Mao: The Unknown Story – a review

Jonathan Mirsky – The Far Eastern Economic Review

By Jung Chang, Jon Halliday and Jonathan Cape, 832 pages, $35
Two years ago at a Harvard conference devoted to Mao Zedong, retired Beijing University Professor Yue Daiyun recalled her suffering during the Maoist era. “Why would Mao relentlessly and repeatedly knock down and trample those who came to support him, had never opposed him, indeed embraced and loved him?” The constant fear during those years, she said, was that “no one is safe.”
Too infirm to come to the Harvard conference, Li Rui, once Mao’s secretary, sent a paper stating that “Mao was a person who did not fear death and he did not care how many were killed. Tens of millions of people suffered during every political movement and millions starved to death.”
Most of the contemporary biographers of Mao, from Stuart Schram, (still the leading Mao scholar), to Philip Short, author of Mao: A Life, were at Harvard. Only two guests from Beijing praised the chairman. But there was an effort among the other academics to find why many Chinese worshipped Mao.
One of those present was Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar, who in volume three of his great The Origins of the Cultural Revolution compared Mao to Hitler and wrote, “I have been particularly interested in the human tragedy represented by Mao’s purge of his long-time comrades of the Long March and the base areas [and] his dissolution of the Yan’an ‘Round Table.’”
Now comes Jung Chang, author of the excellent, bestseller Wild Swans. She and her husband, the historian Jon Halliday, have written Mao: The Unknown Story—which is huge in every sense. They answer Professor MacFarquhar’s concern, Professor Yue’s question—how could Mao do it?—and refute Li Rui’s suggestion that while Mao was a world-class killer, he didn’t fear death. From this copiously documented book we learn that Mao killed because he liked it; that he acquired a taste for slaughter in the late 1920s; and that he was terrified of death, probably because he had killed so many that revenge may have been lurking around every corner.
In her publisher’s note, Ms. Chang explains her motives for writing this book:
I decided to write about Mao because I was fascinated by this man, who dominated my life in China, and who devastated the lives of my fellow countrymen. He was as evil as Hitler or Stalin, and did as much damage to mankind as they did. Yet the world knows astonishingly little about him.
In an interview in the Sunday Telegraph she said Mao was “the biggest mass murderer in the history of the world.”
It is always disturbing when a book claims to be the “unknown story.” Ms. Chang claims that the world knows little of Mao. Actually the world, because of years of Western Mao scholarship and the experience of many Chinese whose lives the chairman indeed devastated, knows a lot about him. There are other biographies, some of them excellent, to which little or no credit is given by the authors, and—thanks to Harvard’s Stuart Schram—many volumes of Mao’s writings.
I am no Mao specialist, but before reading this latest biography I was broadly aware of the Mao story, particularly his life-long heartlessness and capacity for inflicting suffering on a national scale. Lucian Pye, for example, saw him pretty clearly decades ago (he is not cited in this book) and Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic by David Apter and Tony Saich, cited but not acknowledged, analyzes Mao’s unusual capacity for striking terror as acutely as Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday. Some of the lesser parts of the story had been published earlier, such as the enormously profitable opium-growing business at Mao’s guerrilla headquarters, Yan’an, by Chen Yung-fa in 1995 (cited in this biography) but in every case Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday add considerable detail to a story which will shock many Chinese.
And until this book there continued to be a lingering feeling in the West that Mao, despite everything, was a great man. And among many Chinese he remained a great man who went bad. That is the view of the Communist Party, which has officially judged Mao to be 70% good and “a great Marxist,” and still hangs his gigantic portrait over the main gate to the Forbidden City, from which it gazed down during the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989. It was a mark of Mao’s continuing special status that in May of that year, near the end of the demonstrations, when three men hurled paint at the portrait, they were tackled and detained not by the police but by other demonstrators. The very people who were shouting “Li Peng resign,” and “Down with Deng Xiaoping,” and calling for fundamental reform of the Party, could not countenance an attack on the Great Teacher and Helmsman who in their childhoods they had learned was “the red red sun in our hearts.”
All that is swept away by the authors. If Mao were on trial, and they presented their evidence, if the judge warned the jury they could convict only if there were no shadow of doubt, the verdict would be a unanimous guilty as charged.
Among Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday’s assertions: Mao was an early radical but he was driven by an overwhelming lust for domination. He championed women in his early writings but he exploited, betrayed, and consumed droves of them and drove into madness or despair three of his four wives. He had scorn or contempt for peasants and cared little if they died of hunger. Far from being a great guerrilla leader, he often commanded his forces into losing situations. Most of his closest colleagues feared his murderous tendencies and did what he wanted not out of loyalty but ultimately—Zhou Enlai is the outstanding example here—out of fear.
Mao opposed fighting the Japanese despite the urgings of Josef Stalin, and never forgave the commanders of the only two battles against them. During the guerrilla period Mao encouraged the production of opium whose sale greatly swelled his treasury. His policies led to the death of up to a million landlords. He encouraged Kim Il Sung to attack South Korea. His economic policies and contempt for the peasantry led to the world’s greatest famine in 1959-1961, in which at least 37 million people died. He provoked the Cultural Revolution and demanded detailed accounts of the torture and killing of its victims.
There are also details that are true scoops. One such is the debunking of perhaps the most heroic episode of the Long March, the hand-over-hand scramble through flames across the bridge over the Dadu river, which permitted the Reds to escape to safety from Chiang Kai-shek. The world learned of this from Red Star Over China, the now much-discredited story that Mao planted on Edgar Snow. “This is a complete invention,” say Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday. “There was no battle at the Dadu Bridge.” The documentation, including contemporary witnesses, is wholly convincing. Their conclusion, which will astonish most China specialists, is that Chiang Kai-shek, who they claim wanted the Communist army to survive and clear warlords from the areas they conquered, “had left the passage open for the Reds.”
