When I first traveled to China in the late 1970s as a student and then a foreign correspondent, the Chinese were giddily beginning to explore the new boundaries of freedom after Mao Zedong's death. There was a propaganda onslaught against the Gang of Four--the quartet (including Mao's wife Jiang Qing) that was blamed for the Cultural Revolution, the decade of terror that Mao had unleashed and then nourished. Mao didn't count among the fiendish four, but when the plucky Chinese I encountered talked of the Gang, they would hold up five fingers, then fold the thumb back slowly to conform to the official co-conspirator count. The message was clear: Mao was that disappearing finger.
Nearly three decades later, China's people are still struggling over how to process Mao's legacy. The Communist Party continues to protect his memory; his mug still dominates Tiananmen Square in Beijing. And while the Chinese generally acknowledge his brutality, most seem to cherish his image as founder of the nation, who overturned centuries of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. Of course, America's Founding Father heroes have warts of their own. (George Washington was imperious; John Adams was a grouch; Thomas Jefferson had that affair.) But as recent biographies have made apparent, Mao was not merely ruthless but his ruthlessness is practically unmatched in history. If iconic, socialist-chic Mao once seemed cuddlier than, say, Stalin, the record now makes clear they were rivals in brutality. Both men, through murder and misrule, were responsible for tens of millions of deaths.
The newest effort to shine history's harsh light on the Great Helmsman is Mao: The Unknown Story (Knopf; 814 pages) by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Chang is the author of Wild Swans, the gripping and mega-selling 1991 memoir of how three generations of her family survived modern China's upheavals. (She was a Maoist Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution's early stages.) Halliday, Chang's husband, is an author and Russia historian.
Their Mao is bad to the core, a relentlessly selfish and duplicitous schemer as a young man who harbored "a love for bloodthirsty thuggery." And then he turned really nasty. Mao purged and murdered rivals. He pigged out on exotic delicacies amid the mass starvation his policies caused. (The authors cite estimates that 38 million people died of starvation and overwork during the Great Leap Forward. Mao, meanwhile, stuck to his misguided industrialization plans, blithely commenting that "half of China may well have to die.") In the 1970s, Mao even forbade surgery for his loyal No. 2, Zhou Enlai, who was suffering from cancer of the bladder, in part to ensure that Zhou would not outlive him.
Mao's celebrated exploits are recast as frauds. The Long March? The authors contend that legendary battles along the way didn't actually occur and suggest Mao and his communist army survived the 6,000-mile ordeal only because his political rival, Chiang Kai-shek, decided to let them move unopposed. The 1949 declaration of the People's Republic? A bust, the authors argue, as a nervous Mao frequently resorted to awkward throat clearing and offered no ideas for benefiting China's people. His love for the peasants? Phony. "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."