Mao. A Life
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1999; 795pp.; Price: £25.00
University of Bristol
Date accessed: 28 May, 2023
It is one of the unfortunate realities of the twentieth century that the list of defining world political leaders is shared between those whose actions resulted directly in the greatest number of deaths and those who led the defence when their actions impinged on the rest of the world. The stature of the former, and their place in history, was achieved because they created (or were inspired by) an ideological vision and engineered the authoritarian power to impose the logic (or one particular logic) of that vision on their populations, ostensibly for their benefit but ultimately at the cost of millions of their lives
It is probable that any list of those defining leaders drawn up with the benefit of hindsight at the end of the twentieth century would see very few changes in the top echelon from one drawn up fifty years ago. Mao Zedong would indisputably be one of them. For Philip Short, Mao's life was 'played out on an altogether vaster canvas' than that of the other world leaders. As 'unquestioned leader of almost a quarter of mankind' he 'wielded powers equalled only by the most awesome of Chinese emperors' and did so 'in an era when China's history was so compressed that changes which, in the West, had taken centuries to accomplish, occurred in a single generation.' It was Mao who guided China through the leaps from 'semi-colony to Great Power', from 'millennial autarky to socialist state', and from 'despoiled victim of imperialist plunder to Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, complete with H-bombs, surveillance satellites and ICBMS'. To this might be added the notion that Mao, by charting a particular revolutionary course through the socialist transition, offered an alternative (and for many developing countries a more attractive, desirable and achievable alternative) future not just to Western capitalism but to the Soviet industrialisation model.
Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the Maoist vision was fundamentally unsound (both conceptually and in the mix of policies through which it was promoted), that it was achieved through a massive denial of basic civil liberties and a propensity to impose widespread physical and mental coercion, and that there were deep (and deepening) flaws in Mao's own character and personal life.
The two writers who have done the most to introduce Mao to the wider world and then to extend our understanding of Mao are Edgar Snow and Stuart Schram. Snow was the first person to place Mao's life before a world audience - but did so, in retrospect, in excessively (and naively) rose-tinted terms. Schram by contrast produced a more complete, rounded and critical biographical study but wrote at the point where the Chairman was still only on the verge of launching the disastrous Cultural Revolution. The time is ripe for an authoritative biography that is able to assess Mao's life as a whole in a broader historical context, and to do so in the light of the enormous volume of recent secondary literature and the array of inside information that has seeped out since Mao's death. Short's background of reporting in China and his understanding of the Soviet dimension to the story enables him to draw on and draw together the contrasting journalistic and academic traditions and provide the necessary rigour and accessibility.
In contemplating a survey of Mao's life a plethora of issues and ideas spring to mind. How did Mao's childhood condition his complex character? How did he manoeuvre his way through the complexities of the Chinese politico-military situation, and the intrigue and internecine strife of the Communist Party itself. How did Mao's particular ideological slant contribute to the socialist transition in the 1950s and then to the disasters of the GLF and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution? Where did the vision come from; where were the seeds of those destructive and inhuman campaigns sown; how were they nurtured; and how and why did the idealism ironically turn on itself and make the achievement of the goals less - rather than more - likely? How, in the final analysis do we balance Mao's achievements against their costs? The list could go on. So, what kind of approach does short take? Does the book seek to provide important new information on Mao's experiences and achievements? Does it set out to offer a significant reinterpretation of Mao's life and work? Does it extend our understanding of Mao's life and his place in history, and does it provide the definitive account for the next generation?
The approach is essentially chronological and the first two thirds of the book take us up to 1949 and into the Korean War. Short deals with Mao's Confucian childhood and proceeds through the national and Hunanese political and military developments in the 1920s, weaving in the growing complexity of inter and intra-party politics and politico-military rivalries. He lays out the evolution of Mao's ideological and moral perspective and his military baptism; leads us through the emergence and triumph of Mao's contentious military strategy in the 30s; looks in illuminating detail at the loss of innocence in the factional bloodbath of the Futian incident; and covers the construction of dominance over the Party and the emergence of the cult of the personality in the 40s. For the post-Liberation period Short intertwines China's relationship with the West (and with the USA in particular) with the internal dramas of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and then the battle that Mao fought to secure the longer term future of his revolutionary vision.
