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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 attitude toward their immediate predecessors, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, authors of Mao: The Unknown Story. 5 Their subtitle is “The Real Story.”

Their biography uses the new sources extensively, but the authors highlight privileged access to the very important and voluminous Soviet sources as the special mark of their work, and seemingly they exploited the Russian archives more thoroughly than Chang and Halliday.6 Both Pantsov and Levine are at home with English, Chinese, and Russian sources. Pantsov graduated from Moscow State University, and though he now teaches history at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, he apparently has ongoing access to the Russian archives.7 His colleague Levine is a senior research associate at the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana who used both Russian and Chinese sources in his pathbreaking study of the Chinese Communists’ early Civil War victories.8

The Russian archives are used by Pantsov and Levine to support their contention that “Mao was a faithful follower of Stalin…who dared to deviate from the Soviet model only after Stalin’s death,” and that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was dependent financially upon Moscow from its founding through the early 1950s. It is certainly clear that Comintern agents dominated the early CCP. But sometimes the authors confuse the tail and the dog. Mao’s pioneering development of rural soviets and peasant armies was not ordered by Moscow, and was blessed by Stalin only after the strategy proved successful.9 Under attack by Trotsky and his allies for his China policy, Stalin needed the CCP to succeed as much as it needed his material and ideological support.10 He had no option but to order the Comintern to throw money at the problem. We have learned enough about the disbursement of foreign aid in distant conflict zones and factionalized polities to realize how little control donors have over its end use.

Stalin’s only sanction was to denounce or dismiss a leader who had failed, and even then the outcome might be unsatisfactory. For example, on July 23, 1927, the then leaders of the CCP were lambasted for their political defeats by the newly minted Comintern representative, the twenty-nine-year-old, overbear- ing Visarion Lominadze, whereas they knew that the culprits were the long-distance manipulators in Moscow. The Chinese had asked him for arms and money for a military uprising planned to take place soon in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province. Pantsov and Levine imply that since the Soviet Politburo had just voted to supply the CCP with a major arms consignment, the Chinese had to swallow Lominadze’s insults. But according to one of the Chinese participants, Lominadze queried Moscow and relayed the answer that there would be no cash forthcoming and apparently made no mention of arms. Even though Soviet advisers were ordered to have nothing to do with the proposed Nanchang uprising, it took place anyway.11

The Russian archives are particularly valuable in giving access to Mao’s speeches or remarks hitherto unknown. But since these archives date back to the Soviet period, memo writers may have thought it wise to consider the prejudices of their superiors, especially, under Stalin, to prove the wisdom of his policies, and especially during the two decades of Sino-Soviet antagonism to paint Mao in lurid colors. One would have welcomed guidance from Pantsov and Levine about how they assessed the reliability of the materials. Occasionally, too, the focus on Soviet materials leads to a neglect of Chinese sources.12


By now, the outlines of Mao’s early life may be familiar to many readers of this journal. Born in 1893 to a rich peasant family in the southern province of Hunan, he had no intention of staying down on the farm. He managed to squeeze money out of his parsimonious and hardworking father to continue his education in the provincial capital, Changsha. As Pantsov and Levine point out, and Mao admitted in later years, he seems never to have considered the alternative of taking a job to support himself. The future leader of China’s “broad masses” had quickly acclimatized to the attitudes of the student intellectual:

I then used to feel it undignified to do even a little manual labor, such as carrying my own luggage in the presence of my fellow students, who were incapable of carrying anything, either on their shoulders or in their hands. At that time I felt that intellectuals were the only clean people in the world, while in comparison workers and peasants were dirty. I did not mind wearing the clothes of other intellectuals, believing them clean, but I would not put on clothes belonging to a worker or peasant, believing them dirty.

Fortunately for him, Mao had the talents to qualify him for his new status. His schoolmate Emi Siao (Xiao San), later a distinguished poet, recounted that Mao “wrote quickly as if sparks were flying from his writing brush. His class compositions were posted as examples on the walls of the school. He could read two or three times faster than anyone else.”

Under the influence of his favorite teacher and future father-in-law, Mao absorbed the importance of strong personalities for leading people. Among the many annotations he made on a translation of the nineteenth-century German ethicist Friedrich Paulsen, one stands out:

Everything that comes from outside [the truly great person’s] original nature, such as restraints and restrictions, is cast aside by the great motive power that is contained within his original nature…. The great actions of the hero are his own, are the expression of his motive power, lofty and cleansing, relying on no precedent. His force is like that of a powerful wind arising from a deep gorge, like the irrestible sexual desire for one’s lover, a force that will not stop, that cannot be stopped. All obstacles dissolve before him.13

That he never forgot his early concept of the hero was amply demonstrated decades later when he led his 600 million countrymen into the valleys of death, the Great Leap Famine and the Cultural Revolution.

Back in the early twentieth century, the hero’s job was to save China. In common with other Chinese students and intellectuals, Mao was obsessed by the parlous condition of his nation. Even after the 1911 revolution that overthrew the decadent Manchu dynasty, China was still at the mercy of imperialist powers like Britain, France, and newly active Japan. Intellectuals explored Western ideas to find a way to restore China’s greatness. Mao finally committed himself to Marxism in 1920 after the Bolshevik Revolution had demonstrated that a group of well-organized and brilliantly led anti-imperialist intellectuals could seize power in a vast agrarian empire. He was one of twelve delegates to the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Shanghai in 1921.

