershed moments.
In his trilogy on modern China, historian Frank Dikötter seeks to shed light on the lives of ordinary people under Mao Zedong's rule from 1949 to 1976
How did you end up a China specialist?
When I was a university student in the 1980s, most of my history teachers only taught us about Europe's past. To gain good access to archives in China was unimaginable, so it really looked as if the People's Republic was the last frontier for historians, and I think that is what got me going; the idea that there was something fresh to be said about a quarter of the world’s humanity.
Tell us about the different periods covered by your modern China trilogy.
The first volume that came out in the trilogy was Mao’s Great Famine, and it showed the sheer scale of the horror of what happened between 1958 and 1962, when more than 45 million people were worked, beaten or starved to death. It also showed how people of all walks of life managed to survive the famine, despite all odds, by relying on their wits.
That was followed by The Tragedy of Liberation, a book that pointed out how the Chinese revolution was based much more on systematic violence, as well as broken promises, rather than on a moral mandate or a popular uprising.
The last book in the people’s trilogy is on the Cultural Revolution. Oddly enough, in terms of sheer numbers of casualties, the Cultural Revolution was a respite after the violence of the 1950s and the mass starvation of the early 1960s. What was distinct about the Cultural Revolution was not so much the scale of the violence, although of course, it was widespread, but the extent of fear and betrayal. People of all walks of life were compelled to betray their family, friends and colleagues; that, to me, lies at the heart of the Cultural Revolution.
There have been many books written about this period in China’s history. What new light do you hope to shed through your books?
If you look at the history of China from 1949 to 1976, what we had until a couple of years ago was very much based on official documents, supplemented here and there by a few memoirs. It’s clearly not the best type of material for a historian. And, until recently, historians focused on top leaders such as Mao Zedong or Zhou Enlai. My question is the following: where are the people in the People’s Republic of China? Where’s the history of the ordinary people, from small shopkeepers to impoverished farmers? I answered it by using massive amounts of party archives, which have become available the last eight to 10 years, and they contain a wealth of information on all aspects of everyday life under Mao. Archives allow us to approach that whole period from a very different and much fresher perspective.
Are archives a more reliable source of information than interviews with people who lived during that time?
The archives give us a clear sense of the scale of the disaster that took place after 1949. To give an example, we didn’t quite realise how many people were executed in 1951, when literally hundreds of thousands were sentenced to death. The evidence comes from documentation compiled by the party itself. And the evidence shows that even when Mao set the tone, he was not the only one responsible for what happened. There were people at every level of the social hierarchy, including ordinary villagers outside the party ranks, who participated in these campaigns; for instance by denouncing their neighbour, even if he was innocent. So the picture that comes out of the archives is in shades of grey rather than in black and white.
But the archives also help to illustrate the extent to which people resisted communism from the very beginning and continued to resist for many years, despite all the fear and violence inflicted by the state. Now that we have access to the archives, it becomes clear how much more chaotic the whole era was, as party leaders were undermined every step of the way by ordinary people. People took much more initiative then we ever suspected. They were not just followers, they were agents and they made their own choices, however limited, and despite all the restrictions imposed by the one-party state. That makes for a more vibrant and interesting history.
What were some of your impressions while doing the research?
When I started working on Mao’s Great Famine in 2006, I remember being taken aback by the extraordinary detail of the documentation preserved in the party archives: many documents listed in great detail who did what to which person.
I was also surprised at how open the archives were when it came to the 1950s and the early 1960s. By comparison, work on the Cultural Revolution was much more difficult, as it is still seen to be a more sensitive period.
How important is Mao in today’s China?
His portrait still looms over Tiananmen Square. His face is on every renminbi bill. Why? Mao is the equivalent of both Lenin and Stalin. It’s very difficult to get rid of his image because there would be nothing left. If the Communist Party takes down his portrait, it will end up with a big void. In the Soviet Union, when Stalin was taken out of his mausoleum, the party could still worship Lenin.
And don't underestimate the extent of censorship that still goes on in China. You cannot buy many books on the Maoist era in the People's Republic. There is no memorial for the victims of Mao’s Great Famine, nor is there a museum or a memorial day. In fact, you can hardly find a public debate about them.
I don't particularly like or dislike Mao. I see my role more as a historian who tries to capture the many ways in which ordinary people had to live throughout those 30 years. My focus is on ordinary people, not on Mao himself. He’s not the only dictator in the 20th century. There are also Stalin, Kim Il-sung and Pol Pot, just to mention a few leaders of other communist regimes. Then there are the fascist dictators, from Hitler to Franco. There’s a rich crop of nasty leaders in the 20th century and Mao was just one of them.
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