China History

Thoughts from “Mao Zedong: The Unknown Story,” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

On Twitter, Purpleslog asked for a good book on Mao Zedong. Of course, the answer is Mao Zedong: The Unknown Story. I warned him, though, that Mao is a rotten human being. Absolutely unsympathetic. Hard to stomach.

This is true.

If Jawaharlal Nehru was the “last British ruler of India,” then Mao Zedong was the last Chinese. China’s first attempt at Westernization was the Hundred Days of 1898, and while that was aborted, the Xinhai Revolution would come just 13 years later. Soon the Three Principles of the People were promulgated by China’s first President, the Hawaiian-educated Dr. Sun Yatsen. The Three Principles have an obviously American source: that a China of the people, by the people, and for the people, will not perish from the Earth. Other pioneers included the triracial (Chinese/Spanish/Black) Eugene Chen, the London-educated Foreign Minister, and Feng Yuxiang, the influential warlord and member of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Mao early on co-opted the Japanese- and French-educated Zhou Enlai. Important members of the next generation included Lin Biao (who studied under Zhou and Vasily Blucher), as well as Deng Xiaoping (educated in France and the Soviet Union), Liu Shaoqi (educated in the Soviet Union), Yang Shangkun (educated in the Soviet Union), and others.

By contrast, Mao graduated from the First Provincial Normal School in Hunan, though for a time he worked as a librarian in Beijing.

Mao was left behind by time. He was out-of-step with the rest of China’s leadership class, though this connected him more firmly to both China’s past and China’s peasantry than the modern education of his rivals. Mao Zedong was the last Supreme Leader of China to enjoy writing poetry. He left the math portion of his college entrance exam blank because math offended him. His first attempt to leave the country was denied — he couldn’t pass an exam for foreign exchange students because he couldn’t speak standard Chinese.

Mao is like an emperor, like some figure from history. This is because he was. He was the last Chinese leader who perfectly fit the role of poetic Emperor, dismissing five-year plans and (seemingly, truly believing) that adoration of his thought would be more helpful to workers than proper diet, proper tools, or technical training. Mao’s unpredictable, go-with-the-flow attitude served him well as a guerrilla leader but was disastrous for everyone else. To use just one example, when his Defense Minister fled to Russia (with the obvious intent of forming a ‘Free China’ movement that would serve as a figurehead to any future Russian invasion), Mao’s reply was: “Rain falls, birds fly, girls want to be married. Some things can’t be helped.” No normal person thinks this way.

For modern readers, Mao is inexplicable. Like the smiling cannibals on Papua New Guinea, we share too little to empathize with him. He’s a weird leader, and only the poor, the backward, the uneducated, and the weird adore him.

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