A big red book of China's leader

MAO: A LIFE By Philip Short Henry Holt 768 pp., $37.50

It might be impossible to paint in a one-volume biography the study in contrasts that was Chairman Mao Zedong and the spectrum of ways he changed the most populous nation.

In "Mao: A Life," Philip Short sketches out the minute details of Mao's military and political campaigns, but he often fails to paint the larger picture of Mao's growing megalomania or illustrate why the leader succeeded for a time but ultimately failed to mold China in his image.

Mao was a mix of George Washington and Josef Stalin: The Chinese leader helped expel invading armies and unify his country, but also terrorized the masses through a steady series of violent purges.

In his stated drive to create an egalitarian utopia, Mao wiped out millions of landlords, sent hundreds of thousands of intellectuals to prison camps, and later turned his terror tactics on his fellow revolutionaries.

As Mao grew up, he saw China's last emperor toppled, a string of military strongmen take control of the ruling Nationalist Party, and a scattering of provincial warlords carve out personal fiefdoms across the country.

After a century of foreign invasions, rebellions, and corrupt Nationalist leadership, most Chinese cheered the victory of Mao's Red Army in the civil war. Peasants welcomed the promised end of overbearing landlords, workers expected to be freed from sweatshop factories, and intellectuals hoped the new peace could pave the way for China to rebuild itself as a great civilization and power.

But as Mao nationalized farmland, residences, and businesses, his Communist Party became China's only landlord and factory boss; countless scholars who enlisted in Mao's master plan to transform China were later labeled "counter-revolutionaries" and jailed.

As Mao's power grew, so did his personality cult. And although Mao often depicted himself as the eternal rebel against authority, his primary role model was Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China, who unified the Middle Kingdom in 221 BC by crushing rivals on the battlefield, burning heterodox writings, and burying dissenting scholars alive.

Short's biography painstakingly chronicles Mao's rise on the battlefields of the Chinese civil war and the country's later descent into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, the last decade of his rule.

Mao raised a "cultural revolutionary army" of radical youths to attack everyone from his political rivals in the party to Buddhist monks, Western-trained artists and thinkers, and Confucian scholars. Temples and churches were razed with the ostensible goal of creating a pure communist society free of religion and classes. Instead, armed class struggle spread like wildfire across China as hundreds of millions were forced to pay homage to ubiquitous portraits and statues of Mao, just as their forebears had engaged in emperor worship.

In outlining Mao's myriad masks, Short relies on a wide array of Chinese research and Western writings on the chairman. He spent seven years writing his book, and he meticulously footnotes references to a whole range of previous works. But his "Mao" lacks the drama, rich reservoirs of inside information, and flair for capturing China's changing Zeitgeist that helped make a bestseller of the 1994 book "The Private Life of Chairman Mao," co-written by Mao's doctor, Li Zhisui, and US China scholar Anne Thurston. Short's carefully constructed, 700-plus page tome is probably aimed at scholars and students of China rather than the general public, and it's unlikely to repeat the strange success of "The Private Life."

Perhaps the most fascinating section of Short's book is its epilogue, which reads like a high-speed video of post-Mao China: Mao's wife and three other party rulers are put on trial for leading the Cultural Revolution as Mao's successors rapidly jettison the chairman's radical economic policies and class-struggle movements.

But even as the seeds of a more capitalist, consumerist society are sown, Mao's body is entombed, emperor-like, in a vast mausoleum at the center of Tiananmen Square.

Beijing's leaders, some of them Mao's one-time victims, realize the founder of the communist dynasty must remain the cornerstone of socialist China. Any attempt to repudiate and remove that cornerstone could cause the entire collapse of party rule.

* Kevin Platt is the Monitor's Beijing correspondent.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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