Frank Dikötter

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Frank Dikötter
Dikötter in 2013
Born (1961-11-30) 30 November 1961 (age 61)[1]
Stein, Limburg, Netherlands
Alma materUniversity of Geneva
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
  • Historian
  • professor
Notable workMao's Great Famine
Awards2011: Samuel Johnson Prize

Frank Dikötter (/dˈkʌtər/; Chinese: 馮客; pinyin: Féng Kè) is a Dutch historian who specialises in modern China. Dikötter has been Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong since 2006. Prior to that, he taught modern Chinese history at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He holds an honorary doctorate from Leiden University and is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.[2]


In Patient Zero (2003) and Narcotic Culture (2004), Dikötter posits that the impact of the prohibition of opium on the Chinese people led to greater harm than the effects of the drug itself. These works have been poorly received by academics, with historian Kathleen L. Lodwick saying that "Narcotic Culture appears to be one of the revisionist histories of which there have been several lately that have aimed at convincing us that imperialism wasn't all that bad, or at least that we should not blame the imperialists, in this case the opium traders who made vast fortunes from the trade, for the social problems they created. Closer attention to accuracy in the bibliography would have caught some errors, which appear more than once and so are not simply typos."[3] Alan Baumler wrote in his review of Narcotic Culture, "the authors' unwillingness to engage with the secondary literature, poor conceptualization, and questionable use of evidence make the study less useful than it could be."[4] Timothy Brook wrote that the authors of Narcotic Culture "float some extraordinary propositions that go not only beyond received wisdom, but beyond actual evidence and even common sense."[5]

The People's Trilogy[edit]

Dikötter talking about The Tragedy of Liberation in 2013

Dikötter is the author of The People's Trilogy,[6] three books that document the impact of Communist-led China on the lives of ordinary people on the basis of new archival material.[7] The first volume, titled Mao's Great Famine, won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize (now called the Baillie Gifford Prize) for nonfiction,[8] Britain's most prestigious book award for non-fiction, in 2010.[9] The second installment, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945–1957, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2014,[10] losing out to This Boy by Alan Johnson.[11] The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976, concludes the trilogy and was shortlisted for the PEN International Hessell-Tiltman Prize in 2017.[12]

Mao's Great Famine is a 2010 book about the Great Chinese Famine. The book was well received in the popular press and won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011,[13] but academic reviews were much more critical. In 2010, Pankaj Mishra described Dikötter's work as "boldly and engagingly revisionist",[14] leading to a public dispute between the two.[15] In 2011, Roderick MacFarquhar said that Mao's Great Famine is "Pathbreaking ... a first-class piece of research. ... [Mao] will be remembered as the ruler who initiated and presided over the worst man-made human catastrophe ever. His place in Chinese history is assured. Dikötter's book will have done much to put him there."[16] Felix Wemheuer, lecturer in Chinese history and politics at the University of Vienna, in his review of Mao's Great Famine, criticized Dikötter for his book's lack of explanation of local variations in destruction and death toll, his ignorance of Mao's efforts to deal with the problems, and his lack of sophisticated arguments due to his political agenda: to reduce Chinese Communism to terror.[17] Anthony Garnaut, a social historian of China, said that Dikötter's juxtaposition and sampling techniques fall short of academic best practice, and the allegations Dikötter levels at Yang Jisheng's work are bewildering. Garnaut also mentioned Dikötter's neglect of very plain wording of the archival document on which he hangs his case.[18] According to Andrew G. Walder, Dikötter's high death estimate cannot be reconciled with age-specific population data.[19]

The Tragedy of Liberation examines the establishment and first decade of the People's Republic of China. In the book, Dikötter describes the early years of the state as an era of "calculated terror and systematic violence".[20] The book was well received in the popular press, but academic reviews were much more critical. For The Financial Times, Julia Lovell called it "[a] remarkable work of archival research. Dikötter rarely, if ever, allows the story of central government to dominate by merely reporting a top-down directive. Instead, he tracks the grassroots impact of Communist policies – on farmers, factory workers, industrialists, students, monks – by mining archives and libraries for reports, surveys, speeches and memoirs. In so doing, he uncovers astonishing stories of party-led inhumanity and also popular resistance."[21] In his review of The Tragedy of Liberation, Felix Wemheuer wrote, "Dikötter is retelling an old story about the early years of the Cold War based on new sources. While many journalists celebrate The Tragedy of Liberation in their reviews, most Western historians, political scientists, and sociologists offer a much more complicated version of early PRC history that includes diverse experiences and local variations. Finding credible alternative narratives is a huge task that warrants future research by modern China scholars. Unfortunately, Dikötter's condemning of the Chinese revolution in his People's Trilogy requires an academic response that consists of more than a few novel local case studies."[22] Adam Cathcart, lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds, has pointed out Dikötter's problematic use of sources.[23][24] Brian DeMare has criticized Dikötter's The Tragedy of Liberation for implying that landlords were a communist-invented fiction.[25] DeMare writes, "Due to Dikötter's choice of phrasing, many readers believe that he is arguing that there were no landlords in China. His citation, however, refers to my UCLA dissertation, where I discuss how the term land lord (dizhu) was an alien word in the countryside [...] There were, to be sure, many landlords in China."[25]

The Cultural Revolution provides an account of China's Cultural Revolution. For The Guardian, Julia Lovell called it an extension of Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, with more intensive use of evidence drawn from China's local archives, and an excavation of the unintended socioeconomic consequences of the Cultural Revolution, including the growth of a private economy.[26] Daniel Leese pointed out four issues about the book: lack of analysis or explanation of many local examples within their particular environment, lack of comprehensive analysis on causes and effects, problematic neglect of the role of ideology in Mao Zedong's launch of the Cultural Revolution, and a lack of clarity between analytical concepts and party language.[27] In his review of the book, Fabio Lanza wrote that Dikötter repeatedly made controversial statements without providing sufficient evidence, and he described events with salacious, if very dubious, details. Lanza concluded that Dikötter's work "does not add anything to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution. Rather, as a mass-marketed assessment of the period, it goes against a long-standing effort in the field of PRC history to produce nuanced, well-sourced, complex, historically rich, and truly innovative analyses."[28] In his review, Ian Johnson wrote about Dikötter's lack of nuance and the absence of grounding for his contrarian views (for example, Dikötter wrote that literacy and public health decreased during the Mao period).[29]

Mao Zedong's biographer Philip Short wrote that "Dikötter's errors are strangely consistent. They all serve to strengthen his case against Mao and his fellow leaders." In reference to Dikötter's errors and misleading comments, Short said the main problem with the author's book was that it did not offer a credible explanation of why Mao and his colleagues acted as they did. Short posited that Dikötter's book "set out to make the case for the prosecution, rather than providing balanced accounts of the periods they describe."[30]


