Jade and Plastic: A Review of Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Andrew Nathan – The London Review of Books

Copyright London Review of Books
Vol. 27 No. 22 dated 17 November 2005
Mao Zedongís long, wicked life has generated some lengthy biographies in English. Jung Chang and Jon Hallidayís is the longest, having overtaken Philip Shortís Mao (1999) and Li Zhisuiís The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1995). It represents an extraordinary research effort. The authors have been working on the project since at least 1986, to judge by the date of the earliest interview cited, which ñ and this is typical of the access they gained to many highly-placed and interesting people ñ was with Milovan Djilas. They have visited remote battle sites of the Long March, Maoís cave in Yanían, ëover two dození of Maoís secret private villas around the country, the Russian presidential and foreign ministry archives, and other archives in Albania, Bulgaria, London and Washington DC. They even tried ñ and failed ñ to get access to the Chinese war
memorial in Pyongyang.
The book cites by name 363 interviewees in 38 countries, including two former US presidents; Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore; the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko; the Mao aide and later Chinese head of state Yang Shangkun; a former Japanese cabinet secretary who
confided that Mao escorted his prime minister to the lavatory in Zhongnanhai; Maoís daughter and grandsons; and the Red Guard leader Kuai Dafu. Chang and Halliday also cite dozens of interviews with anonymous sources, including a laundry worker who describes the fine cotton used
for Maoís underwear in Yanían; a pharmacist who allegedly prescribed lysol
for one of Maoís political rivals in the 1940s; Maoís daughterís nanny in
Yanían; staff at Maoís villas; and ëmultipleí Mao girlfriends. They
have used about a thousand non-archival written sources, including published
and unpublished works in Chinese, English, Russian, French and Italian.
These include many that are unfamiliar to me and perhaps to many other
specialists on Chinese Communist history and politics.
As their subtitle proclaims, in virtually every chapter Chang and
have turned up ëunknown storiesí of Mao. Some, if true, will be big
for historians. Mao amassed a private fortune during the Jiangxi Soviet
period; his troops fought only one real battle during the Long March;
their break-out from Nationalist military encirclement was deliberately
allowed by Chiang Kai-shek; the most famous battle of the Long March
took place; Mao attacked India in 1962 with the support of the Soviet
Other scoops have important implications for Maoís character. He
a rival during the Yanían period. He would send his own soldiers to be
massacred if it would help him to move up the ranks of the Party. He
pleasure in the slow, agonising death of Liu Shaoqi. We already knew
Mao was selfish and ruthless. Chang and Halliday add that he was a
sadistic power-monger lacking in vision or ideals, comfort-loving and
often lazy, riding the revolution to power to satisfy a lust for
and sex.
It is hard to imagine a more panoramic subject in terms of time,
and historical forces. Yet Chang and Halliday focus tightly on Mao.
him we glimpse a Communist Party leadership of cowards and fools,
manipulated by Mao, as Zhou Enlai was, or killed by him. In the deeper
background, we perceive a political-movement-turned-regime that engaged
fifty years of mass torture, killing and destruction for no good
leaving its people impoverished and exhausted. Lost in the distance are
the larger forces of history that some might think explain the violence
and longevity of Maoís regime: sociological or institutional
or explanations based on Chinaís geostrategic position between two
contending superpowers in the Cold War. Such theories would presumably
too impersonal for this intensely moralising work. They might seem to
exculpate Mao by suggesting that he did not always intend the disasters
presided over.
That Maoís story might still be to some extent unknown need not
us, given the secrecy that surrounds the Chinese archives, the regimeís
tight control over historiography and propaganda, and Deng Xiaopingís
decision in 1981 to preserve the regimeís continuity by committing the
Party to an official view of its former ruler as ë70 per cent right, 30
per cent wrongí. Mao (or something resembling Mao) remains embalmed in
heart of Tiananmen Square, and his image remains branded on the
heart of the Party. Dengís decision influences all officially
writing on the former dictator, and that means everything openly
on Mao in China. Few historians outside China in recent decades have
to the older romantic image of Mao as a sage, visionary and humanist,
Chang and Hallidayís Mao is a revelation even for todayís demystified
There are problems, however: many of their discoveries come from
that cannot be checked, others are openly speculative or are based on
circumstantial evidence, and some are untrue.
