From communism to karaoke

Mao - Mao

October 20, 2000

Mao Zedong was a figure of enormous historical importance who played a central role in Chinese politics for most of his 83 years. He spent the 1920s and 1930s struggling to build the Chinese Communist Party and to get his policies accepted by it.

After the establishment of the People's Republic, he became a revered but increasingly remote leader. He was convinced that if the power and enthusiasm of the people could be correctly harnessed, China could become a modern and wealthy country.

Impatience led him to dismiss convent-ional strategies for economic growth in favour of the Great Leap Forward. When this initiative not only failed but brought about a famine that led to the deaths of 20 to 30 million Chinese, Mao turned on colleagues who tried to make him recognise the magnitude of the disaster. Always irascible and wilful, he now became obsessively suspicious, seeing conspiracy everywhere. Many of his revolutionary colleagues were persecuted and, especially during the cultural revolution, imprisoned or driven to their deaths.

Yet so great was Mao's prestige and the power derived from it that nobody dared speak against him. Even his victims participated in the most absurd manifestations of his cult, waving the Little Red Book and attributing almost magical powers to the study of his thought. In the manner of dictators, Mao increasingly surrounded himself with sycophants who strove to appease him but also tried to manipulate his views. Recognising his vulnerability, he became so fearful of the efforts of others to control him that he trusted no one. Today's apparently loyal followers would be tomorrow's suspects.

At the time of his death in 1976, Mao was an isolated old man who had lost most of his physical powers, including that of coherent speech. His pronouncements had to be relayed to the outside world by his young mistress. Mao had for many years been preoccupied with his own mortality. What would happen when he died? In the last year of his life, all educated Chinese were asking themselves the same question.

Mao's fears that his revolutionary state would not survive him were justified. Within five years of his death, the arrangements he had made for his succession had been overturned, and Deng Xiaoping had set China on a new economic and political path that Mao would undoubtedly have condemned. The country today is driven by the market and individual aspirations. It has changed beyond all recognition.

A life of Mao has to cover not only his involvement in the development of the Chinese Communist Party, and his leadership of the Chinese revolution and the post-1949 state, but also his political, military and philosophical writing and his complex private life.

Jonathan Spence and Philip Short have both achieved this but on quite different scales. Spence, a renowned professor of Chinese history at Yale University, had to work to the format of the Weidenfeld and Nicolson Lives series. His short study takes a broad-brush approach and is lively and fast moving. It lacks the detail that Short is able to supply and gives sources in the form of a brief bibliography for each chapter rather than by notes. Irritatingly, it has no index.

Spence is an outstanding and profoundly erudite historian, but he is also a very talented populariser. In this, as in earlier works, he demonstrates an exceptional ability to make complex Chinese realities comprehensible and even compelling. His volume will no doubt attract both the general and the more specialist reader.

It is ironic that Short, a journalist, has employed a more academic format. His lengthy study includes much background material, discussion of disputed facts and more than 100 pages of notes. This longer study will be of use to students who need the detail and the guidance to sources that it provides. But it does not lack readability. Short remains the consummate journalist who never loses the thread of the story he is telling.

These two books are well-researched, readable and thought-provoking. Both authors provide a balanced account of Mao's extraordinary achievements and his terrifying failures, although neither attempts a final verdict. Judgements in China are far from unanimous. To many of the younger generation of Chinese, Mao is a distant, almost irrelevant figure. Intellectuals in their 40s and upwards, so many of whom suffered in the campaigns and struggles he launched, are often bitter about him.

But condemnation of Mao is not universal. He is still thought of by many as a strong leader who should be honoured for restoring China's greatness. Others, who have not benefited from the economic reforms of recent decades, remember with nostalgia his advocacy of an egalitarian society in which the state provided a basic level of welfare.

Oddly, Mao even became the subject of a consumer cult in the 1990s. Key rings, cigarette lighters and even karaoke videos bearing his name were sold everywhere. Reflecting the ambivalence with which he is remembered, his image can now be used as a national icon, a good-luck talisman, an expression of nostalgia or even a joke, without the great reverence accorded to it in the past. As Short concludes: "A final verdict on Mao's place in the annals of his country's past is still a very long way off."

Delia Davin is professor of Chinese, University of Leeds.


Author - Jonathan Spence
ISBN - 0 297 64347 9
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £12.99
Pages - 205

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