Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong; drawing by David Levine


It is close to seventy years since Edgar Snow, an ambitious, radical, and eager young American journalist, received word from contacts in the Chinese Communist Party that he would be welcome in the Communists’ northwest base area of Bao-an. Traveling there by train, by truck, on foot, and finally on horseback accompanied by a twenty-man escort of Chinese Red Army troops, Edgar Snow reached Bao-an, and was granted several long evening interviews by Mao in his lamp-lit cave. Mao’s secretary served as Snow’s interpreter, and Snow’s 20,000-word English draft of the interview was then translated back into Chinese and transcribed by a young student named Huang Hua, for submission to Mao. Mao made corrections and cuts, and Huang thereupon translated that approved version back into English for Snow.1 With Snow’s extended commentaries and additions to supply historical context, the resulting book, Red Star Over China, was published in the United States and in Britain in 1938; an underground and abbreviated edition had already appeared in Chinese shortly after Snow returned to Beijing, and circulated widely in the Communist base area. Snow later reflected on his book with these words:

I had gone to the Northwest before any Westerner and at a dark moment in history for the Chinese Communists as well as for all China. I had found hope for the nation in that small band of survivors of the Long March, and formed a favorable impression of them…and their policies…. I admired their courage, their selflessness, their single-minded determination to save China (under their leadership) and the outstanding ability, the practical political sense, and personal honesty of their high Commanders.2

Snow’s book was, indeed, highly flattering to both the Chinese Communist leaders and their followers: the forty-three-year-old Mao, wrote Snow in Red Star, was “a gaunt, rather Lincolnesque figure,” and his rank and file, whether at work or on the march, seemed to be always singing. Snow noted in his diary that the Chinese Communists he met “go about remaking the world like college boys to a football match,” and the Mao he portrayed was earthy, earnest, informal, jocular, and visionary.

Though sales of Red Star in the United States were disappointing—at 23,500 they were less than a quarter of the sales in Britain, where the book was published in Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club—the book had a profound influence on American thinking about China. Snow’s detailed account of Mao’s early life, education, first experiences as a revolutionary and on the Long March became staples of later biographical writings about Mao, and parts of them remain accepted to this day. In the period since Red Star first saw the light of day, this laudatory tradition was carried on by various writers who either traveled to the base area of Yenan during World War II or watched with awe as the Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek in the civil war between 1945 and 1949, and then struggled to establish a new state on the wreckage. This sympathy died hard. But since his death in 1976, praise for the later Mao has pretty much dried up as irrefutable evidence has appeared on the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward, the ensuing famine between 1959 and 1962, and the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Mao’s youthful legacy, however, has not been totally erased.

In Mao: The Unknown Story, the co-authors Jung Chang and Jon Halliday launch a protracted assault on the entire concept of a favorable assessment of Mao’s role in the rise and success of the Chinese Communist movement, both before and after 1949. They come to their venture buoyed by the international best-seller status of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, an absorbing account of her experiences growing up in the People’s Republic, first published in 1991, and by Jon Halliday’s knowledge of Russian and Eastern European languages and materials. The two authors provide readers with eighty-five pages of notes, an elaborately classified and extensive bibliography of the Chinese archival collections and other Chinese works they have consulted (twenty-six pages), twenty-three pages of Western-language materials (including Russian, Albanian, and Bulgarian) and English translations of Chinese sources, and fourteen pages containing the names of those they have interviewed in China, Russia, and the rest of the world. Their notes show that they conducted the first of these interviews in 1993, so we can assume they have worked for a decade on their book. And from this mountain they have constructed their Mao.

Their Mao has these main attributes: though “born into a peasant family,” he never spent much time seriously farming; at most, when still young, the authors argue, “Mao did a little light farm work, gathering fodder for pigs and taking the buffaloes out for a stroll.” Later he gave up farm work for study at a local school (his teachers found him troublesome), and in 1911, the year of the revolution that toppled China’s last dynasty, “he said good-bye for ever to the life of a peasant.” Nor did he draw any social lessons from such rural experience as he had: “There is no sign that Mao derived from his peasant roots any social concerns, much less that he was motivated by a sense of injustice.” The sight of famine victims left him unmoved. He had not even absorbed the farmers’ basic need for careful planning and calculation, so that “all his life, he was vague about figures, and hopeless at economics.”


