What emerges most strongly from the book is a deepened sense of the elite politics of the period, as the higher reaches of the Communist Party, senior military commanders and even provincial leaders were kept guessing about their obscurantist leader’s ever-changing whims, which Mao expressed with abstruse aphorisms and pseudo-Marxist gibberish ... Mr. Dikötter’s greatest contribution with The Cultural Revolution, which is the third in a trilogy on China during the Mao era, is his undermining of the conventional view of the period following Mao’s death in 1976.
Frank Dikotter’s gripping, horrific and at times sensationalistic The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, the third volume of his work on the Mao years, challenges the Chinese people to address those missing years. Drawn from hundreds of English-language and Chinese eyewitness accounts, newly available archival records, online Cultural Revolution documentary projects and foreign and Chinese scholarship, the book paints such a damning portrait of Mao and Communist Party governance that if it were widely circulated in China, it could undermine the legitimacy of the current regime ... At times Dikotter’s account focuses on the sensational rather than the nuanced. Some discussion of just how reliable his disparate sources are would have been welcome.
Mr. Dikötter skillfully makes his story intimate with details of such personal disasters. An occasionally repetitious use of more impersonal statistics reinforces the towering scale of the tragedy. His account is also well-seasoned with the bizarre ... For those who have swallowed the poisonous claim that the Communist Party deserves some credit for China’s current patchy prosperity, Mr. Dikötter provides the antidote. The Party’s own documents show how it repeatedly drove the country into poverty.
The impressive array of evidence that the author has uncovered in the course of his research is marshalled in support of a single thesis: that Communist rule in China in its first three decades was nothing other than catastrophic on both a human and an economic level, and that the cause of the catastrophe was not the party as a whole, but rather—very specifically—Mao Zedong ... Despite Dikötter’s lucid explanations, it becomes almost impossible to keep track of the continual oscillations of political legitimacy in this period. It was, simply, chaos ... The Cultural Revolution is less reliant than the preceding texts on the archival material which made Mao’s Great Famine, in particular, such a groundbreaking work; here, the author prefers, as the subtitle implies, to illustrate his historical points with personal anecdote, often drawn from published accounts. This final volume, however, provides a compelling, lucid and authoritative delineation of this most labyrinthine revolution, and proves a fitting conclusion to Dikötter’s great project.