Questions on Cultural Revolution abound

Mr Tan Pui Hee with his Little Red Book, which now has Professor Frank Dikotter’s inscription.
Mr Tan Pui Hee with his Little Red Book, which now has Professor Frank Dikotter’s inscription.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Retiree Tan Pui Hee has long been keen on Chinese history and devours books on China's late leader Mao Zedong. Mao had turned his countrymen against one another by unleashing China's devastating civil war known as the Cultural Revolution in 1966, which was really his way of purging his nemeses.

So Mr Tan, 64, was thrilled to attend The Big Read Meet on Monday with Dutch historian Frank Dikotter, whose latest book is The Cultural Revolution: A People's History.

Professor Dikotter, 54, is a chaired professor of history at the University of Hong Kong and winner of the 2011 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction for his 2010 book, Mao's Great Famine, an account of how an estimated 45 million Chinese starved to death under Mao, who ruled from 1949 till his death at age 82 in 1976.

Mr Tan, a married father of two, brought along a copy of Mao's Little Red Book, which Mr Tan's late paternal uncle had left him.

His uncle had been a businessman in China during the revolution, said Mr Tan, and had the red book with him when he moved to Singapore in 1988, with the help of Mr Tan's late father. Mr Tan declined to name both men.

He asked Prof Dikotter to sign the iconic book and the professor wrote: "Revolution is no dinner party!"

Monday's Meet drew 100 readers, including Prof Dikotter's wife, retired lawyer Gail Burrowes.

They peppered the professor with diverse queries on the revolution - from how he persuaded China's archivists, whom he said were very professional and often female ex-soldiers, to the enduring cult of Mao to China's future.

On the last, he demurred, saying: "After six to eight hours a day going through files in China archives, I want to go back to my hotel and watch HBO, not read about China today."

Ms Fan Beibei, 38, who came to the Meet straight off a flight from her hometown of Beijing, asked Prof Dikotter whether Mao's crushing of anyone he thought was against him was just a case of "history repeating itself" and that he was just another bad emperor in China's 5,000-year history.

The don, who speaks and writes Chinese fluently and also studied China between 1919 and 1949 for 20 years, replied: "It's not an unpopular theory and scholars have proposed this idea... but I resist that. When I crossed the 1949 border, I landed in a new country."

For example, he stressed, while Chinese script pre-1949 was elegant and complex, it became simple and rough when the communists took over, "with the notion of respect for the Chinese language gone".

Asked afterwards about what her peers thought of the revolution, Ms Fan, who is based here as the senior vice-president of new business for cable channel HBO, mused: "I don't think information on the Cultural Revolution is that restricted any more in China. You can find it on the Internet, but not perhaps the 1989 Tiananmen incident. People do talk about the revolution and think it's a mistake made by Chairman Mao. They are opening up and talking about it."

Among those doing so, she added, is her 68-year-old father, Mr Fan Zheng.

Mr Thomas Oliver, 24, a history graduate of the University of Manchester, asked Prof Dikotter if the Cultural Revolution might have led to many Chinese today seemingly lacking social graces.

Prof Dikotter warned against drawing such links from research sources because that was "speculative" at best, but noted that his trawl through hundreds of thousands of documents, largely in China's provincial archives, in the past 10 years showed chilling brutality, including cannibalism, but also "extraordinary kindness towards strangers".

Australian National University international relations scholar Nivarith Nair, 30, pointed out that factionalism was endemic in dictator-driven one-party states.

Prof Dikotter agreed, adding: "Whenever you are No. 1 like that, you spend a lot of time looking over your shoulder.

"People said Mao, Joseph Stalin and Kim Il Sung were paranoid, but they were just very careful. And they were great successes because they all died in their beds."

The don then noted that China's current leaders such as President Xi Jinping, who grew up during the revolution, were "convinced that when the Communist Party asks ordinary people to criticise party people, the result would be a Cultural Revolution".

So, he stressed, they saw freedom of speech, which Mao initially encouraged in the early 1950s, as "an absolute recipe for disaster".

• The next Big Read Meet will discuss the book A Tiger Remembers by Ann Wee. It will be on Dec 28 from 6.30pm at the Central Public Library, Basement 1, National Library Board headquarters at 100 Victoria Street. Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'Questions on Cultural Revolution abound'. Print Edition | Subscribe