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Mao: the Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday




 Mao as monster


1-sided book about the Chinese leader sometimes blurs the line between biography and fiction

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom who teaches cultural history and is the director of the East Asian Studies Center at Indiana University. His books include the edited volumes "Chinese Femininities/Chinese Ma

Published November 6, 2005

Mao: The Unknown Story
By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Knopf, 814 pages, $35

I recently read two new books that initially seemed totally dissimilar, yet turned out to have curious things in common. Both are more than 600 pages long, describe atrocities, qualify as international best sellers (though one is only now appearing in the U.S.) and deal with real but often mythologized rulers who are presented as power-hungry sadists.

One, Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian" (reviewed in Books June 12), features Vlad Tepes (a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler), 15th Century inspirer of Dracula legends. The other is "Mao: The Unknown Story," a biography of Mao Tse-tung, a man born in a Hunan village in 1893 who became China's paramount leader in 1949 and held power until he died in 1976.

Another connection between the books relates to globe-trotting couples. In "The Historian," a fictional husband-and-wife team search for Dracula. "Mao: The Unknown Story" is the product of an international search for information about the former leader of China's Communist Party carried out by a real-life, London-based husband-and-wife team: Jung Chang (author of the best-selling memoir "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China") and historian Jon Halliday (whose skills include facility with Russian sources). Their main conclusion regarding Mao? He was not a patriotic hero and innovative theorist who made errors in his dotage (the official Chinese line). Nor was he a talented but flawed individual who accomplished much but at a terrible human cost and could by turns be insightful, petty, charming and brutal (a common view among Western Sinologists). Rather, he was a megalomaniacal Machievellian bully without original ideas whose "most formidable weapon was pitilessness," a mass murderer responsible for "over 70 million deaths," a tyrant in Hitler's league.

Obviously, many things make "The Historian" different from "Mao: The Unknown Story." The former is a novel, the latter a biography with a scholarly apparatus. Kostova is relatively unknown, while Chang's 1991 memoir made her as famous in Britain as Amy Tan is here. And of course, Kostova did not speak with anyone who knew Vlad Tepes, while Chang and Halliday interviewed hundreds of people (from Henry Kissinger to aged Chinese revolutionaries) who knew Mao.

I realize that, though I've noted contrasts, it may still smack of cheap sensationalism to have opened by likening a biography to a novel, and a Gothic one at that. In my defense, I would point out three things:

First, Chang and Halliday often present Mao in a sensationalistic manner that brings Vlad the Impaler to mind. They claim that in his 30s Mao grew fond of ordering and watching executions performed with spearlike long knives and that in 1958 he "pitchforked" peasants into communes, "de facto camps for slave-labourers."

Second, some positive reviews of the book include phrases that could lead one to assume a Dracula novel was being praised. The headline "Mao: Unearthing a Monster," for instance, accompanied a July 24 Jakarta Post rave.

Third, Chang and Halliday sometimes employ a methodology that crosses the biography-fiction divide.

For example, they sometimes write as if, like the omniscent narrators of certain novels, they have direct access to their main character's innermost thoughts and feelings.

Mao said and wrote many things, often contradicting himself and changing his opinions radically from one period to the next, and clearly sometimes made statements for strategic reasons or simply to shock people. Mao biographers typically make and try to defend cautious suppositions about which statements were and were not expressions of his convictions. Not Chang and Halliday. They assert rather than speculate, claiming to be sure, for example, that Mao's statements endorsing Marxism were all purely strategic, his comments celebrating violence all heartfelt. And they insist that while dying, Mao "spared no thought" (as opposed to, say, expressed no remorse) "for the mammoth human and material losses that his destructive quest had cost his people."

Another blurring of the biography-fiction line relates to citations. When novels involving real historical figures, such as Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," end with lists of materials consulted, this is done merely to show that a vision of the past is plausible, that things just described could have happened. For biographers, the bar is higher. They are expected to explain why evidence that contradicts their conclusions seems unpersuasive. For the most part, though, Chang and Halliday's copious notes merely cite sources that support their assertions.

