Review of 'Mao: The Unknown Story'

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang, and Jon Halliday

mao.jpg Almost 9 years ago to the day I visited Beijing and Tiananmen Square where the portrait of Mao Tse-tung hangs from the Tiananmen gate on the north side looking down on the people he led for so many years. I remember not much remarking on this nor showing any interest to visit his mausoleum on the south but I knew his name, as, indeed, any many still do even after he has been dead for 40 years. “Chairman Mao”: What he did during his lifetime changed the world.

My ignorance of Mao's life led me to think I should really learn about this man and what exactly he did. I remember when “Mao: The Unknown Story” was first published and the furor it caused with the sensational accusations it leveled at Mao. Looking back, I remember that I very much enjoyed reading Chung's “Wild Swans” (see here for my review) so for her to publish such a book was surprising to many. So, I wanted a history of what Mao did and how this impacted to the world around him, however, what I got was an obviously biased and quite inflammatory attack on everything (pretty much literally) he ever did. I have a hard time buying the obvious polemic present throughout but I persisted and managed to complete reading it's 765 pages (leaving aside the 306 pages of bibliographies and index) over the course of several months. It was not easy…

Mao was born in the valley of Shaoshan in the Hunan Province of China in 1893. A small backwater that is primarily known for being Mao's birthplace but has always been an agricultural region. This book suggests that Mao never particularly cared for the peasant people amongst whom he was born, sacrificing them in their millions throughout his rein. He always sought (this book alleges) for power over his fellow countryman so everything he did was to further this goal.

An ambitious young man, Mao looked for some way to achieve his goals so managed to join the communist party supported by the Soviets in Russia and, despite various political struggles, managed to get control of the party and it's leadership as it grew. This book suggests that throughout his life Mao looked to the Soviets to provide him with both the financial and military support first overwhelmingly through Stalin, who Mao greatly admired finally less support with Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Mao was happy to accept this support in exchange for massive payments of food, demanding ever more massive quotas of grain from the ever greater number of starving farmers of China. Here Mao's relationship with the Soviet Union dominates the story.

Mao spent the first half of his life battling against the Chinese Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-shek over control of China until they were defeated by Mao's Communist Party during the Chinese Civil War when they retreated to Taiwan in 1949. This book paints the picture that the Nationalist Party had the needs of the people in mind whilst Mao had his thirst for power in mind. Indeed, even in the Long March during which Mao's forces retreated from his headquarters in Yudu, Jiangxi province in 1934 to Shaanxi, over more than 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles), this book suggests that Mao, for the most part, did not walk but was carried despite the toll it took on his troops. It is this sort of myth-bashing that the book revels in documenting. Further revelations include Mao's involvement in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

After defeating the Nationalists Mao went on to further consolidate his grip on power including the brainwashing of his troops and, later, the general population breaking down their independent will with not only the use of terror, intimidation and blackmail but also through the ironic removal of most cultural expression in his “Cultural Revolution” then his repeated “Great Purges” which resulted in the deaths of many. Even at the leadership level, Mao encouraged the use of “criticism meetings” (where the subject was repeatedly attacked from his peers) and “self-criticism meetings” (where the subject was forced to criticize himself at length). It was in this way that he kept the leadership beholden to his will.

His “little red book” of quotations (which I purchased in Beijing from a tourist stall - yes, in English - but seemingly relegated to the point of souvenir) was reported to be the height of his wisdom but was in reality a means by which to further the cult of his his autocratic leadership of China containing contradictions and platitudes from a man who pretended to greatness but was, in fact, a self-serving dictator who cared only for those who could maintain his power and obey his commands without question - Who cared little for the millions who suffered under his rule. Even in his final days Mao was convinced that the policies he had put in place would continue and died enfeebled. An old man whose body eventually fails him.

At least, this is what the books alleges.

Not having much of any other viewpoint on the story of Mao all I can do is write about what I read in this book. Many of the political events are glossed over with the understanding that the reader will already be familiar with them (yeah, not me): This is not a biography but rather a polemic, as I have stated earlier. For those wishing to understand history that might be best reading other sources then taking this book in for a matter of another perspective as the agenda here is plane for all to see. I think there are many who grew up with the so-called brainwashing techniques employed by the communist party in China and the “cult” of Mao along with the diametrically opposed viewpoints of others that mean that any truly unbiased biography of Mao is unlikely to ever be published (to state the obvious, one could say the same about any attempt to document historical events - bias will always be in evidence).

So, I was disappointed and ultimately dissatisfied at my reading of this book. There is doubtless vast amounts of effort and research that has gone into it but do not come here looking for a balanced view on one of the most controversial leaders of recent times. As far as readability is concerned, it is quite a slow read with large numbers of unusual names to remember in order to make sense of what comes afterwards. I found a chapter or two at a time was enough before I had to put it down. Particularly painful are the elements that talk about torture and the deaths of the Chinese (and others) which is frequent throughout. I suppose, regardless of viewpoint, undoubtedly Mao was the source of pain for many but as to how many and what his goals were, reading this book will not shed any definitive light on this subject.

Rating: “Not great, but not the worse”

Review Date: 2016-08-07

Genre: Autobiography

Publisher: Vintage

Publication Date: 2007

ISBN: 9780099507376

Other reviewed books by Jung Chang: