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Bleeding the “Red” out of Mao and the (Ivory) White Terror

March 25, 2010

Bleeding the “Red” out of Mao and the (Ivory) White Terror: Popular and Academic Responses to Mao: The Unknown Story

Brent Haas (2006)

When the author of one of the highest selling non-fiction books ever takes on a legend, people pay attention. At least that is one of the clear-cut lessons to be drawn from the media storm surrounding Chang Jung and Jon Halliday’s subversive biography of Mao Zedong. After a June release in the U.K. the book spawned sensationalist titles in major newspapers around the world– “The Long March to Evil” from the (London) Observer; “China’s Monster, Second to None” from the New York Times; and “Neo-emperor of Evil Genius” in the Japan Times. Even the Revolutionary Communist Party of America, The Christian Science Monitor, and online news sources joined the discussion. In one of those rare and exciting moments, the craft of history and contemporary political culture took the stage – well, some at least – in global media. Discussion threads spread from newspaper articles to online and print academic circuits, and came back out to tell the tale as prominent China specialists weighed in on a discussion encompassing contemporary Chinese politics, Chinese history, and even the politics of history.

Far more than a reason for excitement in ivory white towers of academia across the land, the reach of Chang Jung and Jon Halliday’s presentation of Mao Zedong will extend from classrooms to airport bookshelves. Having explicitly connected their work to the “myth of Mao” in contemporary Chinese politics and culture, the authors’ goals not only challenge much of the received understanding of Mao and the history of twentieth century China – they are aiming at the structure of PRC legitimacy itself, as recognized by almost every review covered in this paper. The gauntlet has been thrown in a multi-sided debate that will certainly continue. From the authors’ choice to ignore pre-existing scholarship on Mao as “received wisdom” (Fenby) to their impatience for Chinese readers to get their hands on this book (Allardice), Chang and Halliday have positioned themselves against both the PRC regime and specialists who make their careers studying its history. This paper, then, is an outline and introduction to popular reaction to The Unknown Story and the critical response by specialists – the ways in which Chang and Halliday “bled the Red” out of Mao through ghastly details of wholesale slaughter and decoupling Mao from the ideology he came to represent. It also assesses backlash of sophisticated academic criticism that rained down from “ivory white towers” in response.

In the broadest of brushstrokes, responses to The Unknown Story have proceeded from nearly unequivocal praise in popular newspapers and magazines, through increasingly sophisticated popular reviews that began to draw upon the opinions of specialists. Frequently the case with periodization, exceptions confound clear-cut divisions, notable examples being Frank McLynn’s sophisticated review in June 5th The Independent on Sunday and Donald Morrison’s “Taking Aim at Mao” in Time Asia one day later. Nevertheless, the overall tendency was one of increased sophistication and criticism through the popular media during the summer of 2005, culminating in Perry Link’s critique of The Unknown Story in mid-August. A flurry of superficial, popular reviews resurfaced in mid- to late-October coinciding with the American release of the book. In late October through mid-November, academics such as Jonathan Spence, Arthur Waldron, Andrew Nathan, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom presented erudite and nuanced critiques that balanced admission of Mao’s heinous crimes and desire for a more open political culture in the Chinese mainland with serious misgivings about Chang and Halliday’s methodology and motivation.

Chang and Halliday explicitly eschew an academic audience for the “general reader.” Seeking to build on the success of Wild Swans by achieving a comparable level of accessibility, Chang stated that “we want people to understand it; we didn’t want to write a book for our peers, for other historians” (Allardice). Thus, the simplistic distinction between popular and academic reviews not only is an easy, descriptive tool, but it is drawn from Chang and Halliday’s own division between the “general reader” and the historian – a decision that inflamed headlines and confounded academics. In this light, I divided academic and popular reviews along the lines of dealing with other scholarship on Mao. This seems appropriate since Chang and Halliday have set themselves both inside and against “other historians” by claiming them as peers yet consciously refraining from acknowledging earlier work or divergent interpretations.

Red runs through Chang and Halliday’s Unknown Story. In the authors’ estimation, the blood of seventy million Chinese stained Mao’s callous, amoral, murderous hands. His children, wives, comrades, soldiers, subjects – none were safe from the non-stop blood-letting that this Mao seemed all too willing to initiate whenever political goals “justified” it. The numbers of deaths at Mao’s hand in The Unknown Story understandably staggered many of the reviewers. A USA Today article alternately cited 38 million deaths in the famine that resulted from disastrous economic policies in the Great Leap Forward, the 70 million deaths that Chang and Halliday’s first sentence attribute to Mao, and the litany of “terror, torture, slave labor, humiliation, brainwashing, public executions and the destruction of trust” that is detailed in the 800 pages of their book (Donahue). One review in early June simply observed that “the murder goes on, page after page” (Hattersley).