A third way that "Mao: The Unknown Story" resembles a novel as much as, or more than, a serious biography has to do with characterization and contextualization. We expect the main figures in biographies, though not Gothic novels, to come across as multidimensional people with complex motivations who were shaped to some degree by their surroundings. This is true even when the subject is a dictator responsible for enormous suffering--and, make no mistake, while the 70 million figure is open to debate, Mao definitely was responsible for catastrophes, such as the great famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s, that had enormous death tolls. It is possible, as Ian Kershaw's acclaimed Hitler biography shows, to make complex and to contextualize even the most heinous figures. Yet Chang and Halliday do not give us a complex and multidimensional Mao. In fact, Kostova's Dracula comes across as a more complicated figure.

At least in "The Historian," some of Vlad Tepes' vile deeds are presented as an outgrowth of his passionate--if warped--love for an embattled homeland, Transylvania, facing Turkish invaders. But Chang and Halliday insist that Mao was never a patriot. He grew up in a China vulnerable to Western encroachment, lived through brutal Japanese invasions and led a party that continually criticized imperialism. Still, they claim, he loved only power, not China.

As for downplaying context, their handling of Mao's writings celebrating the violent means villagers used to revenge themselves against landlords is telling. One way to approach these comments is to place them in the context of the late 1920s, when they were written, a time of warlord violence and a time when the Nationalists launched a counter-revolutionary White Terror aimed at bringing about the extinction of the Communist Party. Another approach, Chang and Halliday's, is to detach the comments from context and cite them as evidence of Mao's discovering "in himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery."

Does this mean that their biography is one specialists can and should ignore? No.

Because it moves at a brisk pace and is filled with evocative descriptions of dramatic events, many American readers will doubtless be drawn to and intrigued by it, as their counterparts in other countries (such as India, where it reached No. 1 on non-fiction best-seller charts over the summer) already have been. Specialists will have to take it seriously due partly to this popularity and hence its ability to shape the foreign image of Mao.

Two other things should make specialists pay attention to it: the interesting use the authors make of newly available Soviet archival materials and the large number of interviews they conducted. These interviews would be more useful to scholars if they were quoted from at greater length, but even as used here they flesh out our picture of how Mao's actions were viewed by those around him.

Is this a book to recommend to general readers? As a specialist, I find the book problematic, and not just because of biography-versus-fiction genre issues. In addition, the subtitle, "The Unknown Story," is misleading. Some of the book's provocative claims about the pre-1949 era are new, but its treatment of the last 20 years of Mao's life is similar to the one his former physician, Dr. Li Zhisui, provided in "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" (1994). Anyone familiar with Li's much-read and much-discussed memoir won't be surprised by Chang and Halliday's depiction of the aged leader as cruel, paranoid, egotistical and sexually predatory. Another problem is Chang and Halliday's obsession with Hitler analogies. Calling communes slave-labor camps encourages readers to equate Maoism with Nazism but in the process distorts un-derstanding of collectivization, which some villagers welcomed.

But rather than try to dissuade general readers from buying this problematic page-turner, I would simply urge them not to rely on it as their sole source of information about Mao and to treat its claims as skeptically as they might those in a prosecutor's opening statement at a trial. Such statements include facts, but their goal is to cast the accused in the worst possible light, which easily leads to exagerrations. And prosecutors are not obliged to mention any good words that others have for the accused, though they may suggest that only delusional people would fail to appreciate the person in the dock's villainy--just as Chang and Halliday treat as untrustworthy not just Mao's partisans but all who see him as a mixture of good and evil.

A good strategy for those who want to understand China would be to read "Mao: The Unknown Story" in tandem with another acccessible new work, "The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market." Its author, long-time Guardian China correspondent John Gittings, is no apologist for Mao, but he treats the post-1949 era as a time of accomplishments as well as tragedies.

Readers might conclude after finishing both books that, despite Mao's responsibility for such catastrophes as the famine and Cultural Revolution-era violence, he was no Hitler. The party that Mao led helped China regain its national sovereignty in 1949, introduced the 1950 marriage law that gave Chinese women more rights than they had ever had (an important step even if male-female equality was never fully realized--something that hardly makes China unique), and has presided over a long period during which (despite the famine) life expectancy rates have risen dramatically.

Chang and Halliday end with an epilogue in the form of a lament:

"Today, Mao's portait and his corpse still dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital. The current Communist regime declares itself to be Mao's heir and fiercely perpetuates the myth of Mao."

They clearly look forward to the day that China's citizens will know the truth about Mao and be free to debate the meaning of his life openly. I share this hope, but I am skeptical that such a debate would produce the result that Nazi analogies would point to: a complete repudiation of Mao's legacy a la the German one of Hitler.

