Book Review: Mao: The Unknown Story


by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2005 . 814pp. Illus. maps, photos. $35.00. ISBN:0-679-42271-4

Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, is a fascinating and powerful debunking of the many myths that have long surrounded Mao Tse-Tung. For decades, it was widely believed in the West that Mao was a peasant leader who had shown great military acumen in his war against the Nationalist regime, and that he had fought the Japanese invaders much more effectively than Chiang Kai Shek. It was also widely believed that he had improved the lot of the Chinese peasants, bringing better education and increasing China’s agricultural output. He was also widely believed in the West to be a humane ruler. None of that was true. Chang and Halliday have written a meticulously researched account of Mao’s life, and show him to be one of the most evil and depraved tyrants in human history.

Mao was born in Hunan in 1893, and joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. He did so mainly for opportunistic reasons, not out of conviction or ideology. He needed money, and a Communist professor offered him a chance to run a bookstore. Mao, in fact, had a lifelong aversion to work, and apart from his book selling and some work as a journalist, never held a real job in his life. Chang and Halliday have carefully documented and exposed many of the lies the Communist Party told about Mao. For example, the Party likes to claim it was founded in 1921, thus making Mao a founding member. In fact, when he joined, it had already been in existence for a year. The authors expose a great many myths about Mao, including that he was a competent and successful military commander.

From the very beginning, Mao was constantly struggling for power with other Communist leaders. His career in the Party went through many ups and downs, but his quest for supreme power was unceasing. Mao frequently squandered the lives of Communist soldiers, both his own and those of rival leaders. He was perfectly capable of ordering a unit loyal to a rival into a hopeless attack, or marching it to destruction. He purged and murdered other Communist leaders, using pitiless terror to keep his own forces in line. He never showed any aptitude as a military commander, though he frequently took credit for strategies devised by others. But as a schemer and manipulator, he was without equal.

One of Mao’s most important advantages during his ascent to power was his ability to milk the connection with Moscow. The Chinese Communist Party remained long firmly under Moscow’s control, and the Soviets saw Mao’s ruthlessness as an advantage. Other Communist leaders might complain to Moscow of Mao’s purges, but to Stalin the fact that Mao was able to purge enemies instead of being purged proved his skill and usefulness. Thus the Soviets frequently protected Mao from his enemies. Mao also carefully placed himself where he could control or manipulate communications within the Party. Other Party leaders frequently knew only what Mao told them, and much of that was untrue.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole book is Chang and Halliday’s through debunking of the myths surrounding the Long March. Mao had a knack for finding gullible Western journalists and intellectuals willing to serve as his useful idiots. Almost everything written about the Long March in the West, including Harrison Salisbury’s book on the subject, is a tissue of lies. Chang and Halliday reveal that the Nationalists actually allowed the Communist army to escape, in large part because Stalin was holding Chiang Kai Shek’s son hostage. Mao took his retreating force on a needlessly long, hazardous, and costly detour to avoid linking up with a larger Communist force led by a potential rival. Contrary to myth, Mao never lifted a finger to fight the Japanese, and expressed a willingness to partition China between himself, Russia, and Japan

As ruler of China, Mao was obsessed with wielding military superpower. Beginning in the 1950's, he caused a famine that killed an estimated 38 millio

Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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