This book is not just another biography. Its 650-odd pages present nothing short of character assassination. According to Jung Chang, author of the best-selling Wild Swans, and her husband, British academic Jon Halliday, Mao Zedong has absolutely no redeeming features. He is a power-mad, murderous monster who not only places no value on human life but actively enjoys witnessing their torture and victimization. He is a compulsive philanderer who discards his first three wives without even bothering to divorce them. He enjoys luxuries while people the length and breadth of the country are starving. He is, they say, a worse tyrant even than Stalin and Hitler, responsible for the deaths of 70 million people.
I started reading the book on my sceptical guard – equating Mao with Hitler seemed an absurd proposition. And at times the determination to paint Mao in the worst possible colours becomes ridiculous – the authors put a negative spin on his love for his mother, they give him no credit for any Red victories or ideas, and they even say he may have helped cause the strokes that killed Stalin and Nehru. Such bias makes you wonder how many contradicting testimonies were disregarded.
But I soon succumbed to the sheer weight of evidence. One by one, the myths I held – and indeed once cherished – about Mao were shattered. He was carried on a litter during the Long March and the most famous battle en route never even took place. Far from enjoying the support of the local peasantry, the Red Army slashed and burned wherever it went. The appalling famines during the Great Leap Forward happened not as a byproduct of misplaced enthusiasm for rapid industrialization but because Mao was exporting as much grain as possible to Russia.
And yet… There are holes in this story. Life expectancy in China rose from just 36 years at the time of the Revolution to 65 by Mao’s death – does this square with the book’s picture of a regime so uncaring about ordinary people’s health and welfare? The Cultural Revolution caused much suffering, but can it really be interpreted, as here, as a simple purge of Mao’s enemies, whom he could simply have dispatched to labour camps or execution? What about land reform and barefoot doctors?
This book may be only part of the story – but it is at the very least an extraordinarily compelling argument.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7