It is a careful, erudite work which lays out the facts of Mao's childhood and the conflicts inherent within early C20 China and then charts a way through Mao's complex involvement in the unfolding of those conflicts and the bitter, and often unforgiving, machinations of the Party itself. The ability to draw on Schram's enormously valuable definitive editing and translating of Mao's writings, Saich's work on the history of the Communist Party, official and unofficial publications form within China itself (particularly the Nanliu collection), as well as his own personal contacts enables Short provide us with a more complete and detailed knowledge of Mao's life.
However, Short's pre-occupation lies with political manoeuvring and military tactics. It is overwhelmingly an account of what Mao did and what he experienced. Its focus is Mao's relationship with the Chinese revolution. But where is Mao's own life? Where is Mao the person? Where is the analysis of Mao's personal, intimate relationship with his wives and his children, or with his colleagues in revolution? These aspects are touched on but they are not developed and Short does not really show how and when they impinged on the public sphere. Maybe Mao was incapable of forming close relationships? Maybe one of his colleagues (but who!) should have taken him aside and whispered "Listen Mao, chill out, get a life"?
Nor is there much space for Mao's emerging economic ideas or responsibilities - not even his intimate involvement in land reform, or his important writings on economic and financial problems in the early 1940s. In short we are presented us with "a life" - a political/military life, a life on China's revolutionary stage.
It is also a book that sets out the facts and allows them to speak for themselves. Interpretation is not placed centre stage; it is the unfolding of Mao's life in China's revolution that matters. Short presents us with a full version of the political, military and diplomatic facts of Mao's life and thus allows those who know their Chinese history to confirm or modify their views and those who are less familiar to draw up their own provisional interpretations. And on the whole it is set out fully and accurately. There are lapses (the unqualified acceptance of the "No dogs and Chinese" sign for example), and no doubt the real China-buffs will quibble with the detail. But the broad-brush strokes are sound.
So, where does Short take us? What are the major conclusions about Mao's life and his contributions on the Chinese and world stages? Here the book is a little disappointing. Short provides us with an epilogue rather than a conclusion. After a brief survey of the short-term political consequences of Mao's death the focus is widened to encompass China's own difficulty in assessing Mao. Here, Short offers a rather brief attempt to balance the achievements and costs of Mao's life and ultimately takes cover behind the point that it is still too early to place Mao in his full historical context (which, in Chinese terms, requires centuries of perspective rather than decades).
On the positive side, Short sees Mao's talents - 'visionary, statesman, political and military strategist of genius, philosopher and poet' - combining with a 'subtle, dogged mind, awe-inspiring charisma and fiendish cleverness' to produce remarkable achievements for China. Short endorses the first of the two achievements which Mao himself identified as significant (the victory over Chiang Kai-shek) but seeks to qualify the second (the Cultural Revolution) on the grounds that whilst Mao might have succeeded in smashing the old order he failed to put a viable alternative in its place. Mao certainly did not recognise, as the 'Asian Tigers' have done, that the old Confucian virtues could be harnessed in a way that made them not merely relevant to economic transformation but integral and indispensable. Moreover, the overdose of ideological fervour that Mao repeatedly injected into Chinese society actually served to immunise it and, ironically, made the desired vision of a revolutionary society more difficult (if not impossible) to achieve. Yet, whilst China has been able to abandon the Maoist ideology with ease, the myth of its founder has proved more durable.
Within this, in pursuing his path along the revolutionary road Short highlights Mao's belief in the supremacy of socialism over capitalism; his belief in the need to balance right and left while maintaining a general course that was left of centre; and his (declining) faith in the masses because the masses would not be satisfied with a system of only nominal socialism which concealed de facto capitalism. Mao was right to worry that China would travel swiftly down the capitalist road after his death, but wrong in supposing that Deng was not a 'capitalist roadster', and even more mistaken in believing that the masses would rebel and overthrow rightism because of their dissatisfaction with a primacy of prosperity over ideology.
Short also recognises that the costs also need to be woven into the analysis. These costs revolve around Mao's duplicity (as Lin Biao's son put it, 'today he uses sweet words and honeyed talk to those whom he entices; tomorrow he puts them to death for fabricated crimes') and his willingness to use the lessons of China's own dynastic history to justify and exalt the killing of opponents (or those who simply disagreed with his own political aims) as an unavoidable and necessary expedient.
