Read the following book review critically:
Dark tales of Mao the merciless
Delia Davin, Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 August 2005
Title: Mao: The Unknown Story
The Great Helmsman is little more than a brutal and foolish tyrant in this much-hyped one-sided portrait, finds Delia Davin.
Mao Zedong was indisputably one of the most important figures of the 20th century. The revolution he led transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese and, as this study frequently reiterates, also took the lives of many millions. This new biography of Mao received unprecedented pre-publication publicity and media hype and has already spent weeks in the bestseller list. Ironically, the attention accorded to it may owe as much to the celebrity status of one its co-authors, Jung Chang, famous for her bestselling memoir Wild Swans (1991), as to the importance of its subject.
Chang and Jon Halliday, her co-author and husband, brought formidable resources to their work. They lavished time and money on their research for more than a decade. Chang was able to use some Chinese archives and also trawled the voluminous published literature on Mao that has become available in Chinese in recent years. Halliday's command of Russian has given him access to Soviet archives and memoirs that offer a particular perspective on Chinese communist history. Chang's elite family connections and her international fame enabled them to secure interviews that might have been difficult for other scholars to obtain. Among the several hundred people to whom the authors spoke were Mao's close associates and family members, the relatives of some of his victims, and also non-Chinese ranging from big names such as Henry Kissinger, Lee Kuan Yew and Mobutu Sese Seko to former members of Maoist movements in the West and in the Third World.
The broad outlines of the life recounted in Mao: The Unknown Story are familiar. Born into a well-to-do peasant family, Mao had many conflicts with his authoritarian father and was deeply fond of his gentle mother. As he struggled to gain an education, he began to seek the solutions to China's weakness in the world. Like other young nationalists of his time, he believed he would find them in revolutionary politics. He was an early member of the Chinese Communist Party, and was involved in its internecine struggles in the 1920s and 1930s. He did not achieve absolute pre-eminence within its leadership until the 1940s. He led the People's Republic from its foundation in 1949 until his death in 1976. From the mid-1950s, his attempts to sustain and intensify the revolution frequently exercised a disruptive influence on China's economic progress and political stability.
This was often the cause of policy splits between him and other senior party leaders. Mao demonstrated an increasing tendency to see any colleague who dared to disagree with his policies as challenging his leadership. Out of this grew tragedy. The Great Leap Forward, promoted by Mao to accelerate the pace of industrialisation and to establish large-scale collectivisation, instead produced economic disaster. China's food production fell catastrophically, but the state continued to extract grain taxes from the peasants and for a time even increased the level of procurement. Demographers have shown that in the resultant famine (1959-61) there were at least 30 million excess deaths. Mao bears responsibility not only for the disaster but also for the Government's tardy response to it.
Even when the reports of the famine began to come in, he resisted any reversal of his projects. His last great social experiment, the Cultural Revolution, represented, in part, his effort to reassert his leadership and to depose those who had criticised the Great Leap. This led to the downfall of almost all Mao's potential rivals and produced a climate in which no one dared offer him an honest opinion.
True to their title, Chang and Halliday claim that astonishingly little is known about Mao and frequently assert that they are reporting previously unknown incidents or facts. These claims are overstated. Other recent biographies have also dealt with the many discreditable facts of Mao's political history: his role in the killing of the so-called anti-Bolshevik elements in the 1930s; the opium trade that for a time sustained the economy of his revolutionary base area of Yan'an; his increasingly autocratic dealings with colleagues; and his responsibility for the post-Great Leap famine of the 1960s. Other aspects of the man, such as his unappealing personal hygiene, his imperial lifestyle in luxury villas and his licentious relationships with selected nurse/concubines were first revealed in memoirs published in China and abroad, including one by a girlfriend and another by his doctor.
What is original in the Chang/Halliday biography is its unrelenting demonisation of its subject. Whereas other biographers have given some credit to Mao's ideological commitment, to his role as a thinker or to his achievement in the reassertion of China's national power, Chang and Halliday eschew any attempt to balance the good and bad in his legacy. Unfortunately, their determination to present Mao in a totally negative light leads to many problematic assertions. They use selective quotations from a commentary written by Mao as a 24-year-old student on Friedrich Paulsen's System of Ethics. Their claim is that these show that Mao "shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty" and that "absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lie at the heart of Mao's outlook". A less unsympathetic reading of the naive and rather idealistic notes would recognise that Mao was trying to arrive at a philosophical understanding of duty. In doing so he asserts that acts such as helping those in need and sacrificing oneself to save others are duties not to others but to oneself, since only if one performs them will one's mind be at rest. This is hardly proof of "absolute selfishness".
