Jung Chang’s Mao debated at Berkeley

No, I still haven’t read the book and probably won’t be able to get to it until Chinese New Year. But this story is still relevant to this blog.

In “Mao: The Unknown Story,” authors Jung Chang and Jon Halliday portray Mao (1893-1976) as a cynical hedonist who rose to absolute power on Soviet strongman Josef Stalin’s muscle and his willingness to crush millions of peasants in famine, war and sadistic repression….The authors say he sold international leftists a fairy tale of a corrupt state transformed by revolution from the bottom up.

“It was mainly, I think, hot air,” Halliday dryly told a large crowd during an appearance at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business earlier this month.

The assertion that Mao used the bloody turmoil of Marxist revolution for purely egotistical ends has prompted praise in some quarters and outrage in others. The controversy comes as China’s 20-year economic boom is creating growing social disparity — and the ruling Communist Party worries about Maoist nostalgia among a new generation of have-nots even as it holds up Mao as a symbol of its historical legitimacy.

“But overall,” said Qiang Xiao, director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at Cal’s Graduate School of Journalism, “the government doesn’t allow the truth about Mao to come out. The information is suppressed. I believe the book is a very good thing.

“I do not see much positive out of what he has done to China,” said Xiao, who devoted himself to human rights after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. “I saw the devastating result, not only then but still lasting today.”

The husband-and-wife team of Chang and Halliday supported their archival research with interviews with 150 former Mao lieutenants, concluding that Mao was not only bloodier than Hitler or Stalin but worse in his destruction of culture. Chang is the author of the best-selling “Wild Swans: Three Daughters in China,” a memoir detailing her family’s suffering during the period.

“During the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, he turned China into a cultural desert,” she told the crowd at Haas. “He made torture public. My mother went through over a hundred of those denunciation meetings. She was made to kneel on broken glass and so on. China must be the most traumatized nation in the world.”

Halliday said Mao appealed to “a large group of fantasists” who gullibly thought he was the real thing. Halliday said Mao also attracted leftists who tolerated violence.

Maoist intellectuals have counterattacked, saying the book negates any historical grounds for the Chinese revolution and positive changes in what had been a corrupt society before Mao’s military victory in 1949.

“It’s just outrageous,” said Gary Miller, a volunteer at Berkeley’s Revolution Books, as he leafleted the authors’ event on campus. “A lot of people look with a great deal of affection at the Mao years because China’s been turned into one giant sweatshop.”

Personally, I’m more inclined to take seriously the opinion of Xiao Qiang than I am “a volunteer at Berkeley’s Revolution Books.” Your call.

The Discussion: 28 Comments

One giant sweat shop that produces wealth is still better than one giant sweat shop that produces poverty. Life wasn’t exactly a cakewalk for China’s peasantry under Mao either.

November 25, 2005 @ 8:00 pm | Comment

The remark of Xiao Qiang, about China being one of the most traumatized nations in the world, really resonates with me. It’s hard for me to get across what China was like in 1979, just three short years after the end of the GPCR. It was such a depressing place, the mass trauma was like something in the atmosphere, and everyone who was willing to talk to you had some horrible story about what they’d been through.

November 25, 2005 @ 11:44 pm | Comment

China’s entire civil society was destroyed by a civil war romanticized by by many in the west — the Cultural Revolution was a disaster by all accounts, but an enormously influential one nevertheless. Trauma may be one way of describing its effects, but I think it is a bit of an understatement when people lose all faith in every human relationship, when power seems daily up for grabs by the group or person that can express the most vehement anti-bourgeois epithet of the day, when family members denounced each other for greater glory — and neighbors sold each other down the river.

November 26, 2005 @ 12:24 am | Comment

Agreed. So when I see idiots defending Mao’s legacy and saying China was better off under Mao it touches a nerve.

November 26, 2005 @ 12:26 am | Comment

Yes. Catherine puts it better than I did.

In my Chinese class the other day, I was supposed to do an oral presentation, and I talked a little bit about what it was like in 1979. And one of my classmates said, “oh, you must have experienced traditional Chinese culture back then.” And I didn’t really have the vocabulary to express myself properly. I came up with something like, “the Cultural Revolution killed traditional Chinese culture.” It was something that smashed every kind of bond between people. No one should ever try to minimize what the CR did to China. It’s too bad that China’s younger generations haven’t necessarily learned what happend to their parents and aunts and uncles and older brothers and sisters. They really do need to know.