However, whilst Short acknowledges that Mao's rule 'brought about the deaths of more of his own people than any other leader in history', he goes on to separate Mao qualitatively from the two other tyrants who were his contemporaries. For Short, the 'overwhelming majority of those whom Mao's policies killed were the unintended casualties of famine', and that puts Mao in a different category from Hitler and Stalin. Just as there is a distinction between murder, manslaughter and death caused by negligence there are gradations of political responsibility for deaths deriving from of the intent that lay behind them. Moreover, whilst Stalin 'cared what his subjects did and Hitler who they were, Mao cared about what they thought about' (an interesting and under-developed idea, though surely 'cared' is an unfortunate term to choose). And not only were landlords eliminated as a class in China rather than the Jews as a people in Germany, but Mao never lost his conviction that thought reform could lead to redemption and incorporation into the masses
But can the consequences of Mao's actions be lessened in this way - any more than those of Stalin where again it could be argued that the majority of his victims were the product of the unintended famine that followed collectivisation in the early 30s? Mao's culpability for the famine deaths might be limited if Short was able to show that he knew nothing of the facts before it was too late. But not only could the problem have been tackled and minimised if Mao had acted when the problems were publicly aired at the Lushan Plenum in July 1959, but there is evidence that Mao had seen and heard the reality when he had visited Shaoshan and talked to the very peasants whose wisdom Mao exalted weeks before the Plenum. But more than this, the reason that Mao had not been kept fully informed was the extreme climate of fear and exaggeration that he himself had deliberately initiated and cultivated. Surely it was the flaws in Mao's character and in the nature of his relationship with the senior members of the Party that led him to see a conspiracy in Peng Dehuai's courageous stand and then, by reinforcing the policies of the Great Leap, to intensify the tragedy? The famine might have been unintended but that does not absolve Mao of responsibility. The context in which the famine arose was Mao's creation, the outcome was not inevitable and it was avoidable. It was Mao's reaction when the true situation was intimated that compounded the severity of the famine and led directly to the massive loss of life. The responsibility was Mao's, if not quite Mao's alone.
Nonetheless the book is still a welcome and significant addition to the literature on the Chinese revolution over the twentieth century. It succeeds in synthesising and extending to our knowledge of Mao and of Mao's central, often determining, role in that revolution. It is unfortunate that there is no bibliography and the referencing system, although exhaustive, is irritatingly difficult to use. However, the book is both is accessible for the general reader interested in China and sufficiently rigorous for it to find a place on academic reading lists. Any reservations about the lack of concern for Mao's private life, about the limited treatment of the economic issues and the interpretation of the costs of Mao's life do not undermine that achievement. And if it stops short of being the definitive biography it is the most up to date and comprehensive survey of Mao's political and military life on the market.
Dr Richardson raises a number of interesting points. The first concerns the nature of biography, as distinct from history. Here there may be a legitimate difference of opinion. For myself, I hold that it is indeed the biographer's prime task to 'set out the facts and let them speak for themselves', to use Dr Richardson's phrase. Quite deliberately, therefore, 'interpretation is not placed centre stage'. Of course it is present, and quite properly so, in the selection of the facts related and the context in which they are placed -- not to mention the writer's opinions, and the culture, society and time in which he or she lives. 'Objective biography' does not exist, any more than 'objective' history. But that is not the same as telling the reader what to think. The object of biography, in my subjective view, should rather be to fashion the narrative in such a way as to enable the reader to draw his or her own conclusions; to point the way, certainly, by structuring the sequence of events and painting in the social and cultural environment in which they occur, but to ensure, as far as possible, that the writer does not come between the reader and the subject.
In this sense biography, at its best, has some of the same strengths as the novel, with the crucial difference that the biographer, unlike the novelist, is bound by historical fact and cannot (or at least should not) pretend to know the workings of his subject's mind.
The role of the historian, in my sense, is thus fundamentally different. The historian analyses, interprets and concludes, presenting an account in which he -- not his subject -- is the prime mover. It is his business to intrude, to argue a case, to present his vision of the events described (although I recognise that not all historians subscribe to this view). The biographer has a different task.
This is why the final chapter of the book is an epilogue, rather than a conclusion. The purpose was not for me, as the writer, to draw up a balance sheet of Mao's life, but to look at his continuing role in China 'from beyond the grave', a role connected, firstly, with the question of what post-Mao China will become (and is becoming); and secondly, with the related issue of how present and future generations in China will look back on his rule. It is not a cop-out to say that a final judgement is a long way off: in China, it is. And it is in China that it matters, because there the issue of how Mao should be viewed is inextricably intertwined with the country's slow but inexorable progress towards political pluralism.
