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Books / eXile Classic / July 1, 2005
By John Dolan
Mao: the Unknown Story  by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

“Mao: the Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Random House 2005

When I watched the second Addams Family movie, I knew there’d be a “blockbuster biography” of Mao coming soon. The key scene comes as the Addams are trying to decide what to name their baby. Rejecting other, overexposed dictators like Stalin and Hitler, they pick “Mao.”

That was it, the writing on the sten-gazeta: time for some enterprising literary entrepreneur to grind out a big fat book showing us all what a monster the Great Helmsman really was.

Even so, it’s a shock to see how mechanically Jung Chang and her husband, Jon Halliday, have carried out their assignment — and how eagerly the reviewers have endorsed the product. Every critic from Santa Barbara to Glasgow has joined the “Down with Mao!” chant, waving this big green book in an elbow-destroying parody of the Red Guards who used to whack capitalist roaders with Mao’s little red one.

You don’t even need to read it to get the point. It’s all there in the first paragraph, with the book’s key claim awkwardly jammed into the first sentence: “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. He was born into a peasant family in a valley called Shaoshan, in the province of Hunan, in the heartland of China.”

If you know this sort of tweedy British bio, you expect the subject’s date and place to form the predicate of that first sentence, ie “Mao…was born into a peasant family…”. Instead, the claim about his death-toll shoves its way in, and the details of his birthdate and birthplace are delayed to the second sentence.

The key claim, “70 million dead,” is interestingly phrased. As the sentence makes clear, we’re in a competition for biggest death-toll: “…more than any other twentieth-century leader.” And the competition is being rigged in Mao’s favor (so to speak). First comes the qualifier “…in peacetime…” Hitler (and to a lesser extent, Stalin) did most of their killing in wartime, so this cleverly sinks their bids for biggest pile of skulls. And sticking to raw numbers — rather than, say, percentage of national population killed — ensures that Mao easily outdistances hardworking ethnocides unlucky enough to work with small nations, like that eager little Mao-wannabe, Pol Pot.

The book really is that simple. It wants you to believe that Mao was right up there with the big killers, and that he and his stooges were totally responsible for everything that went wrong in 20th-century China, from the military successes of the Japanese in the 1930s to the famines of the 1960s.

The fact that the authors are willing to warp their first paragraph so painfully to insert that claim makes me suspect that they don’t really expect most readers to read the rest. It’s a common design: an ideologically-charged claim which is backed by a huge mass of evidence the reader is not really required or expected to read.

Jung and her shadowy co-author have ruthlessly warped every other strand of their narrative to reinforce the key claim that Mao is to blame for everything. The biggest warp of all is their outrageous whitewash of pre-revolutionary China. If you’ve read Jung Chang’s bestseller, Wild Swans, you’ll be surprised to find her depicting early 20th-century China as a peaceful paradise. That’s not the way she told it when describing her grandmother’s life: her feet broken and bound at age 2, then sold as a sex slave to a local warlord.

The pre-revolutionary China Jung described in Wild Swans was the one you meet in every other reliable account: chaotic, cruel, a battleground for treacherous local warlords, with no rules extending beyond the family, and absolute submission to the patriarch’s whims within it.

That’s not the picture of China circa 1916 you get in this story. Instead Jung sketches a ridiculous image of tranquility, as happy countryfolk go about their business, ducking the occasional crossfire:

“The provinces were controlled by army strongmen…who became semi-independent warlords. Over the following decade, they fought spasmodic wars, which disrupted life in civilian life in combat zones. But otherwise the warlords left most people relatively unaffected.”

Since the 70 million deaths Jung attributes to Mao were almost entirely from famine, one might reasonably inquire how many Chinese died from famine under the benign neglect of the warlords and the real architects of China’s anarchy: the British Empire.

The horrors inflicted on China by the British in the 19th century are hard to exaggerate. Take the opium wars of the 1830s and 40s. The British produced a huge opium crop in their India colony and demanded the right to sell it in China. When the Qing Dynasty rulers, appalled at the speed with which addiction was spreading through China, attempted to stop the intentional addicting of their people, the British actually fought a war defending their right to peddle drugs at prices of their choice. British warships and soldiers acted as enforcers for self-righteous dealers. With a huge population of unproductive addicts and millions of families bankrupted by drug debts, the peasantry was in no shape to handle natural disasters. When rainfall failed in North China in the 1870s, tens of millions of Chinese peasants died — a much larger percentage of the population than under Mao. The official British line, first adopted during the Irish famine of the 1840s, was that no help at all should be provided to alleviate famine, because it might set a bad precedent and make the poor feel they were entitled to help.

The Empire’s argument was the same one Mao was to use in explaining the famines of the late 1950s and early 60s: it was all due to bad weather. But when you compare the effective famine relief offered by the Chinese rulers during earlier famines, such as the 1740s, when similar weather problems destroyed crops in the same areas of North China, it’s obvious that the 19th century famines were no more “natural” than those which depopulated huge areas of Ireland and India under the malign neglect of the Raj.

