A groundbreaking chronicle of the violent early years of the People's Republic of China by the author of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize–winning Mao's Great Famine.
"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.
About the Author
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.
"A brilliant and powerful account of the formation of that society . . . 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
"Frank Dikötter, now well into his stride as a meticulous chronicler of China’s greatest miseries . . . The Tragedy of Liberation is a tightly-written narrative of the twelve most pivotal years in modern Chinese history . . . The book is also a dispassionate study of the way nations can pervert optimism and descend into lunacy by steady increments . . . The Tragedy of Liberation is more unsettling. For what it tells us about the foundations of the modern Communist Party, and the backstory to so many decisions and statements made in Beijing today, it is essential reading" - The Times
"Frank Dikötter’s powerful new book is a bold and startling attempt to rectify this apparent neglect. In a cool, dispassionate narrative, Dikötter recounts the orgy of violence which the communists set loose . . . The Tragedy of Liberation demonstrates why he has established himself as a leading historian of modern China. He is a rare scholar, adept in both Russian and Chinese . . . Dikötter has a writer’s gift in the use of English . . . Dikötter must be admired for the manner in which he puts a human scale on the enormous barbarities of the communist takeover of China. We cannot begin to understand modern China without being aware of the blood-drenched tale Dikötter so ably relates" - Kwasi Kwarteng, Evening Standard
"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
"This follow up to Dikötter’s award-winning Mao’s Great Famine examines the early bloodstained years of Communist China" - The Times, Critics’ Choices
"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
"A history of early Maoist China puts paid to any notion of a “golden age” . . . In The Tragedy of Liberation . . . Frank Dikotter convincingly demolishes this rosy assessment of the early People’s Republic . . . The book is a remarkable work of archival research. Dikotter rarely, if ever, allows the story of central government to dominate by merely reporting a top-down directive. Instead, he tracks down the grassroots impact of Communist policies – on farmers, factory workers, industrialists, students, monks – by mining archives and libraries for reports, surveys, speeches and memoirs. In so doing, he uncovers astonishing stories of party-led inhumanity and also popular resistance . . . Dikotter sustains a strong human dimension to the story by skilfully weaving individual voices through the length of the book" - Financial Times
"This groundbreaking book examines the bloodstained reality behind the word and reveals how it brought tragedy to millions. 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 . . . This exhaustive trawl through Chinese archives charts the full cost of those early years of change . . . Dikotter’s achievement in this book is remarkable. He has mastered a mass of original source material, and has done so by mining local archives in China, which have yielded up a host of treasures. (Significantly, scholars are now reporting the steady closure of official records, as local bureaucrats revert to old habits of secrecy and isolation. This may be the last work of its kind for a while.) . . . Staggering amount of detail . . . For many years, histories of China have treated the 1950s as if the decade was an interlude of reason. That belief does not survive contact with this book . . . 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
"Path-breaking . . . Some of what Dikotter describes has been known in general terms, but what he has done here – as when he was writing about the later famine – is take advantage of the opening of archives in which firsthand official reports and accounts of death in all its forms, together with the myriad other forms of Maoist horror, can now be read unedited. It will be increasingly difficult for Western China specialists to write with authority based only on previous Western publications or on Chinese public statements. We remain in Frank Dikotter’s debt" - Literary Review
"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
"Frank Dikotter’s powerful new book is a bold and startling attempt to rectify this apparent neglect. In a cool, dispassionate narrative, Dikotter recounts the orgy of violence which the communists set loose . . . The Tragedy of Liberation demonstrates why he has established himself as a leading historian of modern China. He is a rare scholar, adept in both Russian and Chinese . . . Combined with this linguistic skill, Dikotter has a writer’s gift in the use of English. The narrative of The Tragedy of Liberation is always clear and simple . . . Dikotter . . . Must be admired for the manner in which he puts a human scale on the enormous barbarities of the communist takeover of China. We cannot begin to understand modern China without being aware of the blood-drenched tale Dikotter so ably relates" - Scotsman
"Unsparing reappraisal of China’s communist revolution" - Sunday Times Must Reads
"Frank Dikotter, Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, is establishing himself as the chronicler of what happened to the most populous nation on Earth during Mao’s 27-year reign . . . Dikotter’s great achievement is to have melded together the big picture of Mao with the smaller one of what was happening to millions of victims of his policies. In doing so he’s produced a book that’s as authoritative as it is gripping" - Mail on Sunday
"Much of what Dikötter describes has been known in outline; but Chinese history will have to be revised in light of his detailed revelations" - The Week
"The historian of China Frank Dikötter has taken a sledgehammer to demolish perhaps the last remaining shibboleth of modern Chinese history . . . What emerges from the archives with new clarity is just how ruinous Mao’s policies were" - Spectator
"A meticulous reappraisal of the formative years of Maoist rule . . . This is the first study to make sense in detail of events central to the Mao era, of which only the broad outlines have been known before now. It deserves to become fundamental to a better understanding of the forces that have shaped China today" - Sunday Telegraph
"Startling . . . Dikötter’s work has aimed to demolish almost every claim to truth or virtue the Chinese Communist party ever made. He combines a vivid eye for detail with a historian’s diligence in the archives. Powerful . . . Dikötter is unsparing in his account of the effects of the communist rule" - Observer
"A compelling and devastating account of the Communist involvement in the Civil War and of the first eight years of Communist rule . . . This is a gripping and fluidly written account of the first decade of the People’s Republic of China; one that contributes to bringing Chinese history into popular discussions of 20th century international revolutions, utopianism, violence and terror" - The Times Higher Education Supplement
"Brilliant" - The Times
"Catalogues in devastating detail the suffering endured from 1949 to 1957, during the installation of the world’s most murderous totalitarian regime … [his portrait of Mao is] both harsher and more convincing than ever" - Oldie
"By the end of Dikötter’s shocking book, you are in no doubt about the dreadful murderousness of the communist leadership, whose land reforms and modernisation plans exacted a terrible toll on China’s rural population. In this nightmarish world, not even leper colonies were safe" - Sunday Times History Books of the Year
"The great merit of Dikötter’s book is that it goes beyond the horrific statistics . . . He clearly explains the mechanics of the revolutionary state, how mass violence was orchestrated, why people took part in the killing, and what the purposes of the terror were" - New York Review of Books
"Few other works on the Mao period contain such a quantity and range of archival materials ... Bringing such brutality to light is a valuable contribution" - Times Literary Supplement