Autocracy and Historical Accidents: On Katie Stallard’s “Dancing on Bones” and Joseph W. Esherick’s “Accidental Holy Land”

By Ed PulfordAugust 26, 2022

Autocracy and Historical Accidents: On Katie Stallard’s “Dancing on Bones” and Joseph W. Esherick’s “Accidental Holy Land”

Accidental Holy Land: The Communist Revolution in Northwest China by Joseph W. Esherick
Dancing on Bones: History and Power in China, Russia, and North Korea by Katie Stallard

MAO ZEDONG NEVER LIKED Shaanbei, the arid northern region now revered as the cradle of China’s Communist Revolution. Today tourists flock like pilgrims to Yan’an, the Shaanbei town which, despite its dust, flies, piles of manure, and opium problems, became the Chinese Communist Party’s main base from 1935. The massive Yan’an Revolutionary Memorial Hall — revamped in the Xi Jinping era (2012–present) — is among 30 local museums commemorating the CCP’s time there, which ended only in 1947 when victory over their Nationalist Party rivals in the Chinese Civil War (1927–36; 1945–49) looked assured.

The elevation of Shaanbei to sacred status, despite Mao’s disdain for it, offers just one example of history having worked out rather differently from how its main architects intended. Yet in China today, school textbooks, state media, and revolutionary “red” tourist pilgrimage itineraries cast Yan’an as an inevitable destination on a linear path to final Communist victory. Reached via the heroic Long March from southern China as the CCP outmaneuvered the Nationalists in 1934–35, the area offered a fittingly sparse backdrop for a morally pure revolutionary mission. Living simple lives in local cave-homes, the Party used this as a launchpad to rid the country of Japanese and other foreign invaders, eliminate “feudal” class exploitation, and develop an entire Maoist “revolutionary style” for warfare, the arts, and Marxist theory, which became national doctrine when the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949.

If elements of this official narrative do ring true, two new books nevertheless encourage us to consider what is at stake when such linear historical visions become gospel. Historian Joseph Esherick’s Accidental Holy Land is a magisterial account of Communist revolution in Shaanbei. The author of a prize-winning earlier work on the Boxer Uprising offers up here a trove of sociologically and geographically rooted tales of capricious bandits and infighting Bolsheviks. Taken together, they reveal Yan’an’s status as anything but predestined. The other book, journalist Katie Stallard’s Dancing on Bones, is an episodic reportage-based exploration of how historical narrative is today tuned to buttress autocratic leaderships in China and its neighbors Russia and North Korea. Drawing on very different materials, each cautions against the perils of deterministic or monocausal framings of the past.

China’s leaders are especially preoccupied with history (as Esherick notes, every level of the CCP apparatus has a Party history office), but all nations seek usable pasts. Wherever one locates the origins of the nation-state idea — Europe’s 1648 Peace of Westphalia and the 1815 Congress of Vienna are popular choices — drawing linear borders in space has usually entailed tracing equally linear histories through time to explain why members of a given community belong together. Russia’s 2014 and 2022 invasions of Ukraine; disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea; and fraught conversations around suppressed histories of slavery and empire in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan — to raise a few examples — reveal that both kinds of line-drawing remain unfinished projects. But what Stallard — who covered the 2014 invasion of Crimea as a Sky News broadcaster and has reported from other contested parts of Eurasia as well — identifies are not so much generalized narratives to justify the existence of the PRC, Russian Federation, or DPRK as members of the international community, but rather highly personalized “exploitations” of history by specific autocrats. Dancing on Bones seeks not to “rescue history from the nation,” as historian Prasenjit Duara put it in an influential theoretical work on the constructed nature of patriotic myths, but to expose the immediate strategies — primarily tales of national greatness and external threat — deployed by Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong-un to retain control.

According to Stallard, the primary event on which Xi’s and Putin’s power hinges is World War II. This global cataclysm has several benefits for official historiographers. While its scale and complexity provide rich source material for appropriate tales of patriotic heroism and foreign depravity, it was also the formational conflict for the post-1945 global order. Especially for China, once humiliatingly excluded from 1919’s Treaty of Versailles negotiations, accounts of anti-Japanese valor are a means to claim founder-member status in today’s US-dominated geopolitical setup. Beijing’s and Moscow’s commemorations of World War II, like North Korea’s of their 1953 “victory” in the Korean War, have an air of immovable permanence which can only be conveyed by ICBMs trundling through cities. But this air of solidity and eternality is all quite new.

