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Mao Zedong: Lord of misrule

A new book by China historian Jonathan Spence is an elegant and succint account of the enigmatic, complex and perhaps all too tragically human Mao Zedong.

Mao Zedong by Jonathan Spence
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.

Spence's all-too-human 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 writings.

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 Barm's fascinating 1996 study, Shades of Mao: Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader, have focused on still another role: The Icon.

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 at heart.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is an associate professor of history at Indiana University, USA


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