Since I left school, I hardly ever wrote about the books I read. This time, though, I feel the urge to write about one I've just finished - Mao: The Unknown Story written by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I have this urge because I hope more people would read it. To be more precise, I think everyone should read it.
When we hear stories about Mao Zedong, it is very difficult for us to distinguish propaganda from myth, rumour from reality. For example, while it is public knowledge that there were catastrophes under Mao's reign, kind-hearted people will tend to assume that at least Mao's intentions were good.
The authors of this book resolve some of these mysteries. Instead of doing a book review, I am going to let the book speak for itself by citing seven key excerpts (in italics below). I then leave it to you to decide whether you would also take the time to read the book.
1. Private Life
Mao married four women in his life. His first marriage was arranged by his father, though Mao never regarded the woman as his wife. His second wife, after giving birth to three sons for Mao, he abandoned. She was later executed, a direct result of Mao's attacking her city,
Barely four months after he left her, Mao married for the third time. Through
all his marriages, he also had numerous affairs,
lovers and girlfriends, including orgies with young dancing girls and
actresses, till his very late years. He tended
to see women only in terms of what they could do for him, only to later dismiss
them when they had stopped being useful. Changsha
"For Gui-yuan (his third wife), Mao's flagrant womanising was the last straw. Over their marriage of nearly ten years, she had had to live with her husband's heartlessness. She was particularly hurt by his callousness towards her painful pregnancies and childbirth - including one on the Long March - and by his crack that she gave birth to babies 'as easily as a hen dropping eggs'. And she was bitter that although he was indifferent to children, and had not cared when four of theirs had died or been abandoned, he repeatedly made her pregnant. Their fifth child, a daughter called Chiao-chiao, was born in
1936 in Baoan, where conditions were
appalling, with scorpions and rats running all over the place. A year later,
Gui-yuan was pregnant again, which plunged her into depression. Repeated child-bearing
in harsh circumstances had severely damaged her health, without the
compensation of family life. Now, on top of this, her husband was openly
sleeping with other women…
[Mao’s] girlfriends provided him with sex, and served him as maids and nurses... Meng, the former actress, longed to leave, and asked her fellow nurse Yu-feng to put in a plea for her, saying that she was nearly thirty years old and wanted to spend some time with her husband so that she could have a child. 'Wait till after I die and then she can have a child,' was Mao's reply."
2. The Long March
Mao has long been portrayed as the courageous hero who led the Long March. The real story, according to the book, was very different:
"[Officers] voiced bitter feelings about the way their leaders had abandoned the wounded, and turned ordinary soldiers into 'sedan-chair bearers' for the VIPs and their wives... Mao and the other leaders had 'sat in sedan chairs' all through the March... Not having to walk made the difference between life and death... While the elite all survived, sheer exhaustion killed many of their much younger litter-carriers, nurses and bodyguards, who were often in their teens - and some as young as twelve or thirteen."
3. Rule by Terror
In the 1940s, a large number of passionate young volunteers flocked to Mao ready to serve the country, with equality as the core of their idealism. They were soon disillusioned by witnessing the privileges the leaders enjoyed over the others. When the enthusiasts spoke up against the inequalities, Mao suppressed them with torture and terror.
"For month after month, life in Yenan centred on interrogations - and terrifying mass rallies, at which some young volunteers were forced to confess to being spies and to name others in front of large crowds who had been whipped into a frenzy... All forms of relaxation, like singing and dancing, were stopped. The only moments alone afforded no peace either, consumed as they were in writing 'thought examinations' - a practice hitherto known only in fascist
everybody to write their thought examination,' Mao ordered, 'and write three
times, five times, again and again... Tell everyone to spill out every single
thing they have ever harboured and is not so good for the Party.' In addition,
everybody was told to write down information passed unofficially by other
people - termed 'small broadcasts' by the regime... Through forcing people to
report 'small broadcasts', Mao succeeded to a very large extent in getting
people to inform on each other. He thus broke trust between people, and scared
them off exchanging views not just at the time in Yenan, but in the future... Information
starvation gradually induced brain death - assisted vastly by the absence of
any outlet for thinking, since one could not communicate with anyone, or put
one's thoughts on paper, even privately. During the campaign, people were put
under pressure to hand in the diaries. In many a mind, there also lurked the
fear of thinking, which appeared not only futile but also dangerous.