For decades after 1949, the CCP favored victory against the Nationalists over victory in World War II as a source of historical legitimacy. Indeed, being holed up in dusty Yan’an during Japan’s invasions of swaths of China meant that the Communists did not actually engage the Japanese much in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and so claims to primacy in defending the nation were hard to sustain. But, as Rana Mitter notes in his recent book China’s Good War (reviewed in these pages by Yangyang Cheng in 2020), a growing focus on the country’s global status has of late seen World War II reframed as a shared Communist/Nationalist project of patriotic defense. The roots of this, Stallard explains, lie partly in the CCP’s shifting agenda following 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests and June Fourth Massacre. The divisions exposed at Tiananmen shocked the Party under Deng Xiaoping into seeking a new cohesive national narrative. With socialist themes like class struggle unavailable due to Deng’s “Let Some People Get Rich First” economic liberalization program, a fresh emphasis on patriotism and overcoming past national humiliations seemed attractive. Patriotic education was increased in schools, flag-raising ceremonies were made more elaborate, and erstwhile Nationalist enemies were gradually written back into China’s recent history. This tendency has reached a new intensity under Xi’s autocratic watch. Fully 70 years after the end of the war, Anti-Fascist Victory Day was added to China’s ceremonial calendar in 2015, and China’s tangle of civil and international conflict from 1931–45 — previously understood with more nuance — has lately been spun into a single 14-year thread of antiforeign resistance waged primarily by the CCP.

Similarly recent foundations underlie Russian emphasis on the Soviet victory in the conflict labeled the “Great Patriotic War.” Defeat of Nazi Germany was framed in the years after 1945 as Stalin’s personal achievement, but more complex narratives emerged with de-Stalinization under Nikita Khrushchev. It was thus only during Leonid Brezhnev’s stagnant rule that what Stallard calls the national “cult” of the war was established. Victory Day (May 9) became a holiday in 1965 as Brezhnev oversaw the erection of a new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow and celebrations of his own questionable war record at the anonymous battle of Malaya Zemlya near the Black Sea. Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies and years of chaotic openness under Boris Yeltsin again allowed discussion of Soviet wartime errors and Red Army atrocities, but the arrival of Putin, a man intolerant of “public handwringing,” saw interpretations of Russia’s history narrow once more. Stallard shows how Putin’s emphasis on the need for a single post-Soviet “Russian Idea” expressed during a 2000 speech has metastasized into “full grievance mode” against putative enemies during his senescence.

Projects to make official history the only history cast Xi, Putin, and Kim as uniquely capable of righting past wrongs, but they also go beyond these leaders’ own statements. Yan’an’s growing museums reflect a wider trend. Expanding exhibitions on the Nanjing Massacre, Pyongyang’s renovated Korean War Museum, and a glitzy nationwide exhibition entitled “Russia: My History” all minimize events that do not fit the script. If such institutions have an analog, 20th-century character, then this is also a war waged in digital space. Supported by new laws, such as a 2014 Kremlin ruling which criminalized “deny[ing] facts” about the Soviet war record, and the CCP’s similarly structured (if differently named) official post-2013 battle against “historical nihilism,” increasingly sophisticated censorship networks efface inconvenient truths both online and off.

Confronted by these shifting ideological currents, ordinary people have struggled to reconcile their personal memories of war’s human traumas with the radical simplicity of autocratic myth. Stallard’s book is at its most convincing when it draws from on-the-ground reporting to cover how citizens have experienced the pendulum swings between historical silence and openness. Conversations with Chinese people whose families have been alternately celebrated as martyrs and condemned as traitors, or with founders of Russia’s “Immortal Regiment” commemoration whose grassroots initiative was hijacked by the state, sit alongside accounts of a Chinese high school history class and its bloody war imagery, and of the Great Patriotic War atmospherics circulating among the “little green men” of Russia’s 2014 Crimean annexation. Less accessible North Korea and its tales of the Kim family’s greatness and “cartoonish” American enemies inevitably receive less direct treatment. But Stallard’s reflections on the interplay of sincerity and ritual among a weeping 2016 Pyongyang parade crowd offer further firsthand insight into the on-the-ground consequences of states’ efforts to become sole narrators of the past.

Esherick too writes against the grain of the CCP’s “preference for historical inevitability.” Countering the single thread of intention, progress, and victory favored by Stallard’s autocrats, Accidental Holy Land reveals northwest China’s early Communist revolution as an entropic cascade of winding retreats, internecine struggles, and questionable allegiances. Yan’an was less a base for offensives against the Japanese than it was a reluctantly chosen refuge found as the CCP searched for hideaways close to China’s Soviet border. Even after setting up there, Mao would try and fail repeatedly over subsequent years to move his headquarters elsewhere.

