Book review: The Tragedy of Liberation: a history of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, By Frank Dikötter

The more we discover about Mao's triumph, reports TH Barrett, the grimmer it looks

Frank Dikötter has now published no less than nine books on the modern history of China. Though some, such as his spirited evocation of the cosmopolitan China that flourished in the interwar period, have verged on the jolly, this volume proclaims itself a prequel to his grim account of Mao's Famine, the disastrous episode generated by policies initiated in 1958. By comparison, the early years of the People's Republic, once the Communists had won the civil war, were "halcyon days", at least in the retrospective view of some, as a fresh idealism remade China into an independent and equitable society.

Not here. The key problem is one of sources: after most foreigners had been removed from China following Liberation, the only English-language commentators left were the handful of "foreign friends" nurtured by the new regime, whose knowledge of events was at best limited. The New Zealander Rewi Alley, for example, though privately distraught at his removal from the headship of the school to which he had dedicated his life, was too anxious to earn his credentials to stay in China to breathe a word against his new employers. Chinese archival sources qualify the rosy picture put out by the new regime – a picture hitherto only challenged from within by very few reminiscences, notably those of the redoubtable Esther Cheo Ying, the Anglo-Chinese writer more recently the mother-in-law of Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd.

This book does follow in outline a story already tolerably familiar. Thus we get a brief account of the escape of the Amethyst, the British gunboat trapped far up the Yangzi in 1949 by advancing Communist troops. Yet here we find no mention of Simon the ship's cat, whose contributions to morale earned him evacuation to England, and a reverently inscribed grave in Ilford.

Foregoing tales of feline gallantry, the book opens with a harrowing account of the Communist siege of the Manchurian city of Changchun, never witnessed under Western eyes. It resulted not only in the extermination of all quadrupeds of even a vaguely edible nature but also of tens of thousands of starving, unarmed civilians, ejected from the city only to be pinned down by the besiegers and abandoned to their fate.

As to post-Liberation events, little is added to our knowledge of the pressure placed on intellectuals to conform, since this has been well described by Western missionaries who ended up in jail. But a new perspective is brought to the elimination of the landlord class by the peasants. One or two pre-1949 observers of Communist methods were quite clear that the revolution was no picnic, though apologists would have us believe that peasant revenge on their exploiters was not to be gainsaid by more civilised party officials.

What the archives now suggest is that peasants were frequently reluctant to lynch those only slightly better off than themselves, and that the party personnel – albeit personnel who had in many cases earlier seen comrades buried alive and even cannibalised by their opponents - had to exert considerable pressure to ensure that the new society was baptised with a large enough quantity of blood to make any return to the past impossible.

The exact casualty figure officially announced (and interpreted by its apologists as covering not the total number of executions but of those subject to prosecution) was given as either 800,000 or two million. This study suggests a total of five million deaths due to liberation, which is plausible if unreported deaths among the destitute families of the executed are allowed for.

But how to set this slaughter off against the earlier and much greater carnage of the 12 years of desperate war of resistance against Japan, and of equally ruthless civil war, is a problem. The missionaries shared their jail with large numbers of "statisticians", since the pre-Communist government had used the collection of statistics as a cover for its own brutal secret police.

All government data before 1949 are therefore extremely suspect, and those thereafter not much better. One should not forget also the near-million, mostly needless, Chinese casualties of the Korean War, as huge numbers were thrown against numerically far inferior but better trained opponents – famously, a handful of steadfast Gloucestershire yeomen, but also a gallant though inevitably not massive detachment from Luxembourg, for example.

The jails overflowed especially with religious types, principally those designated as members of the Yiguandao, the Falun Gong of that epoch. Though since this movement was syncretistic enough to have incorporated elements of most organised religions, virtually any believer could be tarred with its brush. But the apocalyptic atmosphere of the 1940s had encouraged widespread conversions to such groups – one estimate of 18 million sectarians would give them four times the adherents of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism together.

Protestants could retain their liberty by joining a government-controlled unified church, but this involved doctrinal rethinking. The notion of sin, for example, was found problematic in that it entailed the possibility that the Communist Party might be sinful. Radical though this may sound, it should be pointed out that under imperial rule the state was seen as having unlimited powers of spiritual arbitration. Manchu emperors retained the right to forbid Tibetan lamas to reincarnate.

Not every detail in this book seems spot-on. Though the cultural history of the surgical mask remains to be written, I doubt that their public wearing in China derives from the Korean War scare over American biological weapons, both because a justified scare caused by irresponsible disposal of such weapons by the Japanese in 1945 preceded this, and because their popularity in Japan has nothing to do with biological warfare, while in dusty Beijing there are ample reasons for such protection anyhow.

But time and again the footnotes lead back to official Chinese archives, often not readily accessible to foreign historians. The picture is therefore technically only "partial"; so if it contains much that in contemporary parlance "hurts the feelings of the Chinese people", then those feelings can only be assuaged, and possible accidental bias resolved, by allowing free access to the whole. Dikötter's third volume in the series will treat the larger-scale violence of the Cultural Revolution, so unlimited access might slow him up somewhat. But if I know Frank Dikötter, it will not stop him.

TH Barrett is research professor of East Asian history at SOAS