But the Comintern had little faith in the fledgling CCP emulating the Bolsheviks and seizing control of China. Moscow needed a strong Chinese ally against its Asian nemesis, Japan, and a reluctant CCP was frog-marched into a united front with Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party (KMT), which was seen as a better bet for the immediate future. Unlike some comrades, Mao was an enthusiastic collaborator with the KMT,14 but after Sun’s successor, General Chiang Kai-shek, turned on his Communist allies in April 1927 and butchered thousands,

Mao turned out to be almost the only major leader of the CCP who assessed the situation soberly…that the communists’ struggle for power in China could succeed only on condition that the Communist Party create its own military force.

From late 1927, Mao began to hone his guerrilla tactics during fifteen months on Jinggangshan, in the Jiangxi highlands, relying heavily for his forces on what might be called the lumpen peasantry or éléments déclassés: soldiers, bandits, robbers, beggars, and prostitutes, many linked to secret societies. One biographer has suggested that such nonproletarian elements appealed to Mao’s memories of the bandit heroes of popular novels he had read avidly from childhood. But in truth, Mao had few options: he had his first taste of how difficult it was to recruit hardworking peasants away from the backbreaking daily round that kept their families alive.15

It was also in Jinggangshan that he met a doughty young Communist, He Zizhen, locally known as the “Two-gunned Girl General,” whom he took as his third wife. She bore him six children, of whom only one daughter survived, and later accompanied him on the Long March. Mao’s second wife, Yang Kaihui, who had been left behind in Hunan, learned of his new marriage and might have committed suicide but for the need to look after their two sons. Later she was arrested by the Nationalists in reprisal for Mao’s revolutionary activities, and executed when she refused to renounce him.

  1. 1

    Actually, some Chinese have bigger ambitions for the late Chairman, and if UNESCO members are not alert, there is a chance that Mao will graduate from Chinese souvenir to global icon. Mao’s mausoleum in the center of Tiananmen Square is being pushed by some Chinese officials as part of the application for world heritage status for Beijing’s “central axis,” the main feature of which is the Forbidden City. See Raymond Li, “World Heritage Bid Likely to Include Mao’s Tomb,” South China Morning Post, August 4, 2012. 

  2. 2

    Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong zhuan (1893–1949) (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1996); Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong zhuan (1949–1976) (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, two volumes, 2003). 

  3. 3

    In English, there is the ongoing multi-volume edition of Mao’s Revolutionary Writings, 1912–1949 (M.E. Sharpe, 1992), edited until his recent death by Stuart R. Schram under the auspices of Harvard’s Fairbank Center. Complementing it is Tony Saich’s massive documentary collection The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party (M.E. Sharpe, 1996). Another major ongoing translation project in the US is the Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project, edited by Christian F. Ostermann at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., which publishes valuable documentary materials from all over the onetime Communist bloc. 

  4. 4

    The most influential biographies have been Jerome Ch’en, Mao and the Chinese Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1965); Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-tung (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1966); Lucian Pye, Mao Tse-tung: The Man in the Leader (Basic Books, 1976); Ross Terrill, Mao: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 1980; Touchstone, 1993; Stanford, 1999); Philip Short, Mao: A Life (Henry Holt, 2000); Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (Knopf, 2005). There are a number of other biographies, each of which is given a fair-minded assessment by Ross Terrill in a bibliographic note in the 1993 edition of his Mao

  5. 5

    For a discussion of issues raised by the controversial biography by Chang and Halliday, see Gregor Benton and Lin Chun, Was Mao Really a Monster? The Academic Response to Chang and Halliday’s “Mao: The Unknown Story” (Routledge, 2010). 

  6. 6

    One deduces this from their respective bibliographic notes. On the other hand, Pantsov and Levine do not list nearly as many Chinese sources as Chang and Halliday. 

  7. 7

    Pantsov has been publishing in Russian and English for some thirty years; his English-language studies include The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution, 1919–1927 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), which stresses the importance of the Comintern role for the CCP

  8. 8

    Anvil of Victory: The Communist Revolution in Manchuria, 1945–1948 (Columbia University Press, 1987). 

  9. 9

    Mao: The Real Story, pp. 236–237. 

  10. 10

    Leon Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution (University of Michigan Press, 1967). 

  11. 11

    Mao: The Real Story, pp. 188–189; Chang Kuo-t’ao, The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party, I, 1921–1927 (University Press of Kansas, 1971), pp. 669–673. The uprising took place on August 1 and is celebrated as the birthday of the People’s Liberation Army. 

  12. 12

    For instance, in discussing the still murky Gao Gang purge in the early 1950s in which Stalin allegedly played a key role, Pantsov and Levine seem not to rely on the important testimony of his secretary Zhao Jialiang even though his memoir is listed in the bibliography. At one point (p. 397), the authors talk of “Mao’s personal dislike of Gao” without any substantiation or source, whereas one very knowledgeable Chinese official has written that Mao’s favorites were Gao Gang, Lin Biao, and Deng Xiaoping, in that order; see Li Rui (a onetime secretary of both Gao and Mao) in Hu Yaobang yu Zhongguo zhengzhi gaige (Hu Yaobang and China’s political reform), edited by Zhang Bozhu (Hong Kong: Chen zhong shuju, 2009), pp. 27–28. 

  13. 13

    Mao: The Real Story, p. 41; I have expanded the quotation taken from Schram, Mao’s Road to Power, Vol. 1, pp. 263–264. 

  14. 14

    Schram, Mao Tse-tung, pp. 80–81, argues that this was later an embarrassment to Mao and party historians. 

  15. 15

    The landmark work on Jinggangshan is Stephen C. Averill’s Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006); for the suggestion that Mao admired the bandit chiefs he allied with, see Schram, Mao Tse-tung, pp. 126–128; see also Mao: The Real Story, pp. 202–204. 

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