In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an abortive plot to kill the Chairman and then died a traitor in a plane crash, fleeing to the Soviet Union. Why had Lin popped up again on the remote Xinjiang frontier? Did this pencil jar (which I snapped up without bargaining) have some political significance?
None at all. As we wandered around the bazaar, I found a number of other items displaying the Chairman and Lin in happier days. At one shop I pointed to Lin’s image and asked the vendor why he was selling something with Lin’s portrait on it. Didn’t he know Lin was a bad person? “Ten percent off?” was the hopeful reply. I had picked up a piece of Cultural Revolution kitsch.
In their comprehensive, judicious, and finely detailed new biography of Mao, Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine have a phrase for the commercialization of the Mao cult in Tiananmen Square, where hawkers and souvenir shops “do a brisk trade in kitsch: Mao badges and posters, busts, and Quotations of Chairman Mao”: Mao has become “a souvenir of history.”1 Of this, more anon.
Do we need a new biography of this souvenir of history? Over the years, there have been many biographies, some even longer than this one. The short answer is yes, because every year important new sources become available. Indeed, a major problem of writing a life of a man who lived on the grand scale is the plethora of sources. In Chinese, the enormous “official” life is essential reading, too full of detail to be neglected2; there is also a three-volume chronology of the Chairman’s life; and multiple sources, official and unofficial, for his writings and speeches; the memoirs, biographies, and chronologies of Mao’s major colleagues; along with the reminiscences of his principal mistress and almost every minor functionary who ever had contact with the Chairman. History has been the lingua franca of the Chinese elite for two millennia, and every official or his family wants to reserve a place in the Communist pantheon. Used with care, as Pantsov and Levine do, this is a cornucopia. We are no longer solely dependent on Dr. Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao for revelations about Mao’s court, although the doctor must still be read.
Important new material is also available in English translation.3 And no canny biographer ignores earlier toilers in his vineyard,4 whatever his opinion of them. Elementary Kremlinology reveals Pantsov and Levine’s…
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