More than the blood of Mao’s “counter-revolutionary” enemies or starved peasants color the book, Red-ness gushes out of Mao as Chang and Halliday present a man completely devoid of belief in the Marxist and nationalist ideology he, his party, and the revolution espoused. As noted by many popular and all of the academic reviews covered in this paper, Marxism and nationalism were mere tools for Chang and Halliday’s Mao. It appears that the founding symbol of Chinese Marxism did not actually believe in that which he came to symbolize. In a process strikingly similar to what Ci Jiwei finds in the Chinese Revolution’s move from utopianism to hedonism, Chang and Halliday have re-remembered the Maoist experience, “though not entirely accurately, as a nightmare of madness, folly, and disaster.” By hammering home that his lack of human sympathy and ideologically-empty political machinations led to the unnecessary deaths of so many millions, Chang and Halliday’s unknown story makes it “now possible to discern a devil where the eye had heretofore been accustomed to see an angel” (Ci, 77)

The angel and devil imagery, while extreme, is appropriate since Chang and Halliday have crafted a one-dimensional portrait of Mao. Through sensational language presented in the authoritative tone of expertise, all shades of grey within Mao’s personality, character, and decisions have been replaced by stark contrasts of black and white, ever-present evil and utter lack of good. In an interview on May 26, Chang spun growing international interest in China into sensationalist claims about having discovered the Truth About Mao. “As long as China exists people will want to read our book because this is the real history about modern China.” In a the reviewer called “a touchingly naïve confidence in the book’s revolutionary potential,” Chang stated that while “I know I should be making understatements and being self-deprecating, but I think this book will shake the world and will help shape China” (Allerdice).

Her moment of playful skepticism aside, Allerdice’s Guardian review was a typical of the book’s popular media coverage clustered around the June U.K. and October U.S. releases. Stating that the book offered “a real insight into life under the Chinese Communist party,” Allardice’s commentary reflects Chang’s language and presentation of the “true character of the man responsible for so much misery,” this so-called “unknown figure” of the twentieth century. Many referenced the global commercial success of Wild Swans, Chang’s experiences coming of age in Maoist China, Halliday’s Russian language expertise, previously “incorrect” historical understanding of Mao the individual and world figure, and brutality, starvation, manipulation – in short, death on a mind-boggling scale. Those reviews that mention historical specifics most often focused on the Long March, generally accepting Chang and Halliday’s claims unproblematically.

Popular media reviews of The Unknown Story tended to intensify the tone of objective finality that rings through Chang and Halliday’s claims about Mao. For instance, The Observer‘s review in early June described the study as an expose of “the true scale of Mao’s oppression and genocidal manias,” and amplifies the sensational claims in The Unknown Story to stress that Mao’s “entire life was punctuated with slaughter of such a magnitude that it could only have been ordered by a man who was criminally insane” (Hattersley). In the second half of October, popular reviews in the U.S. followed similar patterns. Adi Ignatius’s review for Time recounted many of the “opinionated” claims about Mao in The Unknown Story and mentioned that there “had been much debate about the book’s editorializing” among China scholars. But in the next sentence, cites the years of research and interviews conducted by Chang and Halliday and describes the book as an entertaining, informative, if one-sided, revision of a historical figure ripe to be reevaluated. On the same day, the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledged The Unknown Story‘s polemical tone yet strongly supported its conclusions, only mentioning that historians have been “squabbling” over the book (French).

A similar pattern emerges when the brief qualifications offered by otherwise laudatory popular reviews are taken into account. Hattersley’s assertions on Mao’s paralleled evil life of criminally-insane slaughter wrapped around an unobtrusive observation that in a “normal” biography “such an unequivocal denunciation would be both suspect and tedious,” but he immediately switches tunes to extol the clear scholarship and careful notes as “terrible proof that absolute evil can sometimes triumph.” In a similar fashion, Allardice’s review asserts that the reader will have “no doubt” about the evil of Mao’s rule. Research methodology and citations were used to support and discredit the book by popular and academic reviews, respectively.