Independent thinking withered away.” Japan
4. The Great Leap Forward
Instead of making
an advanced economy, the Great Leap Forward's real goal was militaristic. Mao
extracted food from the population to pay other countries in return for arms
and military technologies. His ultimate goal was to establish China as a
military superpower. What's more, while other counties took generations to
achieve this, he wanted to do it within his own lifetime. And he did this in
full knowledge that millions of his own people were literally starving to
death. These millions meant nothing to him - in fact, he was ready to sacrifice
many more millions to achieve his aim. China
"His guideline for the cities was 'Production first, Life takes second place'... The urban meat ration declined annually from
5.1 kg per person in 1957 to an all-time low of just
over 1.5 kg in
1960. People were told to eat 'food substitutes'. One was a green roe-like
substance called chlorella, which grew in urine and contained some protein... That
year (1960), the regime's own statistics recorded, average daily calorie intake
fell to 1534.8. According to a major apologist for the regime, Han Suyin, urban
housewives were getting a maximum 1200 calories a day in 1960. At Auschwitz, slave-labourers got between 1300 and 1700
calories per day. They were worked about eleven hours a day. and most who did
not find extra food died within several months. During the famine, some
resorted to cannibalism... While all this was happening, there was plenty of
food in state granaries, which were guarded by the army. Some food was simply
allowed to rot... But the order from above was: 'Absolutely no opening the
granary door even if people are dying of starvation'... Close to 38 million
people died of starvation and overwork in the Great Leap Forward and the
famine, which lasted four years... During the two critical years 1958-9, grain
exports alone, almost exactly 7m
tons, would have provided the equivalent of over 840 calories per day for 38
million people - the difference between life and death...
Although slaughter was not his purpose with the Leap, he (Mao) was more than ready for myriad deaths to result... At the May 1958 congress that kicked off the Leap, he told his audience they should not only not fear, but should actively welcome, people dying as a result of their Party's policy...
[Mao] had said, 'We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution.' That was about half the population of China then. Indeed, Mao told the Party congress on 17 May 1958: 'Don't make a fuss about a world war. At most, people die... Half the population wiped out - this happened quite a few times in Chinese history... It's best if half the population is left, next best one-third...'"
5. Cultural Revolution
Despite the name, real target of Mao’s Cultural Revolution had nothing to do with culture, nor revolution. It was to get rid of anyone in the Party who had shown any resistance to him. He proceeded in stages.
"In June, Mao intensified the terrorisation of society. He picked as his first instrument of terror young people in schools and universities, the natural hotbeds for activists. These students were told to condemn their teachers and those in charge of education for poisoning their heads with 'bourgeois ideas' - and for persecuting them with exams, which henceforth were abolished...
After terror in schools, Mao directed his Red Guards to fan out into society at large. The targets at this stage were the custodians of culture, and culture itself... They 'confiscated' valuables, and beat up the owners. Bloody house raids swept across
which People's Daily hailed as 'simply splendid'. Many of those raided were
tortured to death in their own homes. Some were carted off to makeshift torture
chambers in what had been cinemas, theatres and sports stadiums... Some
families who had been raided were exiled to villages, escalating a process
which Mao had already initiated in order to turn cities into 'pure' industrial
centres. In China Peking, nearly 100,000 were
expelled in less than a month from late August...