November 26, 2005 @ 12:49 am | Comment

I recently ended up at a website of the China Study Group, i think it is chinastudygroup.org, and to find essays encouraging “a reconsideration of the Cultural Revolution” really cracked me up.
The funniest part is that a lot of these so-called “leftist intellectuals” would probably have ended up persecuted to death for one reason or another in their so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

November 26, 2005 @ 1:01 am | Comment

Another idea, Richard: Mao is evil, right? He was the head of the CCP which he used to create an evil hell on earth, right? An evil #13 years after his death the CCP again showed its evil through the TSM which it insists on patting itself on the back for. Now it’s throwing peasants off their land to poison their water, all the while worshipping Mao. Who was evil. On a scale of one to ten, with 1 being saintly, 5 being Finland, and 10 being unremittingly evil, how would you rate the Chinese regime which only permits violent revolution as the sole means of geting rid of it?

November 26, 2005 @ 4:08 am | Comment

Do you really believe they are worshipping Mao? If they were, I might be more willing to consider the “e” word. Anyway, it’s just a word game. No matter which word you want to use, they’ve done and are doing a lot of things that suck mightily, as well as some good things (we have to give them that, looking at China under Mao and China today, even with all the atrocities). As I said, despite the evil of some, there are unquestionably a lot of Party members who want to do what’s best for their people.

November 26, 2005 @ 4:14 am | Comment

Here is a little fisking of this book by a historian. He realy doesn’t like their method

Chang and Halliday are magpies: every bright piece of evidence goes in,
matter where it comes from or how reliable it is. Jade and plastic
together, the pieces are arranged in a stark mosaic, which portrays a
possible but not a plausible Mao. This Mao is lazy, uncommitted, driven
lust for power and comfort, lacking in original ideas, tactically smart
but strategically stupid, disliked by everyone he works with, selfish
mindlessly cruel. …

…Chang and Halliday position themselves as near omniscient narrators,
permitting themselves to say constantly what Mao and others really
or really intended, when we seldom have any way of knowing. A cautious
historian would avoid taking poems or speeches from Mao as a clear
expression of what he felt or intended, understanding that poetry may
express a state of feeling, and that a political speech or dialogue may
contain rhetorical flourishes, humour or irony, or may be intended to
mislead. …

… Of course Mao deserves harsh moral judgment. Too many previous accounts
his life, awed by his achievements, have overlooked their human cost.
this portrayal impedes serious moral judgment. A caricature Mao is too
easy a solution to the puzzle of modern China’s history. What we learn
from this history is that there are some very bad people: it would have
been more useful, as well as closer to the truth, had we been shown
there are some very bad institutions and some very bad situations, both
which can make bad people even worse, and give them the incentive and
opportunity to do terrible things. …

November 26, 2005 @ 4:54 am | Comment

Mao is one of the most shameless murderer which is overtly mystified by official propaganda. If Marx is alive, he would have committed suicide in shame after seeing CR.

November 26, 2005 @ 8:23 am | Comment

Very simply, my retort to all who criticise Jung Chang’s history of Mao for using so many unorthodox research methods, and for being so “biased” and “unobjective”:

You want an “objective” history of Mao?

Then let the PRC open up ALL of the records and archives of EVERYTHING Mao did, and let the PRC allow ALL histories of Mao to be published. And THEN we can all sort through the credibility of those various histories and interpretations.

The reason why ANY approximately truthful history of Mao MUST be done in unorthodox and biased ways, at this time, is BECAUSE THE PRC STILL COVERS UP all of the original records of Mao, and because the PRC does not allow ANY history of Mao to be debated or published in the PRC.

THAT is why, at this time, the only histories of Mao we can write, or even think about, are all imperfect and all very impeachable.

Is Jung Chang’s history of Mao imperfect, and impeachable? Yes.

And if the PRC ever wants a TRUTHFUL history of Mao to be written, then the PRC must open up all of its archives and records about Mao, and allow ALL kinds of historical interpretations of Mao to be published in the PRC, so that the evidence can be judged on its own merits.


November 26, 2005 @ 9:06 am | Comment

OK, first I haven’t read the book.
But Ivan, don’t you think that it’s a bad idea to create myths yourselve, when your aiming at demystifying Mao. From what I read about the book so far exactly that is the case. Just to present him as a monster they present data and interprete it in a way that makes this whole thing extremly vulnerable.
That the material is not avainable is just no excuse to present unreliable material. If you want to be taken serious you can’t do that.
Unorthodox research methods is an euphemism from my point of view.

