CDT Bookshelf: Geremie R. Barm√© comments on “Mao: The Unknown Story”

For the CDT Bookshelf, China Digital Times invites experts on China to recommend a book to CDT readers. This month, Geremie R. Barm√©, Professor, Division of Pacific and Asian History, Australian National University, comments on “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Alfred A. Knopf 2005. The following is a short excerpt from Barm√©’s review of the book. The full text, one of four reviews of the book by historians of modern China, will appear under the title ‘I’m so Ronree’ in The China Journal, no. 55, January 2006.

No One Left to Dance With

” Mao danced on. One by one, as the days went by, his colleagues disappeared from the dance floor, either purged or simply having lost any appetite for fun. Eventually, Mao alone of the leaders still trod the floor.”

The part of the book I like the most (although it sports a particularly ungainly title: ‘Nixon: the Red-baiter Baited’, pp.601-13), and one that sits most comfortably with the authors’ ohmigod style of prose, is that related to the clandestine Sino-American rapprochement. Here we have two autocrats”one effective, Mao Zedong, and the other, Richard Milhouse Nixon, a mere wannabe”and their cunning enablers, Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger”negotiating one of the most dramatic shifts in geopolitical relations. This is readable Real-politik, comic and grim in turn. The exchanges”all readily available in other sources”are delicious, and the devil dance between the North American superpower and the People’s Republic provide the observer with dialectical delight. It is also the part of the narrative on which I am least qualified to offer an informed opinion.

But when leaders meet sparks may fly. And in Chang-Halliday’s Mao we are presented with the Oriental Despot redux. Page after page Mao careens through plots, counter-plots, ploys, machinations and manipulations, whipping up in his wake his very own Sturm und Drang. The book provides the details of a cavalcade of horrors and lies, and the ‘take home message’ of the volume is clarion clear both on the first page of the narration, and in the numerous media interviews Chang Jung has given in relation to the book: “Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader” (p.3).

China becomes thereby something of a world leader in despotic atrocities. But I fear I detect in the sensationalist prose of this book the unmistakable stench of ‘competitive body counting’. There seems to be a certain Schadenfreude at work here, a sense reinforced by such utterly distasteful sentences as, “It was, it seems, a good day if the boss waived a few million deaths” (p.504). The horror, suffering and deaths of countless numbers of innocent (as well as not so innocent) people can literally shock the mind into numb incomprehension. Even in my personal experience, I well recall the mounting panic, frantic depression and emotional suffocation that I experienced as I encountered dozens of returnees from camps, schools and jails during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and heard them recount their tales of suffering, loss and death. The dudgeon of the authors of Mao: the Unknown Story seems to me to serve ill the memory of the victims of this wretched history, encouraging in the reader an unsettling and breezy lassitude in regard to the origins, scale and meaning of the repeated terrors and their impact on real people, families and communities, a history that still reverberates through the lives of Chinese people today.

See also:

More media coverage of Mao: The Unknown Story.

An excerpt from Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader by Geremie R. Barmé.

A review of Morning Sun, a documentary by Barmé about the Cultural Revolution.

The first chapter of Mao: the Unknown Story, via the New York Times.


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