The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 16 January 2018


A Life

by Philip Short

Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, lived from 1893 to 1976 and was one of the most significant figures in 20th-century world history. He and his comrades transformed the most populous nation on Earth, dominated Asian regional politics, and left an enduring legacy lingering long into the 21st century. Today's China would most likely be utterly unrecognizable to Mao, but how modern China came about cannot be understood without knowing something about the man who led it through some of its most complex, dramatic and brutal changes. Indeed, it can easily be said he was the cause of many of these problems. No one book could hope to encompass the vast sprawl of Chinese history through which Mao lived. This one (at a formidable 634 pages, first published in 1999) is a broad overview of Mao's life and almost any single page of the book on its own contains events enough to span a whole chapter or even a whole book. This history, in sufficient detail, would span an encyclopedia.

Mao came along at a time of great instability in China. The last emporer was deposed in 1912, and was followed by a series of weak governments of warlords and corrupt landlords. The setting was ripe for unrest among the many millions of Chinese peasants. The path of Mao's career was circuitous, with political reverses in his student years, adoption of a Stalinist version of Communism, uneasy alliances with the Nationalist Guomindang government and army, and incredible forces upon China from without. After centuries of pressure from colonial forces in the West, China was set upon by Japan in a series of invasions and wars. One would think the Russians would help out their Communist neighbor, but theirs was a relationship that never stabilized. The Communists were not particularly strong, at first, but Mao produced military successes and took the lead in the Communists' ability to take advantage of an unstable situation, and the weakness and corruption of their enemies. Ultimately, of course, after a whirlwind of battles, they took power in 1949.

The political, economic and military context of Mao's rise surrounds and permeates this story, but there is an astounding number of events and movements that took place during this era. By necessity, as the author focuses on Mao himself, he glosses over quite a bit of the outside forces that helped shape Mao's revolution. There is so much that remains vague here, that the reader may find they're feeling somewhat under-served by this biography. But the story is too vast. We must stay focused on the man, after all. And even then, there is much that one must imagine remains to be told. For example, we pause only occasionally to look at the man himself, rather than the political events in which he played key roles. He was married four times and had many children, many of whom were left behind in his drive for the revolution. It is a grim story that left Mao alone and frolicking with showgirls at the end of his life.

What ensued after the Communists took power wasn't pretty, of course. Mao and his cohorts now had to lead an impovershed nation of half a billion people. Mao himself was almost blindly dedicated to his Stalinist vision of permanent revolution. As a result, he set out on a series of radical movements, each one more brutal than the last. The economic programs were unrealistic and devastating to the nation. A vast famine killed tens of millions of Chinese. The Cultural Revolution devastated the intellectual capital of the country. And yet Mao remained dedicated to the course of perpetual revolution. Many of his colleagues attempted to counsel moderation. It was a battle between political imperitives and objective reality. Political dreams tended to win in Mao's world, and he successfully purged dozens, or maybe hundreds of government officials. Not to mention the tens of thousands attacked and killed by the Red Guards and other violent upheavals that Mao tacitly approved. The many deaths were necessary. In a nation of half a billion, the one resource China had (and still does to this day) was any number of people they could throw at a problem. Or to merely throw away in the name of so-called progress.

Mao was a sophisticated leader, but a boorish and single-minded one. (Throughout this book, the similarities of his personal weaknesses to those of the current President of the United States were repeatedly made evident, though the book was published well before our current state of affairs.) In the end, Mao would no-doubt deplore the path China has taken since his death in 1976. The leaders who followed him shifted the national priorities toward economic development under a tightly controlled government that remains Communist in name only. There have been irregular upheavals in the name of democracy and human rights, but as long as the country can produce economic prosperity, despite its cost in human and environmental resources, the people seem by-and-large content with the status-quo. The dark days of the warlords and landlords are gone, having been replaced by glittering towers and a resurgence of economic inequality. Mao has been reassessed. He remains a key figure in uniting China under a centralized and powerful government. But his vision of permanent revolution appears utterly dead.

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See Also: ["Socialism is Great!", by Lijia Zhang]

[Other History, Biography and Memoir]