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 Nationalist armies and analyses of Mao’s tactics and strategy. These are fascinating, but difficult to follow owing to a paucity of maps, though in other respects, the book has been well produced.

The author’s emphasis on the military does not, however, mean that he is uninterested in politics. He gives a surprisingly clear description of the complexities of the Chinese political situation from 1911 to 1949. He also reconstructs insofar as it is possible to do so the inner party struggles that led to Mao’s emergence as supreme leader of the Communist party in 1935. The aspect of Mao which receives the least attention is the theoretical one; Dr. Ch’en hardly touches on Mao’s philosophical ideas. Yet the balance of the author’s emphasis to some extent reflects the character of his subject: Mao is a brilliant strategist and politician but not an original thinker. His pure philosophy, as recent studies have shown clearly, is largely derived from Stalin.

In some ways the political life of Mao Tse-tung and the history of the Chinese Communist party can be seen as an alternation between Marxist theory and practical common sense. In 1924 the Chinese Communists, following Marxist theory, believed that the Kuomintang was the chief agent of history, and that the Chinese party must help it by working within it. Theoretical considerations—together with pressure from Moscow—forced the Communists to continue to remain loyal to the Kuomintang even after it became obvious that Chiang K’ai-shek and the other leaders were not in any sense revolutionary, and in fact were planning to annihilate the Communists. After the disastrous results of this policy Mao and a few others had no choice but to become wandering guerrillas. In this situation, with their backs to the wall and no room to apply scientific socialism, they improvised brilliantly. By 1930 the position had so improved that once again theory could intrude. Attacks were planned on the cities so that the urban proletariat could take the place accorded to them by Marx and lead the revolution. These attacks were so costly that Mao and his friends were forced to disobey party instructions and withdraw to the country where their military and political genius succeeded in establishing a rural base—an action completely against the Marxist canon. This alternation has continued to the present, theory and dogma leading to crisis, and heroic improvisation and flexibility pulling the Communist party and regime through. This analysis, however is only half the story; without the confidence in their eventual success, the Chinese Communists could never have survived, let alone risen to power. Marxism gave them a vital spark possessed by no other group in the bewildering confusion of twentieth-century Chinese history. They may not have known the exact way to reach their goal, but they alone knew what they really wanted and were prepared to make the sacrifice necessary to gain it.


Dr. Ch’en brings as much objectivity as I believe is possible in this field, a quality owing much perhaps to his preference for the concrete and his distrust of theory. Unfortunately, however, it is impossible even for the historian to be altogether uninvolved, for the story of Mao’s struggle with Chiang K’ai-shek is like the story of David and Goliath—a small and badly equipped force, armed only by faith and the support of the people, fighting a huge army with great resources and even greater brutality and stupidity. One’s automatic sympathy is with the boy with a sling and, in addition, while believing in the use of violence to achieve his ends, Mao is a poet who feels for the suffering around him. With these ingredients Dr. Ch’en’s recital of the events of Mao’s rise to power cannot help but become a stirring epic, the story of dauntless heroes overcoming fearful odds. Furthermore, the serious reader will find Dr. Ch’en’s account of Mao’s life and rise to power of considerable help in understanding China today. David the King with his ruthlessness and cruelty may be in many ways the antithesis of David the shepherd boy, but they are one person. The present regime in China is very much the child of the twenty years of struggle that went before it.

One facet of this is its reliance on real or imagined popular support and human spirit in the face of adverse material conditions. It was the experience of battles won against tremendous odds that led Mao and the other leaders into the Great Leap Forward and the Commune Movement of 1958, in which they hoped to raise Chinese society to Communism by will power along. From the same revolutionary tradition stems their absolute confidence in the Viet Cong whom they believe can drive out an enemy of incomparably greater military strength simply with the support of the population and without significant aid from outside. Somewhat paradoxically, another imprint on the Chinese regime of its revolutionary past is its patience and flexibility. As revolutionaries Mao and his friends were badly defeated several times, but learning from their mistakes they won power in the end. Experience has confirmed their Marxist belief that time is on their side, despite appearances to the contrary at any given moment. Mao expresses this faith in his phrase “Imperialism is tactically a real threat but strategically a paper tiger.” Thus for instance he believes that however much tactical damage is created by the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and possibly even of South China, eventually she will be forced to leave Vietnam. Revolutionaries who had gained power at one blow might in the present circumstances attempt to attack the U.S. regardless of the risk. Mao’s experience as a guerrilla has taught him otherwise.

