A swan’s little book of ire

Hamish McDonald – Sydney Morning Herald

Copyright Sydney Morning Herald
October 8, 2005
Jung Chang has created a great story in her latest book, say the
critics. But now there’s a brawl over the facts.
A tiny widow aged 85 living in two rooms, an electric rice-cooker her
only modern appliance, may be a crucial witness to a dispute involving
Jung Chang, the wealthy Chinese author of the worldwide bestseller Wild
The dispute is one of many being picked up by some of the world’s most
eminent scholars of modern Chinese history, who say Chang’s latest
blockbuster, Mao: The Unknown Story, is a gross distortion of the
Few are disputing that the subject, the late Chinese Communist Party
chairman Mao Zedong, was a monster as a human being and a leader who
his country through hell. Or that the book, written by Chang and her
British historian husband, Jon Halliday, who live in great comfort in
London’s plush Notting Hill on the proceeds of Wild Swans, is powerful
and destined to be highly influential.
But many people agree with Thomas Bernstein, of Columbia University in
New York, that “the book is a major disaster for the contemporary China
“Because of its stupendous research apparatus, its claims will be
accepted widely,” he said this week. “Yet their scholarship is put at
the service of thoroughly destroying Mao’s reputation. The result is an
equally stupendous number of quotations out of context, distortion of
facts and omission of much of what makes Mao a complex, contradictory,
and multi-sided leader.”
As well as factual errors and dubious use of sources – which even
favourable reviewers such as Princeton’s Perry Link (an editor of The
Tiananmen Papers) have felt compelled to criticise, many scholars point
out that much of what Chang and Halliday present as a previously
“unknown story” had in fact been exposed long ago. But no credit is
given to earlier writers.
These disclosures include Mao’s endless supply of young female bed
partners, his appalling personal hygiene, callousness towards wives and
children, the vital support of Stalin, his party’s trade in opium, its
shirking of the war against the Japanese, and Mao’s ruthless diversion
of resources to building the atom bomb.
“I’ve looked through the book’s treatment of the 1920s and there is
nothing there that wasn’t known,” said the Australian National
Universtiy’s John Fitzgerald.
“A lot of stuff in their great untold story is pretty well known,”
agreed Sydney University’s Fred Teiwes, who wrote a decade ago that
support from Moscow had been critical in Mao’s rise as party chief.
Li Guixiu was a 15-year-old girl when an event that may have been
pivotal in the modern history of China and the wider world – and which
is also pivotal in Chang and Halliday’s demolition of Mao – took place
on the ancient chain suspension bridge overlooked by the back window of
her home then and now.
On the morning of May 29, 1935, the vanguard of Mao’s Red Army arrived
at this bridge across the raging Dadu River during its famous
6000-kilometre Long March.
According to the Chinese Communist Party, a Red Army squad of 22
soldiers stormed the Luding Bridge later that day in the face of
withering gunfire, across timbers that had been set afire and then
bare chains where the Nationalist forces on the opposing riverbank had
removed planks.
Had the crossing failed, the Red Army would have been cut off in a
narrow valley high in the mountains of Sichuan. A pursuing army sent by
Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party) leader Chiang Kai-shek would
have wiped them out, maybe eliminating the chance of China going
communist, as it did in 1949.
“Complete invention,” said Chang and Halliday in their book, which has
stayed for weeks on top of bestseller lists in Britain and Australia,
and looks set to do so in the US, where it will be released this month.
The bridge was not defended at all by the KMT side, they say. “Chiang
had left the passage open for the Reds,” the authors state, in one of
the most astonishing assertions of their book. Far from trying to
intercept the Red Army, Chiang was shepherding it to its destination,
even leaving a truck filled with maps and food in its path at one
The reason: Chiang was desperate for the return of his son, Chiang
Ching-kuo, kept a virtual hostage in Moscow since 1925 by Mao’s main
backer, Stalin.
The authors claim this is supported by archived Kuomintang cables. And
they claim to have met a local woman – “a sprightly 93-year-old” in
1997, running a bean curd shop near the Luding Bridge – who remembered