In the later Teens of the twentieth century, Mao entered a teacher-training college; here, the authors tell us, Mao first mentioned “one theme that was to typify his rule—the destruction of Chinese culture.” Here, too, he read in class a Chinese translation of the German philosopher Friedrich Paulsen’s A System of Ethics published in 1899, from which he absorbed a personal feeling that the self dominated all, that destruction reigned supreme, and that “morality does not have to be defined in relation to others.” Such thoughts were far from being just passages gleaned from an obscure volume, marking a phase in the awakening of a fledgling consciousness, as many readers today might assume. For the writers, these sentiments were the “central elements” in Mao’s character, which “stayed consistent for the remaining six decades of his life and defined his rule.”

Out in the world, as in farming or in studying, another formative aspect of Mao’s character lay in his laziness. The reason that Mao joined the Communist Party, which he did in either late 1920 or early 1921, the authors tell us, had nothing to do with his social conscience, for he felt no more sympathy for workers than he did for peasants. Being no good at languages, he could not go to Russia or France to study at the radical fonts, as many of his friends from Hunan chose to do at that time. So the simplest way Mao could find to survive—even at teaching he was inept—was to take the Comintern’s proffered money and accept “a comfortable berth as a subsidised professional revolutionary.” And being both an opportunist and “ideologically woolly,” Mao had little trouble adjusting to the tortuous world of the Comintern-ordered United Front, which brought the Communists into alliance with the bourgeois centrists—or even right-wing militarists—in the name of the protection of the Soviet Union and the future world revolution: “Mao shifted with the prevailing wind.”

All that was now required was a setting in which Mao’s latent sadistic side could develop to the full, and that chance, we are told, came in the bitter fighting that erupted in China in the mid-1920s, as the United Front disintegrated from its own fatal internal contradictions and political feuding. In the authors’ reading, during the last months of 1926 and the first two of 1927 Mao followed the orders of his superiors to study (and/or foment) rural revolution through the peasant associations that had formed in various parts of China. Mao loved what he saw—the humiliations of the landlords, the pains of the prosperous, and the rough vengeance of the masses. Mao’s celebrated report on these upheavals in his native province of Hunan, taken by many analysts to be a sign of his deepening awareness of the terrible problems that haunted the Chinese countryside, suggests something different to the authors:

What really happened was that Mao discovered in himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery. This gut enjoyment, which verged on sadism, meshed with, but preceded, his affinity for Leninist violence. Mao did not come to violence via theory. The propensity sprang from his character, and was to have a profound impact on his future methods of rule.

This new blood lust accompanied Mao to his fugitive revolutionary base in the Jinggang mountains in 1928. Mao, to the authors, now “demonstrated a penchant for slow killing.” The authors add a gloss:

Mao did not invent public execution, but he added to this ghastly tradition a modern dimension, organised rallies, and in this way made killing compulsory viewing for a large part of the population. To be dragooned into a crowd, powerless to walk away, forced to watch people put to death in this bloody and agonising way, hearing their screams, struck fear deep into those present.

With all this bleak analysis presented in the first fifty-four pages, the reader is attuned to the major themes of Mao’s life that the authors unfold as they follow his activities during the Chinese Communist domination of the Jiangxi region in the early 1930s, the subsequent establishment of the Yenan base for anti-Japanese resistance, the civil war period when the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek were finally defeated, and the long painful years of the People’s Republic, when millions of Chinese died from famine and the violence of the Cultural Revolution.


