Throwing the book at Mao
Jonathan Lassen <email@example.com>
Sat, 8 Oct 2005 10:25:15 -0400
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Throwing the book at Mao
October 8, 2005
China scholars across the world are questioning the veracity of
historical accounts in a controversial biography of Mao Zedong, writes
A TINY widow aged 85, living in two rooms, an electric rice cooker her
only modern appliance, may be a crucial witness to a key dispute
involving wealthy Chinese author Jung Chang, who lives in great
comfort in London's plush Notting Hill from the proceeds of her
worldwide bestselling book Wild Swans.
The dispute is one of many being picked by some of the world's most
eminent scholars of modern Chinese history, who say Chang's latest
blockbuster book, Mao - The Unknown Story, co-authored with her
British historian husband Jon Halliday, is a gross distortion of the
Few are disputing that their subject, the late Chinese communist party
chairman Mao Zedong, was a monster as a human being and a leader who
put first, his party comrades, and later, the whole country, through
hell. Or that this is an extraordinarily powerful book, one that seems
destined to be highly influential.
But many agree with Thomas Bernstein, of Columbia University in New
York, that "the book is a major disaster for the contemporary China
Because of its stupendous research apparatus, its claims will be
accepted widely," he said this week. "Yet their scholarship is put at
the service of thoroughly destroying Mao's reputation.
The result is an equally stupendous number of quotations out of
context, distortion of facts and omission of much of what makes Mao a
complex, contradictory, and multi-sided leader."
As well as factual errors and dubious use of sources - which even
favourable reviewers such as Princeton's Perry Link (an editor of the
Tiananmen Papers) have felt compelled to criticise, many scholars
point out that much of what Chang and Halliday present as a previously
"unknown story" has in fact been exposed long ago by academic
researchers and in popular works such as the memoirs of Mao's personal
doctor, Li Zhisui, or John Byron's book on Mao's secret police chief,
Kang Sheng. But no credit is given to these earlier writers.
These disclosures include Mao's endless supply of young female bed
partners and his appalling personal hygiene, his callousness towards
wives and children, the vital support of Stalin in his rise as party
leader, his party's trade in opium, its terror-tactics applied to its
own members, its shirking of the war against the Japanese, Mao's
ruthless diversion of resources to building the atom bomb, and the
disastrous campaigns of the 1959-61 Great Leap Forward and the 1966-76
I've looked through the book's treatment of the 1920s and there is
nothing there that wasn't known," says the ANU's John Fitzgerald. "A
lot of stuff in their great untold story is pretty well known," agrees
Sydney University's Fred Teiwes, who wrote a decade ago that Comintern
(Moscow) support had been critical in Mao's rise as party chief.
Li Guixiu was a 15-year-old girl when an event that may have been
pivotal in the modern history of China and the wider world - and which
is also pivotal in Chang and Halliday's demolition of Mao - took place
on the ancient chain suspension bridge overlooked by the back window
of her present home.
On the morning of May 29, 1935, the vanguard of Mao's Red Army arrived
at this bridge across the raging Dadu River, a tributary of the
Yangtze, during its famous 6000-kilometre Long March from a vulnerable
part of central China to an impregnable fastness at Yanan, in China's
According to the Chinese Communist Party, a Red Army squad of 22
soldiers stormed the Luding Bridge later that day in the face of
withering gunfire, across timbers that had been set afire and then
along bare chains where the Nationalist forces on the opposing
riverbank had removed planking.
Had the crossing failed, the Red Army would have been cut off in a
narrow valley high in the mountains of Sichuan. A pursuing army sent
by Kuomintang (KMT, the Chinese National Party) leader Chiang Kai-shek
would have wiped them out, maybe eliminating the chance of China going
communist as it did in 1949.
"Complete invention," say Chang and Halliday in their new book, which
has stayed for weeks on top of bestseller lists in Britain and
Australia, and looks set to do so in the United States where it will
be released this month.
