Mao: The Unknown Story

A Roundup of Reviews

Thursday May 26, 2005
The Guardian
Inside story
‘This book will shake the world’
Her novel Wild Swans smashed best-selling records worldwide. So what made Jung Chang then devote 10 years of her life to researching a hefty political biography of Chairman Mao? Lisa Allardice reports
There was a moment in the early 1990s when everybody everywhere seemed to be reading Wild Swans. The biggest grossing non-fiction paperback in publishing history, it sold more than 10m copies worldwide and was translated into 30 languages. It wasn’t just a popular success appealing mainly to women (as is sometimes sniffily assumed), it was also acclaimed by literary heavyweights such as Martin Amis and JG Ballard.
Published two years after the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Jung Chang’s family memoir, following the lives of three generations of women through China’s terrible 20th century, arrived at just the right time to satisfy a readership hungry for information about this unknown country. For many in the west, Wild Swans was their first real insight into life under the Chinese Communist party. Now, with her long-awaited second book co-written with her husband, the historian Jon Halliday, Chang aims to expose the true character of the man responsible for so much misery – Chairman Mao. “He was as evil as Hitler or Stalin, and did as much damage to mankind as they did,” Chang says. “And yet the world knows astonishingly little about him.”
The result of more than 10 years of research, trawling archives all over the world and hundreds of interviews, she hopes that Mao: The Unknown Story will leave readers in no doubt that his 27-year rule was one of the most merciless in a cruel century. “Seventy million killed at the absolute minimum. We didn’t even count people like my grandmother’s death – which should really be on Mao’s account. That figure only includes people who were murdered by Mao – and in peace time, which is completely unprecedented in the history of the world.”
Was Mao an obvious successor to Wild Swans? “Absolutely! We were driven by a fascination with this man, we wanted to go inside his head and unravel all the myths around him. I think we were very lucky to have landed with this subject. He is the big subject of the 20th century – an unknown figure. We will fill the gap in history – that is so exciting.” Wild Swans, she says, will “pale in comparison”. “No, no we can’t have that!” her husband interjects, gallantly. Halliday, whom Chang describes as “her knight without armour”, is lovingly credited in Wild Swans; in the latest book he has joint authorship, his name appearing in slightly smaller, black print below Chang’s.
They seem an unlikely couple, perhaps: Chang, a petite, girlish 53, with a curtain of dark, waist-length hair; Halliday, donnishly crumpled with a shock of white hair. Together, however, they make a formidable literary partnership, a yin and yang of exotic glamour and scholarly erudition. It is a drizzly late afternoon when we meet at their west London home, but their kitchen is drenched in light from the wall-length window revealing a tumbling garden outside. It seems a world away from the horrors of Mao’s regime, but everywhere there are reminders of Chang’s past. Chinese artefacts adorn every surface, a portrait of her mother hangs on one wall, and imposing volumes on the history of the Chinese Communist party, fat with tiny Post-it notes, line the floor.
Chang’s remarkable rise from unimaginable hardship to literary stardom is the stuff of fiction (“Being married to Jung is like living a fairy tale,” agrees Halliday); however, this week Chang revealed that both she and her husband battled with serious health problems while working on the book. They have both fully recovered, although Halliday looks slightly frail. Chang seems a little fierce at first, although she is soon chatting animatedly. They sit drinking lemon and ginger tea from a china teapot, like proud parents either side of the little emerald tower of new hardbacks on their kitchen table.
Their home life certainly seems serene. Halliday works in an office off the kitchen, and Chang upstairs – they meet for lunch to exchange ideas. Surely they must have rowed occasionally? “No, we’ve argued about things – but we never fought.” But it can’t have been easy sharing their life with a despot for more than a decade? “We’ve lived really for 10 years in constant excitement,” Chang says. They have strived to find a shared, accessible voice in a similar style to that of Wild Swans. One of the most difficult things, says Halliday, was cutting the material down to a manageable size. “We want people to understand it; we didn’t want to write a book for our peers, for other historians. We want the general reader to know about Mao.”
This biography, insists Chang, is unlike any other about the leader. “All the historical events like the Long March, the war with Japan, how Mao came to power, the Great Leap, the Cultural Revolution – our story is completely different. Nobody has explained Mao like us.”