By mid-September, the country was thoroughly terrorised and Mao felt confident enough to start stalking his real target: Party officials... the old enforcers who had shown distaste for Mao's extremist policies. Mao aimed to get rid of them en masse, and the call went out to attack them right across
first senior official tortured to death was the minister of coal, on 21 January
1967. Mao hated him because he had complained about the Great Leap Forward -
and about Mao himself. He was exhibited in front of organised crowds, and had
his arms twisted ferociously backwards in the form of torment known as being
'jet-planed'. One day he was shoved onto a bench, bleeding, shirtless in a
temperature well below freezing, while thugs rushed forward to cut him with
small knives. Finally, a huge iron stove was hung round his neck, dragging his
head down to the cement floor, where his skull was bashed in with heavy brass
belt buckles." China
While Mao cracked down on bribery, tax evasion, pilfering state property, cheating, and stealing economic information (the "five-antis"), he himself was exempt.
"Mao himself did not embezzle in the conventional way... he treated the funds of the state as his own, and used them however he wanted... Mao liked villas. During his twenty-seven-year rule, well over fifty estates were created for him, no fewer than five in
Peking. Many he never set foot
in. These estates were set in enormous grounds, mostly in gorgeous locations.
So, in many places of great beauty, the whole mountain, or long stretches of
lakes, were cordoned off for his exclusive use... When he flew, every other
was grounded. And when his special train moved, always setting off at a
moment's notice, the country's railway system was thrown into chaos, as other
trains were not allowed to be anywhere near his." China
7. Mao's Mistreatment of Chou En-lai
Chou En-lai served Mao for decades, since long before he came to power until his very late years. In spite of all this loyal service, Mao denied Chou treatment when he was diagnosed cancer in 1972.
"The doctors had to report first to Mao. They requested immediate surgery for Chou, stressing that the cancer was at an early stage, and that prompt action could cure it. On 31 May, Mao decreed: 'First: keep it secret, and don't tell the premier or [his wife]. Second: no examination. Third: no surgery...' One reason Mao did not want Chou to go to hospital and be treated was in order for Chou to be available to work round the clock to deal with foreign statesmen... But entertaining visiting statesmen was not the sole, or even the principal reason why Mao vetoed surgery for Chou. Mao wanted Chou around in the short term, but he did not want him cured, as he did not want Chou, four years his junior, to outlive him. This was miserable reward for decades of service, which had involved a care for his master's health that reached far beyond the call of any duty. Chou had even tested some of Mao's medicines on himself, and tried out Mao's eye-drops - 'to see whether this stings', as he put it...Chou himself then practically begged, via the four top leaders designated by Mao to supervise his medical 'care'. At this point, Mao reluctantly gave his consent... It was only now that he was allowed his first proper operation, two years after his cancer had been diagnosed. This delay made sure that he died nineteen months later, and before Mao."
As I read the book, I felt very thankful to the authors for having taken the tremendous amount of time and effort in doing the research and putting it into writing. They interviewed hundreds of people who were close to Mao, many very aged and ready to open up for the first time. They also delved deep into archives that opened up following the fall of the
Union, in order to tell a story of Mao that previously was
I was also thankful to get hold of the book, which remains unavailable on the Mainland. Its Chinese edition was published only in
Hong Kong, as the plan to release a Taiwanese
edition was abandoned. According
to the authors, during the civil war some leading
Nationalists had actually been covert Communists. One such "sleeper" was Hu Tsung-nan, a senior National Revolutionary Army general.
When the book was about to be published in , Hu's son objected to this
description, and his threat of legal action led the publishers to abandon
the release of the book. Taiwan
As for the Mainland, naturally enough, the book is banned altogether. After Mao's death, his successor Deng Xiao-ping gave an official verdict about him, saying that Mao had been 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong. Despite any flaws, Deng said, Mao had kept the country on the right path. Visitors still see Mao's portrait dominate
as the main national symbol.
To me, this makes the book all the more powerful. History this may be, but it’s not all in the past. While the CCP remains in charge and continues to venerate this man, it casts a long shadow over our future. As a Hong Konger, and especially at this time, I feel very strongly we are still living with the consequences.