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The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 Hardcover – September 24, 2013

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Editorial Reviews


“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.” ―Financial Times

“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

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. He lives in Hong Kong.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press (September 24, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620403471
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620403471
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #121,050 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Frank Dikotter is Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and Professor of the Modern History of China on leave from the University of London. He has published a trilogy on racism, sexism and eugenics in modern China, as well as books on crime and punishment, on the history of drug use and on material culture. He just completed a book on the famine that claimed at least 45 million lives under Mao from 1958 to 1962, using hitherto closed party archives. See for a biography and many downloadable items!

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

98 of 103 people found the following review helpful By Ronald P. Ng on September 19, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
I was born and brought up in Hong Kong at the time when Mao conquered China and Hong Kong was still a British colony flying the British flag. I remember as a kid, my mother used to admonish me to eat all my food and to study hard. "If the communists come, the food you have eaten and the knowledge you have gained, they cannot take them away from you. Everything else, they could take away from you." I was curious who were the communists and what she meant by those words.

I still have in my mind's eyes these words in Chinese "共產黨到家散人亡",(when the Communist Party comes, people will die and families will be broken up), written on the slope along the road going from Kowloon to Shatin.

Also as a kid, I remember the stories of massive illegal immigrants coming from China into Hong Kong, something in the order of 100,000 a month.

This latest book by Frank Dikotter, Professor of History at Hong Kong University answered all those questions I had in my mind when I was a kid. From primary source, Dikotter documented how the Communists confiscated land and property from all and sundry - thus my mum said, they will take everything from you except for the food which you have already eaten. They burnt books and heavily controlled the flow of information, controlled what your thoughts should be. Hence my mum said, study hard, retain knowledge, they can't take that away from you. Quotas were given by Mao at every campaign, the Rectification Campaign, the High Tide, in the aftermath of the "Let a Hundred Flower Bloom" campaign for the number of people to be executed.
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43 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Sceptique500 on December 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Halfway through the book, I envisaged giving it 4 out of 5 stars in my planned review on After reading Part IV (the last two chapters), I have taken one star away. For, taken altogether, the narrative seems imbalanced, even at times biased, to me. Let me explain.

Parts I – III represent a prosecutor’s brief. They contain a detailed description of the Communist state’s crimes against the liberties and the property of its people. The writ is long, well substantiated, well structured, and well written. Readers should take in these Parts attentively, for they open up little known vistas. There is a tendency in contemporary history of China to focus on Mao’s crimes perpetrated during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, glossing over those of the first period. This is an error: there is continuity in Mao’s policies – from Yan’an to his dying days. At heart, Mao was the Great Destructor. Any (admiring) intimation that he practiced “creative destruction” is nonsense..

Even though the author's historical method is not explained in detail, the underlying logic is readily understandable. Sub-national archives in China have become available to scholars. The author has mined them extensively in order to “retrieve the story of ordinary men and women who were both the main protagonists and the main victims of the revolution.” (Pg. xiv) The subjective experiences are gripping (if often repetitive) tales of hunger, cold, disease, torture, children being sold – and many many deaths.

Stories are telling, riveting; but how representative are they of what happened overall? We do not know. The huge diversity of China and the poor quality of records at the time make inferences problematic. Certainly many of the events presented in the book were common.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Donald M. Bishop on September 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this second volume of his planned trilogy on the early history of the People's Republic of China, Professor Frank Dikotter of Hong Kong University plainly calls the "liberation" of China in 1949 a "tragedy."

This highly readable account relies on evidence drawn largely from first-hand accounts and from documents found in Chinese local archives. They challenge the triumphant narrative taught in China's schools and shown on television. This volume's topics include executions; suicides; the selling of children; "voluntary" donations of funds and enterprises to the state; political campaigns that moved individuals to denounce friends and relatives; book burning; prisons and labor camps; agricultural policies that reduced harvests and caused local starvation; ignorance of economics; imitation of Soviet policies; gigantic engineering projects that ground up forced labor; political infighting at the top that caused deaths and ruined lives below; envy, jealousy, and the settling of old scores; and the transformation of "bustling metropolises" into "drab zones of conformity." He outlines the roles of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and many other Party leaders in the cruelties. So damning are the facts that Professor Dikotter had no need to rely on charged adjectives and adverbs to darken the narrative of man-made calamities.

Professor Dikotter's sharp economic analysis relies less on China's unreliable statistics and more on confidential government and Party reports. I particularly admired his terse descriptions of nutrition and smaller grain rations (pp. 212-213), grain spoilage (pp. 220-223), and the stages of collectivization by which China's farmers were made "bonded laborers at the beck and call of the state" (pp. 207-225, 234-237).
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