Who Was Mao Zedong?

Mao: The Real Story

by Alexander V. Pantsov with Steven I. Levine
Simon and Schuster, 755 pp., $35.00
Ge Ming Li Shi Hua Xuan
Dong Xiwen: The Founding Ceremony of the Nation (1951), showing Mao proclaiming the birth of the People’s Republic of China from the Imperial Palace Gate at Tiananmen Square, 1949

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…

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $74.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.