In this respect, it’s interesting that Jung and Halliday’s book has zoomed to #4 on Amazon.UK, but is only around 6,000th on Amazon’s US site. It’s hard to believe that British readers are really so desperate for 800 pages on modern Chinese history. It’s much more likely that there are a lot of Tories desperate for someone to shoulder the blame for yet another of the Empire’s crimes. The Tories know that a reckoning is coming at last for what they did to the tropics, and they’re staging preemptive strikes whenever possible.

For a hilarious recent example of the genre, see W. H. Deedes’ review of recent African history in — naturally — the Telegraph. It turns out, according to Professor Deedes, that it was losing the British Empire that doomed Africa! (“Don’t Blame It All on the West,” W. F. Deedes, Telegraph June 1 2005) At least Deedes managed to make his point in a page.

Jung and her husband — whose publications are few and strange, with no indication that he has any standing as a scholar of modern Chinese history — tell the same story over and over. And there are some disturbing lapses in accuracy, as in the assertion that there was “a KGB station already established in Shanghai” in Mao’s youth. Since the KGB didn’t exist at the time, I have my doubts on that one.

The vilification technique Jung uses on Mao is pure Lytton Strachey, as tweaked and updated by Paul Johnson: plenty of dirty detail about Mao’s nasty hygiene, lust, lack of compassion and laziness. God, those Thatcherites sure got a lot of mileage out of the bitchy bio Strachey invented in Eminent Victorians. The poor old sod would be miserable to find that the ideological heirs of his Victorian targets put his prose style to more use than he ever got out of it.

Some of the accusations are dubious, particularly Jung’s claim that Mao was lazy. He got a lot done, after all, but the authors insist on portraying him as a bookworm whose idea of a good time was lying in bed reading, occasionally ordering up a concubine to give his eyes a break. On behalf of lazy, self-indulgent book pigs everywhere, I was offended by the implication that there’s something wrong with this blissful life. What, are we supposed to admire workaholic, no-fun dictators like Stalin? If you’re going to rule a billion people, concubines and beds specially designed for reading seem like the least you could do for yourself. A little light reading, some sex, the occasional public humiliation and torture of former rivals — surely that’s what we all crave.

Mao’s love life comes in for a great deal of soap-opera treatment. He was a pig, no doubt, abandoning wife after wife, joking about how easy it was for Wife #3 to give birth in the middle of a battle during the Long March. But in the process of revealing the horror of the combat-zone birth, Jung does something that happens far too often in a biography which aspires to canonical status: she undermines a bigger historical claim in order to score wholly superfluous points on Mao. In this case, her bigger argument is that the entire legend of the Long March is a Mao-invented lie. There was little or no combat; Chiang let the Communists pass unhindered; the hardships were a myth.

Well, maybe…but the scene in which Madame Mao #3 has her head splattered with shrapnel is pretty convincing corroboration that it wasn’t exactly a drive to Disneyland.

Jung’s a good storyteller. I had no problem reading to the end of this one, and that’s impressive. But I don’t trust the book or its author at all. Jung’s hatred of Mao is perfectly reasonable, given the family history she told in the (much better) Wild Swans. But it disqualifies her as Mao biographer. What you take away from the book is that Mao was a rather amiable, lethal pig, something like a cross between Homer Simpson and the Leader in Dick’s story, “Faith of Our Fathers.” He was a strange man, with a gift for poetry and an obsession with death he seems to have cadged from decadent German philosophy texts he happened to stumble on, in translation. He liked talking about cataclysms — and making them happen.

But as the book settles in my memory, and I test it against what I know of pre-Mao China, it gets harder and harder to accept that Mao is what went wrong. Travelers’ accounts of China 400 years before Mao was born stress the huge number of corpses strewn about the countryside, the babies thrown in Peking’s canals every morning to be scooped up by special custodians.

Stalin was maybe the worst possible outcome for 20th-c. Russia but it’s not so easy to believe that Mao was the worst thing that could have happened to China.

This book is a triumph of timing. It needs to exist. It needs to be big and outraged, in order to fulfill its role as a preemptive defense for the Tories. And Lord, how they have climbed all over themselves to praise it. Simon Sebag Montefiore, who is perhaps the most vile reviewer on the planet (with honorable mention going to A. N. Wilson) has called Mao “…a triumph…a mesmerising portrait of tyranny, degeneracy, mass murder and promiscuity, a barrage of revisionistbombshells, and a superb piece of research.” If Simon likes it, beware — be very, very ware.

John Dolan is the author of the novel Pleasant Hell. To order see our homepage or look the book up.

This article was published in issue #217 of The eXile in July 2005.

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1 Comment

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  • 1. Lester Ness  |  September 25th, 2009 at 3:48 am

    Interesting interview. And very interesting that you would start with an historian! It makes me want to track down Short’s books. I look forward to future podcasts.

    Lester Ness

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