A review of Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story

With each new review I see, I’m increasingly tempted to take down my Amazon link to this book. This review pans it, and points out rather ironically that the book flatly contradicts Chang’s earlier and much-praised family memoir, Wild Swans.

Indeed Mao: The Unknown Story flatly contradicts Wild Swans throughout. One revelation in Unknown Story is that Mao engineered Chiang Kai-shek’s abduction by his junior Chang Hsuieh-lang in 1936. But in Wild Swans Chiang was ‘partly saved by the Communists’ (11). Perhaps Unknown Story is intended to correct the ‘completely untrue’ claims made in Wild Swans, and put the 10 million readers of this best-ever-selling non-fiction paperback right. But there are no indications that Jung Chang is correcting her earlier assertions in the text or footnotes. And look, here, on the back page cover of Unknown Story, not corrections of, but ‘praise for Wild Swans’.

It is not just the earlier Wild Swans that contradicts the argument in Unknown Story that the nationalists took on the Japanese occupiers, or the many other sources, but the facts presented in Unknown Story itself. Just 20 pages on, Chang and Halliday tell us that Chiang Kai-shek ‘mobilised half a million troops’. To fight the Japanese? No. ‘He had agreed a truce with the Japanese, acquiescing to their seizure of parts of north China, in addition to Manchuria, and this freed him to concentrate his strength on fighting the reds’, they write approvingly (all the time condemning Mao for fighting Chiang, not the Japanese). When evidence of Communist opposition to Japan is unavoidable, Chang and Halliday insist that it was an exception, as in the July 1940 campaign against supply lines in northern China to relieve besieged Chongqing, which cost the Eighth Route Army 90,000 men. When Chiang Kai-shek slaughters the Communist New Fourth Army in 1941, Chang and Halliday want it both ways: minimising the atrocity, but also blaming Mao for betraying his rival commander Xiang Ying.

I hate Mao as much as I’ve ever hated anyone. Unfortunately, this kind of book only hurts the cause of exposing him. Now his defenders can say he’s being smeared by agenda-driven fanatics, and in this case they’d be right.

Link via CDT.

The Discussion: 30 Comments

I’m reluctant to comment on a book which I haven’t read, but I was a bit concerned as soon as I heard that Jung Chang was releasing this book.

I am in no doubt that Mao was a monster, but I like my history to be written by authors who at least display a modicum of impartiality.

July 6, 2005 @ 6:29 pm | Comment

Agreed. I waited until I had read at least four or five reviews (including blogger’s comments) before I concluded this is probably not a good book. All the reviews are remarkably similar in attacking the authors’ obvious bias and carelessness.

July 6, 2005 @ 6:55 pm | Comment

What’s the deal with Mao NEVER brushing his chops?Is that why most Chinese NEVER brush their black needles?I heard that he had this foul smelling dayglow green film GROWING on his teeth.Thats pretty charismatic in itself.

July 6, 2005 @ 7:20 pm | Comment

I kind of like green teeth….

July 6, 2005 @ 7:34 pm | Comment

I guess I’m being judgemental. Again!I suppose SOME people can wear green teeth well.

July 6, 2005 @ 7:40 pm | Comment

Imagine smooching on Mao.He was said to be real fond of stinky tofu.He also NEVER took a proper shower.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:05 pm | Comment

Have you ever read about his bowel issues?

July 6, 2005 @ 8:12 pm | Comment

Do tell!!!!!!

July 6, 2005 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

I’d truly rather not. Suffice it to say he had legendary constipation and would have soldiers help him (use your imagination as to how). And I don’t think they had Handi Wipes back then.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:20 pm | Comment

Many STILL don’t use TP.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:22 pm | Comment

Are you sure he was really constipated. I have used that ol’ trick a time or two myself.” While you’re there would you mind rubbin’ that walnut for me?”Of course now it’s the size of a grapefruit .

July 6, 2005 @ 8:26 pm | Comment

Daily linklets 7th July

Move over Kung Fu Hussle, here comes Snow White Hussle. Smile, you’re on Commie camera (via ESWN, who’s got a photo montage example) Experts who support China’s currency position. But China’s currency controls are hitting one group hard: private equit…

July 6, 2005 @ 8:42 pm | Comment

From MAJ’s penis, to Anne Myers bondage fantasies, to Mao’s turds — this blog is plumbing new depths daily.