Indeed, the exhausted Long Marchers only learned about Shaanbei by chance, from a 1935 newspaper report on activities of the local “soviet,” as Communist-run areas were known. The fortuitousness of this discovery of a rare intact soviet amid nationwide Nationalist onslaught, as well as their disappointment on arrival, was understandable given local conditions. With a population diminished by 19th-century uprisings among local Chinese Muslims, and no electricity, Shaanbei was as socially and materially fragmented as anywhere else in warlord China following the fall of the Qing dynasty (1636–1912). The early years of the Republican era (1912–49) had seen several leftist operations emerge in a stripe of locations from Shaanxi across provincial borders to nearby Gansu and Ningxia, and these ultimately coalesced around two very different leaders. The adaptable master of survival Liu Zhidan and the more bookish and doctrinaire Xie Zichang were rivals, as well as occasional partners, and, in constant push-pull relations with the Party center, they organized peasants and teachers, requisitioned grain, and struggled to retain the few villages or county seats they controlled.

Xie died in early 1935, leaving Liu to greet Mao and company alone when they arrived later that year. The advent of the Party center marked a radical shift in Shaanbei’s society and politics, for the marchers had little regard for local conditions, spoke unintelligible southern Chinese, and generally imposed themselves as unsympathetic outsiders (only one central party leader, Gao Gang, had Shaanxi roots). But while this trampling of local experience was supposed to discipline Shaanbei, Esherick shows that the area’s unruly prehistory was in fact pivotal to subsequent events. Without Liu and Xie’s unorthodox agitation, there would have been no soviet to flee to, and far from being inimical to revolution, the improvisational activities of the 1920s were key to the revolution’s tenuous survival. “Scoundrels, thugs, and opportunists” joined the movement for many mundane reasons — drought-induced poverty among them — and protoheroes of Communist success included fashionably dressed thugs who smoked opium and had landlord backgrounds. Interpersonal relationships among schoolteachers and pupils, rural families, or secret organizations like the Society of Brothers (of which Xie was a member) were as important as any sense of moral mission; military control over territory mattered more than victory of one class over another; and peasants were often uninterested in CCP-promoted land reform and preferred tax relief or grain handouts.

These ragtag, nonlinear origins — alongside the movement’s bare survival and chance “discovery” — are what make Shaanbei’s subsequent sacredness seem so “accidental.” Indeed, conversely, if we search for Shaanbei events that do resonate with later developments, then these are as likely to be things today’s CCP would rather we forget. Yan’an was, for example, a highly chauvinistic environment where forced marriages and sexual exploitation were widespread, both in Xie and Liu’s days and after the mostly male CCP were joined here by young idealists from across China. Whether or not a direct patriarchal line runs from this to today’s age of antifeminist crackdowns and a 96 percent male PRC Politburo is a matter for debate. But CCP leader Gao Gang, who faced only minimal sanction for the 1930s rape of a local Shaanxi woman, did stand alongside Mao on the Tiananmen rostrum at the PRC’s October 1949 foundation. The lack of female voices in Esherick’s book might charitably be ascribed to his adherence to archives where women are absent.

Written at a global moment when — given archive and border closures — Esherick is left contemplating the difficulties of supplementing his decades of accumulated sources and insights, Accidental Holy Land is consciously a historian’s manifesto. In its deft integration of local and personal pasts with events across wider China and the world, this book both shows and tells us how what happened in Yan’an “did not determine” the course of subsequent history. Local sensitivity is required not to inflate particular events or identify “martyrs” to later causes but to see how revolution, and historical happenings in general, may “c[o]me about quite by accident.” There are few clearer expressions of such accidentalism than the fact that Xi Zhongxun, father of Xi Jinping, was present throughout the Yan’an period yet often found himself under arrest amid the early revolution’s “orgy of internecine carnage.”

“Accidental” does not mean random or lacking knowable cause, but under Xi Jr. it is all the more important that historians — in Esherick’s words — “discover what happened and why.” Only the powerful benefit if, as Stallard shows, you put the why first. Framing history as “one endless conflict” against enemies can mobilize people to support, or at least go along with, an anti-COVID “war,” the invasion of a neighboring country, or an expensive nuclear weapons program despite national austerity. The same tactic can rally public backing for leaving a successful international trading bloc, or promoting gun ownership. But we got to where we are via much more winding paths than advocates of such narratives would suggest. Having lived the revolution, Mao himself knew this and never returned to Yan’an after 1947. But in the eerie looping that the straightening out of history paradoxically creates, everyone else now finds themselves heading there.


Ed Pulford is an anthropologist and lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. His research focuses on China–Russia relations and the past and present of socialism, and his first book Mirrorlands is an anthropological and historical account of life in the borderlands between China and Russia.

LARB Contributor

Ed Pulford is an anthropologist and lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. His research focuses on China–Russia relations and the past and present of socialism, and his first book, Mirrorlands, is an anthropological and historical account of life in the borderlands between China and Russia.


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