The inaccessible sources are of two kinds: anonymous interviews and
unpublished documents or books. The former include ëthe wife of a
delegateí, ëinterview with a local Party historianí, ëinterview with an
old underground workerí, ëinterviews with people who had been
toldí, ëinterview with a staff member who knew about Maoís
accountí, ëinterviews with Maoís girlfriendsí, ëinterviews with Maoís
personal staffí, ëinterview with a Russian insiderí and ëinterview with
family memberí. The book contains dozens of citations like these. The
inaccessible documents include the partially unpublished manuscript
memoirs of Maoís second wife, Yang Kai-hui (one of these manuscripts is
quoted at length in words ëmostly recalled from memory after reading
document in an archiveí); the ërecords of interrogations of
in the 1960s, unpublishedí; ëcontemporary newspaper reportsí;
the ëunpublished manuscript of a person presentí; the ëhandwritten,
unpublishedí diaries of Maoís son Anying; ëmedical documents that
established the poisoningí; and many more.*
Basing their argument on such sources, Chang and Halliday claim that
most famous battle of the Long March, at the Dadu Bridge in 1935, never
took place. Their key piece of evidence is an interview with
a ësprightly . . . local woman . . . who was 93 years old when we met
in 1997í, supplemented by an interview in 1983 with the then curator of
the museum at the bridge. Their related claim that Chiang Kai-shek had
deliberately ëleft the passage open for the Redsí is unsourced.
Chang and Halliday state that Maoís chief political rival in Yanían,
Ming, was poisoned by a Dr Jin, acting at Maoís behest. They say that
was established by an official inquiry, whose ëfindings, which we
obtained, remain a well-kept secretí. They cite the document in the
but do not say where it can be seen. They assert that Mao blamed the
Indonesian Communist Party for failing to seize power in Jakarta in
Their evidence is a conversation Mao had with Japanese Communists in
in particular some remarks which, according to the source note, ëwere
withheld from the published versioní of the talks and ëwere made
to us by the Japanese Communist Party Central Committeeí. How other
scholars can consult these remarks isnít stated.
Chang and Halliday report that near the beginning of the Great Cultural
Proletarian Revolution, Maoís ally Lin Biao warned the other members of
the Politburo that Mao had been preparing to face a coup for years and
intensified these preparations in the previous few months. Their source
a three-volume work called ëDocuments for Researching the Cultural
Revolutioní compiled by the Peopleís Liberation Army Defence
which they describe as unpublished. They do not say where they saw it.
They argue that Mao rejected a death sentence during the Cultural
Revolution for the purged state president Liu Shaoqi because he
to have Liu suffer a slow, lingering death, that Mao was kept ëfully
informedí of Liuís sufferings, that photographs of the dying Liu were
taken and, by implication, that Mao saw them. The sources for this
of assertions are interviews with Liuís widow, Wang Guangmei, and with
unnamed member of Lin Biaoís family.
Of course, anonymous interviews and unpublished sources are often used
reputable China scholarship. They have to be, because of the secrecy
imposed by the regime on its own history and workings. I have engaged
such research myself. What is troubling about Mao: The Untold Story is
authorsí failure to give readers any information to help them to
their sourcesí reliability. A lengthy research project that denigrates
Mao, involving access to many individuals and many remote and secret
locations all over China, over a period of many years, and drawing on a
significant number of sensitive unpublished sources, in a country where
the keys to history are tightly held, legitimately raises questions
the authors should have anticipated and addressed.
