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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, November 15th, 2005


 

Mao: The Unknown Story

by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

New and Noteworthy

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

This volume, the most complete and assiduously researched biography of its subject yet published, presents a detailed portrait of Mao as an opportunistic gangster and a sadist (not even a committed ideologue!) who was, the authors convincingly argue, responsible for "well over 70 million deaths in peacetime" -- more than Hitler's and Stalin's tolls combined. Chang, the author of Wild Swans, a compelling account of her family's and her country's agony during the Cultural Revolution (it's the best-selling nonfiction paperback in publishing history), and her husband, Halliday, a historian of the Soviet Union, tenaciously chronicle the Great Helmsman's sanguinary purges and manmade famines. They reveal him as unrelievedly unsavory (he disliked bathing and toothbrushing and enjoyed witnessing torture) and, it seems, a man devoid of all human virtues. Even the heroics of the Long March, they carefully demonstrate, were wholly fabricated. An almost endless indictment (I'm sure Mao was as relentlessly unredeemed as the authors demonstrate, but it's fair to say that Mao lacks a certain nuance), this work is nevertheless as well researched as possible, given current restrictions. (Chang scoured the available Chinese documents; Halliday was particularly resourceful in his investigations in the archives of the former Soviet Union; and the authors together interviewed several hundred subjects—including scores of Mao's officials, agents, and hangers-on, including his valet.) The book's subtitle, "The Unknown Story," overlooks the fact that scholars such as Stuart Schram and Roderick MacFarquhar have documented many of the worst excesses of Mao's regime, and that the memoirs of Mao's doctor, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, copiously displayed the Chairman's personal unpleasantness. But no earlier work comes close to matching the density of detail here, and in many cases—such as their account of Mao's scheming with the Japanese during World War II -- the authors have performed brilliant historical detective work. Better books on Mao will eventually be written, but probably not until the regime that still reveres him reforms itself a good deal more. At the very least this book should finally mortify those former campus radical chowderheads who sported the Little Red Book (unread and unreadable) in the pocket of their Army surplus jackets.


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