Sun, Jun 19, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Defending a radical reappraisal of modern Chinese history

Frank Dikotter is a pioneering historian and friend of Taiwan who has stirred controversy with his books about China

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Still in his early 40s, Frank Dikotter (馮客) is already a celebrated historian of China in the early years of the 20th century -- its Republican period. He has just concluded an eight-month visiting professorship at Hong Kong University and during that time made several trips to Taiwan, a place he holds in high esteem. This is hardly surprising as it represents many of the things that as a scholar he holds most dear: diversity, tolerance, and the kind of freedoms that encourage prosperity and a profusion of consumer products.

Dikotter grew up near the Dutch border town of Maastricht but moved to Switzerland at the age of 12. His first degree was at the University of Geneva where he majored in Russian and history, with Chinese only as a minor subject. The mid-1980s saw him in China, however, and then in 1987 he moved to the history department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London University. He has remained there ever since and was made a professor in 2002.

Dikotter first came to Taiwan in 1983 as a young student visiting for a month in the summer. It was his first trip outside Europe. Taiwan was and is exciting, he thinks, because it is simultaneously so different from Europe and yet so global in its interactions. Nowadays he visits almost annually and was a resident scholar at Academia Sinica for three months in 1997.

Attention to the historical archives is crucial to Dikotter's method and he is strongly critical of over-arching historical theories.

"Go to the archives and they will tell you many stories," he says. "A rigid insistence on theory will only lead to selective use of evidence. More fruitful is to look for counter-evidence, which can challenge your theory and improve your approach. Once you part company with what the archives have to offer, simplistic theories quickly take over and lead you to misunderstand the past."

This approach has led Dikotter to radical reappraisals of modern Chinese history. The Republican period itself, for instance, has frequently been seen as chaotic, with a weak central government, constant in-fighting and endless social problems, culminating in invasion by Japan. He sees the era very differently. There was a major movement of goods, people and ideas in the period, he says, and on a scale unprecedented in Chinese history. Millions sought work abroad and then returned with foreign perspectives. There was a large upsurge of ideas from abroad on democracy, law and prison reform, for instance, and a diverse array of religions flourished -- Buddhism, Christianity and Japanese Zen practices all grew in this period in China, and representatives of these religious communities established schools, orphanages and universities.

"The suffering of ordinary people in China endured between 1911 and 1949 was minor compared with what they were to experience after 1949 when 30 to 40 million people died as a result of the Great Leap Forward alone," Dikotter says.

Much of the best scholarship on this Republican era in China, he adds, has come from Taiwan.

As for Taiwan itself, its half-century under Japanese rule was more beneficial than China's half-century under the Communist Party has been. Colonialism itself, Dikotter believes, has to be judged on its achievements and failings on the ground in specific cases, and should not be simply damned root-and-branch. Language is a good example. Confucianism in China was wiping out local languages long before the days of Communism. Sinologists point out how the Chinese script enabled people from different regions to understand each other, but they neglect the fact that it also made for the easy obliteration of minority languages. Forcing every scholar to write in Mandarin was the equivalent of making Shakespeare or Montesquieu publish in Latin, he says.

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