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After the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward that claimed tens of millions of lives from 1958–1962, an aging Mao Zedong launched an ambitious scheme to shore up his reputation and eliminate those he viewed as a threat to his legacy. The stated goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the country of bourgeois, capitalistic elements he claimed were threatening g After the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward that claimed tens of millions of lives from 1958–1962, an aging Mao Zedong launched an ambitious scheme to shore up his reputation and eliminate those he viewed as a threat to his legacy. The stated goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the country of bourgeois, capitalistic elements he claimed were threatening genuine communist ideology. Young students formed the Red Guards, vowing to defend the Chairman to the death, but soon rival factions started fighting each other in the streets with semiautomatic weapons in the name of revolutionary purity. As the country descended into chaos, the military intervened, turning China into a garrison state marked by bloody purges that crushed as many as one in fifty people. The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976 draws for the first time on hundreds of previously classified party documents, from secret police reports to unexpurgated versions of leadership speeches. Frank Dikötter uses this wealth of material to undermine the picture of complete conformity that is often supposed to have characterized the last years of the Mao era. After the army itself fell victim to the Cultural Revolution, ordinary people used the political chaos to resurrect the market and hollow out the party's ideology. In short, they buried Maoism. By showing how economic reform from below was an unintended consequence of a decade of violent purges and entrenched fear, The Cultural Revolution casts China's most tumultuous era in a wholly new light.


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After the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward that claimed tens of millions of lives from 1958–1962, an aging Mao Zedong launched an ambitious scheme to shore up his reputation and eliminate those he viewed as a threat to his legacy. The stated goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the country of bourgeois, capitalistic elements he claimed were threatening g After the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward that claimed tens of millions of lives from 1958–1962, an aging Mao Zedong launched an ambitious scheme to shore up his reputation and eliminate those he viewed as a threat to his legacy. The stated goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the country of bourgeois, capitalistic elements he claimed were threatening genuine communist ideology. Young students formed the Red Guards, vowing to defend the Chairman to the death, but soon rival factions started fighting each other in the streets with semiautomatic weapons in the name of revolutionary purity. As the country descended into chaos, the military intervened, turning China into a garrison state marked by bloody purges that crushed as many as one in fifty people. The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976 draws for the first time on hundreds of previously classified party documents, from secret police reports to unexpurgated versions of leadership speeches. Frank Dikötter uses this wealth of material to undermine the picture of complete conformity that is often supposed to have characterized the last years of the Mao era. After the army itself fell victim to the Cultural Revolution, ordinary people used the political chaos to resurrect the market and hollow out the party's ideology. In short, they buried Maoism. By showing how economic reform from below was an unintended consequence of a decade of violent purges and entrenched fear, The Cultural Revolution casts China's most tumultuous era in a wholly new light.

30 review for The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962-1976

  1. 4 out of 5

    Gwern

    Moved to gwern.net due to length. Moved to gwern.net due to length.

  2. 5 out of 5

    fourtriplezed

    The final in a very good trilogy on the three phases of China under Mao. I turned 17 when Mao died. After his death I recall the trials of the Gang of Four even receiving coverage on the very limited news services in Brisbane Australia. It was very exotic (for want of a better word) and in a faraway country I had not really given any thought to at the time. It seemed such an odd name. Gang of Four! One had images of four young hoodlums holding up old ladies for the small change in their purses. The final in a very good trilogy on the three phases of China under Mao. I turned 17 when Mao died. After his death I recall the trials of the Gang of Four even receiving coverage on the very limited news services in Brisbane Australia. It was very exotic (for want of a better word) and in a faraway country I had not really given any thought to at the time. It seemed such an odd name. Gang of Four! One had images of four young hoodlums holding up old ladies for the small change in their purses. It was a name I associated as an insult by the new regime. Nope! On page 306 of this fascinating read it says that it was coined by Mao himself. “Mao was playing one faction off against the other in the hope that none would be strong enough to challenge him” the author write. And that was the politics of The Cultural Revolution. Mao playing one faction off against another. To the detriment of the population at large. This review hardly needs to explain the Cultural Revolution, there are plenty of resources out there. But books such as this do throw up events and individuals that play minor roles in the narrative but are nonetheless part of the complex history told. Damansky Island incident in March 1969 for example. In chapter 16 Preparing For War the author discusses the usual political machination and propaganda that Mao used in pursuit of his domestic goals. The USSR and China had disputed the island previously but now Chinese troops eventually shot at a border post. Two weeks later the clashes involved thousands of troops. Soon after Mao called a halt. “He had achieved his aim, which was to put the Soviet Union on notice…..” and as soon as the confrontation was over the internal propaganda came to the fore. “Prepare for War” became the new slogan. All this to control the outcome of the Ninth Party Congress that was due two weeks later. The only problem was the USSR took all this very seriously as one would expect and a few months later the USSR actually asked the USA how it would feel if they took out a Chinese nuclear facility. The US ignored the question. Then Pravda began a campaign against the Chinese and appealed to the world to understand the threat the Chinese had become. “The chairman was stunned.” wrote the author. This was after all a border dispute, useful for the Machiavellian politics of Mao, not an all-out war with a vastly superior opponent. China agreed to talk and concessions were made. But Mao, ever the paranoid leader put the country on a war footing nonetheless with both the USSR and the USA at the end of the internal propaganda. My one fault with the book for me is a big one and marks it down from outstanding. During the narrative the author uses the term Mao’s Great Famine to describe the terrible years of the Great Leap Forward. This is the title of his excellent book of the same name. I had no issue with the use of that in that book but not in this one. It reeks of self-promotion when there was no need. I have also put the term in search engine and each search comes to his book. For the trilogy to be considered a definitive history of China under Mao there was no need for such promotion. A small quibble some may say. In the end though I have come out of the trilogy repeating what I have said before. Why read fantasy when there is the history of China. To think I know so little and have so much more to read. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

  3. 5 out of 5

    David

    This is a great book. It's tremendously readable and astonishingly clear given the complexity of the events described. When you're finished with it (actually even before you're finished with it), you are smarter than when you started. What else can you ask for in a book? Please don't think I'm saying that just because I won a hardcover copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway. I saw a movie once where a character said that he preferred reading book reviews to books themselves because book review This is a great book. It's tremendously readable and astonishingly clear given the complexity of the events described. When you're finished with it (actually even before you're finished with it), you are smarter than when you started. What else can you ask for in a book? Please don't think I'm saying that just because I won a hardcover copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway. I saw a movie once where a character said that he preferred reading book reviews to books themselves because book reviews not only told you what the book was about, they also told you what to think about them. While not actually believing that book reviews are adequate substitutes for books, I often consult them because the people telling me what to think also ensure I'm not missing something really important. Being of a fundamentally pre-digital state of mind, I believe that the opinions expressed in publications of long standing are more likely to contain worthwhile insights than, say, the random unedited thoughts of somebody on social media, like this one. The writer in an edited publication might be a scholar in the topic, or at least a journalist who has in the past had some connection with the matter at hand, so might have insights not obvious to those newly-arrived at the topic. The two previous sentences seem so obvious that they are almost an embarrassment to type, but they are so at odds with the spirit of the age that I feel they bear repeating. In a generally positive (“well-researched and readable”) review on the web site of the Guardian, reviewer Julia Lovell seems to think that Dikotter's portrayal of Mao as “a scheming megalomaniac” lacks complexity, because Mao was also an “ideologue”. I wondered: why does it make an difference whether Mao was one or the other? Does it make a difference to the high school teachers who were beaten to death, or the urban teenaged girls raped because they were sent unprotected to country villages? Obviously not, but I guess it makes a difference to some of us, still (as of this writing) comfortable and insulated in prosperous societies. Can we test, even as a dreaded “thought experiment”, for megalomaniac versus ideologue? As I understand the word, a megalomaniac is interested exclusively in the advancement, or at least maintenance, of his (given the circs., I feel comfortable with the male pronoun) personal power. An ideologue is devoted to an ideology. Ideologues interpret ideologies. Was it ever a possibility that Mao (or any other leader) would step up one day and say “I have thought long and hard about the ideology to which I have professed devotion, and I have concluded that is it best for the advancement of the ideology if I, the leader, step down”? Negative propositions are unprovable, of course, but Mao didn't do that. It seems unlikely he would have even if circumstances had been different. I vote for megalomaniac. To return to the previous question: does it matter? It seems like it matters to Julia Lovell, the reviewer. Why? Because, I speculate, that if you can portray Mao as an ideologue, you can then portray him as a mistaken ideologue, which means that the appearance of unmistaken ideologues is still possible. The ideology is still correct. It's just that the correct implementation of the ideology hasn't appeared yet. How many tries does the ideology get?

