Monday, September 04, 2006

He's a Cold-Hearted Snake!

Look into his eyes! Oh-oh! He's been tellin' lies!

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, authors of "Mao, The Unknown Story", clearly come from the Paula Abdul school of pop-history writing. This 814-page tome (630 of it actual text; the remainder notes and lists of sources and interviews) is an infuriated, and probably entirely justified, hit-piece on Chairman Mao. Chang and her family suffered under the Communists in China for, like, 7 decades: purges, famine, getting thwacked on the head with Mao's Little Red Book, and so on. I've not read it, but her 1991 chronicle "Wild Swans" apparently goes into all the grisly details of what life was like "on the ground" in Red China in the 20th century.

I would imagine "Mao" is even more grisly than Chang's previous book, but you won't find a lot of context here. It's all Mao, all the time. The authors' intent is to definitely place the Chairman with that special club of 20th century tyrants that include Hitler and Stalin. In fact, it will be some news to non-specialists that Mao was entirely a creature of Stalin, and in fact owed his rise to Russia's vicious scourge, apparently because Stalin knew a fellow bloodthirsty sociopath when he saw one and figured that he may as well support the worst of a bad lot in China's Communist Party. Well, Chang and Halliday make such an inference, at least. Which is what they do with a great deal of the material they collected: make inferences.

The book is deeply frustrating. I'm quite prepared to believe the majority of the authors' assertions, but their research work and citations too often don't pass the smell test. Just flipping randomly to the Notes section, which follows the impressive-looking Interviews list, reveals these "sources" for Chapter 41, "Defence Minister Peng's Lonely Battle": "[pages] 446-7, Mao to Shaoshan: our visit to Shaoshan, and interviews with Mao's entourage, relatives, local officials" . . . "[pages] 447-8, Mao at Lushan: our visit to Lushan, and interview with a local insider, Apr 1996" . . . "[page] 449, Zhongnanhai lounge: interviews with former girlfriends of Mao's, 29 Sept. 1994, 30 July 1999" . . . (The italics are mine.) There are hundreds of such-like "sources" as these.

I mean, look, I understand that historians of modern-day China or any oppressive regime will be forced to cite anonymous sources, but Chang and Halliday never alert the reader that the sources might not be infallible. They in fact don't even discuss their sources. One starts to believe that a bunch of gossipy old folks just told Chang what she wanted to hear, or that she only used information that shored up her claim that Mao was an unmitigated bastard. (For a detailed analysis of the authors' research, read Andrew Nathan's pretty devastating critique here.)

Worse, the authors immaturely indulge in omniscence. The last sentence of the book may serve as an example: "His mind remained lucid to the end, and in it stirred just one thought: himself and his power. [sic! isn't that two thoughts?]" This sort of thing goes on almost every page. When, say, Robert Caro attempts to get into the mind of Lyndon Johnson, we buy it, because Caro has spent 3 decades writing about his subject, has verifiable sources, names them, and lists them properly. But more, even when detailing Johnson's perfidies, Caro paints a whole picture of Johnson. A human being emerges, one with quite admirable and likable traits as well as less savory ones. The Mao in "Mao" is all bad, all the time. If the authors are to be believed, he hated his four wives and didn't give a tin shit about his own kids unless they could be politically useful. (He abandoned several of them over the decades, one of them -- an infant -- to death on the Long March.) He didn't even like animals. Hell, Hitler had pets.

Okay! So "Mao" isn't serious history. Is it a good read, at least? Yes, perhaps precisely because of its faults. It's always fun to read a rise-and-fall story, especially when the subject commences as a nobody and claws his way to the top. But the Mao that emerges is a caricature, rather like Richard III: always scheming, bloodthirsty, devoid of any decent impulses. By the way, if you're interested in all the crimes attributed to the man, go to Wikipedia or somewhere else -- this review ain't a synopsis, but rather a critique of the book's readability. Probably the most sensational claim of "Mao" was that the famous "Long March", undertaken by the Reds from the southern to the northern regions of the country in the 1930's, was successful not because of Mao's leadership or military brilliance but because Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek permitted the March to succeed so that Stalin would release Chiang's son from Russia, held more or less as a hostage in the old Roman Imperial style as a guarantee of good behavior. Scholars like Nathan have pointed out that this interpretation of events ignores evidence to the contrary, such as Chiang's gross incompetence. This book is suspiciously charitable towards Chiang, to the point that one starts to suspect a right-wing bias, i.e., Communists couldn't have been smarter than non-Communists or couldn't have bested the Nationalists without the latter being hamstrung by tragic circumstances. More than once, the authors point out that Mao wasn't encumbered with Chiang's "weak spots" such as his love for his children and loyalty to friends and so on. Their proof, such as it is, seems to rely chiefly, if not quite exclusively, on hearsay.

