The Cultural Revolution by Frank Dikötter
China’s Cultural Revolution is “one of the most extraordinary and perhaps least understood” events of the 20th century, said Graham Hutchings in the Literary Review. Frank Dikötter’s outstanding new book, part of a trilogy about Mao Zedong’s China, sheds “important new light” on the period. The Cultural Revolution began in the summer of 1966, when communist leader Mao called for the people to “re-radicalise” the revolution. “Bourgeois” and “feudal” elements, he claimed, had infiltrated the government; such “revisionists” had to be eradicated. Across China, young loyalists responded by forming “Red Guard” factions – para-military groups that carried out a campaign of fanatical persecution. Millions were hounded, publicly denounced, tortured; senior officials were purged; museums and religious sites were ransacked. This was followed, in 1968, by the “Down to the Countryside Movement”, a rustification campaign that led to the displacement of millions. The toll was “immense”: up to two million people were killed between 1966 and 1976, “sometimes by the most bestial means”.
The Revolution was “a giant confidence trick” prompted by Mao’s need to restore his authority after the Great Famine of 1959-61, which left some 30 million dead, said Michael Sheridan in The Sunday Times: despite its name, it was designed to fortify the existing order. Mao eliminated his rivals and established his cult of personality, which saw him venerated in China and feted by Western radicals as a symbol of “revolutionary chic”. To the end of his life in 1976, “nobody ever queried the chairman again”. Combining years of archival research with “piercing” analysis, Dikötter’s “brilliant” book dissects the culture of “paranoia” that Mao established – and which still grips China’s rulers today.