  4. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    As with his other books, Prof. Dikötter has done an excellent job providing a detailed account of China, this time under Mao’s last years. I had this thought that Mao, sensing the consequences of the disastrous Great Leap Forward Backward, and reacting to the potential implications of Khrushchev’s demise, permitted his politically ambitious fourth wife, Jian Qing, and others, to foment the Cultural Revolution, which appears to be a case of a snake eating its tail. What better way to deflect atte As with his other books, Prof. Dikötter has done an excellent job providing a detailed account of China, this time under Mao’s last years. I had this thought that Mao, sensing the consequences of the disastrous Great Leap Forward Backward, and reacting to the potential implications of Khrushchev’s demise, permitted his politically ambitious fourth wife, Jian Qing, and others, to foment the Cultural Revolution, which appears to be a case of a snake eating its tail. What better way to deflect attention from his many incompetencies than to set his fellow countrymen upon one another with vengeance. I think I’m now benumbed to tales of mass horror, the murders, the starvations, the many brutalities, for these misfortunes were limited in neither time nor number in our past century. No, they were repeated through the decades and often involved tens of millions of persons at a time. At least I now feel I understand the reason for this conduct. Defying justice, many of the leaders of these sordid events lived out their natural lives; not so Jian Qing, who, in the end, got her just dessert, though that course was self-serve following years of imprisonment.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Dmitri

    The Cultural Revolution failed on an ideological level. The plot to overthrow communism succeeded, and capitalism (with Chinese characteristics) is the economic model of the People's Republic. On a more practical level it secured Mao's unchallenged power so well that his successors are in control a half century later. The Cultural Revolution ('66-'76) was a mass social upheaval of students and workers unleashed by Mao against his perceived enemies within the party and army. During the Great Leap The Cultural Revolution failed on an ideological level. The plot to overthrow communism succeeded, and capitalism (with Chinese characteristics) is the economic model of the People's Republic. On a more practical level it secured Mao's unchallenged power so well that his successors are in control a half century later. The Cultural Revolution ('66-'76) was a mass social upheaval of students and workers unleashed by Mao against his perceived enemies within the party and army. During the Great Leap Forward ('58-'62) command economy and collective farming starved some thirty million people to death. Mao's political capital was nearly expended and comrades were emboldened to criticize his policies. It was at once a brilliant and ruthless gambit to weaponize the people against his political enemies. When the Cultural Revolution was over the party was purged and the comrades were chastened, notably Mao's Number Two, Liu Shaoqi (who died under Mao's arrest) and future leader Deng Xiaoping (who survived to succeed Mao). The student uprisings nearly led to civil war, until Mao dialed them down and declared the military in charge by late '68. Mao's cult of personality had now been unquestionably established and backed by his junta he was worshipped throughout the land. In the later phases the people too were excoriated by military-led revolutionary committees. Ordinary citizens were denounced, interrogated, imprisoned or executed for fabricated class crimes. Professionals, teachers, and students were banished from large cities to be re-educated in the countryside. They labored and starved among a peasant population unable to absorb them. The revolution devolved into endless upheaval whose purpose was to intimidate and control the people. This last volume of a trilogy on post WWII China is told through recently available memoirs, articles and archives. They run from popular accounts to unpublished diaries. Anecdotes are pasted together like snippets in a scrapbook, arranged chronologically to form a narrative. This becomes a formidable wall of information, with an absence of analysis apart from interjected comments. Readers are left to their own conclusions, although the events often speak for themselves. The book does not take an overtly polemical stance, although some may assert that it does. Is Dikotter a red-baiter​ or Mao hater? Interviews on National Public Radio and the South China Post note the dilemma he faced was 'the level of horror to present'. The book does have a sensational tenor at times. Perhaps it is the extremity of the era, but it is also the focus of the author. Dikotter reflects 'to be silent risks complicity', a line of thought once expressed by Elie Wiesel. What is described in this book is so troubling that unless one denies its veracity, one must criticize the regime that made it possible. The hardest lesson may not be what an unchecked leader can do to his people, but rather what an unchecked people can do to each other. It is a disturbing portrait of the events that unfolded.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Emmett Hoops

    Dikötter has, with this book, completed his trilogy documenting the horrific and criminal betrayal of China's revolution of 1949. The sheer, unadulterated cynicism employed by Mao is shown to be principally in support of his manipulation of people around him. If you stepped on his toe in 1934, you could be sure that he'd remember -- and that you'd pay for it somehow. What you didn't know is that you might well be branded a "capitalist-roader", a spy, a counter-revolutionary, or just "black." Bla Dikötter has, with this book, completed his trilogy documenting the horrific and criminal betrayal of China's revolution of 1949. The sheer, unadulterated cynicism employed by Mao is shown to be principally in support of his manipulation of people around him. If you stepped on his toe in 1934, you could be sure that he'd remember -- and that you'd pay for it somehow. What you didn't know is that you might well be branded a "capitalist-roader", a spy, a counter-revolutionary, or just "black." Black, not red. Dikötter does an amazing job keeping the facts straight, which is amazing in itself. The country is huge, and there were so many responsible for so many crimes; yet the story holds together as a linear narrative. I can't wait to see what Frank Dikötter comes up with next. Maybe he can expose Nixon -- oh, no, Rick Perlstein already did that!

  7. 4 out of 5

    S.

