CDT Bookshelf: Richard Baum recommends “Mao: The Unknown Story”

For the CDT Bookshelf, China Digital Times invites experts on China to recommend a book to CDT readers. This month, Richard Baum, Director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, recommends Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Jonathan Cape, 2005 (to be published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf in October).

Baum writes: There are enough controversial “juicy bits” in this book to keep historians busy for decades — as I’m sure they will be once the book hits the US market in October. I think it has to be taken very seriously as the most thoroughly researched and richly documented piece of synthetic scholarship yet to appear on the rise of Mao and the CCP. Yet at the same time, it remains frustratingly monochromatic in its dismissal of Mao as a ruthless, manipulative, backstabbing, blood-soaked bandit with no redeeming human qualities (renqing) whatsoever — a man who readily (and repeatedly) sent his own troops to certain slaughter, had his closest comrades tortured and killed, and displayed nothing but disdain for the peasants he professed to lead.

The last half of the book, covering the years from 1949 to Mao’s death, is in some ways less surprising (and less counter-intuitive) than the first half. There is, to be sure, a good deal of new material here, e.g., on the Korean War, showing (as had been suggested in other sources) that Mao was interested in keeping the war going in order to leverage major weapons transfers (including turnkey plants and the technology and blueprints needed to run them) from Stalin. And the authors’ account of the terrible years of 1959-61 is positively chilling in its portrait of Mao as a callous, indifferent tyrant. There are also new bits about the origins and development of Mao’s various vendettas against his erstwhile comrades, including Peng Dehuai, He Long, and Liu Shaoqi. While none of these revelations is entirely new, the amount of detail presented, along with new source materials, is breathtaking. Yet, for all its new micro-revelations, the last half of the book falters, as did the first half, over its monotonic macro-theme of Mao the power-mad pathologue. In my opinion, this is not a sufficiently rich or nuanced interpretive scaffolding to support the full weight of the Chinese experience under Mao. I only wish the authors had made a greater effort to let the facts speak for themselves, rather than freighting them at every turn with predictably harsh, lurid editorial commentaries. Yet for all that, this book will most likely change forever the way modern Chinese history is understood and taught. And it could have a devastating effect on mainland Chinese readers, many of whom will come away from secretly perusing their illicit copies with pulses pounding, asking themselves — and their friends — How much of this is true?

See also:

Perry Link’s review of the book in the Times Literary Supplement (via A Glimpse of the World blog).

An interview with Chang and Halliday in the Independent.

More on Mao: The Unknown Story.

September 5, 2005 8:37 AM
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Categories: CDT Bookshelf, Politics