November 26, 2005 @ 11:29 am | Comment

I cannot comment on the book since I haven’t read it. I think Jung Chang’s Wild Swans was very flawed — not as bad as Anchee Min’s autobiographical efforts, but its hyperindividualism was very Western media friendly.

But criticizing Mao, even demonizing him may spark necessary debate about his legacy…where it needs to take place — among the good CCP and Chinese bureaucrats who are responsible for the future of the PRC.

What i know is that Mao adulation infantilized and paralyzed generations of Chinese intellectuals…

November 26, 2005 @ 11:50 am | Comment


As usual, you have made some excellent points.

However, given all the materials I am able to choose from, I must place more trust in the unorthodox history of Jung Chang than in the orthodox history of the PRC.

My main point is, that if the PRC really wants the world to know the truth about Mao – and if the PRC object to unorthodox histories such as Jung Chang’s – then the PRC must open up the records so that it will no longer be necessary for us to prefer partly untruthful histories like Jung Chang’s over even MORE untruthful histories like the PRC’s.

November 26, 2005 @ 12:04 pm | Comment


More simply:

I know there are a lot of problems with Jung Chang’s history of Mao. However, she wrote it without any political pressure. She wrote it without any powers pressuring her to tell official lies.

In contrast, all of the PRC histories of Mao have been written under political pressure and under sanctions of prison or worse. All PRC histories of Mao have been written by Communists, in the interests of the Communist Party. And so, any PRC history of Mao is less credible than what Jung Chang wrote.

The way to solve this problem is for the PRC to open up about Mao and all records about him, and to allow fully open research and publishing about him.

Until that day comes, Jung Chang’s biography of Mao will remain more credible than anything which is based on PRC records. And to this day, most of the histories of Mao have been based principally on what the PRC has revealed. Thus, to this day, all histories of Mao are suspect, except for those which diverge from the PRC Party Line.

Again, very simply, the way to change this is for the PRC to open up about Mao, without reservation. But until that day comes, Jung Chang’s book will be more credible than any other history of Mao, precisely BECAUSE it is “unorthodox”, precisely BECAUSE it contradicts official, politically empowered stories.

November 26, 2005 @ 12:13 pm | Comment

Interesting post, richard. I still haven’t read the whole thing myself.

Ivan DOES have a point though. Perhaps Chang & Halliday went rather far, but they’ve pushed the “Mao is a nasty sob” POV as it should be. There is still denial in China about a lot of what happened over the last 200 years, mainly that many/most Chinese people try to pin ALL of China’s woes on foreigners. For example, the KMT are often demonised as being “Western imperialist puppets”, China’s problems during Mao’s rule are blamed on sanctions, etc.

But really China fcked itself up. It lived in splendid isolation for centuries and then failed to reform/modernise when foreigners came knocking on its door. Of course China was treated very badly (e.g. by Japan), but then again China used its power to conquer/control/manipulate others as well. T1bet and East Turkmen1stan (Xinj1ang) were brought under control by China using its superior technology in the 19th and 20th centuries.

All too many Chinese still cannot accept that China was partly responsible for being humiliated as it was in the recent past – the same goes for CCP rule and Mao. Because Chinese wanted to believe that all their problems had occurred because of foreigners, so they wanted to believe that Mao was “on balance a good guy”, because they were brought up to believe he “rid China of foreign influence”.

What Chang and Halliday have done is cut out all the crap and clearly displayed Mao’s failings. What China needs to do is realise that Mao was not “70% good and 30% bad”, but was on balance a negative influence. When it realises that, then we can have more balanced discussions. Until then I think there’s nothing wrong with pointing out what Mao did to China – set back its development by 15-20 years, cause misery to millions and destroy much of its cultural heritage – without distracting people by talking about his love of poetry.

November 26, 2005 @ 12:14 pm | Comment

More, just to make myself clear:

The PRC censors all history about Mao. As a matter of common sense, that tells me that they want to hide some embarassing truths about Mao.

Thus, everything which the PRC says about Mao will remain inherently suspect, unless and until they allow full disclosure and research and publishing about Mao.

Until that time, Jung Chang’s history of Mao will be more credible than any history which has been based on the records which the PRC has made available to the world.

