It’s a commonly-held opinion that all revolutions begin in gladness but eventually descend to despondency and madness (to quote Wordsworth). The French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, it’s thought, started with the people’s joy at the overthrow of the old regimes, but their attitudes later became characterized by a horror at the realities of the new ones.
Frank Dikotter, in the case of China’s revolution, begs to differ. Things were pretty much dreadful from the very start, he argues, and there’s little evidence of an initial “honeymoon” period.
This isn’t a book about contemporary China. The events surveyed happened 50 years and more ago, so any attempt to marshal ideas of the grim reality of the initial revolutionary period in any contemporary “neo-Cold War” polemic would be inappropriate. There isn’t even much disagreement in China itself over what constituted the reality in that far-off era.
This new book constitutes the initial volume in Dikotter’s projected “People’s Trilogy”, a three-volume project that kicks off with this present title, has his Mao’s Great Famine [reviewed in the Taipei Times September 12, 2010] in the middle, and will conclude with a book on the Cultural Revolution. Dikotter, in other words, began in the middle and has now completed the opening volume.
The general outline of these early, often brutal, years is probably well-enough known. There was the murder of landlords, the starving of previously pro-Nationalist cities into submission, the Terror that saw one in a thousand, perhaps more, killed as class enemies, the intimidation through confessions and “study-sessions,” and the sending of half a million intellectuals to labor camps in 1957. Alongside these were hugely ambitious economic programs that gave people reason to feel that life was indeed going to get better, and quickly.
THE TRAGEDY OF LIBERATION: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-1957
By Frank Dikotter
There are some extraordinary details here, such as that Mao Zedong (毛澤東) drove to Beijing in 1949 in a bullet-proof Dodge limousine made in Detroit for Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) personal use in the 1930s. After the fall of Nanjing, the Nationalist capital, “Chen Yi (陳毅) and Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) took turns sitting in Chaing Kai-shek’s chair.” But then the narrative is vivid and full of color everywhere, making this book a potential blockbuster as well as a piece of extensive historical research.
Dikotter’s historical summaries are also brisk. Few complained at the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 — Britain had “lost interest in the region … since India had become independent,” and the UN “had their hands full with the Korean War.” There are few complexities here to perplex the general reader.
All in all, this book seems to represent something of a change of tone for Dikotter. Personal accounts are extensively used, and the prose style is markedly popular and accessible. There isn’t a boring paragraph anywhere, and considering that the author must have had to read through some boring primary material, he must simply have decided to leave most of it out. The benefit for the ordinary reader is immense. Dikotter has never been a dull writer, but here he appears to be reaching out for a mass readership. This book, you’ll note, is being published, like Mao’s Great Famine, by Bloomsbury, not by one of the increasingly pervasive university presses.
Readable, not entirely check-able, summaries abound. “People fled the rust-red plain in droves.” “Mao would agree to almost anything on paper, so long as nobody was checking what he was doing on the ground.” “Thousands of banners fluttered in the autumn breeze above a sea of people carefully selected from all walks of life.” “[Prostitutes] stood in the doorways openly soliciting customers: ‘Come in for a cup of tea!’” This is popular history and, though some academics may disdain it, it’s welcome to have Dikotter, a man whose research credentials are impeccable, trying his hand at the style so successfully.