Instead, a consensus could well emerge that Mao's body should not be displayed, but that his image should stay on bank notes. He might end up admired for some things, despised for others, as, say, Napoleon is in France and Cromwell is in England. Or, for that matter, as Andrew Jackson is in the U.S. That early president's role in perpetrating atrocities against American Indians is widely known, yet Jacksonian democracy is still praised, and his face still graces our $20 bill.





Going behind Mao's ruthless reign

By Michael Kenney, Globe Correspondent  |  November 8, 2005

Mao: The Unknown Story, By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Knopf, 814 pp, $35

Writing in 1917-18, Mao Zedong, then a 24-year-old student, addressed the question of ''How do we change [China]?"

''The country" -- by which he meant traditional Chinese culture -- ''must be destroyed," he wrote, ''and then re-formed."

That theme ''was to typify his rule," write Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in ''Mao: The Unknown Story." And it is a theme, one that found its culmination in the Cultural Revolution a half-century later, that gives coherence to this episodic -- and polemic -- biography.

Chang, whose 1991 family memoir, ''Wild Swans," remains a memorable account of growing up in revolutionary China, left the country in 1978 and lives in London. Halliday, a British historian, is her husband.

Chang was a 16-year-old schoolgirl during the Cultural Revolution, and her account of raiding a teahouse in Chengdu with other Red Guards struck this reviewer at the time as ''[carrying] a sense of righteousness overtaken by confusion."

There is a high sense of righteousness, undeterred by confusion, as well as a sense of mission in ''Mao." From the opening pages, Mao is depicted in the darkest terms, a power-hungry ''monster" on the order of Hitler and Stalin, responsible for 38 million deaths (the authors' estimate) during 1958-61 alone, the years of the misguided ''Great Leap Forward" and ensuing famine, as well as being guilty of shading, or bluntly rewriting history to cast himself as hero.

That depiction begs the question: How could Mao get away with it from 1949, when he defeated the Nationalists and established the People's Republic of China, until his death in 1976?

Through it all, Mao retained his ability to mobilize workers, students, and peasants by the tens of thousands to thwart opposition.

Still, there was opposition within the Communist Party leadership. The accounts of these events -- told with much ''insider" detail -- are among the strengths of ''Unknown Story."

One example occurred during Mao's ''Great Leap Forward," which, with its backyard steel mills melting down farm implements and cooking utensils, had led to massive starvation throughout China. In early 1961, Chang and Halliday say that Liu Shaochi, then China's president, visited his home province of Hunan. ''Deeply troubled," he ''apologized to the peasants for the misrule Communists had brought." Returning to Beijing, ''he told top managers: 'We cannot go on like this.' "

Subsequently, Liu attacked Mao's policies at a party conference, forcing Mao into ''self-criticism." Liu, along with Premier Zhou Enlai and ''rising star" Deng Xiaoping, reversed the misguided policies and ''in less than a year people's lives improved perceptibly [and] by and large, deaths from hunger stopped."

The book ends with Mao's death in September 1976. A two-sentence epilogue notes that Mao's entombed body and massive portrait ''still dominate Tiananmen Square" and that ''the current Communist regime declares itself to be Mao's heir and fiercely perpetuates the myth of Mao."

Still, within 10 years of Mao's death, a wave of economic and social reforms had put China on the path to becoming an economic superpower. Perhaps that could have happened without the destruction of the old China that Mao sought and largely achieved. But perhaps not. 





Genosse Massenmörder

Jung Chang und Jon Halliday korrigieren das Bild des »Großen Vorsitzenden« Mao Tse-tung

Von Gisela Mahlmann

Jung Chang/Jon Halliday: Mao Das Leben eines Mannes, das Schicksal eines Volkes; aus dem Englischen von Ursel Schäfer, Heike Schlatterer, Werner Roller; Blessing Verlag, München 2005; 976 S., 34,– €

Dieses Buch rüttelt auf, es verstört, und es zwingt jeden Leser, sich mit der »Schriftgläubigkeit«, dem Vertrauen in Experten und vor allem auch mit ihren eigenen, früheren Beurteilungen des »Großen Vorsitzenden« kritisch auseinander zu setzen. »Mao Tse-tung war verantwortlich für über 70 Millionen Tote in Friedenszeiten.« Auf den ersten Satz folgen 800 Seiten mit detaillierten Schilderungen von Maos Verbrechen, Machtspielen, Geschichtsfälschungen. Natürlich war die eine oder andere von Jung Chang und Jon Halliday aufgedeckte Grausamkeit bekannt. Aber nach diesem Biografie scheint klar zu sein: Mao war ein Tyrann und Massenmörder, der an seiner Brutalität und Menschenverachtung, an selbst angeordneten Exekutionen auch noch Spaß hatte.