But the litany is by no means exhausted: among the themes introduced by the authors early in the work, which come to full blossoming only in their account of Mao’s later years, one should include at least these: Mao’s callousness to his wives (four in all) and to his children; his growing love of luxury, especially for large mansions with scenic views, but also for swimming pools and private trains; his paranoia and mania for security; his unclean personal habits; his lechery, deepening with each passing year; his personal avoidance of combat and his deep fear of violence directed at his person; his gluttony; his pandering to the sexual proclivities of chosen subordinates or foreign dignitaries; his dependence (from early in the revolution) on ever-increasing amounts of sleeping pills; his joy in humiliating others and in causing pain, often to leaders who had been close associates. During the Cultural Revolution, the authors write,

Mao made sure that much violence and humiliation was carried out in public, and he vastly increased the number of persecutors by getting his victims tormented and tortured by their own direct subordinates.

All of this culminated in his ambition, after conquering every corner of his own country, to dominate the world itself through the acquisition of nuclear bombs.


There are many passages in which the authors elaborate on the convergence of all these negative traits into one knowing and self-conscious whole, and this one, on the world of Mao in 1964, can stand both as their description of Mao at that time and for pretty much any period until his death in 1976:

What Mao had in mind was a completely arid society, devoid of civilisation, deprived of representation of human feelings, inhabited by a herd with no sensibility, which would automatically obey his orders. He wanted the nation to be brain-dead in order to carry out his big purge—and to live in this state permanently. In this he was more extreme than Hitler or Stalin, as Hitler allowed apolitical entertainment, and Stalin preserved the classics.

Around this portrait of a repulsive man, the authors construct a complexly patterned grid of national history, in which Mao seeks to turn every major confrontation to his own advantage, to fit in with his endless quest for dominance within the Communist Party of China, within the international Communist movement, and in the world at large. There are, by my count, around twenty-two or more such crucial moments in the 631 pages of this book. Each one of them is designed by the authors to challenge some aspect of what they see as false received wisdom in the depictions of Mao’s march to power that various historians and analysts have tried to develop over the last sixty years or so.

Their book is subdivided into fifty-eight bite-sized chapters, each of ten pages or so, and many of those chapters focus just on a single scheme or action that Mao, they claim, was able cannily to exploit to his own advantage. Thus we find Mao using the Nationalist Party leader Wang Ching-wei to bolster his own role in the United Front; playing lackey to the Comintern; betraying his comrades’ trust at Wuhan in 1927; tearing apart the guerrilla base in the Jinggang mountains; sabotaging the military achievements of his fellow revolutionaries Peng Dehuai and Zhu De; instituting a wave of torture and murder in the Jiangxi Soviet; using the Long March to destroy his main Party rival Chang Kuo-t’ao; reducing Chou En-lai to “slavish” dependence; conniving with Stalin to push the Japanese into a war in Shanghai while refusing to fight them near his own base region in the northwest; mentally tormenting and trying to poison Wang Ming, his main intellectual rival in the Party; setting up a police state in the same base region; betraying his Communist colleagues in central China so they could be wiped out by Chiang Kai-shek; developing a monolithic cult of Mao in the base; insisting on a murderous military policy in civil-war Manchuria, so that the casualties in some cities there exceeded the entire total of those killed by the Japanese in the rape of Nanjing; betraying China by letting Stalin keep vast areas of formerly Chinese territory in the north and west; duplicitously forcing his senior colleagues to enter the Korean War even without Soviet air support; tricking the intellectuals of China with his fake “Hundred Flowers” promises; needlessly raising grain requisitions from his people during the terrible famines that followed the Great Leap; destroying Chinese resources in order to pay for his mad global ambitions; deliberately destroying his own most talented colleagues in the Cultural Revolution purges, in some cases after treating them with great brutality, while also succeeding in “wiping out culture from Chinese homes” as “frightened citizens burned their own books”; and, near the end, ordering that Chou En-lai be refused treatment for his bladder cancer, lest Chou outlive him and try to reverse his policies.

All of the above episodes are elaborated versions of situations that did exist in some form or other, though not necessarily in a form at all like that presented by the authors. Take for example their eye-catching title to Chapter Nineteen: “Red Mole Triggers China–Japan War.” This chapter offers the argument that the Nationalist General Zhang Zhi-zhong, commander of the Shanghai-Nanjing region, was in fact a “long-term Communist agent,” “activated” by Stalin in August 1937 in order to broaden the war with Japan. The authors argue that General Zhang’s success in forcing the Japanese into all-out war in the Shanghai theater “in effect, legitimised” the CCP as an ally of the Nationalists fighting the Japanese, and means not only that “this was probably one of Stalin’s greatest coups” but also that Zhang “can arguably be considered the most important agent of all time.” These are huge claims, and are worth some reflection.

