The Tragedy of Liberation Review

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikotter is chronologically book one of three in his People’s Trilogy set. After having read the history of China by John Keay, my interest was piqued at learning what exactly happened after imperial China ended in 1911 with its last emperor. The short answer? Not good. Not good at all. This trilogy set does not cover in details the battle and history between the Nationalist led by Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s Communist China Party. Instead it begins a little before the CCP won in 1949 and afterwards up until The Great Famine in 1958 or so. The title of this book is so fitting as I’m sure you’ll come to agree in the end as well. As a side warning, if you’re currently depressed, reading this book is not recommended.

“Dead or alive, you will donate.”

Head of the Peasant Association

Liberation is a very strong word in that when most people hear of it, they immediately think of it as a positive event. At least that’s how I see it. To liberate something means to free it from oppression and slavery. But what if, as an ordinary civilian trying to live life and enjoying the fruits of your labor, have been caught between two sides of a very nasty civil war that has literally torn your province to shreds leaving you with nothing? Who is liberating who and does it actually matter as long as it will bring peace? Unfortunately for millions and millions of people, Mao Zedong’s liberation is one that brought along with it mass violence, unrest, fear, uncertainty, doubt and killings that seems impossible to believe. The chapter on thought reform is especially brutal and hard to read. Physical pain through torture is one thing but how do you explain what goes on in a person’s mind when being brainwashed and indoctrinated through “study sessions” day in and day out?

“You must hate even if you feel no hatred. You must kill even if you do not wish to kill.”

Although information on Mao Zedong himself isn’t the focal point of this series, we do get a good look at just how it was possible for him to command the entirety of China itself which is not so unlike the emperors during imperialism. As with every dictator, studying and learning of the tactics they use to obtain their goals and to remain in power is fascinating. Who would have thought that by just being vague in your orders can cause such chaos? It also highlights how Mao is a master at dividing and conquering. His program of denunciation and land reform is something that just has to be read. He conquered the people’s mind and feasted on their fear and mistrust of others.

“My head is made of steel, bones and cement. It is beyond reform.”

Liu Guoliao

Frank Dikotter did an amazing job writing this book. He uses many different sources to compile as accurate an picture as can be of what exactly happened during these beginning troubled years of China’s transformation from imperialism into one of communism and socialism. Being a professor in a Hong Kong University, he actually knows how to teach and by that you won’t have to worry about this book being difficult to read or follow. Each chapter is composed so that any reader can follow along. He rarely uses technical jargons that would need to be looked up in a dictionary. The tragedy, although this can hardly be the author’s fault, is the many repeated details and accounts of tragic events happening to innocent citizens in the cities and in the countryside throughout what would seem to be every single chapter.

“Suicide was not easily accomplished…But nothing bred ingenuity quite like despair”.

Prior to reading China history, I studied Germany and the Nazi’s during World War II. It would be inaccurate of me to say which event is worst, especially since they happened relatively one after the other. However, it’s sad to say that although the years covered in The Tragedy of Liberation was tragic enough already, we’re just at the beginning. The Great Famine, which is what originally got me interested in these events, along with The Cultural Revolution still awaits.

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