(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Philip Short has been a journalist for the United Kingdom’s British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Associated Press, The Economist, Time magazine, and the London Times. The author of The Dragon and the Bear: Inside China and Russia Today (1982), a comparison of the Soviet Union after Joseph Stalin with China after Mao Zedong, Short is eminently qualified to write the life of Mao, one of the twentieth century’s most controversial figures.

Mao, born in 1893 to a prosperous peasant family in Hunan province, never entirely transcended his rural roots. After years of striving, he emerged as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party during the Long March of the 1930’s, and after World War II he led the party and its armies to victory over Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists. From that time until his death almost thirty years later he was the undisputed ruler of the world’s most populous state, dragging the overwhelmingly rural and backward China into the atomic age. In the process millions of Chinese died, either through the many political and social purges that characterized Mao’s reign or through ideologically misguided and disastrous policies and programs.

His youth was spent in an era of upheaval. The ruling Qing dynasty collapsed in the early twentieth century, in part because of its own corrupt incompetence, in part because China, in the distant past one of the world’s leading states, had fallen far behind the West and westernized Japan. New influences brought into doubt the traditional Confucian ideology that had long been the paradigm for Chinese society. The creation of the Chinese Republic in 1911 resulted in no immediate solution to China’s difficulties. As a result of World War I the Japanese increased their influence in China and regional warlords became the de facto rulers. Various possibilities were advanced to rectify China’s circumstances, including Marxism, established in Russia in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The Marxist road was not immediately obvious to Mao. His earliest education was Confucian, and he retained a fascination with Chinese history. His adoption of Marxism crystallized slowly, but by 1923 he was a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mao did not idealize his fellow citizens. In a revealing passage, he described the Chinese as “slavish in character and narrow-minded,” and he admired the first Chinese emperor of the third century b.c.e., who unified China through violent means, including the burning of books and manuscripts.

A countryman, Mao was initially intimidated by the urbanites of Beijing, and throughout his long life he distrusted intellectuals, perhaps a reflection of his own haphazard education. An additional complication was the Soviet Union’s long domination of the fledgling CCP. Initially most Chinese communists lacked a comprehensive knowledge of Marxism. The orthodox Marxist interpretation was that the urban working classes were to be the revolutionary vanguard, but China’s limited urban proletariat paled in comparison to its vast rural population. Mao argued that China’s communist revolution must be a peasant revolution and that the landlords were the class enemies, and as early as 1927 he claimed that at least some should be executed. His advocacy of a peasant revolution caused difficulties for Mao, resulting in his exclusion from the CCP leadership on occasion.

One of the strengths of Short’s Mao is the clear description it brings of the many convolutions that occurred within the CCP, its relations with the Soviet Union, and Mao’s own changing circumstances during the 1920’s and early 1930’s. One issue was the CCP’s relationship to the Guomindang, the party of Sun Yat-sen, which came under the control of Chiang Kai-Shek after Sun’s death in 1925. Under Soviet orders, the CCP and the Guomindang were to cooperate. Mao was a member of both, but it was an uneasy relationship that became violent in 1927 when Chiang attempted to crush the CCP. The CCP’s response was to establish its own military wing, famously captured in Mao’s comment that “political power is obtained out of the barrel of a gun,” although these were guns held by a trained army using guerrilla tactics, not by the masses of workers in spontaneous uprising. Mao’s position estranged him from party policy.

By the early 1930’s Mao’s advocacy of violence against landlords and other class enemies broadened to include violence against supposed enemies within the CCP. The “AB-tuan” purge resulted in “confessions” induced by torture and the subsequent suicides and executions of thousands of seemingly loyal communists, a phenomenon that would continue as long as Mao lived. The “Long March,” one of the central events of Chinese communist history, occurred in 1934-1935. Portrayed as an almost religious event, the march took place when the CCP deserted its bases in the south, escaped the Guomindang’s net, and established itself in the northern province of Shanxi. Out of the original eighty-six thousand, fewer than five thousand survived the march. The...

(The entire section is 2087 words.)