Putting a knife into heart of the Chairman’s legend

Copyright The San Francisco Chronicle
Reviewed by Howard W. French
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Mao
The Unknown Story
By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
KNOPF; 814 PAGES; $35
A recent headline in a Shanghai newspaper lamented that China had a dearth of feature-length movies depicting the country’s war against Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, and went on to wonder why.
Could it be because the official story known to Chinese during the 56 years since the revolution had gotten it all wrong; that the Communists who have taken credit for liberating the country in fact did precious little of the liberating?
Could it be because to explore the truth about the man whose smiling countenance peers out from every piece of paper money in the country would be to reveal him as anything but a hero, indeed as a surpassingly evil man?
Opening lines have an outsize importance for many writers. But in answering the question of just how evil, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the wife and husband who wrote Mao: The Unknown Story,” have perhaps set a new standard. For here is an 814-page book including index, bibliography and extensive notes that concludes its central business in a remarkable first line: “Mao Zedong, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.”
To say that the rest of the book consists of mere details would be doing a disservice to the years of research that went into the couple’s work. Chang and Halliday have plunged a dagger deep into the heart of the Mao legend, so deep it is hard to imagine anything like a full recovery.
Their act of literary violence, which bears the whiff of revenge, is built on compelling if sometimes disjointed anecdotes told for page after page about this great and terrible man. Readers who are even slightly inclined toward the subject are likely to find the book, for all its weightiness, hard to put down.
There is a nagging problem, though, in both their method and in their style, which in the end detracts from the conclusion they have labored so hard to support: Scarcely a sentence in the book is dispassionate. Not even for a moment is the reader left in doubt as to the results of the indictment. And by the end of the reader’s efforts, the thrill and even titillation that comes from learning many dark truths about someone you thought was already familiar have gradually come to be dulled, perhaps for some even outweighed by a yearning for countervailing facts or alternative points of view.
The gripe here is not that Mao was not the greatest killer of a very bad century of killers, although Chang and Halliday have not quite proved their brief. But as someone who has been fascinated with Mao’s story since high school in the 1970s, when the country was first opening up again after the Cultural Revolution, I was most disappointed with the book’s exploration of the chairman’s motives.
The authors have reduced him to a bloodthirsty, power-obsessed egotist, someone who never believed in communism, nor in anything else, and this from the very first pages of the book. “I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s action has to be benefiting others,” Mao wrote as a 24-year-old. “People like me want to satisfy our hearts to the full, and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes.”
Moreover, they have given us a picture of Mao as lazy and cowardly, rendering him responsible for all that went wrong during his era and none of what went right.
Among the most widely cited anecdotes from the book is the authors’ rebuttal of the standard legend of the Long March, a 5,000-mile trek across the country during the civil war and the war with Japan. The book says that Mao’s fighters were merely allowed to survive by Chiang Kai Shek. More watertight than their brief against Mao as a monster for his responsibility for death on an unprecedented scale, or their theories about the anti-Japanese war — both stories are by necessity more complex than they admit, both morally and in their intimate details — is their picture of him as a woefully ill-inspired economic thinker.
Mao was wedded to two things — personal and national prestige and an aversion to the rise of new, entrenched economic elites, fueling endless purges and a depletion of the great energies developing China today. Toward the end, the Helmsman was confessing his failure to other statesmen, telling Le Duan, head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, “now the poorest nation in the world is not you, but us,” and telling Henry Kissinger his country was “backward,” capable only of firing “empty cannons.” Rather than change course, though, Mao praised Pol Pot for creating a slave society with “no more classes,” and mounted yet another purge of Deng Xiaoping.
Historians will find much to quibble about in this voluminous but jaunty work. Chang and Halliday’s word is far from the last, and yet for anyone who reads it there is no way to mistake Mao’s smiling countenance for anything like benevolence again.
Howard W. French is a senior writer for the New York Times and author of “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.” He lives with his family in Shanghai.

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