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 …

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  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