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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Demystifying Mao

MAO: The Unknown Story.
by Jung Chang & Jon Halliday Jonathan Cape Pages 814. £ 25

THOSE who have read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, will have an idea what to expect. First the sheer number of pages will have you wondering whether this book is worth the reading foray. Add to the 800 pages, a hardback and you as a reader sure will have a lot to grapple with. But for those with a serious interest in history, particularly the way it unravelled in China, all these will prove to be mere minor considerations once you get started on the book.

I was bowled over by Chang’s earlier book — the wildly popular Wild Swans, which I read a good eight years ago and this book sure turned out to be well worth the wait. Never mind the copious nights spent reading it. It’s not one of those books that you can attempt browsing through when you are in a less than pensive mood. So each night once the kids went off to sleep, I stepped into the world of Mao, presented to today’s readers through the well-researched words of the husband-wife team of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.

The research took them 11 long years and the final product clearly shows their mastery over the subject they chose to deal with. The research included interviews with key political leaders and others who happened to be either Mao’s friends or family. The attempt being to demystify Mao — the man and the leader — and capture pretty much all the major episodes of his tumultuous life. The extent of detail and documentation are nothing but stupendous and in page after page you learn about the extent of horror that was created during Mao’s reign.

Some critics even point out that the book which has been written with the same "deft hand that enlivened Chang’s memoir Wild Swans" is "destined to change history." Whether it will have the power to change history remains debatable but what is clear is that this excellent piece of research will give you insights that have rarely come together in one book.

As you browse through the pages that come seared with allegations after allegations, you hear the charges levelled by the authors against the great leader:

They argue that Mao was driven by neither idealism nor ideology but by personal power. Mao believed the only way communism could win in China was through a Russian invasion, which was what eventually happened.

Chang and Halliday also contend that Mao didn’t fight the Japanese during World War II, instead he welcomed their invasion of the mainland. In fact, he and Stalin planned to divide China with Japan.

To fund the Red Army in the early 1940s, Mao grew opium, bringing in as much as $60 million a year. The practice apparently stopped only after over-production drove down the price.

Mao is even said to have made a fortune from royalties from his writings, which the people were forced to buy and read. At the same time, the writings of other authors were suppressed. All this, they add, inevitably led to Mao being the "only millionaire in Mao’s China."

What is more searing though is the vengeance that Mao harboured. The punishments meted out to those who went against him were brutal. In fact, the continued repressions over the years led to more deaths under Mao than they did under Stalin’s rule in the then USSR. For decades, he held power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population and that brutal reign, hold your breath, resulted in over 70 million deaths. Then there are all the eye-opening facts about the Long March. The book tells us "far from being the hero he has been painted, Mao was carried the length of the Long March in a litter, while his troops died like flies."

Add to this are the facts that first came to light in Jasper Becker’s brilliantly researched book Hungry Ghosts. In it, he had pointed out that China’s granaries were full to the brim during the great famine of 1958-1961, one of the worst in history. The authors agree with this, but provide some more insights into that disaster. They point out while 38 million Chinese were starving to death, much of China’s grains were bring shipped to the Soviet Union. This they say was clearly not a case of ‘economic mismanagement.’

As if that were not enough to tell you all about Mao’s Machiavellian ways, you also learn more about his womanising, his four marriages and his strange personal habits which included an aversion to bathing and brushing. If that’s not enough to put Mao in a completely different light, you also learn about his obsession with villlas and how over 50 of them were created across the country and in many of these the great leader never even set his foot on. The book certainly demystifies Mao, but with the expected ban on it in China, the hitherto untold Mao story will continue to remain unknown in parts where it deserves to be known.

Published on 17th July 2005