Jung Chang und Jon Halliday haben zwölf Jahre lang in Archiven in aller Welt geforscht und Hunderte von Zeitzeugen interviewt. Viele, die mit Mao gelebt oder gearbeitet haben, waren 20 Jahre nach seinem Tod bereit, schonungslos offen über die Vergangenheit zu sprechen. Die Folge ist, dass viele lieb gewonnenen Mythen der chinesischen Revolution der faktischen Überprüfung nicht mehr standhalten.

So erfahren wir, dass der legendäre Lange Marsch eine panische Flucht vor den Truppen Chiang Kai-sheks war und ein brutaler, innerparteilicher Kampf um die Vorherrschaft in der chinesischen KP. Die rote Basis in Yenan ist demnach nicht mehr der Ort der idealen kommunistischen Gleichheit. Im Gegenteil: Hier gab es abgestufte Privilegien für Offiziere, Terror durch erzwungene Selbstkritik und Waffenkäufe, finanziert durch Opiumhandel. Die Rote Armee war schon damals nicht die Armee des Volkes, zu der Freiwillige strömten, sie war eine Armee von zwangsrekrutierten Bauern, die plünderte und Getreide ohne Bezahlung beschlagnahmte. Jung Chang fand die Notizen eines Parteiinspektors, der schrieb: »Die einheimische Bevölkerung hasste uns und tat alles, um die Gesetzlosen zu schützen.« Maos Sieg über die Truppen von Chiang Kai-shek, so schreibt Jung Chang, ist nicht der Überlegenheit der kommunistischen Truppen zu verdanken, sondern vor allem kommunistischen »Schläfern« in den Reihen der Nationalisten, die dort geplante Aktionen an Mao verrieten. Sie weist nach, dass Mao durch Terror herrschte und er Soldaten und Parteigenossen über seinen Spionageapparat fest im Griff hatte. Er befahl Tausende von Hinrichtungen und ließ Folterungen und Tötungen filmen. Bei solchen Exzessen, so schrieb er 1927, empfinde »er eine nie erlebte Ekstase«. Sein Machthunger war unersättlich: Den Hungertod von 38 Millionen Menschen Ende der fünfziger Jahre nahm er in Kauf, um gegen Getreideexporte an moderne Waffen zu kommen. Jung Chang zeigt, dass Tschou En-lai, der im Ausland als kultivierter Vertreter der chinesischen KP gesehen wurde, Maos Launen und politischen Entscheidungen vollkommen ausgeliefert war. Mao verweigerte dem Todkranken sogar die notwendige Krebsoperation, damit dieser ihn nicht überlebe.

Es sind nicht alles Neuentdeckungen, die die beiden Autoren für ihr Bild des grausamen Tyrannen anführen. Maos ausschweifendes Sexleben wurde schon in den Erinnerungen seines Leibarztes Li Zhi-sui vor einem Jahrzehnt offenbart; die Verfolgung der Intellektuellen und die Leiden während der Kulturrevolution wurden schon in der »Narben- und Wundenliteratur« Anfang der achtziger Jahre von Schriftstellern wie Wang Meng, Zhang Jie und Bai Hua geschildert; über die unmenschlichen Quälereien in den Straflagern haben Harry Wu und Dissidenten wie Wei Jingshen schon vor zehn Jahren berichtet. Warum wurden trotz dieser Kenntnisse die Verbrechen in China fast nie in direktem Zusammenhang mit Mao gesehen? Dazu hat die chinesische Politik beigetragen, die Maos unbeflecktes Bild nach wie vor zur Identitätsstiftung braucht und pflegt.

