Book review: The murderous thoughts of Chairman Mao

Mao: a life by Philip Short, (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 25)

WHAT, WERE he alive today, would Niccol Machiavelli make of Mao Tse-tung? On the one hand, the sharpest political theorist of them all would be lost in wonder at Mao's skills as an operator. On the other, the good citizen of Florence would surely be dismayed at the human cost that underpinned Mao's achievements, and the civic desuetude of his regime.

The demon prince? Philip Short, in this impressive and important biography, seems similarly divided in his opinion. The portrait he projects is of a blood-soaked visionary whose contradictory loyalties were whittled down until only a quasi-mystic idea of what China should become, and his own paramount power, mattered.

In his wake, Mao left more than between 20 and 40 million dead. Yet he also saved China from a national collapse that might have cost even more lives. It was against a background of murderous disintegration, wrought by generations of governmental misjudgement, Western predation, warlordism and Japanese conquest, that Mao forged a nation state. However much he based his Communist ideology on the nostrums of an assertive anti-imperialism, Mao conformed to the deep imperial pattern of Chinese history. Since the overthrow of the Shang by the Zhou in the 11th century BC, each successive dynasty depended on the strengths, talents and flexibility of the new strongman.

Within the Communist dynasty that has ruled since 1949, we may discern the same process. In Deng Xiaoping, the Communist Party and China were fortunate to be led by an individual strong enough to moderate his predecessor's excesses, and allow the Chinese people once again to express their entrepreneurial flair. In Jiang Zemin, too, the governance of China finds itself entrusted to a safe pair of hands. But Mao was the great, primordial instigator.

Mao: a life chronicles, with admirable clarity, the birth of the latest of China's ruling houses. In so far as, from 1936 until his death in 1976, the fortunes of Communism and the fortunes of Mao himself were the same, Short delivers a comprehensive political narrative. Fortified by his previous incarnation as BBC Peking correspondent, and unprecedented access, he threads his way through the Byzantine palace intrigues that form the context to such experiments as the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Great Leap Forward.

In each, Mao is revealed as the consummate puppeteer, well able to shift the blame when things went wrong. In each, too, Mao used policy to control, then incapacitate, would-be pretenders to the throne. He was most dangerous when against the ropes.

Although Short ducks the vexed question of the precise extent of Mao's partial eclipse in the early Sixties, he shows more convincingly than any previous commentary how Mao subsequently contrived to circumvent the Politburo by assembling an alternative power base made up of the security apparatus, the army and the media. At the age of 73, with his statecraft honed, Mao launched his last great cataclysm: the Cultural Revolution.

Short is equally illuminating about Mao's ascent to power. We learn that his hated father was just the sort of well-to-do peasant who fared so badly under collectivisation; that anarchism preceded Marxism in Mao's ideological allegiances; and that, in his first dozen years as a Communist, he was demoted six times.

We also learn the circumstances, mid-way through the Long March, in which Mao imposed his will on a crippled cause. Conversely, Mao's contribution to military tactics is skimmed, as is China's emergent role in world politics. China's two most troublesome provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang, suffer neglect, even apropos Mao's rapprochement with Washington in 1972.

"A final verdict on Mao's place in the annals of his country's past," Short concludes, "is still a very long way off." On the contrary; that place is absolutely assured. The legitimate doubts concern his wider, historic moral stature. The same, though, applies to Alexander and Napoleon. It is by virtue of having propelled China into the same shifting global arena that Mao invites such comparisons.

Justin Wintle

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower