Book Review – MAO: THE UNKNOWN STORY by Jung Chang, Jon Halliday

Book Review, from an author’s perspective  by David S. Moore, Featured Author

Book cover    I finished reading Jung Chang’s biography of Mao over the holidays.  It is a tremendous book that is based on a mountain of basic research, much of it involving interviews with several of the key players in Mao’s bloody regime.  This book was extremely impactful to me.  I had such terrible dreams while I was making my way through its 600 pages that I found it hard to sleep at night.

    The book is well written and the story is engagingly told.  I kept telling myself that I would stop reading after the next chapter, but I found that I really couldn’t put it aside – the story was just too compelling, too monstrous, too important to understanding the present state of our world.

    It’s a book that changed my view of the Communist revolution.  When I was in college I was taught that the Long March was a resounding success.  Wherever they went, I was taught, the Communists empowered the peasants by giving them land and employment and food.  And when they moved on to the next leg of their traverse of China’s perimeter they left behind political structures and policies that were popular, progressive, and stable.

    But Ms. Jung’s book shows that this narrative is a Communist Party fostered lie.  As she relates, the Communists were hated wherever they went.  They pillaged, they tortured and tormented the local citizens, and they extracted every last ounce of food and supplies they could wrench from the countryside.

    Mao was at best a half-hearted believer in Communism as a political philosophy – but he was in the right place at the right time to earn the support of Moscow.  The Soviets were looking for someone to lead a Communist revolution in China, and Mao was looking for the opportunity to gain power.  As the book reveals Mao set quotas for the number of people who should die during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.  Mao definitely saw himself as the student of Stalin.  In most every respect he followed his mentor’s methods and practices.  Why should one not expect a few deaths in the pursuit of the perfect society, Mao asked.  After all people die every day.  Why should it be so shocking that people have to die for the good of all?

    The book made me wonder how it is possible to write fiction that can adequately capture the terror of Mao’s nightmare world.  Ms. Jung provides solid evidence that the Great Leap Forward resulted in 38 million deaths throughout China.  And there were an additional 30 million deaths in the Cultural Revolution.  Most of the Party leaders were sadists.  They enjoyed dreaming up grisly methods of torture and humiliation – but it was Party policy to whip up the people into a frenzy of vicious hostility.  Party members certainly reveled in killing, but they turned the entire populace into an instrument of torment and terror.

    The real essence of Mao’s terror campaign was the forced confession.  The Party defined “true” Communism in terms so vague that they could accuse virtually anyone of being a counter revolutionary.  Some of the Party’s longest serving leaders were purged in the later days of Mao’s rule when he sought revenge for a slight by Lin Biao.  Those who were accused of being counter revolutionary were required to confess their crimes – publicly, of course.  The point was to achieve maximum humiliation.

    Liu Shao-chi, the Communist Party President, traveled to his home town to see what Communism had done for peasant life.  He was revolted to learn that people there were in fact starving.  There was so little food in rural towns throughout China that in springtime the trees were stripped bare – tree leaves were about the only food they had.  At the Conference of 7,000 in January of 1962 Liu Shao-chi gave a speech in which he called for putting an end to the policy of shipping most of China’s food to foreign countries.  By so doing he probably saved 10 million Chinese lives – but Mao eventually got his revenge.  In 1967 Mao had Mr. Liu and his wife arrested.  In short order Liu was dispatched.

    Writers of fiction have a responsibility to tell stories that cause us to reflect on the human condition.  One can hope that the brutalities of Stalinism – whether realized in Russia or China or Cambodia – are now behind us.  The world’s population is more aware than ever before.  The Internet has brought information to more of the world’s people than ever before.  It is less possible to conceal the truth today than it was in Mao’s China.  And yet – North Korea is still writhing in a Stalinist night.  The Taliban still finds it necessary to kill young girls to prevent them from going to school.  The Chinese government still blocks many Internet web sites, like Facebook and Twitter, in hopes of preventing an avalanche of truth from crashing through their wall of introversion.  And al-Queda is still fighting to unite the Arab states in an Arab Caliphate that would impose Sharia on all peoples from Saudi Arabia to the borders of China.

Fiction has to embrace barbarity.  It has an obligation to portray inhumanity with visceral realism.  Certainly it is possible to portray evil in the guise of a monstrous figure with horns and cloven hooves and sallow eyes.  But more terrifying is the evil that festers behind the smiles and ingratiations of people who seem… normal.  People with families and mortgages, people who have birthday parties and season tickets.  And people who desire nothing less than to compel you to disavow everything that you have ever believed, to give up everything you own, to betray your colleagues, your friends, your relatives, and to do that which you have always known is the greatest of evils. Mao was able to turn the most docile of his citizens into the raving marauders of his terror campaign.  That is the real shame of the Cultural Revolution – it achieved the debasement of an entire population.

Authors would do well to read Ms. Jung’s book.  It’s a great study in the characters of Mao and of the Chinese people.  The Mao of Ms. Jung’s narrative is depraved, belligerent, power hungry, and a master manipulator.  Authors of fiction would do well to develop characters that exhibit the full range of beliefs, behaviors, and barbarities of real monsters such as Mao.  Anything less would be a lie.


3 thoughts on “Book Review – MAO: THE UNKNOWN STORY by Jung Chang, Jon Halliday

  1. Excellent review. Since I didn’t have the benefit of college, I never believed such things about Communist China as the author learned. It regime was bloody and mind controlling. It does little to give me confidence in the current leadership.

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