Research Stories

China's Coloured Revolution

Money Down the Drain
Propaganda poster from the period of the Cultural Revolution.


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Having autopsied the early years of Communist Party rule and the Great Leap Forward to much acclaim, historian Frank Dikötter has now turned his sights on the Cultural Revolution – a period he divides into ‘red’, ‘black’ and ‘grey’ years and where, surprisingly, he finds the seeds of China’s economic reforms. Meanwhile, journalism students have been gaining insights into this period in Chinese history by studying newpapers from the time.

The Cultural Revolution has been written about by countless scholars, who have picked apart a period that seemed both chaotic and organised– of Little Red Book-waving Red Guards running amok, destroying the old and denouncing counter-revolutionaries, and of labyrinthine backroom politics with Mao at the centre. But if anyone can shed new light on the period, it is Chair Professor of Humanities Frank Dikötter.

Professor Dikötter’s two previous books, Mao’s Great Famine and The Tragedy of Liberation, drew extensively on Party archives that were newly-opened in the late 1990s and contained reports that the Central Government had otherwise kept out of view. He unveiled cruel directives, such as killing quotas, an official disregard for lives lost, and the impacts on ordinary Chinese.

He returned to these sources for his latest book– albeit probably for the last time because the Government has started to pull down the shutters on its archives – and has again lifted a veil on a period that many might have thought was exhausted of new insights.

“There are books and books written about the ‘court politics’ of the time, some of them very good, others not so convincing, but in the end very few have anything to say about what the Cultural Revolution actually meant to people of all walks of life,” he said.

His narrative starts with the aftermath of the failed Great Leap Forward of 1958–1961, which killed at least 45 million people and left Mao in a precarious position. Mao was determined to protect his position and his legacy and by 1966 he was ready to move – or at least, to get others to move for him.

Professor Frank Dikötter

"The punchline is, the people are as usual far ahead of their own government. The people are the true architects of economic reforms, not Deng Xiaoping."

Professor Frank Dikötter

The full version of this article was originally published in Bulletin. Please click here to view this HKU publication.