Really? While our knowledge of Chinese history may be shadowy in places, it seems unlikely that our understanding of all these landmarks should be so far out. It is easy to get swept up in Chang’s enthusiasm for her subject and excitement at their “discoveries”. The success of Wild Swans has perhaps given her a touchingly naive confidence in a book’s revolutionary influence. “Bits of the information were around,” concedes Chang, “but they were like pieces of a jigsaw that didn’t make any sense. Nobody has put them together into this coherent picture of Mao. People looked but they didn’t see.” Alongside a steady accumulation of historical revelations (Mao’s complex relationship with Stalin, his cynical trade-offs with Nixon) and gruesomely fascinating biographical anecdotes (Mao ordered his new-born baby to be abandoned to die on the Long March, for instance, and famously refused to take a bath for quarter of a century), the biography aims to demolish the fundamental principl!
es on which the Maoist regime was built. His complete lack of ideological belief underpins the book: far from being the great peasant leader of communist mythology, it argues, Mao was motivated simply by a pursuit of personal power; he despised equality and introduced a succession of disastrously anti-peasant policies. Not content with his tyranny over China, he wanted to conquer the world, and became obsessed with acquiring nuclear weapons at great cost to his country. This quest to become a world superpower, according to Chang,”was at the core of his thought”.
A former Red Guard, Chang was once so indoctrinated with Maoist beliefs that, as a girl, she chastised herself for feeling sad when Mao ordered that all the grass and flowers should be destroyed. On the eve of her 16th birthday, after witnessing the brutal denunciation of her parents, she tried to flush a poem hinting at her growing disillusionment with the regime down the toilet during a raid on their apartment. Today, the Chinese authorities probably would like to do the same with all 800-plus pages of Mao. Wild Swans is still banned in her native country and, not surprisingly, Mao won’t be published there either, though Chang is working on a Chinese translation and is confident that, like Wild Swans, it will find its way in. It is being published in Taiwan and, she hopes, in Hong Kong. “You can imagine how I am dying for the Chinese to read it.”
The Chinese government warned surviving members of Mao’s inner circle to watch what they said to Chang and Halliday, but the threats backfired. “People were dying to say things. They realised that if the government was that bothered, their story was going to be heard. I always gave them a copy of Wild Swans so they knew this was the kind of person I am, the kind of book I would write. They knew it wouldn’t be the party line.” Wild Swans gave the couple the financial independence to spend a decade tracking down their subject “like a pair of detectives”, while also opening doors to an eclectic collection of more than 200 international figures including the Dalai Lama, Imelda Marcos and Henry Kissinger.
Halliday admits they were lucky with their timing: “It was soon enough after Mao’s death for there to be a lot of people alive who knew him, and we were also fortunate in a sense that communism collapsed in Russia, so the archive was opened there. There was an absolute goldmine of material.” An expert on the Korean war, Halliday speaks Russian and had several senior contacts there. The research, he says, shook itself up along language lines. He dug himself into the Russian archive, while Chang made several return trips to China. “I was constantly excited at all the changes that had taken place,” she says, “and constantly frustrated and angry by the things that had not: Mao’s portrait still in Tiananmen Square, Wild Swans still banned, the fact that there are many injustices and terrible things in the country. So I am constantly torn between extreme emotions. It is a place that is under my skin. If I don’t go back for a long time I miss it and become restless. But it’s not a !
place to relax.”
Many will buy Mao on the strength of Wild Swans, even if they wouldn’t normally read a hefty political biography. They won’t be disappointed. Although Chang is aware that Mao might not sell as many copies, her expectations are perhaps even greater. “As long as China exists people will want to read our book, because this is the real history about modern China. I know I should be making understatements and being self-deprecating, but I think this book will shake the world and will help shape China.”
¡¤ Mao: The Unknown Story is published by Jonathan Cape, price (A?25, on June 2
Independent (UK), June 3, 2005
Jung Chang: Of gods and monsters
Jung Chang’s Wild Swans was an international bestseller. Now, with her husband, Jon Halliday, she’s written a biography of Mao. Julie Wheelwright meets them
Published : 03 June 2005
Jung Chang squeezes her hands between her knees, her face tilted upwards, her lips parted in a smile. She is remembering with tangible pleasure the research for her long-awaited biography of Mao Tse-Tung, co-written with her husband Jon Halliday. “It’s taken us ten years and it was constant excitement,” she tells me over tea at her sumptuous family home in Notting Hill. The book is a powerful follow-up to Wild Swans, her bestselling memoir about growing up under Mao’s regime.