The bridge was not defended at all by the KMT side, they say. "Chiang
had left the passage open for the Reds," the authors state, in one of
the most astonishing assertions of their book. Far from trying to
intercept the Red Army, Chiang was shepherding it to its destination,
even leaving a truck filled with maps and food in its path at one
point. The reason: Chiang was desperate for the return of his son
Chiang Ching-kuo, kept since 1925 a virtual hostage in Moscow by Mao's
main backer, Stalin.
The authors claim this is supported by archived KMT cables. And they
claim to have met a local woman - "a sprightly 93-year-old" in 1997,
running a bean curd shop near the Luding Bridge - who remembered the
Reds firing a few sporadic shots across the river but no gunfire
coming back, and who said very little of the planking had been
This week in Luding The Age could not find the authors' unnamed local
source, or anyone who remembered someone of their description. But it
did find Mrs Li, whom other locals said was the last surviving
eyewitness they knew of in Luding.
Mrs Li says there was indeed a battle. "The KMT warned us that the
Reds would eat the young people and bury the old," she said. "Many
fled up the mountainside. But when we saw them, they told us not to be
afraid, they only opposed bad people. I remember they were wearing
straw shoes, with cloth wound around their shins."
"The fighting started in the evening," Mrs Li said. "There were many
killed on the Red Army side. The KMT set fire to the bridge-house on
the other side, to try to melt the chains, and one of the chains was
cut. After it was taken, the Red Army took seven days and seven nights
to cross. Later, I was told that someone we had seen was Mao Zedong."
Oxford University's Steve Tsang says the Chiang Kai-shek archives show
the KMT chief did in fact order the senior warlord in the area to hold
the crossing on pain of court martial, while his 100,000-strong
Central Army tried to catch up with the Reds from the south.
Some of the Sichuan warlord's forces arrived before the Reds at
Luding, but their commander panicked as the Reds' main force arrived.
He fled, leaving behind only a few of his notoriously opium-dazed
soldiers to defend the bridge. The attempt to burn the bridge could
not have amounted to much, as the timbers were soaked by rain.
"The Maoist story of the battle was a lie, and a huge exaggeration but
there was a battle," Tsang said. Above all, Tsang insists, Chiang
Kai-shek did not on this occasion or, as far as the Chiang Kai-shek
papers reveal, on any other occasion let the Red Army escape during
the Long March.
Tsang said that in this case, as generally in the book, the authors
had been "appallingly dishonest" in the use of sources they claimed to
have accessed. "Mao was a monster," Tsang said. "(But) their
distortion of history to make their case will in the end make it more
difficult to reveal how horrible Mao and the Chinese Communist Party
system were, and how much damage they really did to the Chinese
The list of historical errors and far-fetched theories builds up.
Chiang Kai-shek's son had gone to Moscow in 1925 with his father's
permission, to study, rather than being virtually kidnapped there as
Chang and Halliday imply, pointed out Leeds University emeritus
professor Delia Davin in the Times Literary Supplement. "Concern for
his son's wellbeing did not stop Chiang from massacring communists in
Shanghai in 1927," Davin said.
The execution of Wang Shiwei, which the authors say was used to
terrify the young intellectuals at Yanan during Kang Sheng's brutal
version of Stalin's purges, the zhengfeng or "rectification" campaign
of 1942, did not actually take place until 1947.
While Mao was no ideal husband or father, Davin said, the authors must
have noted the account of the Chinese commander in the Korean War,
General Peng Dehuai, about how he told Mao about the death of his son,
Mao Anying, from an American bomb.
Peng, whom the authors quote approvingly elsewhere, recorded that Mao
trembled so violently he couldn't light his cigarette. After several
minutes of silence, Mao said there would be sacrifices in
revolutionary war and Anying was one of many. Chang and Halliday
prefer to quote Mao's secretary as saying Mao had not "shown any great
While no one is minimising the cost of Mao's follies - notably the 30
million dead from famine caused by the Great Leap Forward in backyard
industry that diverted efforts from agriculture - scholars point out
that in the sane interludes between these campaigns - admittedly when
Mao's more pragmatic colleagues had more say - China showed remarkable
economic growth and dramatically improved indices of social welfare,
with life expectancy doubling in the 1950s.
