Mao and the Chinese Revolution
The Birth of Communist China
China and the Bomb
To most Westerners China is not a part of the known world and Mao is not a figure of our time. The ignorant believe he is the leader of a host of martians whose sole occupation is plotting the destruction of civilization and the enslavement of mankind. The more sophisticated say that he is the builder of a new world which will somehow, some day, be of great significance, but having said that, they turn their minds back to the present, thinking—perhaps rightly—that China is too different and difficult to begin to comprehend. Thus writers swarm around the life of a minor figure like Churchill, telling us a thousand times stories we already know but love to hear, while on the other hand there is little information available about Mao Tse-tung, who has had a far greater impact on the post-war world.
Until recently there was only one good biography of Mao in any language: his autobiography as taken down by Edgar Snow in Red Star Over China. The three or four other biographies in western languages have all been by dilettantes or demonologists. Within the last two years, however, the situation has greatly improved. 1963 saw the publication of S. R. Schram’s fascinating book The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, which for the first time enabled one to begin disentangling many of the intellectual strands that make up Mao’s thinking. Now this year we have Dr. Ch’en’s scholarly biography, in which the known facts of Mao Tse-tung’s life from his birth until 1949 have been assembled and put in order. Together these neatly complementary books take us a long way towards understanding this exceptional man and his extraordinary context.
Although it will probably be widely read, Dr. Ch’en’s biography is not written for the layman. Every page is packed with the names of people and places, and even of regiments and armies which changed their composition and title almost as often as their geographical locations. As a consequence, even the specialist will find it difficult to read the book through without at some point checking back to discover what on earth was going on. The text is thoroughly annotated and references are given for every significant fact and opinion. The author has drawn on over 300 sources which appear to cover nearly all the material on the subject in English and Chinese. It is regrettable that he has not consulted any of the Japanese sources which are particularly valuable for the war years 1937-45. In spite of this omission, however, Dr. Ch’en has produced an important work of reference. Its value in this respect is further increased by several useful appendices, including a detailed chronology of Mao’s life to 1949 and an itinerary of the Long March.
Dr. Ch’en is primarily a military historian, and it is the military aspects of Mao’s life and thinking in which he is most interested. A large part of the book is devoted to detailed descriptions of the campaigns of the Communist and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.