November 26, 2005 @ 12:18 pm | Comment

Recently I read the writings of Edmund Burke. I like his notion that liberty can never be attained through revolution but only form the slow evolution of social custom.

Many people from the left fail to recognize that, the violence during Mao’s regime is typical of all kinds of revolutions generally supported by the left.

The recent work by Stephen Koch, “The breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles” recount a story that, Dos Passos complained to Hemingway, “what’s the use of fighting a war for civil liberties, if your destroy civil liberties in the processes?”

Hemingway replied, “civil liberties, shit, Are you with us or are you against us?”

November 26, 2005 @ 12:43 pm | Comment

Because Chinese wanted to believe that all their problems had occurred because of foreigners, so they wanted to believe that Mao was “on balance a good guy”, because they were brought up to believe he “rid China of foreign influence”.

Perhaps the foreign expats cum armchair China experts should stop trying to pin everything on the “blame the foreigners” complex of the Chinese. That many Chinese continue to perpetuate the Mao myth has little to nothing to do with foreigners (really, you flatter yourselves), and everything to do with Mao’s entrenched founding father status. Imagine if new historical findings reveal that George Washington was an irredeemable villain on par with Hitler. I wonder if most Americans would be so quick to acknowledge it, truthful or not.

Give it time. A fairer, more objective reevaluation of Mao is gonna happen. Mao is already a ghost, and his power decreases exponentially with each passing decade.

Otherwise, I pretty much agree with what Ivan said, especially this:

And if the PRC ever wants a TRUTHFUL history of Mao to be written, then the PRC must open up all of its archives and records about Mao, and allow ALL kinds of historical interpretations of Mao to be published in the PRC, so that the evidence can be judged on its own merits.

Whatever reservations I have about the Chang-Halliday book, in the greater scheme of things it could do much more good than harm.

November 26, 2005 @ 3:32 pm | Comment

Steve, when you talk about “the left” what is it that you mean? Talk about leftist extremism if you’d like, as long as you are willing to address the right-wing version – fascism, anyone?

Absolutist systems based on authoritarian rule are all pretty much the same in the end, only differing in degree and in their rhetoric.

November 26, 2005 @ 4:58 pm | Comment

I too side with Ivan on this. I always prefer a “let the chips fall where they may attitude” to history.

And I always recommend people read Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer” which takes on mass movements of any kind from Christianity to Communism as a good antidote; I read it ages ago, but it still has a lot of ring to it.

November 26, 2005 @ 6:04 pm | Comment

Great minds think alike…

November 26, 2005 @ 6:21 pm | Comment

I’m not convinced, Ivan. That the CCP history is not very helpfull for a better understanding of Chinese history is a clear thing. If this book is I doubt. But so far I din’t read it so I haven’t a final judgment by now. When I will read it, I will do it with a lot of caution.

November 27, 2005 @ 7:04 am | Comment

Having read the book I’m with Ivan. Certainly it is flawed and what they have dug up needs examination by other historians. Having said that it needs to be said that their most damning stuff about Mao comes from the Soviet archives. Maybe people will quibble about the points of detail in the future, but I believe the thrust of their argument will stand the test of time (and of other historians)

November 27, 2005 @ 8:51 pm | Comment


Mao did a lot of bad thing, perhaps 70% of chang’s allegation are true.

but academic is academic, ficiton is fiction. i thought berkeley gave up on being a research instutute. then i realized it was the business school that hosted this couple, not history or asian study department.

i guess they were teaching the MBAs how to market a commerical book.

November 27, 2005 @ 11:45 pm | Comment

Actually, Berkeley’s East Asian Institute and the School of Journalism hosted the event. They just used a room at the Business school to hold it.

I’m personally fascinated by this whole debate, given that I can’t think of a single biographer of Hitler or Stalin that has been accused of being “too negative”. I understand the scholarship questions, but this idea that they aren’t playing up his good side–why on earth should a man who, at best, killed 30 million ppl, be portrayed in a positive light?

December 1, 2005 @ 10:53 am | Comment

Thank you, Erinn. Some people are determined to swallow the party bullshit that Mao was, unlike Hitler, “30 percent good.”

December 1, 2005 @ 4:32 pm | Comment

You got the numbers reversed, Richard. Mao was officially judged to be 70% correct.

Right on, Nausicaa! I do hope that someday CCP lightens up and opens their old files to international researchers. Russian declassification of old Soviet files has shed new light on the Cold War.

December 3, 2005 @ 12:58 pm | Comment

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