None of this gets a mention in Mao, The Unknown Story. Nor is the
drive for the atom bomb so surprising in light of China's century of
humiliation by foreign powers up until 1945, and the subsequent
hostility shown to the new communist state by America.
Evidence is seen as slender for the book's claim that high-ranking
communist moles in the KMT army sparked the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge
incident near Beijing to divert Japan away from attacking the Soviet
Union, and later surrendered or threw away whole KMT armies after
1945. The KMT defeat cannot be ascribed simply to treachery and Soviet
support for the communists, but also to its own corruption and
oppression, China specialists say - and as Chang herself said in Wild
Driving the book is an unrelenting hatred of Mao Zedong, and a
determination to pile up evidence to blacken him as totally selfish
and sadistic - particularly by Chang, who as a teenager was an
enthusiastic Red Guard at the start of the Cultural Revolution but who
turned when she saw her academic parents brutally persecuted (causing
the death of her father).
"In sum, to me this demonisation of Mao seems the other side of the
coin of the previous idolisation of Mao: you love him or you hate
him," said Francesco Sisci, veteran China reporter with Italy's La
Stampa newspaper. "You don't feel cold analysis in the book, you feel
hatred, which helps to make it a wonderful read. But history should
not work this way."
Sydney University's Teiwes recalls meeting Chang and Halliday in
Sydney during their research.
"She just had her views so set, and was unwilling to entertain other
opinions or inconvenient evidence," Teiwes said. "I remember we were
talking about 1956 and whatever her actual view was, I tried to say,
'Wait a minute, if you look at Mao's meeting with Zhou Enlai at the
end of April you can see something different'. She just didn't want to
hear about it.
"When someone is responsible, and I believe he was, for upwards of 30
million deaths, it's hard to defend him," Teiwes added. "But on the
other hand, to paint him as a totally monstrous personality who just
goes out to kill people and protect his power at all cost is not only
over the top but a bit crazy in terms of what actually went on."
What impact the book will have when it's translated into Chinese and
published in Taiwan and Hong Kong remains to be seen. Intriguingly,
many surviving contemporaries of Mao appear to have opened up to
So far, only a few voices inside China directly challenge the cult of
Mao, such as the young writer Yu Jie who posted a manifesto on the
internet two years ago calling on the country to stop worshipping a
"dead emperor" and to remove Mao's embalmed body from its Tiananmen
Square mausoleum for a decent burial with his ancestors back in Hunan.
"The general attitude seems to be: this is the guy who got the Chinese
people to stand up and all that," said Teiwes. "He may have been a
complete bastard, he may have been all these things, but he's ours,
and without him there would be no new China."
Meanwhile, the least likely among the Chinese to welcome the book's
historical revision are the people along the route of the Long March,
now starting to enjoy a business boom from a "Red Tourism" drive
promoted by communist leaders to spread domestic spending into China's
backward hinterland and boost party prestige at the same time.
At Luding, builders are finishing a huge new museum that includes a
mural of Red Army troops grappling their way across the bridge, amid
shot and flame. The bridge is much as it would have looked in 1935,
its ancient chains cracked taut with dragon-headed steel levers in
traditional-style wooden gate-houses at each end.
Swaying in the middle of the crossing, Chinese-American tourist Shu
Zhou posed for photographs in a Red Army tunic and cap with a fake
rifle. "I rented all this for five yuan," he said. "I was born in Hong
Kong - you know, a British colony - and I don't know much about
The critical battle over the Chang-Halliday book is only setting in,
but at least one incident was being played out in a way Marx
predicted: history repeating itself as farce.