Chang and Halliday’s biography, Mao: the Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape, (A?25) is not so much about toppling the myth of Mao as the benevolent creator of modern China, as setting it aflame. Based on painstaking and often dangerous work in archives in places ranging from Albania to Washington, the book uses sources they have unearthed that reveal Mao as a psychopathic leader, responsible for the deaths of 70 million, and driven by a hunger for power. “I was constantly shocked by how evil he could be,” says Chang. “Mao was very, very shrewd but he didn’t have human feeling.”
Among the more remarkable finds are details about Mao’s callous treatment of his former wives and his children. His third wife was forced to give away four of her children and died after years of mental anguish while Yang Kai-Hui, his second, was executed by the Nationalists in 1930. Chang was able to use a cache of newly-discovered letters that Yang Kai-Hui had hidden behind a roof beam before she was imprisoned. Mao had abandoned his family three years earlier to coach his first army, and had wed his third wife barely four months later.
Kai-Hui’s letters, the last of which only came to light in 1999, are still considered so sensitive, says Chang, that even Mao’s surviving family have not seen them. The letters are full of Kai-Hui’s devastating longing for Mao and her anger at his desertion of their family. But they also reveal that Kai-Hui, who had been drawn to the ideals of communism, was losing her faith in the cause because of Mao’s insistence on killing off his opposition.
Through the help of friends, Chang was able to look at the final pages that Kui-Hui had written before her death. “I was not allowed to take notes but my friend and I memorised those two and a half pages,” she says. Subtle pressure was also exerted on those who agreed to be interviewed for the book in China, where Wild Swans is still banned. But the government’s warning to a small circle of people who knew Mao that they should not talk to Chang backfired. “Most people talked to me because of the warning,” she says. “They knew this book was not going to be the official line. China is changing and people are now taking precautions rather than living in fear.” So over cups of tea in steaming cafes, people talked quite openly. “People were just dying to spill the beans.”
Ironically, given the years of enforced “self-criticism” sessions that Chang remembers with a shiver, the book gave many a chance finally to speak the bitter truth about life under Mao. Witnesses give heart-wrenching accounts of daily horrors: a loyal Communist couple sell their children to raise party funds; a woman goes into labour on the Long March and is forced to walk with her baby’s head hanging between her legs; starving peasants resort to cannibalism.
Neatly juxtaposed are the stories of Mao’s personal servants, interpreters, bodyguards, doctors and girlfriends. They reveal his opulent lifestyle. A special fish was couriered live over 1,000 kilometres in a plastic bag because Mao hated to eat it frozen. His rice came from special spring-fed waters and, since he hated baths, his servants rubbed him every day with hot towels. In 1953, a special troupe was formed of attractive young women whose main function was to service Mao sexually.
And during the late 1950s, while Mao relaxed in one of his many villas, people across China worked 20-hour days and died of hunger. “While I was writing Wild Swans I thought the famine was the result of economic mismanagement but during the research I realised that it was something more sinister,” says Chang. Archives in China and Moscow revealed that Mao knew his policy of maximum extraction of food for export would cause millions to die. What had at first seemed mad, says Chang, took on a chilling clarity. Mao wanted to achieve greatness and terror was the means to that end.
Mao was deeply influenced by Fredrick Paulsen, a minor German philosopher who shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty. He put his theories into practice during the Long March and in Yenan, the Communists’ first headquarters in China. The great social experiment and the Communists’ opposition to Japanese military invasion attracted many young idealists – like Chang’s father – who wanted to dedicate their lives to the cause. “But when they came to Yenan, they were shattered because there was no equality; food was graded, clothing was graded,” says Chang, her voice rising with her passion.
The clearest demonstration of the party working like a well-oiled machine came during the Cultural Revolution. Millions of party officials, teachers and writers were abused by Mao’s Red Guards in a massive campaign of terror. But Chang and Halliday have solved the mystery of Mao’s motives for igniting this campaign: it was a simple case of revenge.
