Mao: The Unknown Story – A Book Review

Originally appeared on May 3, 2011 on Barking Book Reviews.

Carrying (Historically Accurate?) Pictures of Chairman Mao

It Might Not Be a Hatchet Job, But Amidst the Axe Grinding Historical Context Goes Missing

Where to begin a review of Mao: The Unknown Story? I guess by starting off by refuting some of its critics who claim that it is a hatchet job.

First off, the book’s authors definitely have an axe to grind, and considering that one of them, Jung Chang, suffered through China’s Cultural Revolution, it is difficult to blame her. It is certainly true that this work can make no claim to being unbiased, but on the other hand, it cannot legitimately be called a hatchet job in any real sense. The term “hatchet job” implies that the author or authors of said job have set out to spin something about their subject that isn’t true; Mao is nothing if not meticulously and exhaustively researched.

The book goes to great pains to establish Mao’s culpability in many needless deaths, from the early days of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and its battles with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists through the founding of Communist China to the Great Leap Forward and finally the Cultural Revolution. While I can’t claim to be a historical scholar, I have not seen anyone else refute the facts and historical data Mao’s authors have so painstakingly compiled.* On rare occasions they do stray into innuendo, such as implying that Mao was the progenitor of the idea for the Berlin Wall (they do their best and establish that it is not beyond the realm of possibility, but it seems a bit of a stretch at best, especially given the history of East Germany and the Communist rulers there).

But this is an exception rather than the rule. In fact, sometimes the book is downright overwhelming in the amount of data the authors provide in establishing the aforementioned culpability of Mao.

But the book is not without its other flaws. While the book is a scholarly work, at times it becomes overwhelmingly so, getting monotonous in its level of detail and scholarly tone. It reminded me of history professors who would lecture endlessly about dates and facts, rarely returning to what is important, the historical context of said facts and figures. While this is the exception rather than the rule in Mao, it is not an infrequent occurrence. Those expecting the prose of author Jung Chang’s other notable work, Wild Swans of China, may be disappointed. Which leads me to my principal criticism of the work: Mao rarely is about Mao; rather it is about what he did. It goes to great lengths to establish what Mao did and did not do, but rarely delves into why he did what he did. Mao only scratches the surface of Mao’s psyche and his motivations.

It Begs The Question: Why? Why Did Mao Do What He Did?

Chairman Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in October, 1949.

We learn that Mao thirsted for power, and basically much of what he did was not out of some dedicated belief in collectivism, but rather initially to get a cushy job, and eventually to consolidate and hold his power over China and its people. But we don’t learn why Mao thirsted for power, we only get cursory early discussions about his peasant birth and upbringing. We do learn that apparently for Mao, violence was a means to an end, not an end in and of itself; it seems like most of the deaths attributable to Mao’s reign came about simply because he wanted to be the undisputed ruler of a world power, and the Chinese people were simply a means to that end.

But that’s about all we learn about Mao’s motivations. This glaring lack became somewhat disconcerting for me, as I neared the end of this epic tome, and realized that I was never going to get a satisfactory answer to that question from this book. I felt a little cheated, quite frankly, because that was the principal reason I read it.

I spent a month traveling all over China in October 2005 for work, and came away with, among many other things, the need to understand modern Chinese history – because it was clear to me that Mao’s ghost still lingers in China, even as the country continues to become more open to the West. Like someone who was abused as a child still bears the psychological scars as an adult, China still bears the scars of Mao’s reign today, even as it is in the process of emerging from that reign as a global economic center and a world power (rather ironic, considering Mao’s personal vision). And also like an abused child and her abusive parent, modern China’s relationship with Chairman Mao is … complex, shall we say.

I remember having a conversation with a young Chinese architect, one who had studied in the United States and had an excellent command of English. He voiced a sentiment that I heard often from people, even when we were speaking in private: Mao was a terrible politician, and what happened during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution was horrible, but he was nevertheless was a great military leader and a great man, having unified China at a time when it needed it, and helped usher it, for good or ill, into modern times.

For us in the West, it is hard to swallow that view; those that know history equate Mao with Stalin and his purges and labor camps, with Hitler and his Gestapo and concentration camps. It is easy to write this off as propaganda and brainwashing, and to a certain extent it likely is. The cult of Mao still persists to this day, that much is clearly evident.

But after having spent some time there among its people – I can’t help but believe there is more to it than that. Understanding Mao and his legacy and how Chinese youth view him today I think is a critical component to understanding Chinese culture. The Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic; this is one of the main reasons I believe they have been able to come so far so relatively fast after Mao’s death, courting capitalism and Western industry even as the government retains near totalitarian authority and control of speech (as a Chinese friend once told me, the Chinese have free speech, just not freedom of the press – this is a uniquely Chinese way to see things).

While many people inside and outside of the country no doubt share the same view of Mao as the authors of Mao do – and rightfully so — others nevertheless revere him as the father of modern China, even while acknowledging the horrors that occurred under his rule. Again, the Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic, but I don’t think that goes far enough in explaining modern day China. After all, this is a culture that is thousands of years old.

Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and co-author of Mao: The Unknown Story.

I think to understand China it is necessary to understand the legacy that Mao Zedong has left behind. In that sense, Mao perhaps leaves something to be desired. But having said that, the book is based on an incredible amount of research, and is quite illuminating in that respect; I would challenge any Mao supporters or apologists to refute the author’s research. This, if no other reason, makes the book an important work, to say the least, and well worth a reading.

And perhaps it is not so difficult to understand, at least partially, the apparent dichotomy of Chinese reverence for Mao and abhorrence of the Cultural Revolution. After all, here in the United States, one of our greatest historical leaders, Andrew Jackson, graces our 20-dollar bill. His role in forming modern America is undeniable, and in some ways, he should hold America’s reverence.Yet this was a man who was one of the leading advocates of removing Native American Indians from their lands, an abhorrent practice if there ever was one. As president he signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not trying to equate Jackson with Mao (although it would be hard to blame Native Americans if they do). But in this context it is easy to understand how people can revere one aspect of a historical figure and revile another.

I doubt if there is any culture anywhere that reveres historical icons that could bear the scrutiny of hindsight and scholarly research and come away squeaky clean. But I digress.

Mao is worth the read for anyone interested in Chinese culture and modern history, in fact I would argue that it is critical, given the level of research that went into it, and for this its authors deserve much praise. In fact, there are all manner of fascinating historical tidbits to be gleaned from this book beyond China, namely about Stalinist Russia and the Nixon administration here in the United States. But be warned, Mao: The Untold Story is definitely not a fun or engrossing read.

* While looking for an author photo of Jung Chang, I checked out her Wikipedia page, since she doesn’t seem to have her own website, and there isn’t a photo of her at the Random House site, either; Random House being the publisher of her Mao bio. At Wikipedia there are actually a couple of citations of newspaper articles from Australia and the UK about the scholarly controversies over Mao, The Unknown Story that I hadn’t seen before, however.

Apparently there are more than a few Chinese scholars who take exception with some of the facts as portrayed by Chang and Halliday in The Unknown Story, or rather the context in which they are used (or lack of context, mayhap). I’d be curious to read those; because I’m still pondering over the legacy that Mao has left behind, namely his impact on modern Chinese culture. I really think it reverberates in many subtle ways that aren’t necessarily readily evident, yet nevertheless is expressed in such ways as to leave Westerners scratching their heads — such as Chinese citizens reaction to the recent demonstrations and crack-down in Tibet and elsewhere in Western China. Anyway, I’m sure Mao and China will be a subject I return to in the future, both in terms of reading and writing. And hopefully I’ll return to the country itself soon for a visit.