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People's Trilogy #3

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

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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 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.

396 pages, Hardcover

First published June 7, 2016

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About the author

Frank Dikötter

27 books370 followers
Frank Dikötter is the Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Professor of the Modern History of China on leave from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Born in the Netherlands in 1961, he was educated in Switzerland and graduated from the University of Geneva with a Double Major in History and Russian. After two years in the People's Republic of China, he moved to London where he obtained his PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1990. He stayed at SOAS as British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and as Wellcome Research Fellow before being promoted to a personal chair as Professor of the Modern History of China in 2002. His research and writing has been funded by over 1.5 US$ million in grants from various foundations, including, in Britain, the Wellcome Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The Economic and Social Research Council and, in Hong Kong, the Research Grants Council and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.

He has published nine books that have changed the ways historians view modern China, from the classic The Discourse of Race in Modern China (1992) to China before Mao: The Age of Openness (2007). His 2010 book =Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe was selected as one of the Books of the Year in 2010 by The Economist, The Independent, the Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard (selected twice), The Telegraph, the New Statesman and the BBC History Magazine, and is on the longlist for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

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Profile Image for fourtriplezed .
455 reviews96 followers
September 5, 2017
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.


Profile Image for Dmitri.
191 reviews136 followers
May 26, 2022
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 movement of students and workers unleashed by Mao against perceived enemies within the party and army. During the Great Leap Forward ('58-'62) collective farming and command economy starved thirty million people to death. Mao's political capital was 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 comrades were chastised, 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 been unquestionably established and backed by his junta he was worshipped throughout the land.

In later phases the people too were excoriated by military led committees. Ordinary citizens were denounced, interrogated, imprisoned or executed for fabricated class based crimes. Professionals, teachers, and students were banished from the 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 but the events 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 in the South China Post noted the dilemma that 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 a focus of the author. Dikotter reflects that 'to be silent risks complicity' a line of thought expressed by Elie Wiesel.

What is described in this book is so troubling that unless one doubts 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.
Profile Image for Mikey B..
983 reviews363 followers
July 25, 2022
Page 109 (my book)

She sent the Chairman a letter, pointing out the “the Cultural Revolution is not a mass movement. It is one man with a gun manipulating people”. The nineteen-year-old was arrested and sent to prison for thirteen years.

This is the last of the series of three volumes on Mao Zedong’s rule of China from 1949 to 1976. It is not a reverential portrayal of China under his long dictatorship.

Mao is ruthless and unconcerned with the suffering of his people which resulted from his trying to make a Marxist utopian state using collectivization in the rural countryside, abolishing private enterprise and property, and instituting government control at all levels.

Mao set out in the early 1960s through the Cultural Revolution to weed out what he saw as the bourgeois conservative forces that were threatening his grip on power. He encouraged young people to not only challenge authority, but to rebel against it. This set-in motion forces that moved beyond his control.

Page 80-81

Appearing on the rostrum next to Chairman Mao, Lin Biao had exhorted his youthful audience to go forth and destroy “all the old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits of the exploiting classes.”

Mao was also trying to establish or reinforce his leadership position as an idol for the masses of the Chinese people.

Page 36 from Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong from the Little Red Book

“Read Chairman Mao’s book, listen to Chairman Mao’s words, act according to Chairman Mao’s instructions, and be a good fighter for Chairman Mao.”

Many came to worship him and his quotations – in fact, some would memorize passages from the Little Red Book. Mao became a new Chinese God, with his image and words proliferating across the country. Like Stalin, Mao was enshrining himself – the Cult of Personality.

The rebellion started by the Cultural Revolution took its toll. The Red Guards - the students and then the factory workers who were “assigned” to propagate the cause – were attacking any and all institutions (schools, factories, the Red Army…). In many areas civil war broke out with even factions of the Red Guards battling each other – and each saying that they represented the true orthodoxy of the Chairman.

It became that the only safe mode of expression were Mao symbols – books, badges, quotations, posters… All else was taboo and represented antiquated ways. There were book burnings, libraries were destroyed, and education was attacked.

Page 148

People started using the Cultural Revolution to right personal wrongs, exact retribution for past injustices or set up vigilance teams to impose their own version of justice.

China was becoming fragmented with warring rival cliques. These anarchic conditions also made it possible for the underground economy to expand – in other words, a capitalist market not under government control. During the 1970s this underground economy was the beginning of a new growth.

Page 284 in the 1970s

In one way or another, people were emboldened by the failure of the Cultural Revolution to take matters in their own hands – “people decided they did not want to go on living the way they were doing and they were setting up ways to get themselves out of their predicament”. It was an uneven, patchy revolution from below, and one that remained largely silent, but eventually it would engulf the entire country.

There was a mass exodus of urban students, in the millions, who were recruited during the Cultural Revolution to work in the countryside. The aim was to ingratiate themselves with the long-toiling masses. It didn’t quite work out that way. Many became disillusioned by the poverty and debilitating conditions they encountered. Young women were sexually harassed. They were no long true believers in the Mao cult.