How was it possible to gain access? Who gave authorisation or
formal or informal, to this project, or if none was given, how was
maintained as the research progressed? How were the interviewees found?
what settings were they interviewed? In what manner were they
How were records of the interviews kept? What motivations did
have for talking? What methods were used to confirm their identities
to corroborate their information? How were unpublished sources
How were they authenticated? Where, if anywhere, may they be consulted
other scholars (and if they canít, why not)?
Such a methodological essay might have included some reflection by
and Halliday on the history of their project and their motives for
it on. Chang is the author of the justly acclaimed Wild Swans (1991),
which told the stories of her grandmother, her mother and herself, over
the span of seven turbulent decades from 1909 to 1978. Chang was one of
the millions of people damaged by Mao. Her anger, deeply justified,
this new book.
Hallidayís name appears in smaller type on the spine and dust jacket,
suggesting that his role in the project was secondary. He seems to have
been responsible for the use of Russian, Bulgarian and Albanian
and sources, and for interviews with Russian diplomats and Comintern
officials. Not a China specialist, he is among other things the author
A Political History of Japanese Colonialism, the co-author of a
revisionist history of the Korean War and the editor of the English-
language edition of the memoirs of Enver Hoxha. In short, he appears to
a man of the left, whose disappointment with Mao may be political as
as personal.
It is clear that many of Chang and Hallidayís claims are based on
distorted, misleading or far-fetched use of evidence. They state, for
example, that the Chinese Communist Party ëwas founded in 1920í, and
as is usually said, in 1921 ñ a point they think important because Mao
wasnít in Shanghai in 1920. The two sources they cite, however, merely
confirm that early Communist cells were founded a year before the First
Party Congress met in Shanghai in 1921, something not contested by
historians. They claim that the Kuomintang politician Wang Jingwei was
hidden ëpatroní of Maoís early Party career, which appears to be a
misreading of the fact that Wang, who served briefly as head of the
Nationalists, appointed Mao as well as other Communists to KMT posts
during the time of the KMT-Communist united front.
Chang and Halliday cite four sources to support their statement that
amassed ëa private fortuneí during the Jiangxi Soviet period of the
1930s. One is an anonymous interview which cannot be checked. The
source is a book in Chinese by a writer called Shu Long, which says
Mao ordered his brother, Zemin, who was president of the Communistsí
bank, to disperse money from a ësecret treasuryí to the various
military units when a gathering enemy offensive threatened the moneyís
security. The third is The Long March by Harrison Salisbury (1985),
says similarly that Zemin took part in hiding the Red Armyís money and
treasure in a mountain cave for two years until it was removed shortly
before the Long March and divided among the Communist armies that were
about to set off on the March. The fourth source is a file in the
Salisbury papers at Columbia University. However, the citation is
so the file Chang and Halliday used cannot be located in Columbiaís
Book and Manuscript Library (nor can the correct citation be
from the information given).
In the chapter subtitled ëChiang Lets the Reds Goí, Chang and Halliday
they have ëno doubtí that Chiang Kai-shek allowed Maoís army to escape
from encirclement in 1934 so that it could threaten the warlords of
Sichuan and Yunnan, who would then have to capitulate to Chiang to save
themselves. Itís true that the Red Army escaped, but most scholars
attribute this to Chiangís incompetence. Chang and Hallidayís clinching
evidence is a published reminiscence that Chiang told his secretary:
when the Communist army go into Guizhou, we can follow in. It is better
than us starting a war to conquer Guizhou. Sichuan and Yunnan will have
welcome us, to save themselves.í Although the quote is accurate, it
not prove the existence of a strategy. The source ñ who is not the
to whom the remark was allegedly made, Chen Bulei, but a lower-ranking
staff member, Yan Daogang ñ himself explains Chiangís remark by saying
that he first made every effort to prevent the Red Army from entering
Guizhou, and only after this failed decided to pursue the Reds there
despite the opposition of the local warlord. In any case, one would
a complex, long-term strategy of this kind to leave more than one
piece of evidence.