    important history book about the period of time when China collectively dissolved into madness. style is fine and tight, and skill of the historian Dikotter is evident.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    I am a tutor and am currently working with a Chinese gentleman, who lives in the US, on his English. We talk for 1 1/2 hours per day and even Skype for a short time when he is in China. One day he commented that it was the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. We discussed it a bit. On the way home, thanks to Terry Gross and Fresh Air, I heard an interview with the author of this book and had to read it. Part of the importance of this book is that it has new information and is not just a I am a tutor and am currently working with a Chinese gentleman, who lives in the US, on his English. We talk for 1 1/2 hours per day and even Skype for a short time when he is in China. One day he commented that it was the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. We discussed it a bit. On the way home, thanks to Terry Gross and Fresh Air, I heard an interview with the author of this book and had to read it. Part of the importance of this book is that it has new information and is not just a rehash of the old. Archives have been opened in China that weren't available previously and people's memoirs, diaries, and sometimes even the people themselves, are available. Dikotter took advantage of all of these to give us a history that shows much about the Chinese people during these times. A simple explanation of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that many people hear is that the students, called the Red Guard, took after the people they thought of a "capitalist-roaders," who had an incorrect understanding of Mao Zedong thought and no appreciation for the Communist way of life. Eventually they were sent to the countryside for "reeducation." And that's that. This revolution is more twisted than that and the most twisted that I've ever read about. All revolutions have bad times but this one was one long bad time. When students began to criticize their teachers for inadequate support of Mao Zedong thought, Mao himself encouraged them saying that criticism was good. Before long, all students of "good" background (higher social classes) were marching through the streets to people's houses, tearing them apart, looking for evidence of "old thinking." It got out of hand. Mao had to rein them in and find a convenient scapegoat. But something else had to be encouraged instead. Also during this time, collectivisation in the country was being quietly overridden by peasants who were gradually taking land back for private uses. The country had fallen into a famine because of the amount of grain and other resources that were "tribute" to the Party and the cities. China clamped down and demanded collectivisation again. Its city populations had grown during this time because people in the country came to the city due to starvation. So, the Party first deported those who had come from the country back to the country, then sent city residents out to "learn" from the peasant lifestyle. Many students volunteered to move, even though it meant that they could not return to the city. Most found the conditions horrid and, for them, unliveable. Many tried to get back to the cities. Since the collectivisation didn't work - more famine - the State had to look the other way and allow private property and private businesses again. However, it appeared that there might be war with Russia, so many essential businesses (steel making, etc.) were literally moved to the interior of the country to protect them. Bad soil, not fit for farming, brought more famine to these workers. Everytime something went wrong, which it did almost daily, Mao had someone else blamed for it. He was the supreme leader and could not be faulted. If he had stated in his speeches that something must be done, it must, and if that something turned out wrong, one of his associates had not done it properly. The Chinese people during these 10 years were in a revolving door. Many of them simply kept their heads down and tried to sneak through life unnoticed. Every few days, things changed. What you were to believe and profess one day was treason the next. There was no rhyme or reason to who might be taken to jail at any time. Other people took advantage of the changes to get even with anyone who had crossed them at any time in their lives. However, they had to worry that, when the tables turned, they would be the victims. Dikotter does a wonderful job of making these twists and turns understandable (which is more than the Chinese going through them could). He uses the people's memoirs, interviews, diary excerpts, whenever he can to give a good picture of how the average Chinese lived through the mess. In a way, it's amazing that they could, but when you look at it, it's just about the same today. People can only shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes at the stupidity of the government and hold their tongues.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Alexander

    An excellent history of one of China's political upheavals. Frank Dikötter does an excellent job of combining primary sources and daily life into a clear, dramatic, and very accessible history. I won't reprise the Cultural Revolution here. The Wikipedia entry is a good starting place. Suffice to say that Mao, fading from power, launched a chaotic series of events upon China which he more or less managed to control. The CR let Mao rebuild his power immensely at the cost of economic, personal, and An excellent history of one of China's political upheavals. Frank Dikötter does an excellent job of combining primary sources and daily life into a clear, dramatic, and very accessible history. I won't reprise the Cultural Revolution here. The Wikipedia entry is a good starting place. Suffice to say that Mao, fading from power, launched a chaotic series of events upon China which he more or less managed to control. The CR let Mao rebuild his power immensely at the cost of economic, personal, and cultural devastation. Several points in particular struck me. First, the role of the army. Dikötter sees the People's Liberation Army playing a key role in the Revolution, stepping in to manage chaos, while not being ordered into position by Mao. At times the state becomes a military regime. Lin Biao emerges from the narrative as an ambitious yet fragile player, Mao's number two, a potential Caesar undone by a still obscure plot. Second, the role of war fever. After the revolution thundered for a couple of years, Mao added fears of conflict with both the USSR and USA. Slight yet significant armed clashes triggered a nation-wide panic. Huge amounts of industry were relocated into central China. Extensive underground tunnels were dug, not always well. And, of course, even more power accumulated in Mao's hands. Third, the 1950s' Great Leap Forward disasters continued into the 60s. Mass starvation, peasant suspicion of the state, economic devastation all persisted. The CR tried to overwrite the GLP, as it were, and didn't always succeed. When the Cultural Revolution ended unresolved Great Leap Forward issues remained. Fourth, student life was insane to a possibly unique level in world history. Mao kicked off the CR by giving students, including middle schoolers, a revolutionary remit. Students formed into Red Guards who pledged themselves to Mao then terrorized their communities, schools included. Once Mao got what he wanted from this period, he then send millions of those students to work in rural drudgery and suffering. I'm still trying to imagine what kind of adults that combined experience formed. Fifth, the sheer contrast with what will happen next. After Mao dies and the Gang of Four fall, Deng led China into a strange future, a hybrid of communism and capitalism that became history's greatest upward arc. Never had so many people moved out of poverty, so many factories - entire cities! - built. After the Cultural Revolution's chaos and bitterness comes a golden age, at least in terms of economic growth and political stability. As a Soviet studies buff, I was also struck by the persistence of Khrushchev as a kind of revisionist character. Obviously recommended for anyone with interest in China or 20th century history. Also for anyone with an interest in history.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Brandon Abraham

    Frank Dikötter's The Cultural Revolution: A People's History 1962-1976 completes the trilogy begun with 2010's Mao's Great Famine and continued in 2013 with a prequel volume, The Tragedy of Liberation. While I have not had the opportunity to read these earlier, highly-regarded works, his narrative history of the Cultural Revolution manages to hold up well as an independent volume analyzing the period. Indeed, most Westerners will have certain images in mind regarding the Cultural Revolution, name Frank Dikötter's The Cultural Revolution: A People's History 1962-1976 completes the trilogy begun with 2010's Mao's Great Famine and continued in 2013 with a prequel volume, The Tragedy of Liberation. While I have not had the opportunity to read these earlier, highly-regarded works, his narrative history of the Cultural Revolution manages to hold up well as an independent volume analyzing the period. Indeed, most Westerners will have certain images in mind regarding the Cultural Revolution, namely the Little Red Book, Red Guards marching brazenly through the streets, and the systematic destruction of much of China's ancient heritage in an attempt to bring China firmly into line with socialist ideology as espoused by Chairman Mao("Mao Zedong Thought"). While these are all part of what turns out to be a quite disturbing picture, Dikötter goes to great length to emphasize the human scale of the tragedy which, although nowhere near the colossal disaster of the Great Leap Forward in terms of sheer numeric scale, exceeds that tragedy in its current repercussions and ability to undermine the Chinese Communist Party, as much of what Dikötter writes casts the largest political party to have ever existed, aside from India's BJP, in an exceedingly negative light. In terms of his argument, Dikötter portrays Mao as using the Cultural Revolution as a means to consolidate what had increasingly become a weakening grip on the Party. While many of the author's attempts to create parallels between Stalin's predicament in the 1930's and Mao's in the 1960's seem forced and short on elaboration, he is able to convincingly demonstrate how Mao might have been sidelined during this time. However, Dikötter effectively explains how Mao used the charge of revisionism à la Khrushchev in order to silence opposition and to place potential reformers firmly on the defensive. Once the Red Years begin(1966-1968), it is challenging indeed to envision any political opposition forming, as what were sporadic and improvised attacks on intellectuals, artists, and "bourgeois elements" turn into a systematic, highly-organized attempt to "destroy all remnants of old society." Again, Dikötter overstrains analogies-this time with the Nazi plunder of Paris-yet his point is solid. He writes, "What the Nazis did not burn, they cherished, but the same could not be said of the Red Guards. The vast majority of the loot was left to rot." No mention is made by the author of the contrast in situation-the Nazis were attempting to pacify a restive enemy while the Red Guards perceived themselves as an elite, purifying force within a larger, depoliticized population-yet, that the Red Guards displayed a contempt for elements of traditional culture cannot be argued. Much has been made of Dikötter's sources, many of which are used here for the first time. I found them compelling and humanizing, but specialists might find them off-putting. Furthermore, the work's final chapters are its weakest, as Mao recedes from the spotlight, so does the urgency of Dikötter's narrative. Yet still, for a general readership, Dikötter's work will be essential reading for years to come.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Austin Barselau