Another discovery, and a poignant one, concerns Yang Kai-hui, Mao’s second wife, who was murdered by the Nationalists after Mao (as he did with all his wives in one form or another) abandoned her. Between 1928 and 1930 Yang wrote Mao eight letters, which she never sent but concealed in her house. They are passionate but also bitter letters of love and longing. “You are now the beloved sweetheart… return, return.” Found only in 1990, they had never been seen by Mao and “even Mao’s family were barred from seeing the most devastating passages.”
Ms. Chang saw—but did not copy—one of these letters, four pages long, but cites it from memory with “ellipses that cannot be recalled,” a tribute to her early education in a system which trains memorization. There are other examples of women pining for Mao, including his small daughter Li Na. He came to ignore the wives and most of the children, and those who didn’t die usually went mad. But what would Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday say about Mao’s moving poem of 1957, “I lost my proud poplar,” about Yang Kai-hui’s death?
A third revelation is the extent to which Mao corrupted Zhou Enlai (spelled here as Chou). Far from being the voice of reason who, whenever possible saved some of Mao’s victims from death, “When Mao gave the word,” Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday maintain, “Chou would send anyone to their death.” Michael Schoenhals made this plain in 1996 (cited in this biography) but Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday show how Mao obtained Zhou’s total servility: the chairman retained an article from a Shanghai newspaper in 1931, supposedly written by Zhou (it may have been a Mao plant) in which he “condemned the Communist Party…from then on, Mao knew that he had an effective blackmail weapon. More than three decades later, Mao dangled it over Chou’s head.” This led to Zhou’s “double life.” At home he was a blackmailed slave; for the world at large he was “the most attractive man [visiting statesmen like Henry Kissinger] had ever met.”
This can be extended, I feel, to another Chang-Halliday assertion, regarding Mr. MacFarquhar’s concern: “By the end of Mao’s life, almost all his former close colleagues were dead, most of them thanks to him on his deathbed, Mao’s thirst for revenge was unslaked.” The final extension is that “Mao spared no thought for the mammoth human and material losses that his destructive quest had cost his people. Well over 70 million people had perished—in peacetime—as a result of his misrule.”
Why was Mao like this? Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday’s proposition is compelling. Although, they argue, he had little regard for peasants, and cared not a whit when they died of hunger, in 1927 Mao described how rural “ruffians strike down the landlords and stamp on them with their feet they thoroughly indulge every whim and really have created terror in the countryside.” The authors see a fatal flaw: “What really happened is that Mao discovered within himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery which verged on sadism. This propensity sprang from his character, and was to have a profound impact on his future methods of rule.” Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday assert, moreover, that, unlike Stalin and Hitler, Mao turned millions of his own people against each other.
Only one other book springs to mind which so comprehensively destroys the character and record of a tyrant: Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Mr. Montefiore’s book is more satisfying on two counts—language and the transparency of sources. His language is always graceful. He never sinks into occasional but irritating lapses by Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday, such as: “Wang [Hong-wen] was a faceless good-looking 37-year-old,” or, “she [Madame Mao] shot her mouth off.”
In both books, the sources are astounding. Mr. Sebag Montefiore’s contains almost 100 pages of sources and footnotes, Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday’s well over 100. In both books the access to great numbers of people who knew the tyrants is extraordinary and rare. Ms. Chang has lifelong Party contacts, as Wild Swans makes clear, and in China one contact leads to another. These ranged from a woman who once washed Mao’s underwear, another who lived near the Dadu Bridge when it was crossed by Mao’s forces, to the widow of Liu Shaoqi, once Mao’s Number 2, whose death the chairman caused.
In the West, the authors interviewed former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford and other personalities who met Mao. The contribution of these interviews to the biography was not great. Mr. Kissinger, for instance, was so star-struck by Mao and Zhou Enlai that he committed many indiscretions and security breaches with both of them while serving Nixon.
Mr. Sebag Montefiore’s written sources are in Russian and he explains how he used them. Ms. Chang, too, combed and digested a mountain of Chinese sources, but it is difficult or impossible to tell how she and her co-author evaluated them. (I checked the authors’ footnotes on Mao’s admiration for peasant violence; some of the quotations seem somewhat less personal than asserted in the biography, and at least one is on a different page than cited in the English-language collected writings.) Many other sources, some of them confirming “the unknown story,” are in Russian and here too I wonder how they were chosen or weighed. This is a task which Mao specialists will enjoy.
Comparing monsters is never easy, but in the course of their biography, the product of a decade’s labor well spent—from which Mao’s reputation will never recover—Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday make this central point: “Mao not only drove a massive wedge between people working and living side by side, he greatly enlarged the number of people directly involved in repression, including making the orbit significantly wider than either Hitler or Stalin, who used mostly secret elites.”
That could be because he began early. In 1927-28, after watching peasants killing landlords, Mao “developed a penchant for slow killing.” He wrote this poem: “Watch us kill the bad landlords today. Aren’t you afraid? It’s knife slicing upon knife.” As Professor Yue said: “No one is safe.”
Mr. Mirsky is a former East Asia editor of the Times of London.
Copyright – The Far Eastern Economic Review


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