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Portrait of a Monster


It is close to seventy years since Edgar Snow, an ambitious, radical, and eager young American journalist, received word from contacts in the Chinese Communist Party that he would be welcome in the Communists’ northwest base area of Bao-an. Traveling there by train, by truck, on foot, and finally on horseback accompanied by a twenty-man escort of Chinese Red Army troops, Edgar Snow reached Bao-an, and was granted several long evening interviews by Mao in his lamp-lit cave. Mao’s secretary served as Snow’s interpreter, and Snow’s 20,000-word English draft of the interview was then translated back into Chinese and transcribed by a young student named Huang Hua, for submission to Mao. Mao made corrections and cuts, and Huang thereupon translated that approved version back into English for Snow.1 With Snow’s extended commentaries and additions to supply historical context, the resulting book, Red Star Over China, was published in the United States and in Britain in 1938; an underground and abbreviated edition had already appeared in Chinese shortly after Snow returned to Beijing, and circulated widely in the Communist base area. Snow later reflected on his book with these words:

I had gone to the Northwest before any Westerner and at a dark moment in history for the Chinese Communists as well as for all China. I had found hope for the nation in that small band of survivors of the Long March, and formed a favorable impression of them…and their policies…. I admired their courage, their selflessness, their single-minded determination to save China (under their leadership) and the outstanding ability, the practical political sense, and personal honesty of their high Commanders.2

Snow’s book was, indeed, highly flattering to both the Chinese Communist leaders and their followers: the forty-three-year-old Mao, wrote Snow in Red Star, was “a gaunt, rather Lincolnesque figure,” and his rank and file, whether at work or on the march, seemed to be always singing. Snow noted in his diary that the Chinese Communists he met “go about remaking the world like college boys to a football match,” and the Mao he portrayed was earthy, earnest, informal, jocular, and visionary.

Though sales of Red Star in the United States were disappointing—at 23,500 they were less than a quarter of the sales in Britain, where the book was published in Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club—the book had a profound influence on American thinking about China. Snow’s detailed account of Mao’s early life, education, first experiences as a revolutionary and on the Long March became staples of later biographical writings about Mao, and parts of them remain accepted to this day. In the period since Red Star first saw the light of day, this laudatory tradition was carried on by various writers who either traveled to the base area of Yenan during World War II or watched with awe as the Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek in the civil war between 1945 and 1949, and then struggled to establish a new state on the wreckage. This sympathy died hard. But since his death in 1976, praise for the later Mao has pretty much dried up as irrefutable evidence has appeared on the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward, the ensuing famine between 1959 and 1962, and the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Mao’s youthful legacy, however, has not been totally erased.

In Mao: The Unknown Story, the co-authors Jung Chang and Jon Halliday launch a protracted assault on the entire concept of a favorable assessment of Mao’s role in the rise and success of the Chinese Communist movement, both before and after 1949. They come to their venture buoyed by the international best-seller status of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, an absorbing account of her experiences growing up in the People’s Republic, first published in 1991, and by Jon Halliday’s knowledge of Russian and Eastern European languages and materials. The two authors provide readers with eighty-five pages of notes, an elaborately classified and extensive bibliography of the Chinese archival collections and other Chinese works they have consulted (twenty-six pages), twenty-three pages of Western-language materials (including Russian, Albanian, and Bulgarian) and English translations of Chinese sources, and fourteen pages containing the names of those they have interviewed in China, Russia, and the rest of the world. Their notes show that they conducted the first of these interviews in 1993, so we can assume they have worked for a decade on their book. And from this mountain they have constructed their Mao.

Their Mao has these main attributes: though “born into a peasant family,” he never spent much time seriously farming; at most, when still young, the authors argue, “Mao did a little light farm work, gathering fodder for pigs and taking the buffaloes out for a stroll.” Later he gave up farm work for study at a local school (his teachers found him troublesome), and in 1911, the year of the revolution that toppled China’s last dynasty, “he said good-bye for ever to the life of a peasant.” Nor did he draw any social lessons from such rural experience as he had: “There is no sign that Mao derived from his peasant roots any social concerns, much less that he was motivated by a sense of injustice.” The sight of famine victims left him unmoved. He had not even absorbed the farmers’ basic need for careful planning and calculation, so that “all his life, he was vague about figures, and hopeless at economics.”

