Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mao: The Unknown Story

I just finished reading Mao: The Unknown Story, a biography of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. It is based on years of research including extensive interviews with many of Mao's inner circle. It's full of intriguing history, especially the close relationship between communist China and the Soviet Union. Ultimately, it's a story of an utterly evil megalomaniac who delighted in inflicting violence and suffering on other people and caused the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese.

Some of the book's revelations:
  • Mao was never driven by ideology. The communist party was merely a convenient vehicle by which he could gain personal power.
  • The so-called "Long March" of Mao and his band of communists in the 1930's, one of the most overblown myths of Mao's personality cult, was no heroic struggle. Rather, deals made between Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and Stalin allowed Mao's army to proceed. Later in the march, Mao intentionally sacrificed a huge number of Red Army troops under the command of a rival for his power base, Chang Kuo-t'ao.
  • In 1946, Mao and the Red Army were on their last ropes fighting the Nationalists in northern Manchuria, where they had only one remaining strong post in the city Harbin. The Nationalist Army was advancing with much superior strength, and Mao had become resigned to abandoning the city and resorting to guerrilla warfare. He was saved at the last minute by a most unlikely ally - the United States. The US put heavy pressure on the Nationalists to call a cease fire - at the very moment Chiang Kai-shek was on the verge of victory. Mao issue an order to disperse the troops and resort to guerrilla warfare on June 3, but rescinded it on June 5 when the cease-fire was declared. According to the author, this cease fire was probably the single most important decision affecting the outcome of the civil war, which of course the communists won.
  • The Great Leap Forward, a 5 year economic plan from 1958 to 1963, caused the deaths of 38 million Chinese from starvation and overwork. As if that's not bad enough, these deaths were not the unintended consequence of failed economic policy. Mao caused the famine by selling most of the nation's crop to the Soviets and other allies in order to buy weapons, and especially nuclear weapon technology. Even when made fully aware of the mass famine across the country, Mao pushed to extract even more crops from the peasants.
  • The reason Mao launched the brutal cultural revolution in 1966 was to purge his rivals in the party and in the Army, whose influence was becoming a threat to his totalitarian power. Even his closest and most loyal supporters were subjected to torture and imprisonment. Liu Shao Chi, one of the top party members, was imprisoned and tortured for 3 years until dying in prison in 1969. Amazingly, his death was not made public until after Mao's death, because Mao was so worried that it arouse sympathy for Liu.
  • Over the course of Mao's rule, 70 million Chinese died at Mao's hands.


Anonymous said...

Chang and Halliday’s Mao, Unknown Story is good, but it is not good as The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Zhisui Li

Chang and Halliday’s Mao, Unknown Story provided a brand new version and perspective of Chairman Mao. It is the first time to portray Chairman Mao as a bloody mass-murderer. In their book, Chairman Mao was a large-scale murderer during a Chinese peace era. Nearly 80 million people were dead by his Utopian idealism: that was an unbelievable number. It is four times the number of deaths of the Soviets in the war between the Soviet Union and Germany. He used drastic violence to suppress people who he believed stood in his way for industrializing China. He ignored the death of 30 million people during the starvation period of the Great Famine, which was caused by his foolish “Great Leap Forward” for overtaking the British and catching up to the Americans. After the Great Famine, his lunatic behavior reached new heights. He launched the culture revolution, which was completely insane. He became a maniac. Under his direction, the violence was propelled to its bloodiest high tide. The horror broke historic records. Elementary school students unbelievably beat their teachers to death. The death toll was continuing to pile up until the day he died. From Mao, Unknown Story, the figure of Chairman Mao was drawn as a vicious monster and mass-murderer.

No wonder, horrible bloody killings described in Mao, Unknown Story truly happened in China from 1949, when Chairman Mao took over China, to 1976 when Chairman Mao died. Chairman Mao did everything so lunatic, and insane. From the catastrophe which he brought to China, he deserves to be considered a bloodthirsty monster and a bloody mass murderer. Overall, the book is good and correct.