In this context, I have been struck by how many reviewers have latched on to my brief comparison between Mao, Stalin and Hitler. On a point of fact, I must disagree with Dr Richardson that Stalin's famines were unintended: the famines resulting from the expropriation of the kulaks, carried out by the Komsomol and by Red Army troops, were politically engineered -- not only in the Ukraine, where the death toll was highest, but also elsewhere. In this case, no less than in the Great Purge, Stalin deliberately set out to liquidate a section of society he regarded as untrustworthy. That was not Mao's purpose in the Great Leap Forward. It is true that he made matters far worse by digging in his heels after Peng Dehuai spoke in 1959. But his responsibility was not the same as Stalin's.
I agree with Dr Richardson that a contributory factor in the Great Leap was Mao's imperial isolation, in which he was surrounded by more or less supine courtiers (of whom the first was Zhou Enlai). Indeed, this is a major theme of the last quarter of my book. But one has to understand the context, which is of an autocratic tradition, feudal (in the Chinese, not the western sense), and reinforced by Leninist centralism. I am not sure it is helpful to point to 'deep, and deepening, flaws' in Mao's character. I am not a psychologist; nor, I suspect, is Dr Richardson. Attempts to interpret Mao's life from the psychologist's chair (for instance, Lucian Pye's, 'Mao: the Man in the Leader') have not been particularly happy. After all, everybody in the world has character flaws of one kind or another -- from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair to myself and each reader of this review. Unless they are pathological, which is almost never true, they are not helpful in understanding political behaviour. Far more important, I would argue, is the political, economic, cultural and social context, for that is the bedrock on which any credible explanation of a person's actions must be based.
Two minor points, and one-and-a-half whinges. I do not devote much space to Mao's economic ideas, because, by his own admission, he simply did not understand economics. His writings on the subject in the late 1940s are pedestrian; his interventions in the 1950s disastrous; and thereafter he left the topic alone. (By contrast, I reproach myself for not having explored more fully Mao's view of China's place in the world, apropos his foreign policy).
'Mao's own life' is a different matter. He lived it by his own lights. Who are we to say that he should have had more of a family life? The fact is that he did not. With Yang Kaihui and He Zizhen he did have close relationships. These I have chronicled as fully as the available information allows (including much that has never been published in English before) -- and it is fascinating to speculate how different Mao might have been, as a politician and as a person, had He Zizhen not left him. But from the mid-1940s onward, his personal life all but disappears. By then, his siblings had all been killed, most of his children had died or been lost during the civil war, and what remained was his unsatisfactory relationship with Jiang Qing. Agreed: that was his fault. But the result was that for the last 20 years or so of his life, he lived and breathed politics. One cannot invent a family where there is none.
The one whinge concerns a hoary old chestnut. Dr Richardson alleges my 'unqualified acceptance of the "No dogs and Chinese" sign'. Unqualified acceptance? I referred, in a long description of the bund in Shanghai in 1921, to 'the park with its apocryphal sign, "Chinese and dogs not allowed"'.... Apocryphal, in my book, means 'probably or certainly not true, but widely believed to be true'-- in plain English, the sign was reputed to exist but in fact did not. The story seemed to me relevant because it encapsulates the attitude of a sizeable part of the foreign community in the days of extraterritoriality: if the sign did not exist, the mentality did. But, in retrospect, the reference was unwise, and I will not do it again!
The half-whinge relates to the notes and bibliography. Yes: it would be splendid to include a proper bibliography, But that would have added 30 to 40 pages to a book already 782 pages long -- and since most of the references would have been in Chinese only a tiny minority of readers would have benefited. The system used in the notes -- full bibliographical details for the first reference, thereafter short titles at the start of each new chapter, thereafter author's name only, was predicated on the notion that every scholar now has internet access to library catalogues, and a short-title or author-pair can instantly be transmuted into a full bibliographical record. Again, the alternative would have been a longer book. The problem of endnotes bedevils everyone who writes seriously on historical topics. We all know we need to devise new methods of dealing with it, and I shall be the first to admit that I do not have the perfect answer.