It is hard to single out the most chilling aspect of Mao: The
Unknown Story by Jung Changand Jon Halliday. To dive into this hefty
new biography of China's "great Helmsman" is to feel alternately
shocked, angry, and, finally, just plain sick at heart.
The story of man's inhumanity to man is, of course, not new and
much about Mao's life is already familiar to readers.
But the level of detail offered by this exhaustively researched
book (the labor of more than a decade for novelist Jung Chang and
her husband Jon Halliday) creates a compelling portrait of Mao that
will still shock many, as will a handful of revelations.
The whole of the former chairman's life is covered in this book,
beginning with his birth to a peasant family in 1893 (in hills so
remote that when the Chinese emperor died in 1908, it took two years
for news of his death to arrive there) up through his frustrated and
self-pitying final days in 1976.
In between, the authors offer a thorough analysis of Mao's rise
to power, his actual achievements (or lack thereof) as a military
man, the relentlessness (and cruelty) with which he strove to push
China to world domination, and the endless and ruthless scheming he
resorted to in order to retain power.
Chang and Halliday are able to offer a remarkable level of detail
throughout their narrative, due to the impressive breadth and depth
of the primary sources they tapped. (A short list includes former US
Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, present and former
communist dignitaries and officials throughout the world, one of
Mao's official photographers, one of his translators, one of his
nurses, a woman who washed his underwear, and the Dalai Lama.)
The result is a portrait that may rattle even those who long ago
shed any vestige of reverence for Mao. This man who was a hero to
many and a god to some comes across as lazy, callous, self-
indulgent, clever rather than wise, and as careless of his own
children as he was of the Chinese people.
Mao's seeming indifference to the suffering of others is perhaps
the hardest aspect to grasp, although Chang and Halliday do a good
job of offering a context for his lack of feeling.
Views he expressed at the age of 24, they say, "remained at the
core of Mao's thinking throughout his life," and, even as a young
man, Mao's egotism was shocking.
Was this because he was coddled by a gentle mother and then
angered by the demands of his father? The authors don't try to blame
Mao's crimes on his childhood.
But they do offer us his youthful words, statements like, "People
like me have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people."
Mao must have firmly believed this. There is little else that
could explain his tranquility in the face of the suffering triggered
by his policies. …