Classic review: Mao: The Unknown Story
An exhaustively researched biography offers surprising revisions to Chinese history.
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Mao must have firmly believed this. There is little else that could explain his tranquility in the face of the suffering triggered by his policies. Jung and Halliday estimate that he caused the deaths of 70 million Chinese.Skip to next paragraph
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"There are 2.7 billion people in the world," he once calculated at a world summit with other Communist leaders. "One-third could be lost; or a little more, it could be half ... I say that, taking the extreme situation half dies, half lives, but imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist."
Yet despite his willingness to sacrifice others, Mao is not portrayed as a particularly devout believer. Chang and Halliday paint him as a pragmatist who simply found himself in the right place at the right time.
The biggest surprise in the book is probably its reexamination of Mao's role in the Long March. Chang and Halliday make a compelling case that Mao succeeded here through no heroism of his own but rather largely because Chiang Kai-Shek chose to allow the Red Army safe passage.
There is much that is painful to read in this book, but perhaps the harshest chapters are those that deal with the starvation of the Chinese people in the 1950s. Mao's determination to push his country toward industrialization (and to curry favor with other Socialist nations by offering generous food aid) came at a horrific price to his people.
Chinese government figures show that by 1960, the average Chinese was eating about 1,500 calories a day - a diet equivalent to that of slave-laborers at Auschwitz.
Yet while his people starved, Mao feasted on specialty foods, responding to stories of peasant suffering with statements like: "Having only tree leaves to eat? So be it." and " 'Oh, peasants' lives are so hard' - the end of the world! I have never thought so."
Compelling as its narrative is, this book has its flaws. For one thing, the repulsion its authors feel for Mao is too clearly on display, evident in tone and occasional descriptors like "the beady Mao."
Unsourced statements sometimes seem dubious, including claims like, "There was not one school in the whole of China where atrocities did not occur." It's hard to accept unattributed absolutes about a country so vast.
And emotional states are sometimes presented as givens. "The plain fact was that Mao could not stand his wife," they write of Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, the infamous Mme. Mao, but then offer nothing more than speculation as to the state of Mao's feelings.
But such shortcomings don't change the fact that this is an extremely compelling read even for those only casually interested in Mao - and a necessity for anyone hungry for more.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.