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In China’s Dark Corners

In response to:

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined from the November 22, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

I am very glad that Ian Johnson has found the time to peruse my work, although I am not sure that he got very far [“China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined,” NYR, November 22]. So let me keep this short and focus on the “Essay on the Sources,” the only part of Mao’s Great Famine he mentions in any detail.

The key point the essay makes is that when it comes to the best work on the Great Leap Forward, “the centre of gravity has decidedly moved back to China.” I praise the pioneers who have opened up archival research on the famine, for instance Yu Xiguang (“by far the historian with the most experience in the archives”), Gao Wangling (“a model of originality”), and Lin Yunhui (“a magisterial book”). The pathbreaking historian of the Xinyang incident is Qiao Peihua, who unearthed all the crucial archives in Henan many years ago and wrote a whole book about it.

It is Mr. Johnson who misses the forest for the trees by not acknowledging that what has happened over the past fifteen years or so is a revolution in the Party archives. There are often half a dozen students and historians sitting in any one collection on any given day, sifting through folders of yellowing paper, and their work is a testimony to the abiding desire to cast light on the many dark corners of China’s recent history. But for several years Mr. Johnson has portrayed Yang Jisheng as a lone hero who has used his senior Party status and his contacts around the country “to penetrate closely guarded Communist Party archives.”

The more prosaic truth, as I have repeatedly emphasized, is that archives ceased to be the preserve of a few Party members more than a decade ago. The archives offer a wealth of material to all who have a good reason for visiting them, including foreigners like myself, and the “Essay on the Sources” is meant to encourage others to go and explore them. Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone is an important and often enlightening addition to this trend, and should be read in the light of these developments.

On the other hand, the self-serving myth of a senior Party cadre using his privileged position to access hidden information only discourages more serious work by others, most of all by the more junior historians we try to nurture in Hong Kong and across the border. We urgently need a lot more research, not less of it, and Mr. Johnson’s comments do not really help.

Frank Dikötter
University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong

Ian Johnson replies:

Frank Dikötter is looking a gift horse in the mouth, so to be clearer: according to the principle of academic precedent, he should have credited his forebears, not attacked them without justification.

Dikötter inaccurately said in Mao’s Great Famine that Yang plagiarized the Internet and relied on one source for an entire chapter. Dikötter also inadequately credits Yang with having been the first to use various sources, a grave omission. The young academics Dikötter says he is nurturing can learn much from him about how to make material appealing to nonacademic Western readers, possibly less about academic best practice, courtesy, or humility.

As for his comment on me not having read his work all the way through, I’d note that, although accused of lionizing Yang, I pointed out at the end of my article that he was part of a larger development, one that specifically does not involve individual heroism but instead a growing number of Chinese rediscovering their own history.

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