Im Westen war das wahre Bild von Mao verdeckt durch die Sehnsucht nach einem »guten Kommunismus« im Gegensatz zum »schlechten Kommunismus« der Sowjetunion. Außerdem spielte die exotische »Idealisierung des Chinesischen«, die im Westen schon seit mehr als 200 Jahren vorherrschte, eine Rolle. Sie machte es Mao leicht, seine politischen Ambitionen bühnenreif zu kaschieren. Am Bild vom Revolutionär und Poeten Mao haben viele mitgearbeitet, nicht zuletzt Mao selbst, der 1936 den amerikanischen Journalisten Edgar Snow einlud, einige Monate in Yenan zu verbringen. Ihm erzählte er seine Version vom Langen Marsch, ihm zeigte er sich als bescheidener Guerillaführer und Philosoph. Edgar Snows Roter Stern über China wurde zur Basis fast aller Mao-Beurteilungen. Dass dieses Buch sofort ins Chinesische übersetzt und von den Kommunisten verbreitet wurde, wusste man bereits Ende der dreißiger Jahre. Aber keiner im Westen wurde skeptisch, ob und wieweit die Propagandaabteilung der KP mitgeschrieben hatte.

Man wollte damals in Mao den Guten sehen, und Snow lüftete das Geheimnis. Für ihn war er der geniale Führer, der »Rebell, der Verse schreiben und einen Kreuzzug anführen konnte«. Dass ein Ausländer und nicht ein chinesischer Autor das erste große Buch über Mao schrieb, machte die Aussagen nur noch glaubwürdiger. Und so fanden sich in den Veröffentlichungen bekannter Experten Einschätzungen von Mao wie: »In seiner visionären Kraft gleicht er Roosevelt… in seiner Kampfeslust, seinem Pathos und Witz steht er einem Winston Churchill nicht nach.« Oder: »Auch wenn er sich den Weg zur Macht mit Zähnen und Klauen erkämpfte, so war er doch im Glauben ans Volk als höchste Macht ein Demokrat.« In aller Welt hat man den Personenkult um Mao wahrgenommen, doch kam niemand auf die Idee, diesen Kult mit dem um Stalin oder Hitler zu vergleichen, obwohl bekannt war, dass er keine freiwillige Verehrung, sondern auf Terror gegründet war.

Solange die Vergangenheit in China noch nicht aufgearbeitet, sondern mit dem erlaubten Streben nach Wohlstand zugekleistert wird, wird Mao als der große Einiger dargestellt und sein Porträt am Tor des Himmlischen Friedens jedes Jahr neu retuschiert werden. Mao soll weiter dem Zusammenhalt des Landes dienen. Deshalb ist er auch heute noch der »Große Steuermann«, und er wird es noch einige Jahre bleiben.

Die Biografie von Jung Chang und Jon Halliday fordert heraus, sich Gedanken über den Wandel der Wahrnehmung von angeblichen Wahrheiten zu machen. Jeder, der mit China zu tun hat, ob als Politiker oder als Vertreter der Wirtschaft, ob als Student oder als Tourist, sollte dieses Buch lesen. Aber 800 Seiten und Hunderte von Quellenverweisen werden für viele zu viel sein. Ich wünsche mir deshalb, dass sich die Autoren die Mühe machen, eine wesentlich gekürzte Ausgabe zu erarbeiten. Ihre Erkenntnisse sind wichtig, nur wer China wirklich kennt, kann diesem faszinierenden Land im aufkommenden asiatischen Jahrhundert gerecht werden.


Chairman Monster
A blistering biography tries to rewrite the legacy of one of the 20th century's worst tyrants.

Reviewed by John Pomfret
Sunday, December 11, 2005; BW03

MAO: The Unknown Story

By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Knopf. 814 pp. $35

Chairman Mao has always been an acceptable tyrant. Compared to Hitler and Stalin, Mao Zedong has usually gotten good if not great press, despite having been responsible for the peacetime deaths of millions of his countrymen because of bad policies or purges. On the left, the view of the chairman has remained petrified in the 1930s, when the American journalist Edgar Snow wrote Red Star Over China , a flattering account of Mao and his communist comrades' fight against Japanese aggressors and Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt nationalist regime, and in the 1960s, when Mao fever swept American college campuses. (I remember going to sleep as a youngster to the chants of Columbia University students: "Mao, Mao, Chairman Mao.") From the right, Mao looked good for standing up to the Soviets in the 1970s. Generally speaking, China lovers have given Mao a break and followed the official Communist Party line: that the chairman was 30 percent wrong and 70 percent right as he united China and led tens of millions of people to their deaths.

