Historian Frank Dikötter Discusses Mao And The Legacy Of China’s Cultural Revolution

Monday, April 11, 2016

Frank Dikötter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe
Image credit: 
Martino Mingione
Frank Dikötter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe
Eric Wakin, Robert H. Malott director of Hoover Library & Archives, introduced Professor Dikötter
Image credit: 
Martino Mingione
Eric Wakin, Robert H. Malott director of Hoover Library & Archives, introduced Professor Dikötter

On March 31, Hoover Library & Archives hosted a talk by Frank Dikötter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, which won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize, Britain's most prestigious book award for non-fiction. Dikötter’s lecture, entitled “China’s Cultural Revolution,” discussed the dramatic events of the rise and fall of China’s Red Guard in the 1960s, and the legacy of China’s Cultural Revolution in terms of twentieth-century history as well as current events. The talk was drawn from Dikötter’s work on his recent work on the People's Trilogy, a series of books that document the impact of communism on the lives of ordinary people in China on the basis on new archival material.

 

 

Dikötter prefaced his talk by citing two previous trips to Hoover Archives as seminal to his work, for which he consulted Hoover’s Soviet Archives and also the diaries of Chiang Kai-Shek. He also named recently deceased Hoover fellow Robert Conquest as a mentor, referring to Conquest and his landmark work, The Great Terror, as “the model for all of us to follow” when writing the history of authoritarian regimes. Conquest, whose book uncovered the reality of humanitarian crimes within Stalinist rule, founded his research in the Soviet collections at Hoover Archives. Last month, the Archives announced the establishment of an endowed Robert Conquest curatorship for Russian and Eurasian studies, currently held by Hoover fellow Anatol Shmelev.

Following his praise of Conquest, Dikötter discussed the history of China’s Cultural Revolution, interpreting Mao’s strategies during the 1960s as a reaction to the revisionism of Nikita Khrushchev, as well as an expression of Mao’s concern for his historical reputation. Dikötter explained that Mao, after the failure of The Great Leap Forward and other collectivization efforts in the late 1950s, sought to purge the communist party of critics, and to establish himself as the international leader of socialism. By supporting the Red Guards—students who informed on or fought against the bourgeois culture of their elders—Mao hoped to regain firm control of the country. As raids and violence erupted in China, Mao took advantage of chaotic conditions to eliminate enemies, smash factions and, eventually, to dominate the government by establishing a military dictatorship. Throughout his talk, Dikötter noted the vast importance that posters and textbooks played in the development of the Cultural Revolution, citing that artifacts of the period are represented in the Chinese holdings at Hoover.

Cultural Revolution poster showing Red Guards’ reading Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book (Jan Rowinski Collection, Box 1, Hoover Institution Archives)
Cultural Revolution poster showing Red Guards’ reading Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book (Jan Rowinski Collection, Box 1, Hoover Institution Archives)