One of the disadvantages of Dr. Ch’en’s book is the ease with which one can drown in a sea of facts. Professor Fitzgerald’s less detailed work, The Birth of Communist China, is in many ways a much more satisfactory book. The author sketches with broad but sensitive strokes a history of the Chinese Revolution up to 1949. To put it crudely, Professor Fitzgerald’s thesis is that Chinese Communism is primarily Chinese and only secondarily Marxist, that the rise of the Communist party is similar to the rise of strong dynasties in China’s past, and the Communist party represents a new mandarin class. He believes that the chief function of Chinese Communism is to replace the vacuum left by the collapse of Confucianism, justify a strong government, and maintain a stable society. In saying this Professor Fitzgerald is only expressing the extreme point of a range of views held by a large number of sinologists. It is hardly surprising that scholars who know about China defend their vested interests by maintaining the continuity of Chinese culture up to the present, while experts on Marxism tend to emphasize the sharpness of the break made by the Communist Revolution. Looked at from 1964 it is obvious that the sinologists were nearer the truth than their opponents, and paradoxically Professor Fitzgerald’s book has been undermined by his own perspicacity. In 1952 when his book first appeared it was widely believed that China had fallen to Communism, in very much the same way that Czechoslovakia had “fallen to Communism,” and that through “subversion” both countries had been conquered by the Soviet Union. Indeed America’s disastrous policy towards China at the time was based on that theory. Since the Sino-Soviet split however it has become clear to everyone that Chinese Communism is indigenous and has its roots in Chinese history. Thus much of Professor Fitzgerald’s thesis is now accepted as common knowledge. The only passages that strike this reviewer as original are his exaggerations of the parallels between Confucian and Communist China, where for instance he says of Communist party members and cadres:


They are also precisely the same group of people who have governed China for the last two thousand years. It is in their blood they are born to rule.

Yet despite excesses of this kind The Birth of Communist China provides an excellent survey of modern Chinese history.

I suppose one ought to be relieved that people are talking less nonsense about defending the “free world” in Asia. All the same I am still a little shocked by the new “realist” school that Mr. Halperin represents. In the first chapter of his book he makes it clear that he thinks that the clash between America and China is not basically one of ideology, but a conflict of powers. In the same chapter he states:

Beyond the maintenance of control over traditional Chinese territory the Peking regime seems to be interested in the first instance in having friendly nations on its periphery—countries that would not accept American military bases on their soil and that would in general accept China’s lead in foreign policy.

Without stopping to consider whether these aims are reasonable or how they could be reconciled with American policy Mr. Halperin rushes on to see how the U.S. can thwart whatever China wants to do. He postulates convincingly that the Chinese leaders are now aware of their military weakness and are extremely cautious in their foreign policy. He observes that not only would they do almost anything to avoid nuclear war, but they do not take even such actions as overt assistance to indiginous Communist groups “which have not so far involved the risk of nuclear retaliation.” Mr. Halperin believes that even the Indian Frontier and the Korean war are not in fact exceptions to these rules of policy. In every case the Chinese government has done nothing but bluster and boast of her prowess, and until China develops a nuclear stockpile and efficient means of delivery the only function of the new Chinese atomic bomb is prestige.

Mr. Halperin, seeing China’s weakness and the unlikelihood of effective Russian aid, suggests that America should increase the pressure on China, using nuclear bombs or the threat of them to coerce China and her allies to comply with American interests. As well as being totally immoral, this policy is also not likely to be effective. Though terrified of war, the Chinese are prepared to fight when they feel that they are forced into a corner, as in Korea. A war between America and China, if it did not bring in Russian intervention and world destruction, would be a war in which America bombed Chinese cities and countryside and the Chinese prevented the Americans from gaining a secure foothold in China. As well as the purely military frustrations, American foreign policy as a whole would suffer an enormous setback. The intensity of international feeling against American machines and for Chinese humans, would make the present waves of revulsion and protest against American methods in Vietnam seem like ripples.

This Issue

May 6, 1965