They argue that the battle of Tucheng during the Long March was a huge
defeat, not a victory as officially claimed, and that Mao engineered
disaster on purpose. This conclusion is reached by distorting what the
sources say. The sources describe a protracted battle during which Mao
refused to withdraw his troops and during which they suffered heavy
casualties, but that nonetheless ended in a Red Army victory. Although
sources may be tendentious, Chang and Halliday do not explain why it is
reasonable to use them in support of an opposite argument.
They believe that Chiang Kai-shek acceded to the Communistsí demands
for a
united front against Japan during the Xiían Incident of 1936 because
Stalin made this a condition for releasing Chiangís son, Ching-kuo,
Moscow. Chang and Halliday call this a ëReds-for-son deal that Chiang
been working on for yearsí and that ëmarked the end of the civil war
between the CCP and the Nationalistsí. Their sources for this argument,
developed through several chapters, are all circumstantial; the key
of evidence is that when Zhou Enlai met Chiang in Xiían, he told Chiang
that Moscow would send his son home. Their source for this information
Han Suyinís biography of Zhou, in which it is claimed that a senior
Communist official overheard this remark while he was standing outside
Chiangís door. Han ñ in any case an unreliable author ñ does report
Wang Bingnan overheard part of the conversation between Zhou and Chiang
and that Zhou ëassured Chiang that his son would return, that he was
patriotic and undoubtedly wished his father to resist the invadersí.
she does not frame this as part of a deal: rather, as evidence of Zhou
Enlaiís human touch. There is no direct evidence of a Stalin-Chiang
and no good reason to think that Chiang would have altered his strategy
for a personal reason.
The chapter entitled ëRed Mole Triggers China-Japan Warí argues that
KMT general who in 1937 resisted Japanese encroachments in Shanghai
against Chiang Kai-shekís orders, thus triggering an intense battle,
was a
Communist agent acting on commands that ëalmost certainlyí came from
Stalin. To support that interpretation, Chang and Halliday cite the
generalís memoirs, published years later, in which he states that as a
military cadet at the Whampoa Academy more than a decade before the
of Shanghai he had been sympathetic to the Communists, who were then in
their first united front with the KMT and formed part of the leadership
Whampoa. General Zhang says that Zhou Enlai told him at that time ñ
1925 ñ
to ëwait for a while for the appropriate timeí to join the Party. ëBut
CCP guarantees that from now on we will covertly support you and make
work go easily.í This becomes in Chang and Hallidayís telling an
instruction ëto stay in the Nationalists and collaborate ìcovertlyî
the CCPí and ñ along with the fact that Russians in contact with Zhang
were subsequently executed ñ shaky proof for the proposition that Zhang
acted 12 years later on orders from Stalin.
Chang and Halliday say that Mao got Zhou Enlai to draw up a list of
notable people to be exempted from persecution during the Cultural
Revolution, and that Zhou does not deserve the credit that he later got
for saving people. Neither of their sources backs this up. One is a
compendium of Maoís memos and other documents, which includes a one-
sentence directive from Mao to Zhou to protect one individual. The
compilersí note says that Zhou did this and then also drew up a short
of other people who should be protected; it doesnít say that Mao told
to do this. The other source, an article by Michael Schoenhals, says
rather than intervening in persecutions managed by others, Zhou himself
managed the main high-level persecutions of the Cultural Revolution.
this supports Chang and Hallidayís point that Zhou was not blameless,
does nothing to clarify the issue of who drew up the lists of notables
be protected.
Some of Chang and Hallidayís arguments go beyond the misuse of sources
make claims that are simply unsourced. Perhaps they think these are
conclusions that flow self-evidently from the pattern of events. They
include claims that Stalin deliberately kept his ambassador away from
Security Council meeting in June 1950 which authorised a UN response to
North Koreaís invasion of the South, because he wanted to draw US
into Korea; that Mao helped cause Stalinís fatal stroke; that Maoís
remarks to the East German leader Walter Ulbricht about the Great Wall
something to do with Ulbrichtís decision some years later to erect the
Berlin Wall; and that Mao started both the Taiwan Strait crises, in
and 1958, in order to provoke an American nuclear threat to China that
would in turn put pressure on the Soviet Union to give more help to
Chinaís own atomic bomb programme.
