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Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan
(original date: August 2008)

This is one of a number of informal pieces originally produced for the CMRS Facebook page.
It is intended to provoke discussion and further investigation rather than as a formal scholarly submission.

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

It's a bit outside of the CMRS area, but I'd quite recommend this book — if not as a balanced scholarly text, as a great page-turner. Chang and Halliday are not dealing with big-picture history: the book offers a fairly straightforward narrative of specific events, with an emphasis on the various strategies by which Mao achieved his different policy goals and out-plotted myriad opponents and rivals. Nor does the book attempt an objective assessment of Mao and his reign. The Mao it presents displays a unique cunning (particularly when it comes to manipulating or outmaneuvering foes, both foreign and domestic) but is, in his essentials, an incredibly childish and not overly bright megalomaniac. (I found myself being reminded, again and again, of the famous Twilight Zone episode, "It's a Good Life," that deals with the disastrous whims of an all-powerful, monstrous little boy.) Repeatedly, his decisions are presented as the result of short-sighted, egotistical, often petulant impulses rather than any broader geopolitical vision or reflections on the future of China's people. As a result, while Chang and Halliday have received a good deal of praise (especially from professional pundits), a number of historians have been highly critical of their use of sources and their treatment of many key issues (especially, it strikes me, in their account of the earlier parts of Mao's career — you would have difficulty imaging, from most of their account, that Mao, e.g., was an accomplished and quite influential poet and prose stylist). All the same, I found this an interesting read, particularly amid the current agonizing in the media over various elements of Chinese political culture. (There are other interesting contemporary connections as well: you might compare, for example, the advice that Stalin offers Mao on how to handle Tibet (453) with what is currently going on between Russia and Georgia.) And the fact that so much of this text is based on interviews with various participants raises interesting questions about the use of such testimony in writing history.

In the end, though, there are elements of this book, and of the events it narrates, that will strike familiar chords with classicists. Most obvious, I suppose, are the connections between Mao's various attempts at social engineering and Plato's similar schemes (particularly the attitude toward literature, the arts, and traditional culture: you can readily understand why Karl Popper and many other 20th-century intellectuals were not fans of the Republic). But I found myself struck by other, less high-brow connections: for example, the various similarities in the representation — and self-representations — of tyrants. Compare, e.g., the image of the dawn in "The East is Red" ("The East is red, / The sun rises, / China has produced a Mao Tse-tung. / He seeks happiness for the people, / He is the people's great savior") and in the propaganda that attended Nero's ascension (as reflected, e.g., in the Apocolocyntosis and Calpurnius Siculus): like later writers on Nero's reign, Chang and Halliday make effective use of the discrepancy between such imagery and the realities of life under the regime. Compare as well the portrayal of various unpopular Roman emperors with Chang's and Halliday's portrait of Mao fiddling while the Cultural Revolution burns (526):

While suspects were being interrogated under torture, and while his old power base endured unprecedented suffering, Mao cavorted. The dancing still went on at Zhongnanhai with girls called in, some to share his large bed. To the tune of "the Pleasure-Seeking Dragon Flirts with the Phoenix," which was deemed "pornographic" by his own regime, and long banned, Mao danced on. One by one, as the days went by, his colleagues disappeared from the dance floor, either purged or simply having lost any appetite for fun. Eventually, Mao alone of the leaders still trod the floor.

(As you can see, both ira and studium are frequently on display in this text.) And if Messalina and Agrippina need company, compare the presentation of Madame Mao and the wife of Lin Bao (a key ally in Mao's reign) as sexually frustrated dragon ladies who seek "compensation and fulfillment in political scheming and persecution" (513). (Also interesting for the somewhat familiar notes they ring: Lin Bao's own peculiarities — acute fear of open tracts of water and of breezes — and Mao's aversion to bathing.) Tacitus need not fear for his legacy (!), although that is not to say that either Tacitus or Chang and Halliday are necessarily inaccurate in their portrayal of their subjects: that's what makes the study of tyrants so difficult, and so intriguing.

Again, I can't evaluate this text as a political biography, beyond its obvious biases and limitations, but if you're looking for a highly readable introduction to Mao's life and reign, and are willing to begin from the assumption that Mao was at heart a villain and a hypocrite, there is a good deal of use here to anyone interested in a variety of historiographical matters.

The book also serves as a useful reminder of how much the world has changed in the past 50 years. Just as it's difficult to imagine Roosevelt concealing his physical disability, or Kennedy his philandering, in the current age, one has a hard time seeing how a political leader these days could keep both the West and his/her own people in the dark about a famine that was killing up to 22 million people a year, as happened at the height of the Great Leap Forward — although the way much of the US media is operating these days might lead some to challenge me on this!


If you're looking for an intriguing companion piece to Chang and Halliday, try Ma Jian's Beijing Coma. This is a fictional work but one grounded in the same events and experiences. Jian takes essentially the same material and examines it through the prism of his fictional narrative in a manner that brings out the human costs and horrors of Mao's regime all the more starkly.

If anyone is interested in the ways in which the writing of history and the writing of fiction can intersect and complement one another, a study of these two works read in tandem would be really quite wonderful.

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