If any readers of the reviews still doubted the bold claims of Mao’s inhumanity, frequent comparisons to Hitler and Stalin would likely blacken any shades of grey concerning Mao. Allardice’s review in late May placed Mao in the fraternity of evil dictators by arguing that he did as much damage to mankind as the other two, a comparison echoed in Adi Ignatius’ claim that Mao was no longer “cuddlier than Stalin” but his “rival in brutality.” And Michiko Kakutani’s balanced review in the New York Times of October 21 opened with Chang and Halliday’s case that Mao was the worst tyrant of the twentieth century, although this review offered a multi-sentence presentation of the book’s deficiencies. Arthur Waldron’s review also opened with discussion of Mao in reference to Hitler and Stalin, indicative of the spread of these comparisons into academic reviews.

The equation of Mao with Hitler and Stalin presents specialists with a complicated situation. On the one hand, Allardice’s representative claim that Mao did as much damage to mankind elevates him to universal human experience. Thus, Mao transcends divisions of nationality and can hopefully have readers from different backgrounds connecting with the Chinese experiences in a much deeper, personal level. Yet, on the other hand, specialists very early on saw the dangers inherent in such a comparison. Jonathan Fenby noted on July 23 in the online discussion forum for specialist of Asian history,, that this represented a tendency to blame the horrors of twentieth century authoritarianism on a single ruler. Thus, Mao as Hitler or Stalin flattens his motivation, actions, and legacy into simple Evil, for the flip side of universalism is simplistic judgment and justification. A letter to the editor of the New York Times lambasted the paper for Nicholas Kristoff’s balanced and knowledgeable review of The Unknown Story. The letter writer took exception to Kristoff’s acknowledgement that however monstrous Mao was, he did bring some positive changes to China.

Especially in light of contemporary global politics based on battles between “freedom-loving” Us and “evil-doing” Them, oversimplification can lead to real policies, and Deidre Donahue in USA Today suggested that readers would “cast a skeptical eye” on U.S. foreign policy relating to China. Brahma Chellany in The Japan Times perhaps represented the worst-cast scenario: political science expertise, acceptance of Chang and Halliday’s Mao, and alarmist prognostications about coming conflict with China. Although obviously well-versed on Sino-Indian relations, Chellany repeats the sensationalist, black-and-white language of Chang and Halliday. But the most disturbing was her final move from “Mao, the evil genius” to “the specter of an emerging fascist state” in a China that will “increasingly challenge Asian and global security.”

If Chellany’s learned but alarmist prognostication represents a scholarly if misguided blend in The Japan Times, others drew from specialist critiques to craft skeptical and sophisticated popular reviews. James Heartfield’s entertaining and erudite review of The Unknown Story cited broadly from scholarship and sharpened the critical edge by pointing out the many ways in which this work contradicts Wild Swans and Chang’s parents’ involvement in the Chinese Communist project. Nicholas Kristoff’s aforementioned essay balanced skepticism of Chang and Halliday’s methodology with a recognition of the horrors of Maoist China. Hamish McDonald likewise cited numerous scholars, Columbia’s Thomas Bernstein, John Fitzgerald on the 1920s, Sidney Teiwes of Sydney University on the Comintern, Steve Tsang of Oxford, and Gregor Benton, leading to the conclusion that this book is a “major disaster for the contemporary China field.”

On the whole, however, reviews by the big names in the field of Chinese history were fairly balanced in their estimation of the book. Link, Nathan, and Waldron share Chang and Halliday’s desire for fundamental political change in the PRC. All scholarly reviewers, including Spence and Wasserstrom, express the necessity of destroying the myths about Mao as an ideological support for the PRC government. Yet only Waldron did not lament the multiple problems with the usage and citations of sources, and all expressed some form of disappointment at the one-dimensional Mao presented in The Unknown Story.

Sources and citations, superficially referenced as support for the shocking presentation of Mao in popular reviews, were major problems for specialists covered in this paper. Jonathan Spence especially called the myriad memoirs recently published in mainland China into question, observing that they resemble the “bawdy Chinese storytelling tradition.” Lamenting the lack of a balanced analytical voice that made Li Zhisui’s Private Life of Chairman Mao so persuasive, he described The Unknown Story as raising the problem of the veracity of memoirs lacking citations (25). Some of Chang and Halliday’s critical interviews (the “sprightly 93 year old” who recalled the battle at the Luding Bridge did not in fact take place) were contradicted by reporters investigating their claims for popular media (Fenby; McDonald; Kristoff). Andrew Nathan’s critique presented a lengthy discussion of three kinds of source problems: garbled references that do not allow others to check their citations; the misuse of sources for the sake of argumentation; and completely unsourced claims. Having written an influential books highly critical of the PRC regime based almost entirely on anonymous interviews, Nathan’s scholarship and political views lends weight to his criticisms. In the end, he lyricizes the result of Chang and Halliday’s research methods and “grinding axe” as “jade and plastic together, the pieces arranged in a stark mosaic, which portrays a possible but not a plausible Mao.”