Chang and Hallidayís false claims include the assertion that Mao had
planned for some time what became in 1962 the Sino-Indian border war,
as part of this, a ëhefty horse-tradeí occurred in which Khrushchev
the outgoing Chinese ambassador that Moscow would take Chinaís side if
broke out with India in return for Maoís support for the Russian
on missiles in Cuba. But according to their own source, Maoís
reported these Russian protestations to Beijing as a hypocritical
to mask a growing alignment with India. Chang and Halliday further
that Khrushchevís promise of support helped Mao decide to give ëthe go-
ahead for crack troops to storm Indian positionsí; they fail to provide
the important background information that, to quote an authoritative
by John Garver, Nehru had previously ëordered Indian forces to advance
into disputed areas and clear Chinese forces, though without firing
India ignored Chinese warnings to halt this ìforward policyî,í and only
then did the Red Army strike ësuddenly with overwhelming forceí.
Chang and Halliday state that on the eve of the Cultural Revolution,
Zhen, the mayor of Beijing, flew to Sichuan for secret talks with the
purged general Peng Dehuai. Their source confirms that this meeting
place. But they misreport what the source says, claiming that the
was conducted ëin secretí (their italics), whereas it was arranged by
local Party secretary, Li Jingquan, as indeed it would have had to have
been under the bureaucratic system operating in China at that time,
although Li and Peng Zhen agreed not to report the meeting to
Beijing. ëWhat the two Pengs talked about has never been revealed,í
and Halliday write, although the book they cite contains four pages of
reconstructed dialogue. ëJudging from the timing and the colossal risk
Mayor Peng took in visitingí Peng Dehuai, they say, ëit is highly
that they discussed the feasibility of using the army to stop Mao.í
Nothing of that sort is indicated in their source, which says that the
discussed an ideological campaign then unfolding in Beijing. It is
unlikely that the two discussed military options, because neither of
them ñ
a civilian official and a purged general ñ had any access at all to
Chang and Halliday report the case of a brigadier general called Cai
Tiegen, who thought of organising a guerrilla force to resist Mao
the Cultural Revolution and was shot for that crime. Their source,
however, states that Cai was the victim of a frame-up by a political
activist, who distorted some discussions between Cai and his friends
guerrilla warfare to create the false impression that Cai wanted to
guerrilla bands to oppose the regime.
These three kinds of flaw do not rule out the possibility that in some
cases Chang and Hallidayís findings may be true and represent a
significant contribution to scholarship. The book makes the most
use to date of the many memoirs that have emerged since Maoís death,
written by his colleagues, cadres, staff and victims, and shows special
insight into the suffering of Maoís wives and children. It contains
information from Russian, Albanian and Bulgarian archives and
publications, which so far as I know other scholars have not used.
the new findings from these sources are that it was the Russians who
ordered the CCP to pay attention to the peasants; that Sun Yat-senís
widow, Soong Ching-ling, was a Soviet agent; that the Russians had
dealings with a warlord rival of Chiang Kai-shekís in the 1930s,
him to think they might sponsor him to replace Chiang as Chinaís ruler;
that Mao initiated a long-term collaboration with Japanese intelligence
1939; that Mao had his own ëpowerful intelligence networkí within the
American Communist Party, unavailable to the Russians; that, before the
Korean War, Mao promised Kim Il-song that China would send in Chinese
troops; that at some unspecified date Mao plotted to depose Kim
and that in the early 1950s Mao undertook unspecified ëconspiratorial
operationsí in the USSR. Such assertions must be examined in the
but cannot yet be accepted as established conclusions.