BTW, Richard, I view slaughtering communists as a public service, not an “atrocity”.

July 6, 2005 @ 10:12 pm | Comment

Conrad,You are a sweetie pie.

July 6, 2005 @ 10:16 pm | Comment

What, his soldiers helped to remove his feces from his tight ass?
Wow, I guess THAT’s why they call it the “Liberation”!

July 6, 2005 @ 10:26 pm | Comment

Ivan ,I read that his personal doctor said that his ass wasn’t so tight.Know what I mean?Think Elton John. Wink, Wink

July 6, 2005 @ 10:30 pm | Comment

I recommend Jonathan Fenby’s biography of Chiang Kai-shek for even-handed coverage of the KMT and CCP in the 20s and 30s. Chiang is presented as the main driver of events (for worse and for better) and the CCP as fundamentally weak and reactive. Chiang squandered immense opportunities while Mao skillfully leveraged much smaller advantages. Caveat: No Chinese language sources in this book.

July 6, 2005 @ 11:31 pm | Comment

I haven’t read the book either, so am commented from a position of ignorance, and I acknowledge that. However, I often find that you can learn more about a book from negative reviews than you can from positive ones. Seems that every book in the world has someone who thinks it’s the best book ever, and all this type of review are much the same.

Bad book reviews don’t always turn me off a book … because I may feel that the person criticising it seems to be an idiot. In the case of this review, I feel that way. It really looks like the person is trying very hard to find ways and means to attack it, and frankly I find that attacks … well … a bit odd. They are the kind of thing that someone might write if they had read Wild Swans, and read her new book, but knew nothing else about Chinese history. It really doesn’t sound like the comment of someone who knows the topic area.

July 6, 2005 @ 11:44 pm | Comment

About “impartial” and “objective” histories:
1. There is no such thing as “objective” history, because ALL histories begin with some kind of eyewitness accounts, ie, first someone has to witness something, and nobody is absolutely objective.
Neither is there any absolute “subjectivity”. A better word for witnessing something is,
(There should be a gloss here about quantum physics – how the act of observation always involves some kind of participation – but it would take too long here.)
2. Does “impartiality”, or distance from an event, render the account more truthful? If so, then survivors of Auschwitz would be less credible historians of Auschwitz then people who were never there. Of COURSE survivors of Auschwitz will be “biased”, but their biased viewpoints will generally tell more of the truth than second or third hand accounts by “objective” historians.

July 7, 2005 @ 1:48 am | Comment

BTW, Richard, I view slaughtering communists as a public service, not an “atrocity”.

Conrad, so 1933 must be a great year in your point of view. They were the first ones.

July 7, 2005 @ 2:53 am | Comment

Ivan completely OOTTMM!

A lot of people have a very vested interest in attacking this book, and I suspect that a lot of the articles doing so are emmanating from dubious sources. Personally I’m very much looking forward to reading it. Hearing Jung Chang arguing her case on the BBC recently was extremely impressive.

July 7, 2005 @ 7:47 am | Comment

Richard W., you may be right, but bloggers and critics I trust on this and other sites have expressed strikingly similar criticisms. Of course I can’t pass judgement until I’ve read the book, which I still want to do. But I find when so many sources I trust say the same thing I’m probably going to concur. Probably. (I mean, I never read Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but I have a strong opionion about it based on what I’ve read from people I respect.)

July 7, 2005 @ 8:01 am | Comment

as I think I’ve said before, I began reading the book a few weeks ago. there are pages and pages of sources at the back, which impresses someone like me but really needs an expert to delve through to determine their accuracy.
on a personal level, I’m only about a quarter of the way through, normally if I’ve got my hands on something interesting I race through it.
but it is so depressing to read, just more and more unpleasantness. nothing wrong with that if it’s all true, but it does make it a hard read.

July 10, 2005 @ 2:57 am | Comment


I’d just like to say I’ve met JC and she’s a lovely person. She came to our uni and did a bang-up job of talking about the book and the issues around it.

Now, first of all, her husband is a Soviet historian. I have never heard any criticism levelled against him – and Chang says he wrote perhaps more than she did. The critics all go for her but get very silent whenever his name is mentioned. They try to lump him together with her but can never give a convincing answer as to why he’d be as biased as she has a right to be.

