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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

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

832 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0679422716

Mao: The Unknown Story is simply breathtaking in its scope and details. I already knew more than a little about Chinese history when I first opened it (and, indeed, have reviews other books about Mao on this blog), yet I had no idea about the depths of Mao duplicity in every single aspect and facet of his life. The authors – the husband and wife team of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday – have been accused by other (supposedly respectable) reviewers of representing their opinions as facts, but this just isn’t so: when they speculate, they freely admit it, and then prop up their speculations with facts and, in some cases, eyewitness testimony.

Mao Tse-tung was utterly loathsome. Every aspect of his personal life was bizarre and perverse, from his personal hygiene to his collection of nurse-concubines, to his “longevity program” in which he demanded a teenage virgin be brought to his bed every night. He called for murders and executions, engaged the entire country in a mad, destructive effort to produce steel from pots, pans and scraps, ruined agricultural production and caused a famine (this is without dispute, only the numbers dead are disputed – 1 million or 30 million – low figure or high, it was still horrible), exported food as people starved, built up then ruined the public education system, burnt books, encouraged gangs who harassed and punished teachers, tried to destroy the country’s cultural inheritance, tore down historic buildings and monuments, suppressed science, persecuted the veteran Communists who had brought about his victory, and tried to supplant Western medicine with the “great storehouse of Chinese medicine”.

But what of the good he did? We're told by his apologists that he united China. Well, all the best despots are uniters, aren’t they? Hitler could be said to have united Western Europe, at least for a time. Stalin united the countries of the Soviet Union, and later those of Eastern Europe. Tito united Yugoslavia, and Saddam united Iraq. Is being a “uniter” enough to justify the rest? We’re also told he thwarted foreign occupation or control of any part of China, but did he? Colonization was well on the wane by 1949. Japan was in ruins. Britain had given up India. The Dutch had released Indonesia. The United States had provided the Philippines with its independence, and the zeitgeist of the post war world, led by the United States, was to free colonies. No one wanted a piece of China any more. We’re told that lifespan and literacy increased under Mao. Perhaps so; perhaps not; Communists were not scrupulous in maintaining records. If literacy and lifespan did increase, Mao had little to do with it. Peace has its dividends, including longer life and better education. After 20 years of better schooling, Mao disrupted everything with the Cultural Revolution and set China back, especially Chinese science and industry. It was only with his death and the arrest of the Gang of Four that China came right once more and began to progress rapidly.

This magnificent book is not without its blemishes; for instance, there is no discussion of the quality of the sources or how they were used, and the motives of people in general – and of Mao in particular – are asserted rather than evaluated (also, there is no introduction or concluding chapter to bring together the key themes of the book; a small complaint, perhaps, but a giant irritant). Nevertheless, Mao: The Unknown Story a stupendous work and one hopes that it will be brought before the Chinese people, who still claim to venerate the man and who have yet to come to terms with their own history, even as they require others to do so.

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