Jung Chang: Of gods and monsters

Jung Chang's Wild Swans was an international bestseller. Now, with her husband, Jon Halliday, she's written a biography of Mao. Julie Wheelwright meets them
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The Independent Culture

Jung Chang squeezes her hands between her knees, her face tilted upwards, her lips parted in a smile. She is remembering with tangible pleasure the research for her long-awaited biography of Mao Tse-Tung, co-written with her husband Jon Halliday. "It's taken us ten years and it was constant excitement," she tells me over tea at her sumptuous family home in Notting Hill. The book is a powerful follow-up to Wild Swans, her bestselling memoir about growing up under Mao's regime.

Jung Chang squeezes her hands between her knees, her face tilted upwards, her lips parted in a smile. She is remembering with tangible pleasure the research for her long-awaited biography of Mao Tse-Tung, co-written with her husband Jon Halliday. "It's taken us ten years and it was constant excitement," she tells me over tea at her sumptuous family home in Notting Hill. The book is a powerful follow-up to Wild Swans, her bestselling memoir about growing up under Mao's regime.

Chang and Halliday's biography, Mao: the Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape, £25) is not so much about toppling the myth of Mao as the benevolent creator of modern China, as setting it aflame. Based on painstaking and often dangerous work in archives in places ranging from Albania to Washington, the book uses sources they have unearthed that reveal Mao as a psychopathic leader, responsible for the deaths of 70 million, and driven by a hunger for power. "I was constantly shocked by how evil he could be," says Chang. "Mao was very, very shrewd but he didn't have human feeling."

Among the more remarkable finds are details about Mao's callous treatment of his former wives and his children. His third wife was forced to give away four of her children and died after years of mental anguish while Yang Kai-Hui, his second, was executed by the Nationalists in 1930. Chang was able to use a cache of newly-discovered letters that Yang Kai-Hui had hidden behind a roof beam before she was imprisoned. Mao had abandoned his family three years earlier to coach his first army, and had wed his third wife barely four months later.

Kai-Hui's letters, the last of which only came to light in 1999, are still considered so sensitive, says Chang, that even Mao's surviving family have not seen them. The letters are full of Kai-Hui's devastating longing for Mao and her anger at his desertion of their family. But they also reveal that Kai-Hui, who had been drawn to the ideals of communism, was losing her faith in the cause because of Mao's insistence on killing off his opposition.

Through the help of friends, Chang was able to look at the final pages that Kui-Hui had written before her death. "I was not allowed to take notes but my friend and I memorised those two and a half pages," she says. Subtle pressure was also exerted on those who agreed to be interviewed for the book in China, where Wild Swans is still banned. But the government's warning to a small circle of people who knew Mao that they should not talk to Chang backfired. "Most people talked to me because of the warning," she says. "They knew this book was not going to be the official line. China is changing and people are now taking precautions rather than living in fear." So over cups of tea in steaming cafes, people talked quite openly. "People were just dying to spill the beans."

Ironically, given the years of enforced "self-criticism" sessions that Chang remembers with a shiver, the book gave many a chance finally to speak the bitter truth about life under Mao. Witnesses give heart-wrenching accounts of daily horrors: a loyal Communist couple sell their children to raise party funds; a woman goes into labour on the Long March and is forced to walk with her baby's head hanging between her legs; starving peasants resort to cannibalism.

Neatly juxtaposed are the stories of Mao's personal servants, interpreters, bodyguards, doctors and girlfriends. They reveal his opulent lifestyle. A special fish was couriered live over 1,000 kilometres in a plastic bag because Mao hated to eat it frozen. His rice came from special spring-fed waters and, since he hated baths, his servants rubbed him every day with hot towels. In 1953, a special troupe was formed of attractive young women whose main function was to service Mao sexually.