Certainly no historian working on twentieth-century China can deny that there were “moles” at work in many sections of the Nationalist Chinese army and intelligence agencies, moles placed either by the Nationalist Party, the Communists, or pro-Japanese sympathizers, and at times they influenced events in a decisive way. There were also double agents, on all three sides. All three sides had their own assassination squads.

This situation arose, in part, because the nature of the United Front was such that both Communists and Nationalists attended the same military training academy at Whampoa near Canton in the early 1920s, where Comintern agents were intensely active. Chiang Kai-shek served as commandant of the Whampoa academy, and Chou En-lai was political director. Chiang Kai-shek had visited the Soviet Union to study their military training methods, while Chou En-lai was from an educated family and had lived for some time in France. Chou and Chiang, like thousands of other ambitious young Chinese, had also studied in Japan. General Zhang Zhi-zhong did rise rapidly in the Nationalist army and was clearly a favorite of Chiang Kai-shek, as the authors write; he also much later, in 1949, did surrender to the Communists rather than retreat to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek.

But there are many aspects of the authors’ dramatic claims that still need much clarification: How, for example, did Stalin “activate” General Zhang in order to broaden the war with Japan? Were there Shanghai-based Comintern agents still in touch with Moscow by secret radio channels and in a position to give instructions to General Zhang? And what exactly was General Zhang’s job before he was “activated”?

In his own memoir, published in Beijing in 1985, General Zhang writes that as early as February 1936 Chiang Kai-shek had authorized him to undertake confidential planning with senior officers in the National Military Academy (of which Zhang was dean) to defend the Suzhou-Shanghai region against the Japanese. This work continued into 1937, when Zhang went for medical treatment in the northern city of Qingdao. But on July 9, 1937, after hearing news of the Japanese assaults in north China, Zhang hurried back to Nanjing and Shanghai, to coordinate the defenses there.3 This does not sound like a mole surreptitiously working away; in fact, as General Zhang also writes in his memoirs, he had been active in the fighting against the Japanese in Shanghai in early 1932, and Chiang had greeted him with an honor guard when he returned to Nanjing airport from the front. Chiang seems to have known Zhang’s views, and to have consistently trusted him.

One other linked point merits attention. The authors say that because of his aggressive position against Japan, General Zhang was “forced to resign, in September [1937], by an angry, frustrated and undoubtedly suspicious Chiang.” Zhang, however, states—and other sources confirm—that after the initial Japanese victory in the Shanghai region, he was transferred to be the governor of Hunan province. This does not seem to have been a disgrace, since Chiang Kai-shek’s plan for a general retreat suggested that the inland province of Hunan, south of the Yangtze with major river links to the southwest, would be a key region in China’s future. Zhang adds in his memoirs that it was in Hunan, in November 1937, that he finally met up again—after a ten-year gap—with some of the Communists (including Chou En-lai) he had known from the old days in Whampoa. The authors cite General Zhang’s memoirs as one of their sources, and there is of course no reason why they should agree with General Zhang on all these details. In this, as in many of the other bold scenarios in Mao: The Unknown Story, a tighter historical context would have been helpful to the reader.


Any historical approach naturally reflects the times and locations where it was constructed, and Edgar Snow’s benign vision of Mao’s revolutionary goals and methods was never uncontested. Criticism of his position mushroomed after Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat to Taiwan in 1949; in the following year, the grim realities of the Korean War, and the mounting horror and the hellish evidence then emerging of Stalin’s Soviet Union, sharpened the critical commentaries on Snow’s version of Mao. The domestic American arguments concerning the “loss of China” and the victimization of the Americans believed to be responsible for it were only part of the story. As Hong Kong under British rule became a haven for refugees fleeing from Mao’s China, social scientists flocked to interview them, and to develop the analyses that would delineate the nature of “brain-washing,” and the institutional and emotional underpinnings of the Chinese state and society.