And even if her book is “biased”, it raises some fascinating points. Like the Long March. That’s been long associated as a given fact in the West – and she pulls it apart. In any case, Ivan is right. All historical works are biased one way or another. And if you’re not sure Mao was so bad, well, remember Stalin? He used to be the darling of the Western left. Not anymore.

I would say read the book and make up your own mind. DON’T rely on others to tell you what to think. A lot of people are angry because Chang hasn’t given us any reason to think Mao was good (and they’re just apologists for him). Also some Western academics are partly bitter (eg Short), because they thought their books were going to take centre-stage – then Chang and Halliday come along and take all the interest. Historians can be VERY snobbish, especially when dealing with people they think are “populist”.

I have yet to read the whole thing. As I said, read it and make your own mind up. I’m not saying she’s right or wrong. You might like it, you might not – but at least you’ll have read it and won’t wonder if you should.

July 14, 2005 @ 6:43 pm | Comment

Fair enough. And if I see a great review of the book, I’ll post it too. (And if you see one, please send it over to me. Thanks.)

July 14, 2005 @ 6:51 pm | Comment

Speak no more, good sir. Here you are:



July 14, 2005 @ 7:04 pm | Comment

Remarkable how many writers did not read the book before passing judgement. I’ve read both the personal doctors’ story and “the unknown story” of JC/Jon Halliday her husband-co-author. They are written from a different perspective, but do not necessarily conflict.
The important subject migth be whether Mao brushed his teeth or not for some, for me the total contaxt of 20th centuray brutalities, since “Mao: The unknown story” now including Mao next to much better know names as Hitler, Stalin, but also Hussein and some African Leaders.
Whatever the book does: Despite being fat it reads easy and triggers the discussion!

September 10, 2005 @ 12:58 am | Comment

With Billions of people admiring what Moa has done for China, who is June Chang to discredit Mao? June is certainly not the right person with personal hated for Moa and also now living in US with all the different ideology of life. Is US clean on human right? Look at the example of World War 2 when Japan attacked Hawaii and all the Americans of Japanese decent in America were just locked up! Mao may have done a lot of evil especially during his more senile years influenced by the Gang of 4. However, if not for him, China will still be bullied and very corrupted by the rich who wants to become richer and most likely be colonized by Japanese and Americans. China now enjoys respect from other countries and on the way to become an economy giant and we should respect this.
It is unfair to say that Mao was hateful with everybody – his women, his wives and his son and daughter. In a book I read called “The Long March”, Mao was very upset by the death of his wife and sister who were killed by Chang in Nanking and he bearly escaped with his own life. This book is definitely one sided and the review by the Times of London is even more shocking and biased.

December 28, 2005 @ 12:40 am | Comment

June Chang reminds me of someone who ran away from home and started criticizing his own family. I guess everything of her new life to her will be the best and she will discard all her roots including culture, religion and what her parents have taught her to braise her new found home. I guess it is just human nature and I cannot blame her. She may even been guilty of being a Red Guard before during the real sick period in Chinese history. However, now that she has tasted success and easy money from her last best seller which I agree is creditable as it was based on her own life, she will now not hesitate to stoop low to be even more successful and rich by publishing such a personal vendetta, one-sided and biased account and expect everybody to believe in what she wrote. Such controversies will certainly sell in the Western world and make her filthy rich. People seem to like to talk bad and read about others. To be believable, we have to be fair and balanced in what we write. No person is all bad especially someone who is also admired by so many. You now even have to pay ₤4 (pound sterling) just to listen to her coming lecture. No, I shall not be brainwashed and fooled by such a person.

December 28, 2005 @ 10:02 pm | Comment

Sunny has a point. I met JC in Beijing when she came to hard sell Wild Swans shortly after it came out. What struck me was that she constantly referred to the Chinese as “they”. “Their” lives are sooo much better, “they” are soooo much happier, “they” can do sooo many things – she saw it all from her window in the Palace Hotel (now Peninsula). But “they” were useful as the whole world has become interested in “them” so why not to make some cash from her expertise. She told me Mao was her next project because it would be the first book by an insider but looking from a Western perspective.(??)
I kept wondering who she was, no longer part of “them” but what? British? Would the British consider her one of “us”?
A confused, relentlessly self-promoting and snooty woman.

January 10, 2006 @ 10:45 pm | Comment

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