Mao Zedong by Jonathan
Viking/Penguin, 1999, US$19.95
(Available through www.amazon.com)
All contributors to
the new "Penguin Lives" series, which will include short
biographies of popular figures from Jane Austen to Marlon
Brando, have difficult assignments. No short, comprehensive,
engaging life history of a complex individual is easy
to write. Surely, though, some assignments are more
daunting than others. Coming to terms with an Austen
or a Brando in less than 200 pages may be tough, but
accomplishing this for someone who experienced as much
as Winston Churchill, wrote as much as Virginia Woolf,
or was as enigmatic and influential as the Buddha verges
on the near impossible. And Jonathan Spence's charge
may be the most challenging of all.
It is not just that
Mao Zedong did and said so much in the course of his
83 years, it is also that Mao affected the lives of
hundreds of millions of people. Yet what he actually
thought and felt at many points in his life remains
shrouded in mystery. Hence, to write a brief biography
of this man who went from being the son of a well-to-do
villager in the Hunan countryside to founder and paramount
leader of the People's Republic of China requires traversing
not just one but many minefields.
It is a testament to
Spence's considerable skills as both historian and storyteller
that he not only negotiates this odyssey unscathed,
but also does it elegantly. The result is a stylish
little book that is often educational, always a pleasure
to read, and ultimately sobering in the lessons it provides
about how noble quests can go horribly wrong.
Spence does not treat
the Great Helmsman as either more or less than human.
His Mao is neither a saint nor an embodiment of evil,
but a talented and fallible man of flesh and blood.
He was capable of cruelty, yet simultaneously had original
and inspiring ideas. Whereas Mao could act decisively,
he also spent much of his youth searching for direction.
Mao is more believable and interesting than the cardboard
figures found in hagiographic studies or in forays into
demonology, such as Dr. Li Zhisui's hyperbolic though
illuminating memoir, The Private Life of Chairman Mao.
In addition to the choice
of making Mao a god or a monster, the writer must wrestle
with placing the Chairman in context. Spence only has
space to tell readers a few things about China and its
past, yet must somehow provide enough information to
help the uninitiated make sense of Mao's experiences.
I was pleased to see Spence stress (especially in Chapter
5: "Workers and Peasants") the effect that working with
the Nationalists during the mid-1920s had on Mao that
helped hone his organizational skills and grasp what
the "manipulation of belief through well-conceptualized
propaganda" - as Spence puts it (page 98) - could accomplish.
I was disappointed though, in the discussion of Mao's
personality cult (Chapter 7: "Crafting the Image"),
to find no specific reference to the KMT's related efforts
starting in the 1920s to sanctify Sun Yat-sen and his
Minor complaints aside,
however, Spence does an admirable job of telling readers
what they need to know. His brief, dramatic account
of China's 1911 Revolution, for example, is a marvel
of concise narrative.
A third minefield that
Spence traverses concerns documents. Some periods of
Mao's life are thoroughly recorded - for the early 1920s,
we have hundreds of pages of letters, essays, poems
and other written documents to work with. Here, sifting
is the biographer's challenge, deciding which fragments
best reveal the subject's inner world. With other periods,
especially Mao's final decades, very few texts by the
man himself exist and those that do are often impersonal.
In addition, the relevant memoirs by others, such as
Dr. Li's, are problematic to say the least: most were
written long after Mao's death by authors attempting
to defend their own actions or settle old scores.
Spence succeeds marvelously
in the first chapters in making snatches of poetry and
other writings by Mao evoke moods and proclivities.
A 1923 romantic poem, translated on page 66, is a case
in point. Containing lines such as "I myself would like
to be a rootless wanderer" and "The mountains are about
to tumble down," it conveys nicely Mao's emotional restiveness
and the fondness for apocalyptic imagery also found
in his political writings. In later chapters, meanwhile,
Spence is properly judicious in using information provided
by, but remaining appropriately skeptical of, some claims
made in works such as Dr. Li's memoir. Also, to his
credit, Spence makes it clear throughout how much he
owes to the sifting, culling, and translation work of
other foreign scholars of Mao and Maoism, such as Michael
Schoenhals, and above all, Stuart Schram.
There is one final minefield:
the varied roles Mao played. There are many Maos to
deal with, and acknowledging this multiplicity while
also creating a unified life story is a complicated
balancing act. Acknowledging this, some biographical
works on Mao have not even tried to achieve a unified
picture of the subject. The most important of these
remains Mao Tse-tung in the Scales of History, a 1977
Cambridge University Press publication edited by Dick
Wilson. It contains 10 chapters, each by a different
specialist or pair of specialists, each addressing a
different Mao role. Thus it gives us successive looks
at Mao as Philosopher, Marxist, Political Leader, Soldier,
Teacher, Economist, Patriot, Statesman, Chinese, and
Innovator. Some later books, such as Geremie BarmŽ's
fascinating 1996 study, Shades of Mao: Posthumous Cult
of the Great Leader, have focused on still another role:
Spence's goal is to
give us brief looks at many different Maos, while also
reminding us that we are dealing with one man's life.
His focus on humanizing Mao has a cost: it leads him
to focus almost exclusively on the man's direct impact
within China during his lifetime and to end his tale
in 1976. This means that both the posthumous Icon and
the Inspirer of Foreign Radicals are ignored. These
omissions are regrettable - especially the former one,
since it makes it too easy to forget how strong and
complex an influence Mao had on the supposedly "post-Mao"
China of the 1980s and 1990s - but certainly understandable
given the constraints of length.
On the other hand, in
terms of inclusiveness, Spence not only deals with all
ten of the Mao roles discussed in Wilson's 1977 collection,
but throws in a few additional ones. He has interesting
things to say about Mao as Poet, Hunanese, Son, Father,
Lover, and Husband.
Moreover, in his "Foreword"
(pp. xi-xiv), he gives us yet another Mao: The Lord
of Misrule. Spence borrows this term from the world
of topsy-turvy medieval festivals of the West, but notes
that many Chinese philosophers also had an interest
in the "dizzying possibilities inherent in turning things
upside down" (p. xiii). There was a difference, though,
between Mao and ordinary Lords of Misrule, according
to Spence, and understanding this helps us make sense
of the personal and collective tragedies discussed throughout
his book. Namely, the medieval Lord of Misrule was supposed
to be a temporary ruler, a King for a Day, but Mao came
to feel that the festival should never end, order should
never be restored, liberation could only come if the
overturning of hierarchies went on and on. His tragic
flaw was that he lost sight of the toll that periods
of chaos such as those generated by the Great Leap and
the Cultural Revolution could take on the ordinary people
of China - those whose interests he claimed to have
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
is an associate professor of history at Indiana University,