A major thesis of the book is that Mao lacked any ideological commitment and was driven all his life only by the lust for power. Is this really credible? One can think of easier, more promising paths an ambitious young man might have taken in republican China than to join a tiny communist party that to most observers looked unlikely ever to attain power. Chang and Halliday assert that, despite his peasant origins, Mao voiced little interest in the peasants' lot before November 1925, and they note that "it was the Russians who first ordered the Chinese Communist Party to pay attention to the peasantry". In fact, in one of his first substantial essays, written in 1919, Mao had identified landlordism, rents and taxes as problems for the "tillers of the soil" and had envisaged the establishment of a peasants' union.
No one could argue that Mao was a good family man. His treatment of his wives was often callous or cruel, and his children were certainly not lucky in their father. Some were left with peasants and disappeared during the revolutionary wars, others died, and two suffered mental breakdowns. But Chang and Halliday take the bleakest possible view in their depiction of Mao's family relations. They castigate him for having made no effort to save his second wife from execution in 1930. Yet, contrary to their assertion, it is by no means clear that even had he known of the danger she was in that he could have helped her. (Had he attempted a rescue, one cannot but suspect that the authors would have blamed him for risking the lives of his soldiers for private ends.) Various accounts are available of Mao's reaction to the death of his son Mao Anying in the Korean War. Peng Dehuai, a Chinese general whom Chang and Halliday elsewhere treat as a reliable witness, recalled that when he spoke to Mao of the death, the chairman trembled so violently that he was unable to light his cigarette.
After several minutes of silence, he said that in revolutionary war there will be sacrifices and that Anying was only one of many. Chang and Halliday ignore Peng's account, preferring to quote Mao's secretary's ambiguous comment that Mao had not "shown any great pain".
Chang and Halliday's hostility to Mao affects not only their interpretation of the man but also their historical narrative. They claim to explode the "Long March myth created by Mao" by proving that the battle of Luding bridge in 1935 had never taken place and by showing that Chiang Kai-shek deliberately allowed the communist armies to break out of their southern bases at the beginning of the march and failed to attack them at other points when they were vulnerable. They ignore substantial contrary evidence. Even Chang and Halliday's own account of the Long March confirms much of the orthodox history. It was indeed marked by physical endurance, suffering, fighting, privations, losses, arguments and near-collapse. Their suggestion that Chiang was at this point soft on the communists because he was worried about the fate of his son, Jiang Jingguo, who was in the Soviet Union, is unconvincing. Jingguo had gone to study in the Soviet Union in 1925 (with his father's permission rather than as the near kidnap victim implied in this account). Concern for his son's wellbeing did not stop Chiang from massacring communists in Shanghai in 1927.
One of many charges levelled against Mao by Chang and Halliday is that he was obsessed with building up China's military strength and obtaining a nuclear capacity at a time when standards of living were abysmal and even feeding the population remained difficult. Mao is well known for the observation that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. The background should be explained. His preoccupation with military development must be understood against both the humiliations and military defeat at the hands of the British, French, Russians and Japanese suffered by China in the 19th century and the vulnerability of People's Republic in its early years to the hostility of the West, in particular the US. China existed, after all, under a nuclear threat. Mao made the best of his diplomatic and economic isolation; he did not choose it, and he resented the dependence on the Soviet Union that it enforced. He saw greater military strength as the way out of this situation.
Mao: The Unknown Story contains various contradictions of the authors' earlier works. In Wild Swans, Chang shows warlord China in the 1920s to have been a chaotic, dangerous place where corrupt military men vied with each other for power, human life was cheap, and hunger common. The patriarchal family controlled the lives of its members and women were bought and sold at the whim of its head. The Unknown Story is less critical. We are told that "the warlords always made sure that the social structure was preserved" and that "life went on as usual for civilians as long as they were not caught in the crossfire". It is the social revolution introduced by the nationalists and the communists that disrupts this stability. Wild Swans shows the communists as having offered the only effective opposition to the Japanese. In The Unknown Story, we are assured that they avoided engagement with the Japanese whenever possible. The communist victory in the civil war is attributed in Wild Swans to the fact that the population welcomed the social revolution it promised and the overthrow of Chiang's corrupt, oppressive and incompetent Government. Returning to the scholarship of the early Cold War years, in The Unknown Story Chang and Halliday prefer to attribute the communist victory to mistakes by the Americans, help from the Soviets, betrayal by some of Chiang's generals and Mao's terror tactics.