the Reds firing a few sporadic shots across the river but no gunfire
coming back, and who said that very little of the planking had been
This week in Luding the Herald could not find the authors’ unnamed
source, or anyone who remembered someone of her description. But it did
find Li, whom other locals said was the last surviving witness they
of in Luding.
Li says there was indeed a battle. “The KMT warned us that the Reds
would eat the young people and bury the old,” she said. “Many fled up
the mountainside. But when we saw them, they told us not to be afraid,
they only opposed bad people. I remember they were wearing straw shoes,
with cloth wound around their shins.
“The fighting started in the evening. There were many killed on the Red
Army side. The KMT set fire to the bridge-house on the other side, to
try to melt the chains, and one of the chains was cut. After it was
taken, the Red Army took seven days and seven nights to cross. Later, I
was told that someone we had seen was Mao Zedong.”
Oxford University’s Steve Tsang says the Chiang Kai-shek archives show
the KMT chief did in fact order the senior warlord in the area to hold
the crossing on pain of court martial.
Chiang Kai-shek did not on this occasion or, as far as his papers
reveal, on any other occasion, let the Red Army escape during the Long
March, Tsang said.
In this case, as generally in the book, the authors had been
“appallingly dishonest” in the use of sources they claimed to have
“Mao was a monster,” Tsang said. “[But] their distortion of history to
make their case will in the end make it more difficult to reveal how
horrible Mao and the Chinese Communist Party system were, and how much
damage they really did to the Chinese people.”
The list of historical errors and far-fetched theories builds up. Leeds
University Emeritus Professor Delia Davin, writing in The Times
Supplement, said Chiang Kai-shek’s son had gone to Moscow in 1925, with
his father’s permission, to study rather than being virtually kidnapped
there as Chang and Halliday imply.
The execution of Wang Shiwei, which the authors say was used to terrify
young intellectuals in the “rectification” campaign of 1942, did not
actually take place until 1947.
While Mao was no ideal husband or father, Davin said, the authors must
have noted the account of the Chinese commander in the Korean War,
General Peng Dehuai, when he told Mao his son, Mao Anying, had been
killed by a US bomb: Mao trembled so violently he couldn’t light his
cigarette and was silent for several minutes. Chang and Halliday quote
Mao’s secretary as saying Mao had not “shown any great pain”.
While no one is minimising the cost of Mao’s follies – notably the 30
million dead from famine caused by the Great Leap Forward – scholars
point out that in the sane interludes between these campaigns China
showed remarkable economic growth and dramatically improved indices of
social welfare, with life expectancy doubling in the 1950s.
None of this gets a mention in Mao: The Unknown Story. Nor is the drive
for the atom bomb so surprising in light of China’s century of
humiliation by foreign powers up until 1945, and the subsequent
hostility shown to the new communist state by the US.
Driving the book is an unrelenting hatred of Mao, and a determination
pile up evidence to blacken him as totally selfish and sadistic.
Francesco Sisci, veteran China reporter with Italy’s La Stampa
newspaper, said: “You don’t feel cold analysis in the book, you feel
hatred, which helps to make it a wonderful read. But history should not
work this way.”
Sydney University’s Teiwes recalled meeting Chang and Halliday in
during their research.
“She just had her views so set, and was unwilling to entertain other
opinions or inconvenient evidence,” he said.
Meanwhile, the least likely among the Chinese to welcome the book’s
historical revision are the people along the route of the Long March,
now starting to enjoy a business boom from a “Red Tourism” drive
promoted by communist leaders.
At Luding, builders are finishing a huge new museum that includes a
mural of Red Army troops grappling their way across the bridge, amid
gunfire and flames.
The bridge itself is much as it would have looked in 1935. Swaying in
the middle of the crossing, Chinese-American tourist Shu Zhou posed for
photographs in Red Army tunic and cap with a fake rifle. “I rented all
this for five yuan,” he said.
While the critical battle over the Chang-Halliday book is only setting
in, at least one incident was being played out in a way Marx predicted:
history repeating itself as farce.


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