It should also be pointed out that starvation remained a constant in Chinese rural society. At least 20 percent of the population was malnourished (page 266). If one adhered to government parameters one likely starved; if, however, you started an enterprise your chances of making money, of eating through trading were increased – and your family could survive.

Page 275

Villagers who had survived the horrors of Mao’s Great Famine were not about to be intimidated [from participating in a small village market stall] by a tax official hanging about at a roadblock.

This final volume of the Mao years gives us a profound picture of China up to Mao’s death. It is a fragmented and impoverished society struggling to reassert itself and overcome a dictatorship that imposed societal and economic restrictiveness. It is essential for understanding what China represents today.
Profile Image for David.
652 reviews238 followers
May 21, 2017
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?
Profile Image for Steve.
361 reviews1 follower
June 12, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Lewis Weinstein.
Author 9 books495 followers
October 9, 2021
this is an incredible record of a horrible time ... Dikotter has collected material from many sources and organized it superbly ... so far I have read through the events of 1967 ... quite a bit to do as I do research for what I hope will be a new novel
Profile Image for Emmett Hoops.
217 reviews
July 9, 2016
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!
Profile Image for Alexander Boyd.
28 reviews48 followers
April 20, 2021
The Mao badge was a gateway drug to the profit motive—and so socialism in China collapsed under the weight of its personality cult. One of Dikötter's possibly counterintuitive theses is that the chaos of the Cultural Revolution gave individuals the chance to slip under the radar, an opportunity they almost invariably used to pursue private enterprise or cultivate the self. People divided themselves, outwardly presenting a facade of Maoist radicalism while quietly tending to private plots, smuggling tractors to farmers who might sell their wares in city centers, reading Waiting for Godot (sometimes filched by Red Guards from homes they were sacking) or even erotica (The Heart of a Maiden might have been the second most-read book behind the Little Red one)... with some pursuing both at once by hunting for arbitrage opportunities in the Mao badge market.

The Mao badge fever was roughly exclusive to the first five years of the Cultural Revolution, starting with the Red August of 1966 and dying along with the chief progenitor of the Mao cult Lin Biao. The badges were a hot commodity among Red Guards primarily because they "individualized an otherwise uniform outfit." Production couldn't keep pace with demand and a blackmarket was born. Secret markets sprouted in Shanghai and Beijing where thousands of Red Guards (and others) traveling the country as part of the Great Networking—travel, lodging, and food was free for Red Guards, many of whom used the CR to travel the country for the first time—gathered to acquire orthodox souvenirs. Badges were not "bought 买” but rather "requested 请" as naked commodification of Mao's image was a bridge too far. At the Shanghai and Beijing markets, Red Guards were able to trade groups of small badges for larger badges, or photographs of Mao for choice designs. The greatest hoarders were unsurprisingly those highest up in the pyramid. Ye Qun, Lin Biao's wife (and frequent stand-in on standing committee meetings—she was eventually elected to the Politburo herself), commandeered thousands of badges in the misguided hope of presenting 10,000 of them to Mao. An astronomical amount of aluminum was wasted in pursuit of the fad. Approximately 4.8 billion badges were manufactured using 96,000 tons of aluminum—roughly enough to produce 39,600 planes. The craze only ended when an exasperated Mao said, "give me back my airplanes 还我飞机." When Mao's successor Lin Biao died, ironically in a plane crash, Mao badges were abruptly retired which itself presented a conundrum: how to get rid of the paramount leader in a respectful manner (and without letting all that aluminum go to waste)? In 1980, the Central Committee issued a directive that badges should be returned to neighborhood committees. By 1988, 90% of badges had been handed in and so Mao was buried.

Except... there was a brief revival in Mao badge collection in the 1990s inspired partly by nostalgia and later predominantly by, what else, profit. The Mao badge became a piece of commoditized kitsch. I would say Mao is turning in his grave but I know he is not. Instead he is on display, forever—superficially a symbol of the Party's continued glory but upon closer inspection utterly dead.

Bill Bishop pointed me to his master's thesis on Mao badges, which informed this review: http://museums.cnd.org/CR/old/maobadge/
Profile Image for Edward Newman.
108 reviews7 followers
May 21, 2016
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
Profile Image for S..
Author 5 books66 followers
April 29, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Linda.
620 reviews26 followers
June 18, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
June 3, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Brandon Abraham.
54 reviews
May 31, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Bryan Alexander.
Author 4 books277 followers
February 19, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Horace Derwent.
2,228 reviews170 followers
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Profile Image for David Nichols.
Author 3 books77 followers
November 14, 2019
Before reading* Frank Dikotter’s book, my knowledge of the Cultural Revolution came mainly from photos and movie scenes of urban workers in matching cotton uniforms, students waving copies of the Little Red Book, and class enemies being marched through the streets in paper dunce caps. The actual Revolution began with such demonstrations but quickly became something much darker: a civil war between rival political militias backed by Mao and his putative successors, fought in cities large and small with rifles, machine guns, and explosives. The violence continued from 1966 to 1969, when an undeclared border war with the Soviet Union forced the central government to shift from domestic violence to civil defense. After 1970 the regime imposed martial law and forced young revolutionaries into rural re-education centers. By then, violence, terror, illness, hunger, and a destructive agricultural reform scheme had killed over 1.5 million people and trashed the nation’s economy. China came to rely on extra-legal private farms and workshops, the black market, and large-scale smuggling to feed and supply its people. The government never managed to regain the prestige it had lost, nor regain control of the economy, though Dikotter’s hasty conclusion elides its attempts to do both, particularly during the early years of Deng Xiaoping’s administration and in the post-1989 period.