But unlike in the West, where the view of Mao has remained petrified, scholars in China are battling over the meaning of the man. For a growing group of them, who have published their books and essays in out-of-the-way or overseas publishing houses, Mao was a tyrant. In recent years, historians writing in mainland China have made enormous contributions to the study of Mao's life -- showing how his particular brand of cruelty helped fashion China's peculiarly successful brand of totalitarianism, dissecting his debauchery and sexual deviancy, detailing his sadism, his disastrous policies, the famines he caused and the lives he destroyed. Another group has shown how Mao's crimes have devastated China's culture, creating a broken snitch society absent a moral compass.

Against that backdrop arrives the extraordinary Mao: The Unknown Story , by Jung Chang and her husband, the scholar Jon Halliday, who last collaborated on Chang's bestselling family portrait, Wild Swans . Their 814-page tome relies heavily on new Chinese scholarship; indeed, it probably could not have been written without it. The biography also benefits from solid research by Halliday in newly opened Soviet archives.

When it sticks to the new Chinese and Russian sources, the book shines, providing readers with the most detailed portrayal of the "Great Helmsman" to date. But when it pretends to tell us what the chairman is thinking and feeling, the book veers toward magical realism. Finally, its tendency toward hyperbole damages its otherwise persuasive case against Mao.

In short, if you're hoping for staid, balanced scholarship, don't read this book. It's not history; it's a screed, albeit a screed on the side of the angels. Chang writes with the zeal of the converted. As a youth, she, like millions in her generation, was intoxicated with Mao and viewed him as a god. But he ravaged untold lives, including hers. Chang obviously figured she didn't need to get mad; she got even.

Even screeds have their place, however, and this is an extremely entertaining one. Indeed, sometimes an emotionally charged account -- one written with obvious biases -- can reveal the truth better than ostentatious, morally numbed objectivity that cloaks a lot of Western scholarship on China. Chang and Halliday's point is very simple: Like a small group of scholars in China, they believe that Mao wasn't a revolutionary but a monster. He wasn't a communist but a bandit king. The result is a page-turner with a point.

And that point is honed razor-sharp. "Turning ordinary organisations into virtual prisons was a significant innovation of Mao's," they write. "Here he went far beyond anything either Hitler or Stalin achieved: he converted people's colleagues into their jailers. . . . He greatly enlarged the number of people directly involved in repression, including torture, making the orbit significantly wider than either Stalin or Hitler, who mostly used secret elites (KGB, Gestapo) that held their victims in separate and unseen locales." Chang and Halliday are determined to pin Mao high in the pantheon of 20th-century villainy.

This massive biography traces Mao's life from his rural origins in Hunan province, detailing his hatred of his father and arguing that from the start he was a "lukewarm believer" in communism. The book contends that Mao grew into a young man without a moral code and obsessed with "upheaval and destruction."

"Mao shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty," Chang and Halliday write. "He explicitly rejected any responsibility towards future generations. . . . Mao did not believe in anything unless he could benefit from it personally." He viewed himself, they write, as one of society's "Great Heroes," who lived by their own rules. In fact, they argue, the young Mao was lazy, hated physical labor, failed when he attempted to learn foreign languages and exhibited no leadership skills.

The middle of the book is devoted to Mao's resistible rise. Chang and Halliday portray Mao as perhaps the most disastrous example ever of the Peter Principle: He fails at everything, and yet, because of his ruthlessness, he is cultivated by Soviet agents and destined for prominence. Chang and Halliday argue that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Mao was a creature of Soviet communism. From the age of 27, they write, he was on the Comintern's payroll.

This point is a significant one. For decades, Western scholars and China buffs -- starting with Edgar Snow -- have sought to emphasize Mao's independence from the Soviet Union. But Chang and Halliday, relying on archival material from Moscow, show that, time and again, Soviet influence, money and weapons saved Mao from his Chinese comrades.

Unfortunately, some of the "scoops" that Chang and Halliday claim for themselves actually belong to others. For example, Chapter Eight focuses on the first bloody purge launched by Mao in Jiangxi province in southern China in 1930, arguing that the purge was "in many ways the formative moment of Maoism" and that it "is still covered up to this day." In fact, in 2000, Gao Hua, a Chinese historian from Nanjing University, published a book in Hong Kong that told this story at length, arguing that the Jiangxi purge created a paradigm for all subsequent Maoist political campaigns. (Gao's work is included in the bibliography, but he is not cited in the text.)

