July 2005

Arts & Letters

‘Mao: The Unknown Story’ by Jung Chang & Jon Halliday

By Gideon Haigh

In a 1970 interview with a favoured apologist, Mao Tse-Tung described himself in Chinese as literally “a man without law or limit”. This self-assessment was rendered in English as “a lone monk”. Similarly sympathetic mistranslation of his motives and methods have helped preserve The Great Helmsman’s reputation. “Oh yes, bit of a tyrant, I suppose. But nothing compared to Halliburton.”

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday will have none of that. Their account begins on the day of Mao’s birth, ends on the day of his death and wastes nary a word between, reinstating historical omissions like Mao’s disastrous generalship at Tucheng, demolishing myths like the Dadu Bridge Crossing and depicting the Long March as, at least for its instigator, the Gentle Constitutional. To Mao’s crimes, they apply an arresting calculus. The siege of Changchun, for instance, was bloodier than the rape of Nanjing; the resources ploughed into the Chinese bomb cost more lives than the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All that can be said in his defence as a politician is that he kept promises. “We believe in dialectics, and so we can’t not be in favour of death,” he stated at the Party Congress inaugurating the Great Leap Forward, with its toll of 38 million.

Mao’s shortcoming is that its sourcing, while exhaustive, is undifferentiated. Documented fact, memoir, interview, rumour, conjecture – all co-exist in uneasy equality. And Mao, while we learn that he was addicted to sleeping pills and obsessed with his bowels, remains even at the end – dare one say it? – somewhat inscrutable. But Chung and Halliday have, at least for the moment, pushed Mao to the top of the tyrant charts. With a bullet.

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