    Frank Dikotter's chronicle of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is splendid. The Cultural Revolution is a popular history, showing how the masses shaped Maoism and eventually forced its destruction. As one observer recorded in the book noted, the "people decided they did not want to go on living the way they were doing, and they were setting up ways to het themselves out of their predicament." This plotting loosened the state's grip on industry, commerce, and agriculture, unspooling the mission of Frank Dikotter's chronicle of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is splendid. The Cultural Revolution is a popular history, showing how the masses shaped Maoism and eventually forced its destruction. As one observer recorded in the book noted, the "people decided they did not want to go on living the way they were doing, and they were setting up ways to het themselves out of their predicament." This plotting loosened the state's grip on industry, commerce, and agriculture, unspooling the mission of the Cultural Revolution and Maoism. Dikotter's history underlines a crucial, oft-overlooked history of tension between the popular masses and the power-wielders in high office.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Chris Jaffe

    It’s a good book, but one I heard trouble following at times. It finishes up a trilogy Dikotter wrote on China under Mao – a heavily critical trilogy to put it mildly. Then again – it’s hard to be critical of Mao given how badly he bungled China. Dikotter begins by noting that Mao had two intertwined goals: 1) create his vision o the socialist world free of revision, and 2) revenge on those party leaders who sidelined him after the Great Leap Forward fiasco. Death toll estimates vary wildly, but It’s a good book, but one I heard trouble following at times. It finishes up a trilogy Dikotter wrote on China under Mao – a heavily critical trilogy to put it mildly. Then again – it’s hard to be critical of Mao given how badly he bungled China. Dikotter begins by noting that Mao had two intertwined goals: 1) create his vision o the socialist world free of revision, and 2) revenge on those party leaders who sidelined him after the Great Leap Forward fiasco. Death toll estimates vary wildly, but usually it’s believed that 1.5 to 2 million died, with many more lives ruined. Mao never liked reform that wasn’t aggressive, and did the 100 Flowers Campaign as a way to make China go his way – but it backfired. Mao saw his opponents as Chinese Khrushschevs – people he couldn’t trust. In the opening parts of the book, the concern over a Chinese Khrushchev comes up repeatedly. There was a chance to dump Mao after the Great Leap, but it didn’t happen. Mao apologized for his mistakes at a big party meeting, but did so in a way that opened the door for other party leaders to do likewise. There was a punishment campaign on the underground economy – a Socialist Education Campaign – that cost over 700,000 lives. Liu Shaoqi was in charge. Deng ran the post-100 Flowers anti-rightist campaign. Thus when The Cultural Revolution got going, plenty wanted to take aim at them. Mao began to criticize art. He didn’t believe in “art for art’s sake.” It always had an agenda, and some he didn’t like the message. He also promoted the cult of Lei Feng. This shifted to an attack on the Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. The Red Guards went into action and destroyed much. There was even a massacre of cats. The outburts lasted only a few weeks but left a big mark. The uniformity and plainness became required – clothes, hair, food. Many categories of people became unemployed (like florists). 2-5 billion Mao buttons were made, using up much of the nation’s aluminum. The Red Guards were given free travel for a spell, which had some background class resentments against them. It also caused a meningitis epidemic that killed 160,000. The rebels began – kids of bad class background (“born black”). The red/black meaning shifts, though, when Mao saw the Red Guards as to feudal in their stressing of their famly backgrounds. Now party leaders became targeted by the new wave. It was rebels versus royalists. Mao tapped into a deep pool of resentment – much aimed at Deng and Liu. These new guards wanted to be seen as true revolutionaries. Big battles broke out in Shanghai. The economy was badly hurt and fragmented. Mao saw to the smashing of courts, police, and prosecutions. The army took over, and was suspicious of all the guards. The army opposed the Cultural Revolution’s leaders, but Mao got the support of Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao. Mao bullied down the military leaders. By June 1967, the nation’s economy was in chaos. The movement itself was splintering. Rebels assaulted army arsenals and military commands. Armed battles went on, often over personal vendettas. Embassies were attacked and threatened – and that’s when things went too far. Maso saw the danger and promised to reign it in. The Cultural Revolution’s posters were taken down. A new faction emerged: those disaffected by all the CR. The Cult of Mao was increased, and the CCP’s prestige down. The loyalty dance and Mao statues rose. Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao waged a proxy war. Liu Shaoqi was expelled from the CCP. A campaign went on to ferret out class enemies and clear the ranks. 68,000 enemies were found in Beijing alone in the summer of 1968. Teachers were now harassed by Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams instead o Red Guards. Many died and many committed suicide due to this campaign. The students were told to go to the countryside to learn. Illusions were shattered. Many lacked food and were destitute. Many died of disease, hunger, and suicide. 18-20 million were banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Border battles with the USSR happened, leading the militarization of China. Lin Biao’s power peaked. Tunnels were built for possible war. Almost everyone heleped build shelters. Factories were built deep in the infrastructure. It was called “the Third Front.” A massive investment, it was 2/3 of all of China’s industrial investment from 1964-71. There was a campaign for self-reliance. Zhou Enlai was protected in a new purge. Liu Shaoqui died. Millions were persecuted – maybe as many as 16 million. It was to create a docile population. Mao became suspicious of Lin Biao, and he fled. They disagreed with Mao’s new line to America, among other things. After Lin Biao died, Nixon visited and some purged came back. The military’s role declined. The economy was in poor shape with 200,000,00 suffering some degree of malnutrition. Places started taking on elements of the market economy. This was caused by division atop of China. Radial collectivists were ousted. The underground economy and underground movement of people was HUGE. AN underground society also emerged: traditional culture survived. Illicit radio listening went on. The strength of the family and religion survived. Mao pulled back and sorta had an anti-Zhou Enlai campaign. Jing Qing overreached and Deng ended up the most important person under Mao. Then Mao shifted to the left and an anti-Deng movement occurred. Then they all died and Deng came to power. The author argues that economic change pre-dated Deng. The last part was the weakest, though, as it was all tacked on and given short shrift. The earlier parts were a little confusing, as it wasn’t always clear who was up and down. Then again, the Cultural Revolution itself was confusing. It’s an OK book, but a bit disappointing.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Bon

    DNFing at 29%, for now at least. Very dense and informative but I was sick to my stomach at the content. Will come back to it sometime....maybe.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Nico Bruin

    Many people mistakingly think of Totalitarian societies as extremely rigid and unchanging. This perception is incorrect. Totalitarianism is chaos, for totalitarian governments seek to keep the population in constant fear, and therefore can't afford to be predictable. Maoist China is probably the best example to illustrate this fact. Franz Dikotter does a great job of describing the intrigue, the panic, the horror, the ridiculousness and delusionary thinking in China during cultural revolution. I di Many people mistakingly think of Totalitarian societies as extremely rigid and unchanging. This perception is incorrect. Totalitarianism is chaos, for totalitarian governments seek to keep the population in constant fear, and therefore can't afford to be predictable. Maoist China is probably the best example to illustrate this fact. Franz Dikotter does a great job of describing the intrigue, the panic, the horror, the ridiculousness and delusionary thinking in China during cultural revolution. I did find the careers of some of the key actors hard to follow, a lot the names got mixed up in my head. But if you're looking to learn some valuable lessons from this bizarre period in human history, this book will provide you with the opportunity to do just that.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tam