In Taiwan, as the Nationalists dug in and tried to maintain the belief that they would soon be returning to the Mainland, evidence of Communist excesses and atrocities was collected and codified, and made available to researchers. In the People’s Republic, each purge or mass movement was accompanied by the compilation of dossiers on those who were charged or implicated, and this “proof” of their crimes became part of a secret but permanent record. In Japan, though in-depth research into the nature of the Japanese occupation was hesitant, there was extensive collation and reprinting of the field studies undertaken by the Japanese researchers who had lived and worked in Manchuria and north China. The dawning of the Sino-Soviet rift after 1956 also led researchers to explore anew the differences between Soviet and Chinese revolutionary tactics and ideology.

As new materials have become available, the historiography has shifted and deepened. The largest new body of materials related to Mao—on which the authors of Mao: The Unknown Story draw liberally—are the floods of memoirs and reminiscences that have recently poured from Chinese presses—originally in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but now on an immense scale from publishers within China itself. General Zhang’s memoirs can be taken as an example of this trend, but the first of these really to catch major Western attention was the memoir by one of Mao’s doctors, Li Zhisui, published in Taiwan in 1994 and in English translation by Random House the same year, under the title The Private Life of Chairman Mao.4

This book sharply highlighted the biggest difficulty of evaluating the memoir literature on Mao: Was it true or not? That it ought to be true was not the key factor—when the bits all seemed to fit in a certain way, could we be sure that some alternative pattern of events might not be equally valid? Li’s memoir was coherent and forceful, and with time his depictions of Mao have come to be widely accepted. Dr. Li presented a Mao who was totally self-absorbed: erratic and dictatorial, full of opinions and slogans, not especially talented intellectually, fleshly by inclination, innately luxury-loving. Mao’s cruelties were shown to have sprung sometimes from random whims, at other times to have been the results of cold calculation. The comparatively measured tone of Li’s book encouraged acceptance of its main claims.

I do not feel that the same is true of the unstintingly hostile accounts in Mao: The Unknown Story, even though many of its materials are also drawn from Chinese memoir literature, and from interviews with a wide and richly varied cast of characters—among them Mao’s former girlfriends, his private secretaries, his bodyguards, his daughter, and the spouses of some senior colleagues who have miraculously survived. Particularly hard to evaluate are materials that appeared in China in conjunction with the purging and kangaroo trials of senior political figures such as the former president Liu Shaoqi and his wife, Wang Guangmei, or Lin Biao and his wife, Ye Qun, who allegedly tried to assassinate Mao in 1971 and died in a plane crash as they fled to the Soviet Union shortly after their coup failed.

During the period between 1973 and 1975 the entire country was mobilized by Mao to criticize the former army marshal Lin Biao and his family, and as had been true so often in the past with other fallen leaders, people hastened to create condemnatory documentation that would brand each new victim with his or her due level of infamy. Here, for instance, is part of an allegedly bugged telephone conversation between Lin Biao’s wife, Ye Qun, and the army’s chief of staff, Huang Yong-sheng, a man Lin Biao himself appointed in 1968 when he and Mao were in close partnership. As the authors explain, Huang was “a well-known womaniser” and “soon became Mrs. Lin’s lover.” Mrs. Lin herself was then a powerful figure who soon became a member of the Politburo. The authors write:

Ye Qun was a woman of voracious sexual appetite, for which she had little outlet with the clearly impotent marshal, whom she described as “a frozen corpse.” The relationship between her and her lover is revealed in a three-hour telephone conversation that was bugged.

YE QUN [YQ]: I am so worried you might get into trouble for pursuing physical satisfaction. I can tell you, this life of mine is linked with you, political life and personal life…. Don’t you know what 101 [Lin Biao’s code name] is like at home? I live with his abuse…. I can sense you value feelings…. The country is big. Our children can each take up one key position! Am I not right?

HUANG: Yes, you are absolutely right.

