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.