The official Chinese history is that after the “Conference of the Seven Thousand” in 1962, Mao came to his senses, realised his Great Leap Forward policies weren’t working and ended the food exports that caused the famine. “What we discovered was that it wasn’t at all voluntary,” says Chang. “He wanted a continuous Leap but his number two, Liao Shao-chi ambushed him, outsmarted him.” Liao won over the party delegates, and forced Mao to change his mind.
Mao’s fury led to a plan which would see him extracting revenge on all those party administrators and especially on Liao. Chang’s family personally suffered during this period when her father was forced to leave his teaching job, denounced and taken into “protective custody” where he underwent torture. “Doing this book didn’t shock me at a personal level,” says Chang. “I was no longer haunted by the past and I can honestly say that revenge is not in my nature.” Instead Chang, the former Red Guard, says she wrote it to try and understand Mao and his motivations.
When our tea has grown cold, Chang introduces me to Jon Halliday, who did the Russian research for the book and was her co-writer. Halliday says many of the book’s revelations came from formerly classified books about China, written for the Soviet inner sanctum. “About six or seven were an absolute gold mine,” he says. “In there, you could see the incredible closeness of the relationship between the Soviets and China.”
Contrary to the perceived idea that Stalin disapproved of Mao, Halliday says these documents revealed that the Soviet leader had talent-spotted his Chinese counterpart and nurtured his power-base from the 1920s. “Mao always perpetuated the myth that he’d risen to power without help from the Russians. But he was the one that the Russians were pushing and protecting.” The material Halliday unearthed on four trips to Moscow was so extraordinary, he remembers leaving the archives at 4pm every day, bathed in sweat.
The biggest challenge was piecing together the vast amount of material that Chang had gathered in China with Halliday’s Russian research. “Jung would find riveting stuff and I’d say, ‘I saw something in an archive,’ but I’d have to wait until I went back to Russia to find it.” Then began a process of drafting and redrafting – their version of the Long March.
The couple’s greatest ambition for the book is that it will be read in China where Mao is still venerated as a great revolutionary hero and children are taught only the official history. Now they will learn that, as Chang wrote in 2003, “we were not treated by our own government as proper human beings and consequently, some outsiders did not regard us as the same kind of humans as themselves.”
Biography: Jung Chang
Jung Chang was born in Sichuan province in 1952 to parents who were both committed communists. As a child who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, she was briefly a Red Guard, a “barefoot doctor”, a steelworker and an electrician before she went on to study English at Sichuan University. Chang left China in 1978 to study at York University where she became the first person from the People’s Republic of China to receive a PhD in Britain. Wild Swans, her family memoir published in 1992, has sold more than 10 million copies, translated into 30 languages, but is still banned in China. She met her husband Jon Halliday, a Russian historian who was a former Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, University of London, while she was teaching. Halliday is the author of a biography on the film-maker Douglas Sirk and has written and edited seven other books. They live in Notting Hill, west London and their book Mao: the Unknown Story is published this week by Jonathan Cap!
Will Hutton
Sunday May 29, 2005
The Observer
Complex legacy of Chairman Mao
He may have been a despot, but the leader of the largest country in the world unintentionally did his people good
It is less than 30 years ago that the 20th-century’s bloodiest dictator was approaching death, his country still dirt poor, his vision in ruins, with tens of millions of his fellow citizens dead at his hands. Today, that same country has enjoyed three decades of the most unparalleled economic growth. Mao’s death has proved the trigger for an extraordinary economic renaissance.
Nobody can disagree that he was a cruel and authoritarian despot who murdered millions; even his successor, Deng Xiaoping, pronounced that he was at least 30 per cent wrong and guilty of ‘excesses’.
The open question is how much more wrong he was than the official assessment, how much of his legacy still informs the communist leadership and whether his long shadow and his thinking is any guide to what China might do in the future. If you think he was 100 per cent wrong, you must worry; China’s Communist party has an evil DNA in its genes that will one day provoke war and mayhem with global implications. Agree with Deng and you might be more hopeful.
A new book, Mao: The Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape), places Mao unambiguously in the 100 per cent wrong category. Jung Chang, author of the compelling Wild Swans, the story of today’s China through the pained eyes of three generations of women, and her husband, Jon Halliday, have used 10 years of research to indict comprehensively Mao’s cynical lust for power and careless disregard for humanity. Whether it’s the news that Mao never actually marched in long stretches of the Long March but was, instead, carried in a bamboo litter he designed himself, or of the scale of his purges and executions, this is a catalogue of disclosures that overturns almost all our received wisdom. The impact will be substantial.
It’s an impressive achievement, but the book’s unyielding view that there is not one even unintended benefit from his legacy leaves me uneasy. Mao is presented as an evil genius visited upon an innocent China courtesy of communist ideology which he cynically manipulated, who delivered nothing but murder and economic disaster.
It is blood lust and quest for world domination, for example, that drove Mao to consecrate the overwhelming share of China’s scarce resources to the military in the first five-year plan; the drive to build dams and irrigation systems was carried out irrespective of the lives either of the builders or those later drowned by their collapse. When he saw violence at close quarters, he acknowledged it induced a kind of ecstasy.
And any idea that Mao was a great military strategist is dashed; even his victories are revealed as either disguised fiascos or the results of political fixes. Essentially, he led the communists to power by betraying efforts to find a common front against the invading Japanese, which he openly acknowledged, while carefully courting Moscow.
We are spared no detail of Mao’s weaknesses – his failure to take a bath for 25 years, his 50-odd personal estates and his habit of having fresh fish delicacies from Wuhan carried 1,000 kilometres for his epicurean delight. I agree; guilty on all charges.
But Mao didn’t come from nowhere. If you don’t know about the century of China’s humiliation, the complete bankruptcy of the Qing dynasty as it imploded in 1911 and the subsequent ungovernability of China and the apparent hopelessness of any project that might even half successfully modernise it, then it’s hard to understand how it could be that Mao and Chinese communism would have any appeal. You will learn little of such context in this biography.
There is no country in modern times that has ever suffered so many defeats at so many hands as China did between 1842 and 1911; the British, the French, the Russians and the Japanese all easily disposed of Chinese armies and fleets. In 1898, the Western powers, including Germany, took great chunks of China and Chinese ports to administer for their own benefit. China was so weak that there was no point in spending money colonising it; foreign powers could get all they wanted by expending much less effort.
For the Chinese, their weakness was a complete bouleversement of their universe, and the contemptuously low status in which self-consciously racist foreigners held them (little more than animals) poured further salt in a gaping and humiliating wound. The system that had provided them with order for millenniums, granaries for famine, law, canals, agricultural prosperity and a sophisticated Confucian bureaucracy – and which presented the astounded Marco Polo as a civilisation more advanced, more peaceful and evidently superior to the never-ending conflict and barbarism of Europe – could neither rejuvenate itself from within nor begin to match the overwhelming achievements of the West.
How was this vast country, now collapsing into a myriad of local wars with peace provided by rapacious local warlords routinely deploying torture, to be governed? How was it to be industrialised? How could it defend itself against further despoilment by foreigners?
Communism, paradoxically building on the Confucianism it deplored, provided an answer, the reason it drew so many adherents. The strategy for modernisation – raising agricultural productivity by trial-and-error attempts at combining collectivisation with respect for village structures while building up industry on an equally decentralised basis – was very different from Stalin’s centralised Sovietisation, despite the surface parallels.
It was more closely modelled on the imperial system than either critic or supporter ever concedes. And when Mao died, the second paradox is that the decentralisation and pragmatism he fostered, notwithstanding mad forays such as the campaign to kill sparrows, allowed Deng, the architect of today’s China, quickly to put in place policies that would drive the astonishing economic turnround.
As for Mao’s preoccupation with military spending, I submit that any new government in the 1950s would have placed an overwheening priority on defence, given China’s history.
While the Great Leap Forward and the disaster of the Cultural Revolution are famed exercises in futility, personal delusion and inhumanity, brilliantly documented by Chang and Halliday, don’t forget that between one and the other Chinese growth averaged 15 per cent per annum, never achieved before in a single year in China’s long history.
China’s vast rural hinterland was becoming, via the conception of village enterprise, the springboard for today’s economic growth.
It would take Deng’s opening up to trade and investment along the coast, and the reintroduction of capitalism, to make the most of the opportunity. But a Stalinistic communism would never have created the chance in the first place, as today’s Russia bears grim witness.
Mao is now revealed as more of a monster than we ever guessed, thanks to Chang and Halliday. But even monsters can create good they may never have self-consciously aimed for or wanted.
History is the story of contradictions and unintended consequences. This book – and our understanding of China – would have been stronger still had it acknowledged them.

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