Why Mao Tse-tung Still Matters
Admittedly, I’m attracted to historical biographies. Perhaps it’s an inherent sense of curiosity combined with obligation to spend at least some measure of time reading the works of dedicated authors who in rare instances spent not merely years, but decades conducting extensive research and ultimately giving new life to people and subjects we thought we already knew well, but may have misunderstood.
Such is the definitely the case with one of my favorite books, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, the 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction. Such is the case for any of the four other Robert A. Caro books on Lyndon B. Johnson, clearly the most thorough research and writing exercise ever conducted on a U.S President by one man. Such is also the case with John Adams by David McCullough, arguably our most noted historian. I could go on and on.
Such is also the case with “Mao: The Untold Story,” written by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. A historical watershed that began way back in 1986 ultimately came to fruition a few years back with this long-awaited release, a predictbly controversial narrative and what’s been called the most definitive biography ever written on one of the most ruthless, yet most powerful people in history. His story and the era when he ruled begs for our attention.
We can’t nor shant forget Mao Tse-tung — his incromprehensibly evil deeds or (as apologists like to argue) his bold initiatives, necessary despite the grotesque human toll. Indeed, those costs are simply too staggering to ignore. Moreoever, should we sanitize China and fail to understand this fascinating land and its people, we do so at our own peril. To wit, show me a typical American who understands much if anything about Chinese history, and that person is most certainly of Chinese ancestory or an academic. While a respectable number may be initimately famiiar with our nation’s history, and Europe’s as well (much of which dominates both the History Channel and the Military Channel, now far more reaching in shaping consciousness than any best-selling book), China remains a mystery, shrouded by the sheer size and scope of its populace and inaccessibility of its true history and deeds. Indeed, this is not a topic for the faint of heart. China almost seems too vast and far too complicated to try and fully understand. Nonetheless, we owe it to ourselves to make the attempt to better know this sleeping giant, now awaking and about the rumble through the global house breaking the slumber of what’s been a pretty good run of dominance over world affairs by the spoiled West.
Indeed, to understand contemporary China, and more importantly its remarkably diverse population (despite repeated programs aimed at mass collectivization) — why they act as they do, why their customs and actions seem so unlike our own, we must try and understand the critical period which shaped and ultimately defined one-fifth of the world’s popualtion, and by extension everyone who seeks to play some kind of international role in the 21st Century. I’m speaking of that era of Mao Tse-tung, the revolutionary leader who seized power and served as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party for nearly 50 years and Premier from 1949 until his death in 1976.
Mao: The Untold Story is one of many biographies. However, by volume at more than 800 pages it’s the most extensive and certainly the most personal portrait ever written, most of its revelations the results of government archives finally opening up in what had been two of the world’s most repressive Communist regimes — the PRC and USSR. We also hears the real stories behind the scenes, from servants and adminstrators, colleagues and associates too terrified to speak out for decades but who now are revealing what happened while the rest of the world had no idea of the circus of paranoia that permeated the highest levels of the PRC. For the first time, we uncover what Mao was really like behind closed doors, which no common Chinese citizen ever saw. We come to know (and despise) his wives, his many mistresses, and his children. Virtually all of these close family members ultimately went mad, were imprisoned, or commited suicide. Mao ruled this joyless madhouse with absolute authority and invincibility. To question Mao was a guaranteed exit from access to power and privilege. Worse, dissent often lead to house arrest of even imprisonment.
Mortified of more than three decades of state terror emanating directly from Mao’s authority, the machinery which starved and tortured and terrified hundreds of millions continued uninterrupted until his death, and even after. It was an unimaginable reign of terror, both by the sheer number of victims who were subject to repeated campaigns of mass muder, made worse by extensive length of time this horrible climate of fear came to dominate every sphere of Chinese society.
It’s hard to find any heros in this bleak chapter of China’s history and road to modern development. And yet for all the horrendous crimes committed, China did manage to transform itself and eventually prosper on a macro level. If one can ignore the screams of the innocent and turn away from the ashes of tens of millions of common Chinese in the countrytside (and we shouldn’t ignore these things), national statistics bear out this astonishing rise to superpower status, especially when considering what everyday life was like before Mao and the Communists came to power. For instance, take this revisionist persspective taken from an Amazon review by one of China’s many apologists and deniers of gross misdeeds:
The Chinese Revolution was the most massive powerful people’s revolution in human history. Pre-Maoist China was a literal hell on earth. Massive deaths due to starvation, disease, weathr, natural disaster. Drug addiction and lack of basic education, patriarchy, female infanticide, bound feet, prostitution as well. A fascist government, oppressive warlords, landlords and thugs. The average Chinese lifespan was 32 years. Mao Zedong led the Chinese people to defeat the Japanese imperialist invaders and occupiers and then chased the Kuomindang out of the country. They crushed the warlords, landlords and their thugs. The Red Army fought and chased the u.s. and NATO forces out of North Korea. The Red Army removed the feudal god-king the Dahli Llama out of Tibet. Thanks to land reforms and then the people’s communes and the Cultural Revolution, the lives of the vast majority of people improved. They got universal healthcare and education. Drugs and drug addiction was abolished. The economy grew. There was no inflation. A people’s participatory socialist democracy/dictatorship was created. Political power for workers, peasants, women, and ethnic minorities took place for the first time in China’s long history. The problem of feeding the entire population was eventually solved. The average lifespan in Maoist China became 62 years.
Reading these stomach-turning comments from a Mao defender, not written during his lifetime from the Politburo but within the past few years in what is presumably a free-thinking environment, reveals the very troubling problem that we’re currently engaaged in a battle as to how Mao will ultimately be remembered. As outlandish (and repulsive) as it seems, this murderer of millions enjoys significant backing from many revisionists — some undoubtedly tied to the Chinese government and propaganda machine — who are intent on destroying the credibility of books now coming out, like Mao: The Untold Story.
Clearly, there are some things to admire about China — what is was like after Mao versus before. But at what price? Couldn’t these improvements to daily life have been accomplished without mass starvation, political and cultural persecution, and a climate of fear? Did 70 million, most of them innocent, really have to die?
This book is not without other detractors, most notably Andrew Nathan’s blistering review in the London Review of Books, to which I subscribe. Nathan spent considerable time dissecting what he views as sloppy research methods, which cast doubt as to the accuracy of many of the claims and figures. He also argues with narrative that, at times, is overly melodramatic. READ ANDREW NATHAN’S EXTENSIVE REVIEW HERE
My reaction to both Nathan’s widely-respected review and the book, both of which I read in full, is to point out that not biographies are intended for academics. In fact, relatively few are. Our history mus tbe brough alive, sometimes using melodrama. When it comes to trying to better understand the consequences of a monster like Mao, who better than to reveal those unimaginable human costs than his victims, who speak with rremarkable courage and candidness in this book.
Flawed or not, books like this one deserve to be read. And if we’re to try and understand what’s destined to be the world’s most infuential economic superpower, then I suggest that reading books like this one is mandatory. When it comes to what we know about China, we still have a lot of catching up to do.