革(gé) is the character emblazoned on the cover of The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution by Frank Dikötter. One of its many meanings is “to reform”. That sounds like a mild word for such a turbulent period in Chinese history. But Dikötter makes clear from the very first page that the history of the Chinese revolution is anything but bland. He quotes Mao Zedong.
[W]in over the majority, oppose the minority and crush all enemies separately.
This is Chinese reform in its bloodiest form.
the people’s trilogy
Chronologically speaking, The Tragedy of Liberation is the first volume of The People’s Trilogy. The triad of books starts with the revolution (1945-1957) and moves through the Great Leap Forward and its result, Mao’s Great Famine (1958-1962). It closes with the darkest chapter of Mao’s reign, The Cultural Revolution (1962-1976).
All three books rely on evidence found in the Communist Party archives in China. Dikötter compares party archives with eyewitness accounts. Sometimes, he contrasts the official Party line at the time with what the Party knew was happening on the ground. This is the mission of The Tragedy of Liberation:
to probe beyond the shiny surface of propaganda and retrieve the stories of the ordinary men and women who were both the main protagonists and the main victims of the revolution.
The first time I read The Tragedy of Liberation, it was more of a skim, a way to orient myself in 1950s China before starting to write my next novel, Peace Court. I have no family records for this period in Chinese history, no eyewitness accounts to feed my imagination. This time, I would have to rely entirely on secondary sources.
This second time around, I’m using The Tragedy of Liberation to catch errors of fact. At the same time, I’m on the look-out for details that could enrich the texture of my tale.
For example, the system of household registration fascinates me. That registration was the key to obtaining housing, food, health care and education. Moreover, each household had a designated head. It might be the father of a family, the principal of a school or the abbot of a monastery. And that person had his own individual classification: good or bad, red or black. Ultimately, the classification of one individual would determine the fate of the entire household.
There was yet another purpose to the household registration. It tied each Chinese citizen to his or her birthplace. For the first time in Chinese history, the state restricted freedom of movement.
a migration certificate was required for anyone thinking of changing residence. […] Those who moved in search of a better life were now called mangliu, or ‘blind migrants’. It was a reverse homophone of liumang, meaning hooligan.
This may sound like ancient history but the household registration is still alive and kicking today. While the state has grudgingly implemented some reform, the freedom of movement within China remains restricted.
Until now, I’ve focused on Old Shanghai, the backdrop for my debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. I’ve written about the glittering lights of Bubbling Well Road and the jazz music streaming out the doors. How then did my beloved Paris of the East fare during the days of liberation? Dikötter makes short shrift of all my illusions.
within weeks after the fall of Shanghai [25 May 1949] nightclubs were boarded up or converted into factories.
Soon after, casinos, opium dens and banquet halls all followed suit. Prostitution, however, was harder to eradicate. The state took draconian measures. It executed brothel keepers and sent prostitutes to re-education camps. Yet the women kept coming back to their old trade.
A few even wore party uniforms and carried badges. They stood in the doorways openly soliciting customers: ‘Come in for a cup of tea!’
Schoolchildren sang revolutionary songs. Loudspeakers blared propaganda day and night. Cadres paraded enemies of the state through the streets of China. All this took place long before the Cultural Revolution.
Mao had promised the people a respite from the long years of war. Now the masses could throw off their yoke of economic exploitation and political oppression.
in China the story of liberation and the revolution that followed is not one of peace. It is first and foremost a history of calculated terror and systematic violence.
For me, The Tragedy of Liberation was the gateway into an era and a way of life. If you want to understand today’s China, then read this book. Watch Mao plant the seeds of his totalitarian society into the blood-soaked soil of China. All in the name of reform.