Even though the book is good and correct, it cannot compare with Dr. Zhisui Li’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao in deeply and lively describing of Chairman Mao. No less than Dr. Andrew Nathan pointed out, all of biographic writers have a limitation in deeply and lively describing their objects. Because they have never served their objects, they have no chance to observe them closely. Also they have done a lot of research, but the inherent defect is that they don’t really know their objects’ personality and psychology. They don’t know their objects’ courtyard operations; their objects’ retainers, and the relationship between their objects, their objects’ retainers and the government officials.

Dr. Zhisui Li’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao did not portray Chairman Mao as a bloodthirsty monster and a bloody mass murderer; instead of that, it focused on details of Chairman Mao’s personality, psychology and his courtyard operation. Owing to Dr. Zhisui Li’s position, it made him as so called: inside man. He could know a lot of Chairman Mao’s important information that an outsider could not know. Even Chairman Mao’s former public health minister told Dr. Li to come see him anytime if Dr. Li wanted to tell him about any of Chairman Mao’s activities. In the same way, Chairman Mao’s former chief commanding officer of guards also was available to Dr. Li with no appointment.

The deepest impression for me about Dr. Li’s book is the Chairman Mao’s courtyard and his retainers. Chairman Mao’s medical doctor, chief commanding officer of guards and secretaries comprised his retainers. They were called “Group One”. Chairman Mao’s retainers formed a powerful and vicious retainer circle. Their power was even above party officials. The party officials were not servants of people. Instead they were servants of Chairman Mao. They cared for Chairman Mao’s retainers a lot of more than they cared for people. The gossip of those retainers could cause party officials a serious trouble. People were powerless and ignored. The party officials entertained Chairman Mao’s retainers with the best Chinese whiskey and the best Chinese cuisine while the Chinese commoners had a little of meat to eat. During the starvation period of the Great Famine, Chairman Mao even stopped eating meat. But his retainers flaunted the banner of celebrating Chairman Mao’s birthday, and required the local party officials to hold a grand dinner party for them. The dinner fulfilled the best Chinese cuisine, seafood, and the best Chinese whiskey, wine, beer. The party was in the name of celebrating Chairman Mao’s birthday, but Chairman Mao didn’t even attend. Dr. Li found it very hard to swallow that tasty food. However his colleague exhorted Dr. Li, saying that unless he wanted to leave “Group One”, he had better wallow in the mire with them. Some party officials even colluded with some of Mao’s retainers making a fraud deal in secret. The fraud deal deceived party treasurers by saying that Chairman Mao ate more than one thousand chickens in three, four days. Actually, the party officials took chickens for their own meals. Chairman Mao even had never known it until he was dead.

The factions in Chairman Mao’s retainers circle were stricken by each other fiercely. Opponents attempted to topple their counter part desperately. A vicious atmosphere permeated daily life. Nobody felt safe. Chairman Mao’s wife was frequently involved in the factions’ conflicts. In this vicious atmosphere, even Chairman Mao himself suspected somebody of crawling on his bedroom roof at midnight. He did not trust any of his retainers. He even suspected that the swimming pool in his palace was poisoned.

Dr. Li’s dream to be a great neural surgeon became a surviving nightmare. Although Dr. Li wanted to avoid touching this vicious politics, he could not stay out from it. For survival he was forced to stay with one faction. Later, the factions’ grappling escalated to a cross line battle between the retainer circle and party officials, and eventually led to a palace coup after Chairman Mao was dead. Chairman Mao’s wife and her three colleagues were arrested. However, Dr. Li survived successfully.

I feel that Dr. Li portrayed the figure of Chairman Mao and his courtyard operation more close to the true Chinese history, what was really happened in China from 1949 to 1976. Compared to Dr. Li’s book, Chang and Halliday’s Mao, Unknown Story seems pale.

Brad Swanson said...

Dr. Li's book sounds fascinating. Thanks for your comments!