YQ:…Our children put together, there must be five of them. They will be like five generals and will get on. Each will take one key position, and they can all be your assistants.

HUANG: Oh? I am so grateful to you!

YQ: …I took that measure [implying contraceptive]. Just in case I have it and have to get rid of it [implying baby], I hope you will come and visit me once. [Sound of sobbing]

HUANG: I will come! I will come! Don’t be like this. This makes me very sad.

YQ: Another thing: you mustn’t be restricted by me. You can fool around…. I’m not narrow-minded. You can have other women, and be hot with them. Don’t worry about me….

This transcript is quoted by the authors from a Chinese volume published in 1993, the title of which the authors translate as Super Trial (Chaoji Shenpan). But that volume, a slamming indictment of the Gang of Four led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, and of all members of Lin Biao’s family who conspired with them, gives no sources at all. The transcript is simply printed there with no attribution save for the vague remark that it was “listened to clandestinely” by Lin Biao and Ye Qun’s own son, so that he would have a hold over his mother.5

Since all three of these people were allegedly involved together in a plan to assassinate Mao in 1971, and were all killed in a getaway plane that crashed in Mongolia later that year, little verification is possible. Even if this passage is cited in Super Trial as a genuine transcript, it still seems to me much closer to the bawdy Chinese popular storytelling tradition than to an actual bugged conversation between two of China’s top political figures: this, after all, was during the Cultural Revolution, in a society rife with spies and informers of every stripe, where discretion was essential to survival. Though we are comparatively used to sexual vagaries in our own society, the situation in China was surely incomparably different. We can imagine such an account being used, at some point, to discredit Ye Qun and her husband, but we should know more about its provenance before accepting it on its face.

Mao: The Unknown Story contains many other examples of “secret” conversations between the top leaders of China which somehow have made their way into the memoir literature and thus become “sources.” It is rare that the authors show the candor that they do on one occasion, where, citing some remarks about foreigners’ sexual habits made by the wife of the guerrilla leader Zhu De, they comment that her “information reflected the gossip of the day.”

Despite its length, Mao: The Unknown Story avoids seriously grappling with other factors that made the twentieth century such a terrible one for tens of millions of Chinese, irrespective of what Mao may have done: these would include the depth and savagery of the Japanese assault on China, the nature of the Chinese labor movement, the realities of peasant deprivation in republican China, the collapse of local order and the spread of banditry, the strength of organized criminal gangs, the significance of Chiang Kai-shek’s lack of political and military skills, the social, regional, and class differences that separated the Communists from one another, and the technical aid, including police training methods, spycraft, and military communications, furnished by the United States to the Nationalists.

By focusing so tightly on Mao’s vileness—to the exclusion of other factors—the authors undermine much of the power their story might have had. By seeking to demonstrate that Mao started out as a vile person and stayed vile throughout his life, the authors deny any room for change, whether growth or degeneration, for subtlety or the possibilities of redemption. The countless Chinese who did struggle for change are denied any role in their own story, and become mere ciphers, their lives and deaths without purpose. With few exceptions, particularly General Peng Dehuai, who stood up to Mao on several key occasions and was eventually tortured and killed, Mao’s senior colleagues and would-be comrades are presented here as pathetic figures, easily manipulated, unable—apparently—to fathom even Mao’s grossest and most far-fetched power plays and deceptions. Locked into their misery by the force of one man’s personality, the Chinese people as a whole are denied all agency. And Mao himself ceases to be absorbing. How far can Mao have to fall, when he is at the bottom already?

As I was reading this book, I kept asking myself why historians should feel that they ought to be fair even to pathological monsters, if that is truly what Mao was. The most salient answer is perhaps structural as much as conceptual. Without some attempt at fairness there is no nuance, no sense of light and dark. The monster, acute and deadly, just shambles on down some monstrous path of his own devising. If he has no conscience, no meaningful vision of a different world except one where he is supreme, while his enemies are constantly humiliated and his people starve, then there is nothing we can learn from such a man. And that is a conclusion that, across the ages, historians have always tried to resist.

This Issue

November 3, 2005