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Mao Tse-tung

January 29, 2010

Stuart Schram. Mao Tse-tung. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Miriam Gross (2006)

In this scintillating and clearly written political biography, Schram tries to unearth the true story of Mao. Penned when there were few available sources and an elaborate mytho-history constructed by both Mao and the Communist party, Schram pieces together a story both elegant and enlightening. The book focuses primarily on the arc from the May 4th period to the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the time of the book’s publication. One of Schram’s greatest strengths is demonstrating that many of the seemingly unreasonable decisions and the endless zigzags in policymaking in fact were logical responses to the choices and conceptual understandings of the time.

While Mao is presented positively as highly logical and pragmatic, he is also shown to be romantic to the point of irrationality. Schram particularly identifies four problematic characteristics. Throughout much of his life Mao was so certain of his own infallibility that he could not be altered by the realities surrounding him. At the same time, he believed in an extreme form of voluntarism in which any human being could be transformed into the vanguard of the proletariat. Mao also felt that human will would conquer any force and should be the basis for societal transformation. This meant that he consistently downgraded or discredited the step-by-step technical and “rationalistic” progress Schram believes was necessary for economic development. Finally, Mao had a strong belief in the refining characteristics of the army and an eagerness for war, which was often envisioned unrealistically as a modern day reenactment of the famous novel Outlaws of the Marsh.

Given this, what made Mao so appealing and successful? Schram finds a number of situations and traits that help account for Mao’s rise to power. Until the fall of 1931, the fledgling Communist power had little ability to centralize and direct the actions of its representatives. This allowed Mao the freedom of action to develop his own tactics and directions. Similarly, because the Soviet Union was both ignorant of and often disinterested in the realities of the Chinese Communist party, there was room for Mao and others to determine many of their own objectives. Schram presents Mao as having a unique vision, a vision in which Marxism is successfully integrated with Chinese characteristics and in which peasants and outcastes are brought to the fore as leading elements of society. This strong sense of direction and the ability to publicize it through speeches and books helped make him seem a natural for the role of “helmsman.” Beyond this, Schram believes Mao was innately appealing to the mass of the Chinese people. Perhaps his most important character trait was a strong continuous nationalism and a constant willingness to fight against imperialists, particularly the Japanese. However, Mao also seemed to take on the larger-than-life role of the traditional hero in tales and opera who fought for the good of the people. In other words, his early interest and profound assimilation of these tales made it easy for him to purposely position himself in a leading role.

Reviewers at the time (Howard Boorman, The China Quarterly, 35, 1968) were greatly appreciative of the book. This reviewer wishes that Schram had included more of the impact of human relationships on Mao’s political activities. In addition, despite Schram’s painstaking assessment of the specific Chinese historical context, he appears to be judging many of Mao’s successes and failures by whether they move China away from “the traditional” and towards his own view of modernity, rationalism, and democracy. Despite these critiques, Schram’s book marks an exceptional effort remarkable for its time.

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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