    Mao created such a mess. Dikotter interprets Mao's every action as his obsession with control, with his own image and power. Yet I wonder how much of it is indeed Mao's sincere beliefs. Overall the book doesn't make me feel as much shaken as the previous book Mao's Great Famine does. The stories told are still too tame. Perhaps the kind of resources/evidence seems to be under tighter control? After all, the count of deaths and physical tragedies are relatively more straightforward, while the emo Mao created such a mess. Dikotter interprets Mao's every action as his obsession with control, with his own image and power. Yet I wonder how much of it is indeed Mao's sincere beliefs. Overall the book doesn't make me feel as much shaken as the previous book Mao's Great Famine does. The stories told are still too tame. Perhaps the kind of resources/evidence seems to be under tighter control? After all, the count of deaths and physical tragedies are relatively more straightforward, while the emotional toll on human psyche no matter how great is not as easily revealed. Suicide, suicide, suicide, many were tortured physically yes, but the psychological effects that led them to utter depression? They are no longer here to tell. The ones who survive want to forget. The ones who were born later can only guess.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Noah Goats

    Mao really was an absolute monster. His brutal and incompetent leadership killed millions during the ironically named “Great Leap Forward” and by the mid 1960’s he was ready to show the world that he still had the power to make things worse for his country, so he inaugurated the Cultural Revolution. In this gripping book Frank Dikotter tells the whole story from the perspectives both of those who managed the Revolution and those who suffered its consequences. Mao was motivated by a desire to sho Mao really was an absolute monster. His brutal and incompetent leadership killed millions during the ironically named “Great Leap Forward” and by the mid 1960’s he was ready to show the world that he still had the power to make things worse for his country, so he inaugurated the Cultural Revolution. In this gripping book Frank Dikotter tells the whole story from the perspectives both of those who managed the Revolution and those who suffered its consequences. Mao was motivated by a desire to show that he was still in charge and that the people were still behind him, and he didn’t care that he was ruining millions of lives and damaging the economy of his country. In its early stages students were encouraged to denounce their teachers as right wingers and then to beat, torture, and sometimes even kill them. Books were burned, historical treasures destroyed. Ordinary people had their homes broken into by opportunistic thugs who robbed and vandalized with impunity. As is usual with bouts of radical political violence, soon factions within the left began turning against each other. Every group claimed to be the true champion of socialism while its opponents were monsters, demons, and rightist counterrevolutionaries. Soon the government was chasing shadows at various levels and harassing, jailing, torturing, and driving thousands to suicide. The nightmare logic of Communist China under Mao can be seen in the story of a boy who accused his mother of being a counterrevolutionary because she burned a picture of Mao. After she was shot, he was himself persecuted for being the child of a counterrevolutionary. There was no way to win. Mao’s attempts to destroy both human nature and Chinese culture were destined to fail. Even before Mao’s death the most resourceful people were already starting their own little businesses, and after his death capitalism, though still governed with a heavy hand, began to breakout everywhere and drive China to its current position on the world stage: wealthy, successful, but still terribly repressive politically.

  17. 5 out of 5

    R.

    I think this is the weakest book in Dikötter's cycle, but I don't necessarily think it's his fault. I had a hard time following all of the events, and I guess that's the tl;dr of the Cultural Revolution. The rules seemingly change every week: say the orthodoxy one day, get in trouble for it the next, recant, get reeducated, rinse, repeat. When the left was ascendent in the US I thought maybe its postmodern wing would eventually be in a position to do these sorts of plays, but that is no longer a I think this is the weakest book in Dikötter's cycle, but I don't necessarily think it's his fault. I had a hard time following all of the events, and I guess that's the tl;dr of the Cultural Revolution. The rules seemingly change every week: say the orthodoxy one day, get in trouble for it the next, recant, get reeducated, rinse, repeat. When the left was ascendent in the US I thought maybe its postmodern wing would eventually be in a position to do these sorts of plays, but that is no longer an active concern of mine at the moment. Students, rebel against the party! No, trust the party! No, the soldiers! Go learn from the peasants! No, the peasants are counter-revolutionaries! Trust the party again! No, not those people in the party! They've just been purged! No, wait, we've reinstated them! But they're bad! Rebel against them again! Mao looks like a political genius in this book though. The man was a survivor. Every time it looks like he's going to get ousted he stirs up some new campaign and outmaneuvers everyone.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Murtaza

    A very meticulous examination the political intrigues surrounding the Cultural Revolution. It was less a "People's History" in offering a ground-level view (though there was some of that) than a head-spinning accounting of the coups and counter-coups that characterized the era. The thing that I was most looking for - examinations of the transformation in Chinese culture during the period - was in relatively short supply. Dikotter is also clearly a historian and not a writer because this was writ A very meticulous examination the political intrigues surrounding the Cultural Revolution. It was less a "People's History" in offering a ground-level view (though there was some of that) than a head-spinning accounting of the coups and counter-coups that characterized the era. The thing that I was most looking for - examinations of the transformation in Chinese culture during the period - was in relatively short supply. Dikotter is also clearly a historian and not a writer because this was written in absolutely turgid and uninspiring prose for the most part. Nonetheless this work as being driven largely from primary source documents so does an undeniable service to history. At the risk of sounding like a philistine, the archival pictures including were also pretty remarkable.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Azabu

    The narrative opens after the 1962 great famine at the nadir of Mao’s popularity. The 1960s are divided into the blood-soaked Red Years--when the Red Guard had free reign to slaughter the so-called bourgeois element--and the Black Years, when the purge turned to within the party and ‘millions had their lives destroyed' followed by The Grey Years—or 1970s-- marked by Nixon’s visit. Graphic descriptions of the brutal Red Guard, an exclusive cadre of youths, evokes the Nazi era, which explains the p The narrative opens after the 1962 great famine at the nadir of Mao’s popularity. The 1960s are divided into the blood-soaked Red Years--when the Red Guard had free reign to slaughter the so-called bourgeois element--and the Black Years, when the purge turned to within the party and ‘millions had their lives destroyed' followed by The Grey Years—or 1970s-- marked by Nixon’s visit. Graphic descriptions of the brutal Red Guard, an exclusive cadre of youths, evokes the Nazi era, which explains the popularity of Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich after it was translated into Chinese. Rather than eradicate the bourgeoisie, it appears that the Cultural Revolution erased Maoism and established a thriving black market. A haunting history.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nikoleta

    Getting through 321 pages of the Cultural Revolution is a true challenge. The author includes lots of numbers and talks about the repetitive and (seemingly) never-ending reality of purges. Even now, I am confused a little bit about when did certain purges take place, who was persecuted and why, but I assume that is exactly the point: Mao's Cultural Revolution was a one big mess. If I were to change anything on this book, then to make it shorter and more concise (in terms of wording), but otherwi Getting through 321 pages of the Cultural Revolution is a true challenge. The author includes lots of numbers and talks about the repetitive and (seemingly) never-ending reality of purges. Even now, I am confused a little bit about when did certain purges take place, who was persecuted and why, but I assume that is exactly the point: Mao's Cultural Revolution was a one big mess. If I were to change anything on this book, then to make it shorter and more concise (in terms of wording), but otherwise, very well written book! If you want to understand what the Cultural Revolution was about, then it's a must. Dikötter is a true expert in his discipline :)

