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Classic review: Mao: The Unknown Story

An exhaustively researched biography offers surprising revisions to Chinese history.

By / August 2, 2009



[The Monitor sometimes reprints material from its archives. This book review originally ran on Oct. 18, 2005.] It is hard to single out the most chilling aspect of Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Changand Jon Halliday. To dive into this hefty new biography of China's "great Helmsman" is to feel alternately shocked, angry, and, finally, just plain sick at heart.

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The story of man's inhumanity to man is, of course, not new and much about Mao's life is already familiar to readers.

But the level of detail offered by this exhaustively researched book (the labor of more than a decade for novelist Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday) creates a compelling portrait of Mao that will still shock many, as will a handful of revelations.

The whole of the former chairman's life is covered in this book, beginning with his birth to a peasant family in 1893 (in hills so remote that when the Chinese emperor died in 1908, it took two years for news of his death to arrive there) up through his frustrated and self-pitying final days in 1976.

In between, the authors offer a thorough analysis of Mao's rise to power, his actual achievements (or lack thereof) as a military man, the relentlessness (and cruelty) with which he strove to push China to world domination, and the endless and ruthless scheming he resorted to in order to retain power.

Chang and Halliday are able to offer a remarkable level of detail throughout their narrative, due to the impressive breadth and depth of the primary sources they tapped. (A short list includes former US Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, present and former communist dignitaries and officials throughout the world, one of Mao's official photographers, one of his translators, one of his nurses, a woman who washed his underwear, and the Dalai Lama.)

The result is a portrait that may rattle even those who long ago shed any vestige of reverence for Mao. This man who was a hero to many and a god to some comes across as lazy, callous, self-indulgent, clever rather than wise, and as careless of his own children as he was of the Chinese people.

Mao's seeming indifference to the suffering of others is perhaps the hardest aspect to grasp, although Chang and Halliday do a good job of offering a context for his lack of feeling.

Views he expressed at the age of 24, they say, "remained at the core of Mao's thinking throughout his life," and, even as a young man, Mao's egotism was shocking.

Was this because he was coddled by a gentle mother and then angered by the demands of his father? The authors don't try to blame Mao's crimes on his childhood.

But they do offer us his youthful words, statements like, "People like me have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people."

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