Mao: The Real Story

Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, two China experts with superb credentials, have written a biography of Mao that is sweeping, fine in detail, well written, engrossing and ultimately problematic.

Mao: The Real Story is a book I highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand Mao’s life and times. It draws heavily on Russian and Chinese archives that have only recently been made available, and this is what makes the book special. The relationship between Mao and Stalin threads through nearly the entire book, at least from the point when Mao became a leader in the Communist party, and their relationship helps shed insight into many of Mao’s most important decisions, like entering the Korean War, cozying up to the Guomindang in the late 1930s and joining with them to fight the Japanese. Stalin was Mao’s Great Teacher and mentor, and most importantly his banker — even when Mao violently disagreed with his Soviet masters, he had little choice but to go along, as they controlled the purse strings. The Chinese Communist Party would scarcely have existed without Stalin’s generosity. As usual with Stalin, he used China as a means of fulfilling his own agenda, namely the spreading of Stalinist-style communism, and for more practical purposes such as keeping the Japanese busy with China so they’d be less inclined to attack the Soviet Union.

When the publisher sent me a review copy of the book I was intimidated, and wondered if I could read it; it is nearly 600 pages long. But once I started I quickly got swept up and finished it within a week. That is not to say it’s easy; it isn’t. There are so many names and so much minutiae I had trouble keeping up with who was who; I was constantly flipping back to double-check. Some of these details could almost certainly have been spared.

It was fascinating to learn of Mao’s transformation from an idealistic youth, inspired by anarchism and the promise of democracy, to an ideologue who cared nothing for the lives of his people and who was convinced of his infallibility, with tragic consequences. We watch him grow and develop, and pretty soon we can’t help but to be repulsed. As he became a hardened communist, he had basically one modus operandi, namely to slash and burn, to destroy, to encourage chaos, to weed out enemies, to promote endless class struggle and violence. He did relatively little building, and that which he did build often ended in catastrophe.

Throughout his life in the revolution Mao manipulated the basest of human emotions. It was not brotherly love that he conveyed, but rather enmity and universal suspicion. “Down with the landlords!” “Down with rich peasants!” “Down with the bourgeoisie, merchants and intellectuals!” “Down with those who are not like us!” “Down with the educated, with businesspersons, with the talented!” Down with all of them, down with them, down.

The story the authors tell of the early years of the Cultural Revolution is particularly upsetting, as Mao proclaims, “In the final analysis, bad people are bad people, so if they are beaten to death it is not a tragedy.” Mao’s use of “class struggle” to eliminate his perceived enemies was coldly and ruthlessly calculated, as was everything Mao ever did as a communist leader. He discarded people like worn-out shoes, and he looked on absolutely everyone with suspicion. He was, especially in his later years, a miserable, lonely man held captive by the very class struggle he so cunningly initiated. Enemies were everywhere.

And yet Mao did unify the country and make it independent. There is more to him than just pure badness. But here I believe the authors actually cut him too much slack. In trying to be balanced and to take the middle road, they take pains to say Mao was “complex, variegated and multifaceted” and a different kind of murderous dictator than Stalin. This argument was for me one of the weakest parts of the book: they claim Mao is different from the Bolshevik ideologues because he was “not as merciless” as Stalin. Many if not most of Mao’s enemies in government were allowed to live. “He tried to find a common language with all of them after forcing them to engage in self-criticism. In other words, he forced them to ‘lose face’ but also kept them in power.” Okay, it’s good he didn’t kill them, but he did make many of their lives miserable (think Liu Shaoqi banished and living in misery in a single room with a dirty stretcher on the floor). And think of the millions he did kill by inciting students to attack their teachers, and by doing nothing for years to stop the misery in the countryside thanks to the Great Leap Forward. It was almost contradictory for this book to reveal just how awful a person and a ruler Mao was, to examine all the misery he created for millions, and then to argue he was “multifaceted.” After reading the book you would not arrive at this conclusion, which the authors express in the epilogue. They really can’t have it both ways.

Other small things: the Great Leap Forward is given very little space and I would have liked to learn more about how Mao reacted to the plight of the starving, and more about his decision to end it. Its coverage of the early years of the Cultural Revolution is superb, rich in detail and deeply disturbing, as it should be. But then the book seems to shift gears; we learn the Red Guards were called off, but we don’t learn nearly enough about the last five years of the CR. At this point the book focuses instead on Mao’s efforts to build ties with the United States, and the CR seems to be forgotten.

That doesn’t makes this any less of an important and impressive book. I highly recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of long books and who has a thirst for understanding how Mao lived and thought, how he could have done what he did. For this, Mao: The Real Story is invaluable. It is especially impressive that the authors were able to take such a wealth of new materials, along with other sources like the diaries of those who knew Mao, and weave it all into a compelling and page-turning narrative. The book is imperfect, but it is also indispensable.

Let me just add as a side note that I am well aware of how defensive Chinese people, my good friends included, are of Mao, and I understand that. I understand also that they don’t like foreigners to tell them what they should think of Mao. I talked with my Chinese teacher about Mao just last week, and she told me that the GLF and the CR were unfortunate mistakes but dismissed them with the words that “we all make mistakes.” (She also corrected me when I referred to him as “Mao” without the “Chairman,” and told me Chinese people would never leave that out.) But as with any great figure of history, Mao is fair game and it would do a disservice to history not to explore his life and try to understand “the real story.” I only wish the book would be available in China, in Chinese.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 204 Comments

@Richard, I take it back; KT did not get anything like a record number of comments, just a few more than usual. I never knew they got that many comments before, most posts I read get none and some get two or three. Still, I really did find the number of comments that KT got suprising. Did you read his post?

December 19, 2012 @ 10:18 am | Comment

Yes, I read it. I may not agree with all his opinions, but it’s an interesting piece.

December 19, 2012 @ 10:20 am | Comment

@JR, ‘I’d wish that at least half of them were written by KT. He hits nerves.’

He writes interesting comments, has a unique style, and hits nerves (though he sometimes goes to far and ‘blots his copybook’), which is why I was dissappointed with his choice of subject.

December 19, 2012 @ 10:23 am | Comment

I am putting this thread to pasture. There’s a new open thread above.

December 19, 2012 @ 1:11 pm | Comment

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