Worse, when Chang and Halliday depart from their Chinese and Soviet sources and engage in historical guesswork, the book borders on the unbelievable. One of their central tenets is that Mao didn't truly love China; rather, he loved power, and therefore the real patriot of 20th-century China was Mao's nemesis, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist Party, who fled to Taiwan in 1949 as the communists seized power. As such, the book downplays the massive corruption that infected Chiang's party and government and turns him into a hero of sorts. The book concocts a fanciful argument that the reason Chiang's troops did not destroy the communists during the Long March and other military campaigns was not incompetence on the part of the Nationalist forces but that Chiang, petrified that Stalin would kill his son if the Nationalists crushed their leftist foes, pulled his troops back.

The latter half of the book is devoted to Mao's years leading China. There again, when the book hews close to original Chinese research, it provides much that will be new to American readers. (For instance, Chang and Halliday make a strong case, contrary to conventional wisdom, that Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, the leader of the notorious Gang of Four who led the Cultural Revolution, rarely if ever acted on her own and was, as she claimed in her 1980 trial for "counter-revolutionary" crimes, nothing but Mao's "dog.") But when it swerves into speculation, the story again breaks down. Take the way the book treats the Great Leap Forward, Mao's disastrous 1958-60 campaign to "surpass Great Britain and catch up to America" that left millions dead of starvation. Chang and Halliday allege that the real cause of the famine was not bad agricultural policies but Mao's obsession with getting the atomic bomb. Mao, the book alleges, exchanged China's harvests for nuclear technology, thereby beggaring the countryside. In fact, there is no strong evidence that China was a major food exporter then.

Chang and Halliday also do not explore the effect Mao has had on Chinese society, choosing instead to end their book by reminding readers that his body and portrait "still dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital." This would be a rich area to probe because Mao's nihilism still exerts a powerful influence on a rising China today.

Chang and Halliday's work is destined to become a classic, but it's a flawed classic. Mao is a great read but not worth believing wholesale. Nonetheless, their central point -- that Mao was a monster and should be remembered as one of history's great villains -- is right on the money.

John Pomfret was The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief from 1998 to 2003. He is now its Los Angeles bureau chief.



January 6, 2007


Hatchet job or horror story?

Reviewed by Brenda Maddox

Scholars have doubts over Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao – now in paperback – but Brenda Maddox finds it chilling

MAO: The Unknown Story
by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Vintage, £9.99; 814pp


WITH THE LAWS AGAINST Holocaust denial in seven countries, perhaps there should also be a penalty for those who hold Hitler to have been the most ruthless dictator of the 20th century.

A rebuke might also be delivered to those who cannot tell the Long March from the Great Leap Forward, let alone do not realise that even today Mao Zedong’s portrait beams down from the gate of Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in still-communist China.

In 1991, Jung Chang’s phenomenally successful Wild Swans gave the Western public its first clear glimpse of the suffering under Chairman Mao. She wrote about her life as a young Red Guard and as the daughter of parents who were broken by the Cultural Revolution (more aptly called the Great Purge) launched in 1965-66.

In Mao: The Unknown Story, published last year, with her historian husband Jon Halliday, Chang gave the historical and social background to the Mao horror. Their biography, now out in paperback, is a readable and fast-paced narrative of the life of a leader who, they claim, was responsible for 70 million deaths. They calculate that Mao’s regime directly killed 27 million through public executions and maltreatment in prison and labour camps. The remaining millions perished through starvation, maltreatment or suicide.

It was not only in numbers murdered but in ruthlessness that Mao outranks Hitler. He set the Chinese against each other, exposing so-called spies and counter-revolutionaries, cowing the masses by making them watch the torture and execution of the accused.

Although a farmer’s son — born in Hunan, Central China, in 1893 — Mao, who became a convert to communism in 1920, was no lover of the Chinese peasantry.

In the name of the Great Leap Foward, his drive to overtake the capitalist countries in industrialisation, he caused, between 1958 and 1961, the greatest famine in history. The emaciated millions died producing grain, pork and vegetable oil exported to the Soviet Union. Mao wanted to ingratiate himself with the Soviet Government and Eastern Europe for industrial and nuclear knowhow.Thanks to food sent from China, East Germany lifted food rationing in May 1958. Mao laughed when told that his people were driven to eat leaves from the trees. “Half of China may well have to die,” he said. With a population of 550 million, China was better off without a few million. The cruel irony is that, unlike Hitler, Mao died in his own bed — from natural causes in 1976.

