Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

Writers Festival: Small details reveal bigger picture for Dutch historian

Frank Dikotter, author and China expert. Photo / Getty Images
Frank Dikotter, author and China expert. Photo / Getty Images

Dutch historian Frank Dikotter, based in Hong Kong, has spent year immersed in the horrors to be found within China's open archives, scraping away at the layers of bureaucratic reports on what happened to the country's citizens during the reign of Mao and the ruthless domination of the Communist Party.

The result so far has been two books in what will be a trilogy: Mao's Great Famine and The Tragedy of Liberation, the latter of which formed the basis of his riveting lecture, given effortlessly without notes.

Dikotter focused on small details to reveal the bigger picture: a newspaper article about roadworks in Manchuria which uncovered thousands of remains, which he linked to a 1948 siege which starved a town's population to death.

Details of how Mao's edicts which turned society into "good" classes and "bad" classes (capitalists=bad, land-owners=bad, landlords=bad, etc) were laid out like jigsaw pieces in some nightmarish board game. Denunciation meetings, killing ratios ordered by Mao but "overfulfilled" by people with old grudges, children accused of spying whose legs were crushed, on and on it rolled.

And then Mao turned his attention on his own Party officials... Dikotter ended this saga of murder, repression and betrayal in 1957 and the so-called Great Leap Forward, and that, he said, "is for another day".

- NZ Herald

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