Mao: the unknown story, By Jung Chang & Jon Halliday

Too much hate, too little understanding

Frank McLynn
Sunday 05 June 2005 00:00
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The main facts about Mao-tse-tung are fairly well known: his peasant background in Hunan province, his humble beginning as a library assistant; his conversion to Communism at the age of 28; the establishment of the communist republic in Jiangxi province (south-east China) in 1931-34; the famous Long March to escape from Chiang-kai-shek's Nationalist forces in 1934 which relocated the Chinese communists to Shanxi province (north-west China); the resistance to both Chiang and the Japanese in 1937-45; the civil war with Chiang which resulted in Communist victory in 1949; the halcyon years of Chairman Mao and the disastrous liberal experiment of the "Hundred Flowers" in the 1950s; the failure of the "Great Leap Forward" in 1958-61 which may have resulted in the deaths of some 30 million peasants; the Sino-Soviet rift of the 1960s; the Mao-abetted period of anarchy during the "Cultural Revolution" of the late 1960s; the dramatic Sino-American rapprochement in 1972 and the Nixon-Mao summit; and the final, gloomy illness-strewn years. To anyone who knows nothing of all this, this new life of Mao might serve as a useful introductory primer. But for anyone else this attempt at a "groundbreaking biography" will be deeply problematical.

I imagine most people would accept it as axiomatic that a good biography (never mind a great one) of a towering political figure cannot be written from a stance of pure hatred. As we know from Jung Chang's Wild Swans, she suffered grievously during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. But that in itself does not establish one's credentials to be a Mao biographer. The problem with this book is that it is an 800-page polemic, along the lines of Christopher Hitchens' The Trial of Henry Kissinger, but unconscionably prolix, and a sustained polemic does not a biography make.

Let me make it clear that I fully share the authors' view that Mao was a monster, as were Hitler and Stalin. But, just as "Hitler was simply a madman" makes for poor history and unintelligent biography, so this one-sided rant leaves one with no understanding of modern China or its benighted helmsman. To write about Hitler effectively one must enter into his mental world (while condemning it) and provide a detailed social, economic and political context. This is the one thing Chang and Halliday never do when discussing Mao. He comes across as a posturing maniac, a crazed gangster, a hydrophobic, fundamentally stupid (though cunning), mouth-frothing sociopath. The authors cannot decide whether he was just incredibly lucky to have got so far or whether (in at least partial contradiction of their main thesis) he had a steel-trap political mind of Napoleonic calibre. But everything is one-dimensional. It is all Mao and his rages, Mao and his women, Mao and his rivals, Mao and Stalin, but never Chinese social structure or the analysis of the peasantry. Mao's (admittedly dotty) contribution to Marxist-Leninist theory - crucial for understanding the entire Third World notion of peasant revolution, as in Guevara, the Sendero Luminoso in Peru or the guerrillas in contemporary Nepal - is not even dealt with.

There is a lot of bad history in all senses in this volume. Bad not just in the methodological sense - calling the Japan of the 1930s "fascist" means nothing unless it is to be read as simply another emotive outburst - but also in the interpretive sense. Everything that can be construed as working in Mao's favour during his struggle with Chiang is freighted with a meaning it cannot bear, whether it is General George Marshal's visit to China in 1945-46 (the authors are meanspirited and misleading about Marshal and do not even mention Vinegar Joe Stilwell, another American general who saw right through Chiang) or Stalin's many vacillating interventions in Chinese affairs. There is, for example, an obvious contradiction between the widespread destruction of plant and material by the Soviet Union when it entered the war against Japan in its last days in 1945 - and which so angered Mao - and the assertion that only with Soviet help did Mao prevail in the civil war. On the Korean war the authors revive the old myth about "hordes" of Chinese swamping the American army and defeating them by sheer weight of numbers, which was simply propaganda put out by the Pentagon, embarrassed by the poor showing of the US Marine Corps. And who is their historical source for the Chinese "human waves"? Michael Caine. Come again? Yes, I do mean that Michael Caine, the movie actor, whose personal memories of the Korean War are given the status of holy writ.

But why bother with the tiresome discipline of historical research when you can make wild assertions buttressed by unknown or suspect oral sources that are (in the authors' recurrent mantra) "little known today". Maybe that is their gloss on Caine's "not a lot of people know that".

If you can believe that Chou-en-lai, the master diplomat who wowed everyone from Kissinger to Orson Welles, really was a hypermasochistic craven nonentity who played lickspittle and toady to Mao for no apparent reason (at least the authors do not suggest one), or are interested in the number of minor actresses Mao bedded, this book has a certain entertainment value. But it is neither serious history nor serious biography.

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