And during the late 1950s, while Mao relaxed in one of his many villas, people across China worked 20-hour days and died of hunger. "While I was writing Wild Swans I thought the famine was the result of economic mismanagement but during the research I realised that it was something more sinister," says Chang. Archives in China and Moscow revealed that Mao knew his policy of maximum extraction of food for export would cause millions to die. What had at first seemed mad, says Chang, took on a chilling clarity. Mao wanted to achieve greatness and terror was the means to that end.

Mao was deeply influenced by Fredrick Paulsen, a minor German philosopher who shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty. He put his theories into practice during the Long March and in Yenan, the Communists' first headquarters in China. The great social experiment and the Communists' opposition to Japanese military invasion attracted many young idealists - like Chang's father - who wanted to dedicate their lives to the cause. "But when they came to Yenan, they were shattered because there was no equality; food was graded, clothing was graded," says Chang, her voice rising with her passion.

The clearest demonstration of the party working like a well-oiled machine came during the Cultural Revolution. Millions of party officials, teachers and writers were abused by Mao's Red Guards in a massive campaign of terror. But Chang and Halliday have solved the mystery of Mao's motives for igniting this campaign: it was a simple case of revenge.

The official Chinese history is that after the "Conference of the Seven Thousand" in 1962, Mao came to his senses, realised his Great Leap Forward policies weren't working and ended the food exports that caused the famine. "What we discovered was that it wasn't at all voluntary," says Chang. "He wanted a continuous Leap but his number two, Liao Shao-chi ambushed him, outsmarted him." Liao won over the party delegates, and forced Mao to change his mind.

Mao's fury led to a plan which would see him extracting revenge on all those party administrators and especially on Liao. Chang's family personally suffered during this period when her father was forced to leave his teaching job, denounced and taken into "protective custody" where he underwent torture. "Doing this book didn't shock me at a personal level," says Chang. "I was no longer haunted by the past and I can honestly say that revenge is not in my nature." Instead Chang, the former Red Guard, says she wrote it to try and understand Mao and his motivations.

When our tea has grown cold, Chang introduces me to Jon Halliday, who did the Russian research for the book and was her co-writer. Halliday says many of the book's revelations came from formerly classified books about China, written for the Soviet inner sanctum. "About six or seven were an absolute gold mine," he says. "In there, you could see the incredible closeness of the relationship between the Soviets and China."

Contrary to the perceived idea that Stalin disapproved of Mao, Halliday says these documents revealed that the Soviet leader had talent-spotted his Chinese counterpart and nurtured his power-base from the 1920s. "Mao always perpetuated the myth that he'd risen to power without help from the Russians. But he was the one that the Russians were pushing and protecting." The material Halliday unearthed on four trips to Moscow was so extraordinary, he remembers leaving the archives at 4pm every day, bathed in sweat.

The biggest challenge was piecing together the vast amount of material that Chang had gathered in China with Halliday's Russian research. "Jung would find riveting stuff and I'd say, 'I saw something in an archive,' but I'd have to wait until I went back to Russia to find it." Then began a process of drafting and redrafting - their version of the Long March.

The couple's greatest ambition for the book is that it will be read in China where Mao is still venerated as a great revolutionary hero and children are taught only the official history. Now they will learn that, as Chang wrote in 2003, "we were not treated by our own government as proper human beings and consequently, some outsiders did not regard us as the same kind of humans as themselves."

Biography: Jung Chang

Jung Chang was born in Sichuan province in 1952 to parents who were both committed communists. As a child who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, she was briefly a Red Guard, a "barefoot doctor", a steelworker and an electrician before she went on to study English at Sichuan University. Chang left China in 1978 to study at York University where she became the first person from the People's Republic of China to receive a PhD in Britain. Wild Swans, her family memoir published in 1992, has sold more than 10 million copies, translated into 30 languages, but is still banned in China. She met her husband Jon Halliday, a Russian historian who was a former Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King's College, University of London, while she was teaching. Halliday is the author of a biography on the film-maker Douglas Sirk and has written and edited seven other books. They live in Notting Hill, west London and their book Mao: the Unknown Story is published this week by Jonathan Cape.