Frank Dikötter

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Frank Dikötter
Dikötter in 2013
Born (1961-11-30) 30 November 1961 (age 60)[1]
Stein, Limburg, Netherlands
Alma materUniversity of Geneva
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
  • Historian
  • professor
Notable work
Mao'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. Before relocating to Hong Kong, he was Professor of the Modern History of China at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.


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."[2] 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."[3] 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."[4]

The People's Trilogy

Dikötter talking about The Tragedy of Liberation in 2013

Dikötter is the author of The People's Trilogy,[5] three books that document the impact of Communist-led China on the lives of ordinary people on the basis of new archival material.[6] The first volume, titled Mao's Great Famine, won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize (now called the Baillie Gifford Prize) for nonfiction,[7] Britain's most prestigious book award for non-fiction, in 2010.[8] The second installment, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945–1957, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2014,[9] losing out to This Boy by Alan Johnson.[10] The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976, concludes the trilogy and was shortlisted for the PEN International Hessell-Tiltman Prize in 2017.[11]

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.[12] In his review of The Tragedy of Liberation, Wemheuer wrote, "Dikötter is retelling an old story about the early years of the Cold War based on new sources. While many journalists celebrate A 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."[13] In 2010, Pankaj Mishra described Dikötter's work as "boldly and engagingly revisionist",[14] leading to a public dispute between the two.[15] Adam Cathcart, lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds, has pointed out Dikötter's problematic use of sources.[16][17] 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).[18] 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 Dikötter's book is that it does 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."[19]


List of works[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Home". Archived from the original on 20 May 2012. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Baumler, Alan (2005). "Review of Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China". The Journal of Asian Studies. 64 (1): 165–167. ISSN 0021-9118.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ "Home". Frank Dikötter. Archived from the original on 11 November 2021. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ "The Samuel Johnson Prize 2011". The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ "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 ... .
  10. ^ "2014 Book Prize Winner". The Orwell Prize. Orwell Foundation. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  11. ^ Cowdrey, Katherine (7 June 2017). "'Satisfying' PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize shortlist revealed". The Bookseller. Retrieved 21 November 2021.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Wemheuer, Felix (September 2014). "The Chinese Revolution and "Liberation": Whose Tragedy?". The China Quarterly. 219: 849–863. doi:10.1017/S0305741014001052.
  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. ^ Cathcart, Adam (8 January 2019). "Mistranslating Mao in Chengdu, 1958". Adam Catchart. Retrieved 31 October 2021.
  17. ^ Cathcart, Adam (17 March 2021). "Quantifying Civilian Casualties in the Northeast during the Chinese Civil War". Sino-NK. Retrieved 31 October 2021.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Short, Philip (2017). Mao: The Man Who Made China. London: I.B.Tauris. ISBN 9781784534639.

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