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Divine Killer

Mao Zedong

by Jonathan Spence
Lipper/Viking, 188 pp., $19.95

If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’

Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.”

—From Mao Zedong:Man, Not God by Quan Yanchi1


These observations should not be taken on trust. The author, a loyal hack of the official Chinese Writers’ Association in Beijing, based his text on interviews with Mao’s former bodyguard, a man named Li Yinqiao. Li knew Mao intimately, it is true. One of his public duties was to unbutton the Chairman’s trousers whenever he sat down, since “Mao was big-bellied” and he didn’t like his pants to “become too tight for comfort.” But unlike Mao’s ex-doctor, Li Zhisui, who wrote his famous account of life with Mao in the freer air of Chicago,2 Li Yinqiao never left China, where the truth about Mao still cannot be told.

And yet these statements about Mao are not wholly implausible. For squeamishness and sentimentality are often to be found in the truly inhumane. Heinrich Himmler couldn’t stand the sight of blood, and neither, for that matter, could Hitler.3 Mass murderers on a monumental scale are not, on the whole, drawn to doing the dirty work themselves. On his one field trip to Auschwitz, Himmler found it all too unsettling and resolved never to go near the place again. Men of this kind usually do not kill out of sadistic passion; a sadist after all has a perverse but intimate bond with his victim. People who kill one person often act out of passion—anger, jealousy, or love that has turned into loathing. People who make a habit of killing others for pleasure are usually mad. But those who are responsible for the death of millions appear not to be feeling anything much at all—hence, perhaps, the cheap tears, the watery evidence of displaced emotion.

Squeamishness when it comes to the sticky stuff is not the only thing some murderous tyrants have had in common. Hitler and Mao both suffered from “neurasthenia,” an affliction that is no longer fashionable but was apparently so prevalent in Mao’s entourage that his doctor called it the “Communist disease.” The main symptoms are insomnia, headaches, dizzy spells, and impotence. Mao’s potency, so his doctor informed us, was much affected by his political fortunes. Things went well when Mao felt on top of things, but any threat, real or imagined, to his absolute grip on power and the Chairman wilted, no matter how many girls shared his bed. Such psychosomatic problems are perhaps the price people pay for living in a state of permanent anxiety of being knifed in the back, either by courtiers or, in the case of the courtiers, by the tyrant himself. It is possible that Mao’s chronic constipation and Himmler’s stomach cramps came from the same source.

But these are all just symptoms of something. More interesting is the question of what drives certain people, sometimes, it seems, quite unremarkable people, to become the killers of millions. Is it just a peculiar set of circumstances? Is it an axiomatic matter of absolute power always leading to moral anesthesia? Or were such people as Mao, Himmler, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin not in fact mediocre at all, but evil geniuses who grabbed the chance to do their worst?

I read these two new biographies of Mao, one short, one hefty, with this question in mind. Both authors have a thesis of sorts. Jonathan Spence’s is draped in a metaphor. Mao, in his view, was a “Lord of Misrule,” a kind of fiesta prince of the night who turned the world upside down. Spence takes the example of great European households in the Middle Ages, where a Lord of Misrule would be chosen on festival days to reverse or parody the normal state of things: servants acted as lords, men as women, and so on. It is a common carnivalesque phenomenon, a ritual occasion for everyone to shed conventional roles and let off steam, always to revert to the normality of existing hierarchies. But Mao, in Spence’s view, did it for real, and not just on festive occasions. He wanted to reverse the order forever, exterminate all lords and masters, put the servants in charge, install himself as the people’s permanent Lord of Misrule, and create chaos whenever things got too settled.

It is an interesting metaphor, but it does not quite explain why Mao, from an early stage in his career, was so keen on extermination. Philip Short, whose book is in every sense weightier than Spence’s, draws moral distinctions between Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Indeed, he believes Mao is “in a different category from other twentieth-century tyrants.” Hitler exterminated people, mainly the Jews, because he thought they were vermin. Stalin personally signed the death warrants of thousands because they might have threatened him in some way. But Mao, says Short, had a vision, a utopian dream of the total transformation of China, and if many eggs were cracked in the process of cooking that particular omelet, this should count, in the Supreme Court of History, as manslaughter rather than murder. For, as Short puts it, “Even as his policies caused the deaths of millions, Mao never entirely lost his belief in the efficacy of thought reform and the possibility of redemption.”