In the later Teens of the twentieth century, Mao entered a teacher-training college; here, the authors tell us, Mao first mentioned “one theme that was to typify his rule—the destruction of Chinese culture.” Here, too, he read in class a Chinese translation of the German philosopher Friedrich Paulsen’s A System of Ethics published in 1899, from which he absorbed a personal feeling that the self dominated all, that destruction reigned supreme, and that “morality does not have to be defined in relation to others.” Such thoughts were far from being just passages gleaned from an obscure volume, marking a phase in the awakening of a fledgling consciousness, as many readers today might assume. For the writers, these sentiments were the “central elements” in Mao’s character, which “stayed consistent for the remaining six decades of his life and defined his rule.”

Out in the world, as in farming or in studying, another formative aspect of Mao’s character lay in his laziness. The reason that Mao joined the Communist Party, which he did in either late 1920 or early 1921, the authors tell us, had nothing to do with his social conscience, for he felt no more sympathy for workers than he did for peasants. Being no good at languages, he could not go to Russia or France to study at the radical fonts, as many of his friends from Hunan chose to do at that time. So the simplest way Mao could find to survive—even at teaching he was inept—was to take the Comintern’s proffered money and accept “a comfortable berth as a subsidised professional revolutionary.” And being both an opportunist and “ideologically woolly,” Mao had little trouble adjusting to the tortuous world of the Comintern-ordered United Front, which brought the Communists into alliance with the bourgeois centrists—or even right-wing militarists—in the name of the protection of the Soviet Union and the future world revolution: “Mao shifted with the prevailing wind.”

All that was now required was a setting in which Mao’s latent sadistic side could develop to the full, and that chance, we are told, came in the bitter fighting that erupted in China in the mid-1920s, as the United Front disintegrated from its own fatal internal contradictions and political feuding. In the authors’ reading, during the last months of 1926 and the first two of 1927 Mao followed the orders of his superiors to study (and/or foment) rural revolution through the peasant associations that had formed in various parts of China. Mao loved what he saw—the humiliations of the landlords, the pains of the prosperous, and the rough vengeance of the masses. Mao’s celebrated report on these upheavals in his native province of Hunan, taken by many analysts to be a sign of his deepening awareness of the terrible problems that haunted the Chinese countryside, suggests something different to the authors:

What really happened was that Mao discovered in himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery. This gut enjoyment, which verged on sadism, meshed with, but preceded, his affinity for Leninist violence. Mao did not come to violence via theory. The propensity sprang from his character, and was to have a profound impact on his future methods of rule.

This new blood lust accompanied Mao to his fugitive revolutionary base in the Jinggang mountains in 1928. Mao, to the authors, now “demonstrated a penchant for slow killing.” The authors add a gloss:

Mao did not invent public execution, but he added to this ghastly tradition a modern dimension, organised rallies, and in this way made killing compulsory viewing for a large part of the population. To be dragooned into a crowd, powerless to walk away, forced to watch people put to death in this bloody and agonising way, hearing their screams, struck fear deep into those present.

With all this bleak analysis presented in the first fifty-four pages, the reader is attuned to the major themes of Mao’s life that the authors unfold as they follow his activities during the Chinese Communist domination of the Jiangxi region in the early 1930s, the subsequent establishment of the Yenan base for anti-Japanese resistance, the civil war period when the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek were finally defeated, and the long painful years of the People’s Republic, when millions of Chinese died from famine and the violence of the Cultural Revolution.

But the litany is by no means exhausted: among the themes introduced by the authors early in the work, which come to full blossoming only in their account of Mao’s later years, one should include at least these: Mao’s callousness to his wives (four in all) and to his children; his growing love of luxury, especially for large mansions with scenic views, but also for swimming pools and private trains; his paranoia and mania for security; his unclean personal habits; his lechery, deepening with each passing year; his personal avoidance of combat and his deep fear of violence directed at his person; his gluttony; his pandering to the sexual proclivities of chosen subordinates or foreign dignitaries; his dependence (from early in the revolution) on ever-increasing amounts of sleeping pills; his joy in humiliating others and in causing pain, often to leaders who had been close associates. During the Cultural Revolution, the authors write,

Mao made sure that much violence and humiliation was carried out in public, and he vastly increased the number of persecutors by getting his victims tormented and tortured by their own direct subordinates.

  1. 1

    See S. Bernard Thomas, Season of High Adventure: Edgar Snow in China (University of California Press, 1996), pp. 132–139.

  2. 2

    Thomas, Season of High Adventure, p. 147.

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