List of works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Home". Archived from the original on 20 May 2012. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  2. ^ "Frank Dikötter".
  3. ^ Lodwick, Kathleen L. (Spring 2005). "Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China (review)". China Review International. 12 (1): 74–76. doi:10.1353/cri.2005.0147. ISSN 1527-9367. S2CID 145806462.
  4. ^ Baumler, Alan (2005). "Review of Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China". The Journal of Asian Studies. 64 (1): 165–167. doi:10.1017/S0021911805000173. ISSN 0021-9118. JSTOR 25075688. S2CID 162076588.
  5. ^ Brook, Timothy (June 2006). "FRANK DIKÖTTER, LARS LAAMANN and ZHOU XUN: Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China. xi, 319 pp. London: Hurst; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. £25". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 69 (2): 338–339. doi:10.1017/S0041977X06340141. ISSN 1474-0699. S2CID 162583280.
  6. ^ "Home". Frank Dikötter. Archived from the original on 11 November 2021. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  7. ^ McHugh, Fionnuala (23 June 2016). "What drives Frank Dikötter, chronicler of China's insanity?". South China Morning Post. Archived from the original on 26 June 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  8. ^ "The Samuel Johnson Prize 2011". The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  9. ^ Lea, Richard (30 November 2015). "Goodbye Samuel Johnson, hello Baillie Gifford: top non-fiction prize gets new sponsor – and new name". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  10. ^ "The Dark Beginnings of Communist China". HKU Bulletin. Vol. 15, no. 2. University of Hong Kong. Retrieved 21 November 2021. ... The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945–1957, a new book by Chair Professor of Humanities Frank Dikötter which has recently been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize ...
  11. ^ "2014 Book Prize Winner". The Orwell Prize. Orwell Foundation. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  12. ^ Cowdrey, Katherine (7 June 2017). "'Satisfying' PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize shortlist revealed". The Bookseller. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  13. ^ "Mao's Great Famine wins Samuel Johnson Prize". BBC News. 6 July 2011. Archived from the original on 28 November 2017. Mao's Great Famine, by Dutch historian Frank Dikotter, beat five other short-listed titles to the award. Chair of the judges Ben Macintyre praised the book as an 'epic record of human folly'. He added it was 'essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the 20th Century'. Mao's Great Famine reveals new details of the period from 1958–1962, providing fresh historical perspectives on Mao's campaign to increase industrial production during which tens of millions starved to death.
  14. ^ Mishra, Pankaj (20 December 2010). "Staying Power: Mao and the Maoists". The New Yorker. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  15. ^ Dikötter, Frank; Mishra, Pankaj (15 November 2011). "Interview: Frank Dikötter, Author of 'Mao's Great Famine' [Updated]". Asia Society. Asia Society Policy Institute. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  16. ^ MacFarquhar, Roderick (20 January 2011). "The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever". The New York Review of Books. Archived from the original on 31 January 2011. Retrieved 24 January 2011.
  17. ^ Wemheuer, Felix (July 2011). "Sites of horror: Mao's Great Famine [with response]". The China Journal (66): 155–164. doi:10.1086/tcj.66.41262812. JSTOR 41262812. S2CID 141874259.
  18. ^ Garnaut, Anthony (2013). "Hard facts and half-truths: The new archival history of China's Great Famine". China Information. 27 (2): 223–246. doi:10.1177/0920203X13485390. S2CID 143503403.
  19. ^ Walder, Andrew George (2015). China under Mao: a revolution derailed. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. p. 364. ISBN 978-0-674-05815-6.
  20. ^ Dikötter, Frank (2013). The Tragedy of Liberation : A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945–57. London: Bloomsbury USA. p. ix. ISBN 978-1620403495.
  21. ^ Lovell, Julia (30 August 2013). "'The Tragedy of Liberation'". Financial Times. Archived from the original on 3 July 2021. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  22. ^ Wemheuer, Felix (September 2014). "The Chinese Revolution and "Liberation": Whose Tragedy?". The China Quarterly. 219: 849–863. doi:10.1017/S0305741014001052. S2CID 156107076.
  23. ^ Cathcart, Adam (8 January 2019). "Mistranslating Mao in Chengdu, 1958". Adam Catchart. Retrieved 31 October 2021.
  24. ^ Cathcart, Adam (17 March 2021). "Quantifying Civilian Casualties in the Northeast during the Chinese Civil War". Sino-NK. Retrieved 31 October 2021.
  25. ^ a b DeMare, Brian James (2019). Land wars : the story of China's agrarian revolution. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. p. 170. ISBN 978-1-5036-0849-8. OCLC 1048940018.
  26. ^ Lovell, Julia (11 August 2016). "The Cultural Revolution: A People's History 1962–1976 by Frank Dikotter – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 March 2023.
  27. ^ Leese, Daniel (2016). "F. Dikötter: The Cultural Revolution". H-Soz-Kult. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781408856499.
  28. ^ Lanza, Fabio (March 2018). "The Cultural Revolution. A People's History 1962-1976". The Historian. 80 (1): 134–136. doi:10.1111/hisn.12788. S2CID 149307220.
  29. ^ Johnson, Ian (27 October 2016). "China: The Virtues of the Awful Convulsion | Ian Johnson". New York Review of Books. ISSN 0028-7504. Retrieved 5 May 2022.
  30. ^ Short, Philip (2017). Mao: The Man Who Made China. London: I.B.Tauris. ISBN 9781784534639.

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