Frank Dikötter, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and winner of the Samuel Johnson prize in 2011, is the author of many studies on China, most notably two on Mao’s dark rule. This new book completes the trilogy. The first volume, The Tragedy of Liberation, made plain, more exhaustively than previous accounts, that from the beginning of his time as Chairman, Mao was paranoid and murderous, and that Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping egged him on. The second volume, the prize-winning Mao’s Great Famine, examined, in characteristic detail, the Chairman’s responsibility for the 1959–1961 famine, which killed 30 to 50 million Chinese.
Now we are shown that millions continued to starve for years after 1961. Dikötter doesn’t explain how he obtained access to hitherto unexamined archives, but for this third volume he has trawled through a vast range of central and regional material, including both official and unofficial reports on disasters and horrors, and commentaries on what happened to ordinary Chinese throughout the country, including the sadists who obeyed Mao’s deranged ukases. What comes over more clearly than ever is how accurate Roderick MacFarquhar’s epitaph on the Cultural Revolution was: that ‘the mark of Cain’ hung heavily on it from the start. As Li Rui, one of Mao’s secretaries, told a Harvard conference on the centenary of the Chairman’s birth: ‘Mao liked killing.’ According to Dikötter:
Mao was easily offended and resentful, with a long memory for grievances. Insensitive to human loss, he nonchalantly handed down killing quotas. The Cultural Revolution, then, was also about an old man settling personal scores at the end of his life.
Here are some consequences. In the summer of 1968, 80,000 were slaughtered in Guangxi alone and some were eaten:
There was a hierarchy in the consumption of class enemies. Leaders feasted on the heart and liver, mixed with pork, while ordinary villagers were allowed only to peck at the victims’ arms and thighs.
Dikötter shows that while Mao and his partisans were ravaging the old culture and hounding those who clung to it, millions, risking fatal retribution, held to their traditional practices. In this ‘silent revolution’,
lamas, imams and priests may well have been in education camps, but ordinary followers stepped in to hold their communities together and many villagers continued to worship at a small shrine or altar inside their home. They burned incense, offered vows, and invoked the spirits away from the public eye…. The ultimate act of subversion was probably to turn the Chairman himself into a local deity.
In this way, Dikötter contends, ‘they buried Maoism’. This may have been true of the Tibetans who worshipped the ‘criminal’ Dalai Lama, and the Han Chinese, who revered their ancestors. But Mao’s successors have continued to make life hell for dissidents. His portrait still gazes down on Tiananmen Square, and President Xi urges his people to honour one of history’s greatest monsters.
The Cowshed by Ji Xianlin (1911–2009) is a frank, guilt-ridden and deeply evocative memoir of suffering during Mao’s worst period, from 1966 to 1976. Ji, for many years a leading scholar of East Asian languages and professor at Beijing University, spent nine months during the Cultural Revolution in the ‘cowshed’. This was the name given to the labour camps where hundreds of thousands of Chinese from all backgrounds were abused, beaten and killed by Mao’s crazed followers. Curiously, although he has read countless first-hand accounts, Dikötter does not cite Professor Ji’s book, originally published in 1998 and now sensitively translated by Chenxin Jiang.
Especially riveting to read about are Ji’s ‘guilt and shame’ for his enthusiasm for Mao from the start, his approval of the persecution of the Chairman’s enemies (which he admits he participated in) and his endorsement of the Cultural Revolution, though he himself suffered daily abuse and torture. He explains that he finished his book on 3 June 1989 — at the time of the Tiananmen massacre — but delayed publishing it because young people greeted accounts of what had happened to him with incredulity. Nor did he wish to offend those ex-colleagues and students who had joined in inflicting pain and humiliation on him — though these were apparently a tiny minority. Nevertheless, ‘If society learns nothing from the collective experience of thousands like me, we will have suffered in vain,’ he warns. He tragically concludes: ‘I sometimes think I should have committed suicide. That I didn’t is a stain on my character; my very existence is cause for shame.’ Thank God, not.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
'The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976', £21.00 and 'The Cowshed: Memories of the Cultural Revolution', £12.49 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033. Jonathan Mirsky is a historian of China and a former East Asia editor of the Times.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10