* Or, rather, trudging through it. Dikotter adopts a particularly repetitive and plodding prose style.
Profile Image for Austin Barselau.
109 reviews4 followers
June 21, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Nikoleta.
24 reviews28 followers
November 23, 2016
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 :)
Profile Image for Horace Derwent.
2,228 reviews170 followers
Want to read
July 11, 2020













765 reviews26 followers
June 23, 2016
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.
Profile Image for  Bon.
1,120 reviews94 followers
October 14, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Nico Bruin.
98 reviews6 followers
October 9, 2020
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.
Profile Image for James.
93 reviews13 followers
August 23, 2021
On the shortlist of history's bloodiest and most evil dictators, Mao Zedong takes the top slot. His atrocities in China can be divided into two main events: the Great Leap Forward, a mass land and industrial collectivization drive, and the subsequent Cultural Revolution. Historian Frank Dikötter wrote excellent one-volume histories of each.

The Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966 to Mao's death in 1976. In the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Forward (which according to Dikötter's research killed 45 million Chinese), Mao's power and stature in the Communist Party were seriously weakened. The "Great Helmsman" decided to launch another great Communist project, this time to eradicate everything from China's past and build a new, egalitarian, Communist society from scratch. The goal was to destroy the "Four Olds": Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Customs.

To do this, Mao enlisted millions of university and high school students to "sweep away all monsters and demons!" as it was worded in the People's Daily. Armed with the Little Red Book (the collection of Mao's aphorisms) and full of self-righteous hatred, they banded together into street militia groups called "Red Guards." All over China, but especially in the big cities, the Red Guards went house to house smashing and burning everything -- artwork, books, interior decor, clothing, anything that smacked of the old bourgeois world from before the Revolution. Millions of older people were denounced, humiliated in public, severely beaten, and often executed for taking the "capitalist road" or other such made-up accusations. Many of these victims were fervent Communists who found themselves purged for no reason at all.

A common theme throughout the Cultural Revolution was Mao's deliberate instigation of inter-party warfare. Mao went from siding with Communist Party cadres to siding with the Red Guards and then back again. Early on he issued a famous order to the Red Guards to "bombard the headquarters" and attack and kill higher-ups in the Communist Party.

Many of these Communists, such as Liu Shaoqi, had fought with Mao for decades. Their fidelity to him was unquestionable. Nevertheless he was beaten, humiliated, and killed. Lin Biao, who wrote the forward to Mao's Little Red Book and played a decisive role in the victory of the Communist forces in the Chinese Civil War, was purged also purged. Overnight, the man who was celebrated as the #2 most powerful man in China was denounced as a "capitalist roader" and killed in a mysterious plane crash. The Chairman's contradictory and capricious swings turned the whole country into a war of all against all.

The Communist Party blanketed China with propaganda and slogans. Every city had loudspeakers that blasted Revolutionary songs and slogans from the Little Red Book at all hours of the day. Buildings were plastered with the slogan du jour. Billions of portraits of Mao were distributed worn by anyone who didn't want to get shot or beaten to death on the streets. The political climate was so dangerous that most Chinese became adept at hiding their true feelings about the Chairman and the Revolution. Nearly all went through the motions of Mao worship while inwardly resenting the Chairman and the suffering he inflicted on China. Everyone in China had suffered terribly during the Great Leap Forward the decade before, and many used the Cultural Revolution to settle personal scores.

Dikötter spent years doing research in Chinese provincial archives and interviewing eyewitnesses. His research is excellent and his narrative flows well, although it is easy for a non-specialist like me to get lost with all the Chinese names, which are difficult to keep track of.

Dikötter does an excellent job of telling the "what." He doesn't say anything about the "why," that is, the role of Communist ideology in the events. Dikötter tells us how Mao's Little Red Book was omnipresent during the Cultural Revolution, but he never describes the ideology inside. Maoism, like Marxism-Leninism, is an ideology akin to a secular religion, and no one can understand Communism without understanding its ideological underpinnings. It would have been excellent to weave in more information about Mao's ideological motivations.
Profile Image for Frank Stein.
972 reviews124 followers
August 5, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Tam.
402 reviews192 followers
July 26, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Noah Goats.
Author 8 books20 followers
August 31, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Ata.
43 reviews1 follower
April 29, 2020
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.
718 reviews2 followers
March 31, 2017
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.
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