Blockbuster Biography of China's Modern 'Emperors'

By Burke Wilkinson. Burke Wilkinson, a. former Us deputy assistant secretary of state, is the of six biographies. | The Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 1992 | Go to article overview

Blockbuster Biography of China's Modern 'Emperors'


Burke Wilkinson. Burke Wilkinson, a. former Us deputy assistant secretary of state, is the of six biographies., The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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