Most famously, the other revelatory doozy herein is the claim that the famous battle at the Luding Bridge -- near the end of the March -- was a propaganda invention. Chang and Halliday claim that the Nationalists weren't even in the vicinity. (Chiang Kai-Shek was still trying to get his son back, supposedly, and so this convenient glance in the other direction was yet another sop to Stalin, who, it must be mentioned, supported the Nationalists as long as they were keeping the imperialist Japanese busy. Chinese history, to say nothing of Russian history, is complicated!) The authors apparently base this claim on the recollections of a "sprightly", 91-year-old woman . . . though scholars contesting this story have already produced a similarly aged old man who does remember the battle.

Who knows what is true? The point is, the concatenation of suppositions makes for a rather gripping read, even if you know how it all ends: the Reds assuming control of the country in 1949; Mao encouraging some dissent in the mid-Fifties only to expose and then purge the impertinent loudmouths (the so-called "Hundred Flowers" episode); Mao's feverish obsession to acquire atomic power leading to the ghastly "Great Leap Forward", in which 30 million Chinese starved to death because Mao was paying for Russian technology with Chinese food; the Cultural Revolution, in which friend, foe, and millions of others were sent to labor camps or simply assassinated; the rapprochement with Nixon. And then finally Mao's slow and lingering death. Chang and Halliday's explanation for all this? Mao was a power-tripping rat-bastard, a lazy sensualist, a thug who enjoyed the sight of blood and human agony, a guy who basically wanted to be king of the mountain and nothing more. The authors even claim, on flimsy justification based on a few of Mao's throwaway comments, that he didn't give a shit about his legacy as a ruler. This would make him the first ruler in history to feel this way, but whatever.

Perhaps they're right. But missing from this chronicle of gore (and the book is often quite literally that, featuring hundreds of descriptions of various tortures and executions) is the context behind it all, and any evidence contrary to the authors' thesis. One would never know, for example, that human lifespans more than doubled during Mao's reign, even when taking the Great Leap Forward into account in the calculations. (During the late Imperial period at the turn of the 20th century, the average lifespan was 35.) Clearly, Mao bloodily dragged China, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century and modernity. Chang and Halliday aver that the cost in human lives -- they attribute to Mao 70 million deaths of his own people, which is more than Hitler and Stalin combined -- was not worth it. I'm inclined to agree with them. But at some point, one has to ask: why did the Chinese submit to this hooligan? Hey, every culture is prone to defects -- the Chinese defect, according to this book (though not explicity stated, natch), would seem to be a cowering, slavish worship of authority in general and authority-figures in particular. All those patriarchal "family values" and whatnot. How else explain it? How else explain, for example, the brilliant premier Chou En-Lai's servile acquiesence to Mao's bloodthirsty thuggery and stupid policy ideas? (There are almost 600 pages of examples, with regard to Chou alone, that Chang and Halliday meticulously cite.)

And, 30 years after Mao Tse-Tung's death, we see that nothing has fundamentally changed for China. Even with the adoption of capitalism within the country's authoritarian system, freedom-loving Chinese -- presumably few, given the evidence -- can't seem to get a foothold on power. The train just keeps on rolling, only these days they're serving Coca Cola along with the traditional tea in the dining car. Recently, China has demanded that Japan take a cold, hard, long look at their (fairly) recent past and come to terms with what they've done.

Who is telling China to come to terms with what they've done, and are continuing to do, to themselves?


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