Chang and Halliday are magpies: every bright piece of evidence goes in,
matter where it comes from or how reliable it is. Jade and plastic
together, the pieces are arranged in a stark mosaic, which portrays a
possible but not a plausible Mao. This Mao is lazy, uncommitted, driven
lust for power and comfort, lacking in original ideas, tactically smart
but strategically stupid, disliked by everyone he works with, selfish
mindlessly cruel. ëAbsolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the
heart of Maoís outlook.í Mao was a ëlukewarm believerí in Marxism. ëMao
discovered in himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery.í He
a penchant for slow killingí. He ëout-bandited the banditsí. He ëwas
addicted to comfortí. His ëmost formidable weapon was pitilessnessí.
was a man with many enemies, generated and regenerated by his
and oppressions. ëMao evinced no particular sympathy for peasantsí;
was extremely unpopularí; ëMao was disliked by the locals.í
How could a man like this win power? Chang and Hallidayís answer is
he was more vicious than his rivals. Thanks to his possession of
secrets, his manipulation of slander, character assassination and
murder, his withholding and falsifying of information, and his sheer
at browbeating, he defeated the hardened revolutionaries who were his
former comrades-in-arms, turning Zhou Enlai into ëa self-abasing
slaveí, ëhyper-intimidatingí Liu Shaoqi, forming a purely instrumental
alliance with Lin Biao and then discarding him ñ and doing some
matchmaking for Lo Fu, for Mao was ëshrewd about the ways of the heart,
particularly in sexually inhibited mení. Mao ran rings around Chiang
shek because ëChiang . . . let personal feelings dictate his political
military actions.í Mao ëhad none of his weak spotsí.
Chang and Halliday position themselves as near omniscient narrators,
permitting themselves to say constantly what Mao and others really
or really intended, when we seldom have any way of knowing. A cautious
historian would avoid taking poems or speeches from Mao as a clear
expression of what he felt or intended, understanding that poetry may
express a state of feeling, and that a political speech or dialogue may
contain rhetorical flourishes, humour or irony, or may be intended to
mislead. Chang and Halliday take what Mao says literally, even his
known outrageous statements that famine and nuclear warfare were no big
deal. And they repeatedly impute feelings and intentions to him when
lack even a poem or a speech on which to base their interpretation.
Of course Mao deserves harsh moral judgment. Too many previous accounts
his life, awed by his achievements, have overlooked their human cost.
this portrayal impedes serious moral judgment. A caricature Mao is too
easy a solution to the puzzle of modern Chinaís history. What we learn
from this history is that there are some very bad people: it would have
been more useful, as well as closer to the truth, had we been shown
there are some very bad institutions and some very bad situations, both
which can make bad people even worse, and give them the incentive and
opportunity to do terrible things.
Chang and Hallidayís white-hot fury no doubt represents the unpublished
and anonymous Chinese sources that they have used. More authentically
the officially licensed propaganda, these as yet subterranean opinions
reflect the current evaluation of Mao within the Party as well as
This book can thus be read as a report on the crumbling of the Mao
as well as a bombshell aimed at destroying that myth. That the Chinese
getting rid of their Mao myth is welcome. But more needs to take its
than a simple personalisation of blame.
* The structure of the book makes checking the sources more difficult
is usual for a work of serious scholarship. To identify a source, you
first to flip to a section of notes at the back, where source citations
are arranged by the page numbers of the main text. Under each page
are several bold-face tag lines keyed to sentences on that page. After
each tag line is a list of sources, often as many as five or six. These
citations provide only the authorís name and page numbers. You have to
flip back and forth in the bibliography to identify the sources. The
bibliography in turn is divided into two sections, one for Chinese
and one for non-Chinese sources. Moreover, many of the source titles
abbreviated, so you have to check the two lists of abbreviations before
going to the two bibliographies. When multiple sources are cited for a
single assertion, it is often unclear which source is intended to
the controversial part of a passage in the text. If four sources fail
do so and the fifth is inaccessible, then the controversial assertion
impossible to check.
Andrew Nathan is the Class of 1919 Professor and Chair of the
of Political Science at Columbia. He co-edited The Tiananmen Papers and
the author, with Bruce Gilley, of Chinaís New Rulers.

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