The implausibility of Chang and Halliday’s Mao springs from their sources, authorial voice, and one-dimensional characterization of the Great Helmsman. Spence, Nathan, and Wasserstrom all liken Chang and Halliday’s voice to the omniscient narrator of novels who has access to the innermost thoughts of the character. In fact Wasserstom, comparing The Unknown Story to Elizabeth Kostova’s Da Vinci Code-esque novel about Vlad the Impaler, The Historian, commented that authorial voice, lack of citations, and one-dimensional characterization of Mao meant that “Kostova’s Dracula comes across as a more complicated figure.” Continuing Wasserstrom’s monster imagery, Spence feels such a simplistic portrait of Mao as Monster denies any room for change, and “the countless Chinese who did struggle for change are denied any role in their own story, and become mere ciphers, their lives and deaths without purpose.” Mao the Monster is unabsorbing and offers nothing that we can learn from him (27).

Arthur Waldron’s review is the most unique of the scholars cited here. Taking the most strident political stand, Waldron argues that “this is the book that will wreck Mao’s reputation beyond salvage” (36). Although Waldron’s critique of foreigners in contemporary China who are largely blinded by luxury from seeing the “brutality around them” and recognizing that “the overwhelming majority of the world’s unfree people live in China” (33) is well-taken, he does not acknowledge the source problems criticized by popular and academic reviewers alike. It seems, therefore, most appropriate to follow Andrew Nathan’s summation of Chang and Halliday’s Mao The Unknown Story. “This book than thus be read as a report on the crumbling of the Mao myth, as well as a bombshell aimed at destroying that myth. That the Chinese are getting ride of their Mao myth is welcome. But more needs to take its place than a simple personalization of blame.”

Chronological References

Lisa Allardice, “This Book Will Shake the World,” The Guardian, May 26, 2005.

Roy Hattersley, “The Long March to Evil,” The Observer, June 5, 2005.

Frank McLynn, “Too Much Hate, Too Little Understanding,” The Independent on Sunday, June 5, 2005.

Donald Morrison, “Taking Aim at Mao,” Time Asia, June 6, 2005.

James Heartfield, “Mao: The End of the Affair,” Spiked On-line, July 4, 2005.

Perry Link, “An Abnormal Mind,” Times Literary Supplement, August 14, 2005.

Brahma Chellany, “Neo-emperor of Evil Genius,” The Japan Times, September 4, 2005.

Hamish McDonald, “Throwing the Book at Mao,” The Age, October 8, 2005.

Marjorie Kehe, “Mao: The Ugly Reality Behind an Icon,” Christian Science Monitor, October 18, 2005.

Deirdre Donahue, “‘Unknown Story’ Repeats Mao’s Brutal History,” USA Today, October 19, 2005.

Michiko Kakutani, “China’s Monster, Second to None,” New York Times, October 21, 2005.

Nicholas Kristoff, “The Real Mao,” New York Times Book Review, October 23, 2005.

Adi Ignatius, “The Mao that Roared,” Time Magazine, October 23, 2005.

Howard W. French, “Putting a Knife into the Heart of the Chairman’s Legend,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 23, 2005.

Steven Mosher, “The Real Mao,” Washington Times, October 23, 2005.

Arthur Waldron, “Mao Lives,” Commentary, October 2005.

Jonathan Spence, “Portrait of a Monster,” New York Review of Books, November 3, 2005.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstom, “Mao as Monster,” Chicago Tribune, November 6, 2005.

Revolutionary Communist Party – USA, “New Mao Biography: Not Historical Scholarship but Hysterical Rant,” Revolution 021, November 6, 2005.

Anonymous Letter to Editor, “Unknown Mao,” New York Times, November 13, 2005.

Andrew Nathan, “Jade and Plastic,” The London Review of Books, November 17, 2005.

Jonathan Fenby, “Storm Rages over Bestselling Book on Monster Mao; China experts attack biography’s ‘misleading’ sources,” The Observer, December 4, 2005.

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.


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