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Mao: The Unknown Story

March 24, 2010

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005.

Brent Haas (2006)

By stating that Mao Zedong was responsible for over 70 million Chinese deaths during peacetime, the first sentence of Chang and Halliday’s highly revisionist biography of the Great Helmsman sets the tune that is carried throughout the book with remarkable dedication. Jiwei Ci’s musings on the revenge of memory in post-Mao China offers an interesting perspective for evaluating the goals of Chang and Halliday’s take on Mao. Observing that soon after Mao’s death “unofficial memory undid official history,” thus allowing for Chinese to “now” discern a devil where the eye had heretofore been accustomed to see an angel. Through consciously neglected previous scholarship on the CCP and Mao’s role in twentieth century China as “received wisdom” (Jonathan Fenby, The Observer, 12/4/2005) and relying heavily on anonymous interviews, uncited memoirs, and unpublished sources, Chang and Halliday’s revisionist narrative represents Ci’s “unofficial memory” set against “official history” (both PRC official narratives and Western academic understanding). But just as Ci Jiwei (1994) notes that “the history of China after 1949 was re-remembered by man, though not entirely accurately, as a nightmare of madness, folly, and disaster,” Chang and Halliday’s highly politicized account amounts to the “personalization [sic] of blame” on a one-dimensional, thoroughly evil Mao.

Chang and Halliday’s Mao was, simply put, a monster equivalent to or exceeding Hitler and Stalin in pure evil. His maniacal love of torture and murder encompassed his wives, children, close revolutionary associates, (real or imagined) political enemies, and the Chinese people as a whole. Theirs is a highly one-sided account that recognizes no redeeming qualities in Mao the man or in the revolution he led. Building upon Jung Chang’s own experiences coming of age in Maoist China and her wildly successful memoir, Wild Swans, the authors explicitly aim their historical scholarship at destroying the continued power of PRC legitimacy based on the Maoist legacy. In this reviewer’s opinion, and those of China specialists including Perry Link (“An Abnormal Mind,” Times Literary Supplement, 8/14/2005), Jonathan Spence (“Portrait of a Monster,” New York Review of Books, 11/3/2005), Andrew Nathan (“Jade and Plastic,” London Review of Books, 11/17/2005), Arthur Waldron, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom (“Mao as Monster,” Chicago Tribune, 11/6/2005), this is a much-needed corrective. But, excluding Waldron’s laudatory review (“Mao Lives,” Commentary, 10/2005), scholarly reviewers found many problems with their research and citation methodology and blatant political axe to grind. Specifically, unhelpful citations, manipulated interpretation of sources to suit their argumentation, and blatantly-unsourced assertions mar a seminal study of Mao based on a decade of research and geared towards an important political re-evaluation of a horrible tyrant.

If Chang and Halliday’s historical research is true (although for the above reasons many assertions defy scholarly examination), this book will sound the death-knell of Mao’s legacy. Jonathan Spence noted 22 separate instances of historical revisionism that could challenge much of our understanding of Mao and the Chinese Revolution (Spence, 24). Notable but inexhaustive examples include Mao’s lack of caring for the plight of Chinese peasants; Stalin and the Comintern’s crucial role in founding and funding the CCP and Mao’s rise to power; Mao’s destruction of the Jinggang revolutionary base for political ends; the Red Army’s legendary Long March as a product of Chiang Kai-shek’s willingness to let them escape so his son would be returned from captivity in the Soviet Union; the utter fabrication of the most famous tale of the Long March, the battle at the Luding Bridge; Mao’s agreement to partition China with Stalin – the list goes on and on.

There are many shocking and important revisions in this book, side-by-side with politically-motivated claims based on suspect scholarship. This prompted Andrew Nathan, no friend of the Chinese Communist Party as his voluminous publications on reform-era China and the Chinese Democracy Movement attest, to summarize the book as “jade and plastic together, the pieces arranged in a stark mosaic, which portrays a possible but not a plausible Mao.” While the other scholarly reviewers echoed most of Nathan’s misgivings about Chang and Halliday’s Mao, all recognized that this book was a needed challenge to not only PRC political culture but also to historical understanding of this pivotal figure in twentieth century Chinese history. Chang and Halliday’s book will undoubtedly spread from classrooms to airport book stores, presenting one of the rare cases in which the historical craft, contemporary political culture, and the politics of history takes at least some of the global media stage.

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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