  21. 4 out of 5

    Edward Newman

    Superb-a terrifying history of leaders run amok. Mao's attempt to salve his reputation and retain power after the disastrous Great Leap Forward led to an absurd but tragic series of purges, denunciations and counter purges, destroying the lives of millions. An essential read to understanding modern China-Dikotter's underlying thesis is that as the central government fell apart and retreated from the more isolated areas of countryside, villagers secretly readopted market capitalism as a way of su Superb-a terrifying history of leaders run amok. Mao's attempt to salve his reputation and retain power after the disastrous Great Leap Forward led to an absurd but tragic series of purges, denunciations and counter purges, destroying the lives of millions. An essential read to understanding modern China-Dikotter's underlying thesis is that as the central government fell apart and retreated from the more isolated areas of countryside, villagers secretly readopted market capitalism as a way of survival-leading eventually to the rebirth of it nationally after Mao's death

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kathy Jo

    This is an informative and useful overview of the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China. It is also an important and cautionary tale about human nature and socio-political idealism. Along with other studies in history, the dangerous myth that people are inherently "good" is busted. This is an informative and useful overview of the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China. It is also an important and cautionary tale about human nature and socio-political idealism. Along with other studies in history, the dangerous myth that people are inherently "good" is busted.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    Like the other parts of Dikotter's trilogy of Chinese Communist mass murder, this book is too loaded with excessive anecdotes and minor characters. The chronology of events, which is so essential in a complicated and evolving story such as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is winding and often backslides without explanation. But Dikotter still manages to show that the Cultural Revolution should go down in history as perhaps the greatest outbreak of insanity to ever befall a nation. The o Like the other parts of Dikotter's trilogy of Chinese Communist mass murder, this book is too loaded with excessive anecdotes and minor characters. The chronology of events, which is so essential in a complicated and evolving story such as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is winding and often backslides without explanation. But Dikotter still manages to show that the Cultural Revolution should go down in history as perhaps the greatest outbreak of insanity to ever befall a nation. The opening of this campaign that ultimately killed millions, and ruined the lives of tens of millions more, was, of all things, a theater review. Since 1962, Chairman Mao Zedong had preached a "Socialist Education Campaign" to eradicate any lingering criticism of his disastrous Great Leap Forward and capitalist culture. But in 1965, a propagandist, with the assistance of Mao, publishes a 10,000 word criticism of a play by Wu Han, a vice mayor of Beijing, accusing the play and its supporters in the party itself being secret counterrevolutionaries. By the following year, many of the major communist figures in Beijing and the Army are removed, and a "May 16th Circular" accuses the party of being infiltrated by the bourgeoisie reactionaries. Mao calls on students in Middle School, High School and University to attack the party itself and root out these cancers, while giving them free transportation to do so. He also tells the rest of society that they can't touch the students. In a fit of power, the students form "Red Guards" as pseudo-military units and begin taking over parts of party committees and municipal governments. At the same time, they hound and denounce millions in "struggle session," many to their deaths. Gradually, the Red Guards fractionalize and warring factions of each ally with warring units of the military to create a genuine civil war, yet all claiming to support Mao himself. The burning of the British delegation in Beijing in August 1967 brings the most chaotic period of the cultural revolution to an end. Mao tells the Red Guards that they can no longer attack the military. The military, led by Lin Biao, uses the moment to consolidate control over the new revolutionary city and province committees. By December 1968, the People's Daily tells the Red Guards students who had just been rioting to move to the countryside to be educated by the masses. This is not a suggestion. Students are deported in droves to impoverished and unprepared areas to sweat out the years until Lin Biao, in mysterious circumstances, dies in a plane crash in 1971. Gradually the country return to "normal," but everyone knows the chaos and destruction unleashed to no apparent purposes discredits the party in the eyes of the nation. When Mao dies in 1976, most eyes are dry, and most are ready to move to a new way of life. As this winding chronology should demonstrate, the cultural revolution was really a series of different movements and revolutions and battles, most of them springing seemingly ex nihilo out of the Chairman's head (to be generous) or out of the chaotic flow of events. Dikotter often does a terrible job of keeping to a chronology or explaining the importance of events as he describes them. Yet it is a story like no others, one everyone in and outside China should know.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Dan Nuxoll

    This book is the conclusion of a trilogy on Mao's reign over China (1945-76). The the other two books are The Tragedy of Liberation and Mao's Great Famine. This book like the others discusses the politics of the period and draws on statistics and examples to show the effect of the political changes on the people. Many of the statistics and examples are drawn from Chinese archives. (Mao's Great Famine includes a very thoughtful evaluation of these sources). As the title indicates, this volume dea This book is the conclusion of a trilogy on Mao's reign over China (1945-76). The the other two books are The Tragedy of Liberation and Mao's Great Famine. This book like the others discusses the politics of the period and draws on statistics and examples to show the effect of the political changes on the people. Many of the statistics and examples are drawn from Chinese archives. (Mao's Great Famine includes a very thoughtful evaluation of these sources). As the title indicates, this volume deals with the various political initiatives and reversals that occurred during the Cultural Revolution. The book attributes the whole affair as Mao's efforts to maintain his authority within the Party; the strategy was to attack anyone who had a power base that could be independent of Mao. Keeping all the names straight can be difficult for a newcomer to modern Chinese history. Like the other two volumes, this one contains a good chronology of the major events. Much of the book concerns the effect of the Cultural Revolution on people's lives, generally linking them to the various initiatives than came from above. The book documents the purges and conflicts that occurred in different localities throughout China. This aspect of the book could be considered a tirade against Mao and state control over people's lives. However, in light of the myriad of examples and the available statistics, one can hardly deny that this period was a disaster for the people of China. For a more personal account of these same events, I recommend Jung Chang's Wild Swans. The last part of that book concerns many of the same events, and Dikotter draws repeatedly from that book for examples.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gremrien

    "The history of communism is, after all, a history of endless purges.” This was my “basic” book to learn about the Cultural Revolution, and I am quite resentful about it. I wish I had something better — at least, more clear and consistent. This book is very thick and detailed, and it contains tons of interesting information, and there is even a chance that it contains all the most important information about the Cultural Revolution you can find. However, there are also some major “systematic” pro "The history of communism is, after all, a history of endless purges.” This was my “basic” book to learn about the Cultural Revolution, and I am quite resentful about it. I wish I had something better — at least, more clear and consistent. This book is very thick and detailed, and it contains tons of interesting information, and there is even a chance that it contains all the most important information about the Cultural Revolution you can find. However, there are also some major “systematic” problems with this book that made the reading much less useful than it could have been. You see, as I already said, the Cultural Revolution is an incredibly difficult phenomenon — and no, it is nothing comparable to the Bolshevik Revolution, the Red Terror, or the Great Terror of the 1930s in the USSR, for example. All the events and developments together produce a mind-blowing mayhem of absolutely contradictory things, emerging and disappearing sometimes within hours and sweeping away millions of lives and all the possible notions of normal life and adequate society. Some of them were well-organized, orchestrated, and controlled, and some were secondary complications and disorders, a disastrous consequence of the all-permeating chaos and degradation of human society into wild animals, but whatever direction was taken, the scenario was still acceptable for the leaders of the country and manageable by their will. If you understand the global picture and original intentions of the organizers (which are still a mystery for most researchers to a large extent), it is easier to make sense in particularities, however crazy they look like all by themselves. But if someone just lists all the events and facts as they happened and does not comment about what was behind them, you just feel helplessly drown. There is no logic anywhere! There are no normal human relationships or normal “politics,” regardless of how evil you presume they can be! There are no good and evil, right and wrong things, victims and aggressors by any standards! Therefore, for learning about the Cultural Revolution, it is necessary not to follow the consequence of events or relationships between the key personalities but to study the phenomenon more analytically, find some generalized explanations to these and those new turns and reversals. Frank Dikötter, unfortunately, does exactly the opposite thing. His book is mostly a listing of the events and episodes that make you constantly scream internally WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?!!! — and when he tries “to explain” something, it is even worse, because he, again, lists absolutely contradictory and illogical things and pretends that he describes some normal, consistent, and completely explanatory progression of events. It is mind-boggling. You ask WHY about one thing and then you read something that should be an answer but it just creates dozens of new WHYs, and there is no end to all this. I invested a huge amount of time and energy into this book, and I still have a very vague idea regarding what the Cultural Revolution was about. I even read the first third of the book twice! The first time, I was increasingly incredible and doubtful about my cognitive abilities, and at some point, I realized that I understand approximately nothing, so I stopped, closed the book for several days, started to research the Internet for additional materials about the Cultural Revolution, and returned to the book only after I learned some basic things about it. And then I started to read the book again, from the very beginning, trying to stay focused. Yeah, it was a little better this time, but just a little. I compared some difficult aspects with the narrations of the same events in other materials I could find (books, articles), and I am sure that there is a flaw in the author’s attitude to the “analytical” part of the story, which is the most important one here. Some chapters (of a more descriptive character) are OK, but everything that should be the glue between them is driving you crazy. So I hope I would find a better book about the Cultural Revolution someday, because I am eager to learn more about this fascinating historical period that no doubt scorched minds of several generations of Chinese people, but please please please not in the nearest future… I still learned a lot, of course, but I honestly cannot recommend this book, unless you are sure about what you are doing. I suppose it can be a very cool additional material for more advanced readers, but I would not choose it as the first/primary source of information about the Cultural Revolution.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Richard Estévez

