(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Mao: The Unknown Story focuses on the vast dark side of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung in Wade-Giles transliteration), the Chinese Communist leader who rose to power to rule a unified mainland China for twenty-seven years until his death in 1976. The authors passionately demonstrate that Mao was driven by selfish goals, quickly developed a penchant for brutality, and ruthlessly sought to achieve supreme power, often relying on bloody purges. With considerable historical justification, the authors hold Mao responsible for the deaths of seventy million Chinese in peacetime.

At the end of 2005, Mao was still officially venerated in the People’s Republic of China, his portrait looming over Tiananmen Square and printed on China’s currency. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s book is a welcome antidote to the idea that history is written by the victors. In the West, for too long, lack of free access to mainland Chinese sources and archives and, until 1989, those of the former Soviet Union, led too many to rely on Mao’s propaganda machine in order to form a somewhat benign picture of the man. While his responsibility for the murderous Great Famine of 1958-1961, which killed approximately thirty-five million people, and his reveling in the carnage of the Cultural Revolution has generally been acknowledged, the true nature of his rule and personality has still been often glossed over. After reading Mao, one hopes that any lingering affection for Mao and Maoism can be duly extinguished.

Mao begins by debunking the myth that its subject came from poor peasants and had a lifelong sympathy for their harsh lot. Mao’s father, Mao Yichang (Mao Yi-chang), through hard work became one of the richest men of his village, one of the kind his son would later exhort his followers to murder. His privileged start in life enabled young Mao to study during the heady days when China became a republic in 1912. Still, Mao showed no liking of the peasants. In a surviving essay of 1917-1918, the year of the Russian Revolution when he turned twenty-four, Mao wrote that “there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me.” Envisioning himself as a kind of Nietzschean superhuman, he claimed for himself the right to stand above all morality and ethics. Chillingly enough, Mao proves, he would live up to his student-day vision of himself, at the cost of millions of Chinese lives.

With postrevolutionary China still in turmoil, in June, 1920, Mao met a professor in Shanghai who would become a founder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after Mao had left the town. Typical for Mao’s later forgery of the historical record, the founding of the CCP was officially dated forward to 1921, when Mao was part of its first congress. What further lured Mao to the party, Mao argues, was a generous Soviet stipend for its leaders. In turn, Mao proved exceedingly loyal to Moscow’s line, got to live with his new wife in a house with servants, and ousted all those who opposed his local rule, relying on friends to do the operative party work. As Chang and Halliday prove, this set the pattern for his early party career.

Rather free from ideological concerns, Mao shows its subject frequently shifting course to gain maximal power among the Communists. A rural tour of rebellious Hunan countryside in March, 1927, awakened in Mao a lifelong lust for blood. In his unpublished report of the tour, deposited in the CCP Archive Study Office and CCP Hunan Committee, he wrote feeling a “kind of ecstasy” at the sight of extrajudicial killings and torture of the peasant victims, calling this “wonderful” and authorizing further murders. Executions would remain a lifelong passion of Mao.

Mao’s opportunity to engage in more atrocities began after April, 1927, when the leader of the Nationalists, Chiang Kai-shek, attacked the Communists. In October, 1927, Mao joined mountain bandits with his Communists, took a new wife, and terrorized the area under his control for fifteen months. In the following years, the authors paint a devastating picture of a man, now in his thirties, placing his own power above everything else, scheming to amass more troops and not even stopping at sacrificing his former wife, who was executed by the Nationalists.

In his quickly expanding area of control Mao instigated the first of his famous bloody purges in November, 1930. He used Communist terminology to justify torture and mass killings of those he saw as blocking his path to...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 102, no. 1 (September 1, 2005): 47.

The Economist 375 (May 28, 2005): 83.

Foreign Affairs 84, no. 6 (November/December, 2005): 153-154.

Maclean’s 188 (October 31, 2005): 52-53.

The New Leader 88, no. 5 (September/October, 2005): 24-26.

The New York Review of Books 52, no. 17 (November 3, 2005): 23-24.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (October 23, 2005): 1-11.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 35 (September 5, 2005): 51.

Time 166, no. 18 (October 31, 2005): 82.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 22, 2005, pp. 22-23.