BACK in 1972, New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury
spent six weeks in the People's Republic of China. From his first
real exposure to a nation in tumult came his book "To Peking and
Beyond: A Report on the New Asia." It staked out Salisbury's claim
as a leading sinologist, with special emphasis on politics and
leadership rather than culture and language.
A new book every two or three years has reinforced these
credentials. In 1984, he retraced the trail of the Red Army in
retreat during its legendary Long March of 50 years before and
published an account of his adventures. In 1989, he was an observer
at the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Later the same year,
his "Tiananmen Diary" came out, recording what he saw of the
student revolt and its brutal suppression.
The latest Salisbury book, "The New Emperors: China in the Era
of Mao and Deng," is the biography of the two men who have ruled
China since 1949: Mao Zedong and his diminutive lieutenant and
successor, Deng Xiaoping. In its vast sweep, and with its special
sense of intimacy stemming from the author's contacts with the huge
cast of characters (which in less gifted hands could have been
bewildering), this is a blockbuster of a book.
He explains the title by placing Mao and Deng in a long
continuum going back to the Yellow Emperor, founder of the Chinese
civilization almost 6,000 years ago. They are to Salisbury the
lineal flashbacks to the Tang Dynasty and the other five dynasties
that ruled until early in the present century.
"The concept of emperor," he instructs us, is intimately
associated with that of the dragon. "China's dragons, guardians of
the throne, are unlike those of the West. They are benign and
protective but can turn like terrible emperors on the people. If
they do so, it is the fault of the people, not the dragons. They
breathe fire and thrash their tail only if betrayed, a convenient
concept for an emperor."
Since the throne was no longer inherited at the time of Mao's
rise to power, the succession became a free-for-all among the
various warlords. During the final phase of the savage conflict
with Chiang Kaishek, ending in the generalissimo's total defeat,
Mao had kept a low profile. But this was an illusion, for his
armies were everywhere. It was Mao who devised the strategy of
feint and deceit that drove Chiang from mainland China.
The Salisbury passage on this subject is trenchant: "Nothing was
more dangerous than to take Mao at face value. If he retreated, it
was to lure his enemy into a trap. If he smiled, beware, as friend
and foe learned to their cost. No man lived in greater peril than
one whom Mao designated his heir apparent."
Two of Mao's comrades who had shared the dangers of the Long
March were Deng and Zhou Enlai (Chou Enlai to most Westerners).
Deng, the buoyant "Sunshine Boy" with a gift for survival, bore the
heaviest burdens: trying to boost China's sagging economy and to
reduce the birthrate. Zhou, subtle and charming, was the henchman
who led in the opening of China to the West, culminating in the
epochal 1972 visit of President Nixon. …