    One historian's long, sensationalistic slog through newly opened Chinese archives where he damningly relists all the fatal policy mistakes and violent disasters of the CR (without analyzing local and international contexts) doesn't exactly make for what I hoped would be a more nuanced and alternative "people's history". One historian's long, sensationalistic slog through newly opened Chinese archives where he damningly relists all the fatal policy mistakes and violent disasters of the CR (without analyzing local and international contexts) doesn't exactly make for what I hoped would be a more nuanced and alternative "people's history".

  27. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    This was interesting enough, but I didn't feel like I got the overall sense of exactly what was going on. It might be necessary to first read a more in-depth treatment of post-WWII China to fully understand the context for this book. For example, I had no idea what a "Capitalist roader" was until much later in the book when he mentioned "people taking the capitalist road". It's interesting and mildly surprising that Mao's strategy of creating a bunch of insane chaos to destroy all power structure This was interesting enough, but I didn't feel like I got the overall sense of exactly what was going on. It might be necessary to first read a more in-depth treatment of post-WWII China to fully understand the context for this book. For example, I had no idea what a "Capitalist roader" was until much later in the book when he mentioned "people taking the capitalist road". It's interesting and mildly surprising that Mao's strategy of creating a bunch of insane chaos to destroy all power structures except his own seems to have actually worked. That seems like the kind of thing that could end up backfiring pretty badly. Of course, by "worked" I mean that it did not result in Mao being overthrown or killed or something; by objective human standards the Cultural Revolution was enormously destructive.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ata

    The more details you put in a (hi)story, the more emotion you would evoke. But, is there anything you might have sacrificed by increasing the resolution of a picture? I think yes: the whole picture! My only complaint about Dikötter's extraordinary research is that it sometimes lacks the historical analysis one wants to get in order to 'understand' the events. Nevertheless, in the last three chapters, the author gives some fundamental overview of the social, cultural, and economic status of the po The more details you put in a (hi)story, the more emotion you would evoke. But, is there anything you might have sacrificed by increasing the resolution of a picture? I think yes: the whole picture! My only complaint about Dikötter's extraordinary research is that it sometimes lacks the historical analysis one wants to get in order to 'understand' the events. Nevertheless, in the last three chapters, the author gives some fundamental overview of the social, cultural, and economic status of the post-cultural revolution era. But, alas, it might be almost late for a popular book and it is very likely to lead to losing its impatient readers. Dikötter also gives a few occasional comparative analysis between Soviet Russia and China. These parts could have been more organized and purposeful. As you may know, there were cultural revolutions in other countries with ideological states, most notably the Soviet Union (the 1930s) and Iran (the 1980s). Yet, no one has studied the shared nature of all these cultural revolutions yet. I haven't read the other two volumes of Frank Dikötter's "People's trilogy" about modern China. But, I can imagine how amazing are all his archival studies. These must be followed by a volume wrapping up the events and give a historical big picture that is somehow useful for other disciplines such as international relations, social sciences, and economics.

