The Mind of Mao

The Center of the World: Communism and the Mind of China

by Robert S. Elegant
Doubleday, 396 pp., $5.95

The Communism of Mao Tse-tung

by Arthur A. Cohen
University of Chicago, 205 pp., $5.00

The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung

by Stuart R. Schram
Praeger, 319 pp., $7.00

When westerners first spoke of the “Middle Kingdom,” there was something arch in the usage. To the Chinese it was a simple self-estimate, but when used abroad, even in a respectful context, the term was quaint. Nowadays, the “Middle Kingdom” (or “the center of the world”) hints of menace, evoking visions of Mao calling the monster of pride from the deeps of Chinese history. Whose face is that, snarling, in the center of the star, in the center of the jacket of The Center of the World? No doubt the publisher put it there, that lurid mask breathing “Tomorrow the World,” but it suits Mr. Elegant’s book too. Its thesis is that Mao’s China is eager to force history, onward and outward, that Mao means to create utopia soon, and to bring China’s weight to bear all over the world. This is a serious point of view, but Elegant proposes it with an almost unbearable intensity and banality. Here is the introductory “motto” to one of the historical sections:


Western Aggressiveness Penetrates the Glorious Isolation of Imperial China

China has moved through time much like a gigantic jellyfish in the 2,200 years since she became a political entity by the consolidation of her independent feudal states into an empire. Vast in bulk at the outset, she has constantly expanded. The process has, from time to time, been checked or reversed, sometimes for centuries, but the instinctive outward growth has always been resumed. China has charged her internal organization—or become conscious of her own character—only in response to external stimuli. Her reaction has sometimes been a shrinking into herself, sometimes an unhurried ingestion of the intruder, and sometimes a violent striking out. China, like a Portuguese Man-of-War, has possessed stinging tenacles whose embrace could maim or kill the adversary.

This is a change from the blue ants, but it still suggests instinct, anti-human and anti-analytic. The historical narrative itself is calmer, but it has the same portentous rhetoric. Still, one might say, nobody goes to a book like this for its style. But the substance of Elegant’s book is inseperable from its style—his over-interpretation is a part of his over-writing. He presents the dangerous prospects for China by showing that her past prefigured them—an eternal China, autocratic and overbearing, shines through the surface of drastic change. The substance of his book is itself the separation of form and substance: revolution is mere form and Mao is echt-chinesisch. Elegant speaks, to be sure, of a “completely altered Chinese society” transformed by the Communists, but he sees this merely as a new means to the old end of glory. In The Center of the World, what is essential about China is that it has an essential character (“To this day, neither artifice nor compromise has ever convinced the Chinese…that embracing Christianity will not alter their essential character”). Again, “Communism in China is as much a reaffirmation of Confucianism as it is a reaction against the tradition.”…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.