There are other instances in which the authors of The Unknown Story appear to have changed their minds. Their first collaboration, published in 1986, was a book on Song Qingling, widow of Sun Yat-sen, sister-in-law of Chiang and later a vice-president of the People's Republic of China. In this almost hagiographic biography (Mme Sun Yat-sen: Soong Ching-ling, 1986), they refer to her "unique eminence and unassailability". In The Unknown Story they claim, on what seems to me thin evidence, that she was a Russian agent. Agnes Smedley, a left-wing feminist journalist whose writing they used as a source for the book on Song, is called a Comintern agent without any evidence being offered. This interesting American was a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in China. She certainly sympathised with the Chinese communists but was a loose cannon who later fell into official disfavour with both the Soviet and the Chinese party authorities. Halliday is well known as an expert on the Korean War and published extensively on the subject in the 1980s. The origins and course of the war receive a sharply different treatment in this study of Mao from that offered in his earlier work.
Of course, scholars have the right to change their minds. Perspectives change, new evidence emerges. What is concerning in this case is that the whole tone of The Unknown Story is so absolute, so tendentious. Chang and Halliday are certainly aware that other interpretations are possible, but they rarely discuss the debates or give their reasons for preferring one view rather than another. They have obviously read all the available scholarship on Mao, but they do not often choose to engage with versions of his life that differ from their own. Their methodology is always to choose the account least favourable to Mao. A related problem is that of sources.
Their bibliography is impressive - but what is lacking is any attempt to evaluate sources and their relative reliability. We are not made aware that different witnesses and participants have their own axes to grind and are rarely reminded that much of the history of the CCP is contested. A final technical quibble is with their treatment of Chinese names. Many different systems exist to romanise Chinese, but Pinyin (the official mainland system) has gained general acceptance. Chang and Halliday's decision to spell Chinese names "so as to make them as distinctive and easily recognisable as possible" - thus not to abide by any consistent system - in their text will cause confusion and is to be deplored.
The treatment of other leading communist figures in the book seems often to be coloured by their relationship to Mao. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, persecuted by Mao in the Cultural Revolution, are presented in a sympathetic light (despite their association in earlier years with Maoist policies and movements that the authors condemn). Zhou Enlai, admired by most foreigners with whom he came in contact as a diplomat of brilliance, charm and intelligence and still revered by many Chinese, is portrayed here as Mao's cowardly henchman with a masochistic tendency to abase himself before the chairman. Lin Biao - Mao's appointed successor before he plotted against the chairman and died in a plane crash when attempting to flee China - appears mentally unbalanced, a sufferer from phobias and insomnia who had become dependent on sleeping pills.
Intriguingly, the private lives of these figures seem to "match" their political scores. Liu's marriage to Wang Guangmei is described as "exceptionally happy", while the fact that Deng retained the companionship of his wife during his disgrace made the "difference between life and death". On the other hand Lin's wife, Ye Qun, is described as "a rather batty woman". The authors assure us that she lived in a state of unremitting sexual frustration due to her husband's neglect (although they also claim that she took lovers). Zhou's family life is often held up elsewhere as ideal. Unlike other Chinese leaders (including Mao) who showed a tendency to swap the wives of their revolutionary days for younger models, Zhou remained with Deng Yingchao, whom he married in his twenties, until his death. They were childless but adopted various orphans. However, in conformity with their generally unsympathetic portrayal of the man, Chang and Halliday recount that Zhou entered a loveless marriage with Deng, a "noticeably plain and ungainly... zealot", because he needed a woman who would also devote herself to the revolution.
The Mao that emerges from this study is a posturing, brutal and deceitful tyrant, and a lazy fool, an incompetent maniac who was unpopular and incapable of inspiring loyalty. His victories are all attributed to luck or to the mistakes of his many adversaries. In the end this is not a believable picture. We need a more complex rounded account to understand Mao and his political legacy. A good biography would surely give more attention to evaluating his writing. This study also ignores or denies the practical successes of the People's Republic. No one relying on it for an understanding of Mao's China would have any idea that although he was responsible for millions of deaths, his regime also brought about huge improvements in the lives of his fellow countrymen. Of course, these cannot cancel out the terrible famine toll of 1959-61, but they do need to be considered in any balanced assessment. The crude death rate was halved in the first eight years of the People's Republic and reduced to a quarter of its former level by the time of Mao's death. Over the Maoist period, there was real economic growth (although much less remarkable than under Deng), life expectancy doubled and illiteracy was reduced.
No honest person who has studied the Maoist record would wish to be cast as an apologist for him. His utopian dreams, his periodic refusal to engage with reality, his ruthlessness and his determination to win resulted in terrible human suffering. But his revolution reunified China and made the country a force to be reckoned with in the world. The Chinese still remember these achievements, and so should we. It seems a pity that what is likely to be the most widely read biography of Mao should offer an entirely negative assessment of his life and an inadequate account of the historical background.
Delia Davin is emeritus professor of Chinese social studies, Leeds University. She lived in Beijing for three years in the 1960s and 1970s.