The Tragedy of Liberation
A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
By Frank Dikötter
(Bloomsbury Press, Hardcover, 9781620403471, 400pp.)
Publication Date: September 24, 2013
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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“The Chinese Communist party refers to its victory in 1949 as a ‘liberation.’ In China the story of liberation and the revolution that followed is not one of peace, liberty, and justice. It is first and foremost a story of calculated terror and systematic violence.” So begins Frank Dikötter’s stunning and revelatory chronicle of Mao Zedong’s ascension and campaign to transform the Chinese into what the party called New People. Following the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, after a bloody civil war, Mao hoisted the red flag over Beijing’s Forbidden City, and the world watched as the Communist revolution began to wash away the old order. Due to the secrecy surrounding the country’s records, little has been known before now about the eight years that followed, preceding the massive famine and Great Leap Forward.
Drawing on hundreds of previously classified documents, secret police reports, unexpurgated versions of leadership speeches, eyewitness accounts of those who survived, and more, The Tragedy of Liberation bears witness to a shocking, largely untold history. Interweaving stories of ordinary citizens with tales of the brutal politics of Mao’s court, Frank Dikötter illuminates those who shaped the “liberation” and the horrific policies they implemented in the name of progress. People of all walks of life were caught up in the tragedy that unfolded, and whether or not they supported the revolution, all of them were asked to write confessions, denounce their friends, and answer queries about their political reliability. One victim of thought reform called it a “carefully cultivated Auschwitz of the mind.” Told with great narrative sweep, The Tragedy of Liberation is a powerful and important document giving voice at last to the millions who were lost, and casting new light on the foundations of one of the most powerful regimes of the twenty-first century.
Frank Dikötter is chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong. Before moving to Asia in 2006, he was professor of the modern history of China at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has published nine books about the history of China, including Mao’s Great Famine, which won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2011. He lives in Hong Kong.
“Frank Dikötter's The Tragedy of Liberation just might force Mao's fans to look reality in the eye—and grow up…With Mao's Famine and The Tragedy of Liberation, Mr. Dikötter has created the first two parts of an important trilogy…As someone who did witness the Cultural Revolution firsthand, as a diplomat in Beijing from 1966 to 1969, I look forward to Mr. Dikötter's analysis in his final volume.”—Wall Street Journal
“Dikotter probes beneath the surface of what some still see as a relatively benign early phase of Mao’s rule, when the Communists restored political order and the economy, combated social evils, and allowed a modicum of personal freedom. He reveals the cost of what he calls a policy of ‘calculated terror and systematic violence.’… Dikotter is a pioneering Western user of Chinese provincial archives, and given China’s vast size and social complexity, his project is opening up a vast, comprehensive panorama of suffering.” –Foreign Affairs “As he did in his previous work, Dikötter wades deep into the grim reality…[and] marshals his meticulous research to show how Mao continually set up expectations only to mow them viciously down. Under the “shiny surface” of Mao’s propaganda, the author ably reveals the violence and misery.”—Kirkus Reviews “Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine (2010) won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2011, and his prequel is just as well composed and heartbreaking to read…. a vital study of a crucial period of history.” –Publishers Weekly
“A mesmerizing account of the communist revolution in China, and the subsequent transformation of hundreds of millions of lives through violence, coercion and broken promises. The Chinese themselves suppress this history, but for anyone who wants to understand the current Beijing regime, this is essential background reading.” –Anne Applebaum “One-party states take control of the past as they take control of societies. Usually they must end for serious historical discussion to begin. A great intellectual challenge of our century is to historicize the People’s Republic even as it continues to exist. Dikötter performs here a tremendous service by making legible the hugely controversial origins of the present Chinese political order.” –Tim Snyder “The Tragedy of Liberation is a tightly-written narrative of the twelve most pivotal years in modern Chinese history ... a dispassionate study of the way nations can pervert optimism and descend into lunacy by steady increments… it is essential reading.” –The Times “Groundbreaking… Frank Dikotter is already the author of a revelatory book about China’s great famine of 1958-62, and in this prequel – unsparing in its detail, relentless in its research, unforgiving in its judgments – he deals in the same way with the Chinese revolution from 1945 to 1957… It is clear to this reviewer, at least, that mainstream academic scholarship must also be revised in the light of Dikotter’s work. In particular, volume 14 of the Cambridge History of China, which covers the period of this book, will have to be rewritten’” –Sunday Times “Nobody who reads about the cost of the establishment of the PRC in Dikotter’s humane and lucid prose will find much sympathy for the authoritarian case. This excellent book is horrific but essential reading for all who want to understand the darkness that lies at the heart of one of the world’s most important revolutions” –Guardian “The book is a remarkable work of archival research…Dikotter sustains a strong human dimension to the story by skillfully weaving individual voices through the length of the book.”
“With a mixture of passion and ruthlessness, he marshals the facts, many of them recently unearthed in party archives. Out of these, Mr Dikotter constructs a devastating case for how extreme violence, not a moral mandate, was at the heart of how the party got to power, and of how it then governed ... He was ready to lead the country into the giant experiment of the Great Leap Forward. Mr Dikotter has already written about that in “Mao’s Great Famine”, which this book only betters. The final volume of his planned trilogy will be on the Cultural Revolution, bringing the curtain down on a truly disastrous period.” –Economist