Mao was not a racist killer. Yet the moral distinction does not appear as clear to me as it does to Philip Short. For Hitler had a vision too. His murders were also means to an end. Is it Short’s contention that some means are “in a different category” (manslaughter, not murder) because their ends are less repulsive? And were Mao’s utopian ends really so different from Stalin’s? Is he suggesting perhaps that Mao actually regretted the necessary killings, or, as Short puts it, “the human detritus, of his epic struggle to transform China”? If that is the case, we ought to find some evidence for it in Short’s fascinating account of Mao’s life.

Mao was born in 1893, the son of a relatively well off farmer in the southern province of Hunan. At the age of thirteen, he was already better educated than his father, who had only two years of schooling. In 1910, while he was still at school, Mao got his first taste of political violence. The sequence of events was typical of many modern Chinese rebellions. A flood in the Yangtse River caused a famine in Hunan; people were forced to sell their children, eat bark off trees, even the flesh of fellow human beings. Foreign traders and local gentry refused to stop exporting rice to other, less famished regions. In desperation people attacked the foreigners, always the first to be blamed for Chinese misfortunes, and then the local Chinese authorities. Buildings were wrecked, people killed, gunboats sent down the river, government troops restored order, and two poor wretches who had taken part in the riots were paraded through town in wicker baskets, after which their heads were lopped off and spiked on a couple of lampposts.

Mao said he never forgot it. “I felt that there with the rebels were ordinary people like my own family,” he later said, “and I deeply resented the injustice of the treatment given to them.”

This incident, recorded in both biographies, portrays Mao in the most sympathetic light. It shows that he had a social conscience—even though this sounds odd in a man who would one day be responsible for the starvation of as many as 30 million people. The story also sketches the atmosphere of violence he grew up in. If one wished to make an argument that Mao, unlike Hitler, began as a rebel with a just cause, this would be the way to do it. And it would fit the myth, commonly held in China and elsewhere, that Mao was a heroic figure until the late 1950s, when the old man, increasingly out of touch with reality, became a paranoid and brutal despot.

However, there were early signs in the young Mao of a more sinister cast of mind. Already as a schoolboy Mao was an avid reader of Chinese history. He had a special fondness for romantic tales of noble banditry, but also for stories about the ancient emperors. It has often been remarked that Mao particularly admired the emperor of the Qin dynasty who unified China in the third century BC. The Qin emperor, so far as we can know, was a ruthless tyrant who demanded absolute obedience, and is still commonly regarded by Chinese as a demonic figure. All that mattered to him was submission to his laws, and to make sure they were not softened by Confucian morality, or questioned by educated men, Confucian books were burned and Confucian scholars buried alive.

The most hated man of this much-hated dynasty lived a century earlier, before the Qin emperor created his empire. His name was Lord Shang, a minister of the legalist school who, according to Sima Qian, the great Han dynasty historian, castrated for his honesty, was “endowed by heaven with a cruel and unscrupulous nature.” Mao, aged eighteen, wrote a school essay praising this Lord Shang, whose laws, he argued, were much needed to whip into line a stupid, backward, and slavish people. Indeed, he said, updating his thesis, the Chinese, in the course of their long history, had accumulated “many undesirable customs, their mentality is too antiquated and their morality is extremely bad…. [These] cannot be removed and purged without enormous force.”

Such sentiments have been shared by many intellectuals from poor and humiliated countries, usually after encountering the wealth and power of richer nations. Pol Pot returned from his studies in Paris in this kind of mood. Mao did not even have to leave his native Hunan. Contempt for his own immoral, backward people went together, as it usually does, with a desire for iron leadership. Mao developed ideas on the Great Leader principle early on, writing as follows in the late 1920s:

The truly great person develops… and expands upon the best, the greatest of the capacities of his original nature…. [All] restraints and restrictions [are] cast aside by the great motive power that is contained in his original nature…. His force is like that of a powerful wind arising from a deep gorge, like the irresistible sexual desire for one’s lover, a force that will not stop, that cannot be stopped.

The sexual aspect is interesting in the light of Mao’s later potency problems. More disturbing, however, is the idea that the great hero should not be held back by common restraints, that the truly great man is above all laws. Mao argues in the same essay that chaos can be desirable, for “pure peace without any disorder of any kind would be unbearable…. It is the times when things are constantly changing and numerous men of talent are emerging that people like to read about. When they come to periods of peace, they…put the book aside.” These early throbbings of Sturm und Drang are still the fantasies of a bookish young romantic. It would take some years before they were turned into action. But Mao’s basic ideas on humanity, leadership, history, and politics were already firmly in place before his conversion to communism.

  1. 1

    Published in 1992 in Beijing by Foreign Languages Press.

  2. 2

    Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (Random House, 1994).

  3. 3

    H.R. Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (Macmillan, fourth edition, 1971), pp. 22, 80.

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