Although Wild Swans was banned in China, Chang, who moved to Britain in 1978, and her husband, a specialist on Soviet archives, were allowed into the country in a decade of work on this book. Many who knew Mao were still alive, including a 90-year-old woman who washed his underwear (a noble task, as he never took a bath or shower for a quarter of a century). They claim to have unearthed many new documents, including eight outpourings of love written by Mao’s second wife Kai-hui before her execution in 1930.

Their list of interviewees is phenomenal in itself: 363 people in 38 countries, including two former American presidents, the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the former Prime Minister Edward Heath, one of Mao’s daughters, several of his grandsons, the Dalai Lama and the actor Sir Michael Caine (who served in the Korean War).

They set about exploding some cherished myths. The Long March (from October 1934 to October 1935), was no heroic journey but a miserable failure. Of the 80,000 communists who moved to escape the encirclement of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, only 10,000 reached safety. And these survived, the claim continues, only because Chiang Kai-shek created a safe passage so that the Communists might subdue the warlords in the northwest.

The authors report that Mao, who always gave himself privileges denied to others, was carried most of the 6,000 miles in a litter, wearing underwear of fine material. The celebrated battle of the march, in 1935 over a gorge at the Dadu bridge, they declare, never took place. Chiang’s incompetence, not Mao’s cleverness, is offered as an explanation for the defeat of the Nationalists.

From Russian archives, more-over, there are records showing that Mao encouraged the opium trade to subsidise his hold on northern China. These show that the trade — for which the Chinese despised 19th-century British — brought $6 million in revenue.

When it first appeared in 2005, Mao: The Unknown Story received a warm, if qualified, reception. In The Independent, Jonathan Mirsky, a veteran China-watcher, claimed that it finished Mao’s reputation as “a great man”.

The Observer’s Jonathan Beckman saw it as “an act of political defiance”, attacking “the myths on which Chinese communist identity rests today”. In The Sunday Telegraph, Max Hastings welcomed its demolition of the foolish Western left-wing enthusiasm for Mao but found it lacking an explanation for why so many Chinese remained “for so long committed to his insane vision”.

But there has been a cooler welcome from scholars of Chinese history. Some find the authors’ professed unique sources and interviewees poorly attributed and hard to track down. They point out that little psychological evidence was produced to show why Mao was so devoid of human feeling. A more sweeping criticism is that the book ignores the wider political context of China and the interplay of the superpowers of the Cold War in its effort to pin everything on Mao.

“If ever Mao’s picture comes down from Tiananmen or his mausoleum is destroyed, and it is demonstrated that this biography was the key factor, I shall cheer the authors,” one Ivy League academic acknowledged. But he thought the book’s “total negativity” nullified its purpose.

Maybe. For the experts, Mao: The Unknown Story may be history as hatchet-job. But can you demonise a monster? The book is a revelation of the savagery to which the human race can sink and the extent to which a huge population can be controlled through terror. Required reading for the non-sinologist — but not for holidays.



Mao Zedong was born in 1893 into a peasant family as the Qin dynasty was fading. He later said that the dismemberment of China was then imminent and heroic action by youth was needed.

At the age of 19 he wrote an essay protesting against the ancient Chinese laws, saying: “At the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the mass of the people always dislike it.”

He became a headmaster by 1920, marrying a teacher’s daughter with whom he had two sons. He had more children with later wives, and may have fathered illegitimate children.


He attended the first meeting of the Chinese Commmunist Party in 1921, and, after the split with the Kuomintang (KMT), began building a guerrilla army. It took 22 years to defeat the KMT, during which time his wife died and he remarried. He left his second wife for the actress Jiang Qing, who, in the 1960s, masterminded much of the Cultural Revolution He came to power in 1949. In 1957 he dismissed claims of famine, saying: “How could we possibly kill 20 million people?” The cult of Mao spread worldwide in the 1960s, fuelled by his “little red book”, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao. His face was immortalised by Andy Warhol in 1972, a portrait that sold for $17.4 million last year.


In his spare time, he wrote poetry in the traditional Chinese style, with revolutionary themes. “We have reclaimed part of the golden bowl/ And land is being shared out with a will,” he wroter in 1929 after Red Army clashes with the KMT.

He also swam daily, telling floundering friends: “Maybe you are afraid of sinking. Don’t think about it. If you don’t think about it, you won’t sink. If you do, you will.”