  29. 5 out of 5

    JustPlainBill

    This is the third of a trilogy on Mao’s China by author Frank Dikotter (preceded by “The Tragedy of Liberation” and “Mao’s Great Famine). In this third volume, Dikotter continues his characterization of Mao Tse-Tung as the prime mover of what must be labeled a 25+ year nightmare for the Chinese people following the founding of the People’s Republic. Whether one agrees or not with his conclusions, two things seem clear. One is that most of what occurred between 1949 and the end of this book was l This is the third of a trilogy on Mao’s China by author Frank Dikotter (preceded by “The Tragedy of Liberation” and “Mao’s Great Famine). In this third volume, Dikotter continues his characterization of Mao Tse-Tung as the prime mover of what must be labeled a 25+ year nightmare for the Chinese people following the founding of the People’s Republic. Whether one agrees or not with his conclusions, two things seem clear. One is that most of what occurred between 1949 and the end of this book was largely unnecessary and in fact inimical to the advancement of a new China. The other is that the brutality, death, starvation, persecution, and chaos was self-inflicted. Neither the Japanese nor the Americans nor the Soviets nor the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party can be blamed. As in his other two volumes, the author is extremely thorough in his researches, many of them original and based on recently available archives. The level of detail is amazing, although many times facts and figures are (again) offered without the context a reader needs to truly appreciate them. So much detail is offered that its sheer granularity will put off some readers. An appendix listing the names and titles of the main players would be of great help in keeping them straight. With respect to the Cultural Revolution itself, Dikotter’s theme is that it was instituted by Mao as a means of holding onto power. In chess, when one is in difficulty, often the best option is to complicate the position in order to create opportunities, and that is what it seems Mao was doing--introducing a complex dynamic into what was becoming a losing position for him politically. Mao aspired to be succeed Josef Stalin as the acknowledged leader of the socialist world. His destructive radical collectivization of the countryside, even after its witnessed failure in the Soviet Union, is well documented in earlier volumes of this trilogy. Mao launched the Cultural Revolution by urging students to revolt, then stood back and waited for others to act before pouncing. He was intentionally vague to the other senior leaders regarding guidelines for dealing with the beginning of the disturbances until after they had sent work teams out to attempt some damage control. Once he had something solid to criticize (initially it was that some of those teams shielded senior party members from criticism), Mao them jumped back in and took the other side. He also exempted students from being subject to the Cultural Revolution's announced measures, essentially hobbling those teams from addressing the source of the turmoil. He saw the students as his most reliable allies, since they were impressionable, easy to manipulate, and eager to fight. Most of all, they craved a more active role. (p70) Mao's behavior of holding back early on, then later jumping in when it suits him is a strategy that he follows throughout the book. He waits while others act, then throws himself back into things on the side that will most benefit his own power and disadvantage those he sees as his political competitors of the moment. In this view of the revolution, it is nothing more than a cynical attempt to create civil disorder that he believes he can take advantage of to keep himself at the head of the socialist movement. The actual body count, although probably lower than the periods covered by Dikotter’s earlier books, belies the brutality, theft, and ruined lives caused by this revolution that accomplished nothing except to set the nation back by a generation or more. Many reputations were ruined in the name of class warfare, and often the chaos was taken advantage of by people to settle personal scores or steal others’ property. Dikotter tells of the first death in the revolution, which takes place in a girl's school administered by Beijing Normal University. At the hands of students, after the vice principal had been tortured earlier by spitting in her face, filling her mouth with soil, forcing a dunce's cap on her head, tying her hands behind her back and beating her black and blue, they forced her to kneel and beat her for several hours with spiked clubs. She was dumped into a garbage cart, and was dead when she finally reached the hospital two hours later. (p73) In these pages some may perceive eerie echoes here in the US of 2019 of the early stages of class warfare described in these pages, wherein we are told about the promises of ever-increasing public benefits to certain favored classes. For example: - "2 years earlier the Chairman had voiced his opposition to an education system he viewed as dangerously meritocratic, demanding that admission of children from 'exploiting families' be limited." (p75) - "17 years earlier, when the Communists had conquered the country, many ordinary people had accepted liberation with a mixture of fear, hope, and resignation. There was widespread relief that the Civil War had come to an end. The proclaimed values of the regime, including equality, justice, and freedom, were genuinely appealing, and the party tirelessly trumpeted the New Democracy, a slogan promising the inclusion of all but the most hardened enemies of the regime. Above all, the Communists promised each disaffected group what it wanted most: land for the farmers, independence for all minorities, freedom for intellectuals, protection of private property for businessmen, higher living standards for the workers. One by one, these promises were broken, as a whole range of real or imagined opponents were eliminated with the unwitting help of the enemies of tomorrow, those who were cajoled into cooperating with the regime. By 1957, basic liberties had been curtailed, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, the freedom of movement, and the freedom of domicile." (p119) - Thanks to endless campaigns of thought reform, many individuals learned how to parrot the party line in public but keep their thoughts to themselves. All of them worshiped at the altar of the Chairman, although some quietly maintained faith in their own values, whether political or religious." (p286) - The Education system was virtually destroyed as a result of the Cultural Revolution, and what little education that remained emphasized ideology. (p287) - "The family endured sustained attack during the Cultural Revolution. Some households were divided right through the middle, as members pledged allegiance to different factions or were caught up in the shifting currents of local politics. Senseless and unpredictable purges were designed to cow the population and rip apart entire communities, producing docile, atomized individuals loyal to no one but the Chairman." (p297) Destruction of the traditional family, society’s most enduring support system, is a recurrent theme in the narration of Communist and Socialist political history. There is a description of the protests held by revolutionary youth against the British in Hong Kong, labeling them as fascists. (p158) The contrast with Hong Kong's 2014 Umbrella Movement and the ongoing 2019 protests (both directed against mainland China) is poignant. The initiative known as the Third Front was conceived and executed in a panicked reaction to the threat of war with the Soviets. It attempted to relocate production centers to the far interior, out of harm’s way, but was misbegotten and poorly and hastily executed. In terms of economic development, it was a disaster second only to the Great Leap Forward. "It is probably the biggest example of wasteful capital allocation made by a one-party state in the 20th century." (p218) Some of the individual stories of the grinding rural poverty are especially striking. When Mao died in 1976, at least 20% of the population (equaling 200M) suffered from chronic malnutrition (p266). Mao’s final exit heralded a certain amount of liberalization. In the winter of 1982-83, the people's communes were officially dissolved, officially recognizing what rural dwellers had been doing covertly for a number of years. “Rapid economic growth did not start in the cities with a trickle-down effect to the countryside, but flowed instead from the rural to the urban sector. The private entrepreneurs who transformed the economy were millions upon millions of ordinary villagers, who effectively outmaneuvered the state. If there was a great architect of economic reform, it was the people.” (p321) Dikotter concludes: "Deng Xiaoping used economic growth to consolidate the Communist party and maintain its iron grip on power. But it came at a cost. Not only did the vast majority of people in the countryside push for greater economic opportunities, but they also escaped from the ideological shackles imposed by decades of Maoism. The Cultural Revolution in effect destroyed the remnants of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Endless campaigns of thought reform produced widespread resistance even among party members themselves. The very ideology of the party was gone, and its legitimacy lay in tatters." (p321) Anyone who found either of the other two Dikotter works in this trilogy interesting may also like this one, although the narrative thread seems a bit weaker and jumps around somewhat. Interestingly, Dikotter is chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong; as freedoms seem to again be taking another of their periodic giant steps backwards in China, one has to wonder if he is looking over his shoulder these days as he writes.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jordan Schneider

    University of Hong Kong Professor Frank Dikötter has completed his trilogy of Mao’s rule. The prior book in the series, BBC Samuel Johnson award-winning Mao’s Great Famine, was remarkable for its clarity of writing and unflinching exploration of how elite bureaucratic decisions came to starve tens of millions. Dikötter successfully applies the same model to Mao’s surreal and grisly final act in The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History. Dikötter claims the Cultural Revolution was a direct follo University of Hong Kong Professor Frank Dikötter has completed his trilogy of Mao’s rule. The prior book in the series, BBC Samuel Johnson award-winning Mao’s Great Famine, was remarkable for its clarity of writing and unflinching exploration of how elite bureaucratic decisions came to starve tens of millions. Dikötter successfully applies the same model to Mao’s surreal and grisly final act in The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History. Dikötter claims the Cultural Revolution was a direct follow-up to his Great Leap Forward. The radical attempt to remold thought was an “ageing dictator’s determination to shore up his own standing in world history,” a “second attempt to become the historical pivot around which the socialist universe revolved.” Mao desperately feared that a Chinese Khrushchev would denounce him after his death, and was willing to sacrifice another million to revolutionary ardor to bolster his legacy’s insurance policy. A People’s History makes for more gripping reading than the classic English-language primer on the Cultural Revolution, Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhal’s Mao’s Last Revolution. Employing research from interviews and memoirs as well as new archives, Dikötter gives the reader a sense of both the high politics driving events and how these decisions played out and took a life of their own in cities and villages across China. One often gets the sense of how China ‘worked towards Mao,’ much how Ian Kershaw explained in his Hitler biography that the Third Reich “worked towards the Führer.” Fearful of persecution and eager to please the Chairman, one offhand comment of his could trigger a Beijing Daily article, sparking a new policy change and violent flare-up. Unlike Nazi Germany, however, the masses, as well as the bureaucracy, took initiative, to such an extent that by the end of the Cultural Revolution, people were seizing arms and fighting with artillery to overthrow the People’s Liberation Army. Dikötter is particularly strong in the buildup and culmination of the 1966–1968 ‘Red Years.’ His writing gives a sense of the competitive and accelerating radicalization of the Cultural Revolution that by the summer of 1968 had students “forging weapons from high-carbon steel,” committing suicide rather than surrendering to competing Red Guard units, and even, he claims, ritually consuming class enemies. Unfortunately, like the Cultural Revolution itself Dikötter loses steam after 1969. He ends too abruptly. Dikötter does a decent job explaining how Mao’s decisions undermined radical collectivization. Ill-planned schemes like ‘Learning from Dazhai’ self-reliance initiative and ‘Third Front’ rural industrialization wasted two-thirds of the state’s capital investment. Poverty compelled many to begin following the capitalist road. However, he fails to adequately develop his thesis that the Cultural Revolution also led to “the destruction of the remnants of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.” A few dozen pages would’ve been appreciated on how Deng Xiaoping adapted to the Revolution’s legacy. Overall, The People’ History is an accessible and impactful account of one of history’s strangest episodes of mass unrest. Not the usual culprits — race, religion or economics — but one man wielding ideology drove a nation in peacetime to turn on itself. The legacies of the Cultural Revolution still impact China to this day and both students and the reading public would be wise to turn to Dikötter for a gripping narrative introduction.

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