“HAD Mao died in 1956, his achievements would have been immortal. Had he died in 1966, he would still have been a great man but flawed. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?” That was how Chen Yun, for decades one of China’s senior Communist leaders, tried to summarise the complex historical legacy of Mao Zedong.
Recent years have been difficult ones for Mao and his legacy—abroad, anyway. At home, official historians continue to treat him well enough, acknowledging that he made serious errors while insisting nevertheless that the good far outweighed the bad. Of course they have no choice—China’s government and Communist Party are still led by heirs of Mao who continue to derive their own political legitimacy from him. Although the country’s leaders have undone nearly all of his policies, they cannot yet bring themselves to reckon openly with his dark side. Thirty years after his death, Mao’s body—looking ever more waxen as time goes by—still occupies pride of place in a mausoleum in the centre of Beijing, while his visage adorns both the nearby Gate of Heavenly Peace and every new banknote in the land.
The damage to Mao’s reputation has come instead from writers publishing abroad. “The Private Life of Chairman Mao”, a 1994 book by his personal physician, Li Zhisui, reported countless unappetising details on everything from Mao’s atrocious personal hygiene to his mercurial and vindictive approach to politics. In an influential biography published last year, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday took relentless aim at their subject, portraying just about everything he did in the worst possible light, and the man himself as a virtual monster. That book, “Mao: The Unknown Story”, has since come in for some withering criticism of its own from scholars who—even while accepting that there is indeed much about Mao that was monstrous—have raised questions about the authors’ objectivity. Nevertheless, that book has had a measurable impact on Western views of Mao.
“Mao’s Last Revolution” is nothing like the same rip-roaring read. Indeed, the painstaking level of detail that is among its greatest strengths may make it too much for readers with anything less than a consuming interest in China. But with their scholarly credentials, their assiduous selection and use of sources and their even-handed approach, Messrs MacFarquhar and Schoenhals have produced a work that will hold up far better.
There is, for example, a useful unpacking of the domestic and international political dynamics that inspired Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution: Mao felt his supremacy threatened by rivals at home, and the future of the communist revolution threatened in the Soviet Union by Khrushchev’s revisionism and, perhaps more to the point, his denunciations of Stalin. “The Cultural Revolution”, write the authors, “had always been about the rearing of revolutionary successors.”
If explanations are offered, no punches are pulled in recounting the sheer recklessness and cruelty with which Mao responded to these perceived dangers. The heart of the book is a detailed chronicle of how Mao cynically twisted ideology and manipulated those around him, setting off hysterical and murderous attacks on everything from Confucian morals and bourgeois culture to intellectuals, “capitalist roaders” and “class enemies”.
Using sources that range from official party and government documents to letters, diaries and interviews with surviving participants and victims, the authors document the orders that went out, the mayhem that resulted and the fear it all struck in the hearts of people across the country. And it is chilling stuff. In August and September of 1966, for example, as thousands were being murdered in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, Mao put out the word that the police were not to interfere. Faithfully relaying Mao’s instructions to the Beijing police force, the public security minister assured them that, “After all, bad persons are bad, so if they’re beaten to death it is no big deal.”
If Mao fares poorly, there is also plenty in this book to indict Chinese society and political culture as well, for allowing the insanity Mao unleashed to take root and run wild for a full, devastating decade. As Messrs MacFarquhar and Schoenhals point out, the Red Guards rampaged through Chinese factories, towns, schools and government departments to attack the ever-changing targets of Mao’s choosing with a damnably solid enthusiasm.
The Economist. 31 August 2006. Retrieved 28 July 2015.
A controversial figure, Mao is regarded as one of the most important individuals in modern world history, and is also known as a theorist, military strategist, poet and visionary. Supporters credit him with driving imperialism out of China, modernising China and building it into a world power, promoting the status of women, improving education and health care, and increasing life expectancy as China’s population grew from around 550 million to over 900 million during the period of his leadership. In contrast, critics consider him a dictator comparable to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin who severely damaged traditional Chinese culture, as well as a perpetrator of systematic human rights abuses and estimate that Mao was responsible for 40 to 70 million deaths through starvation, prison labour and executions, ranking his tenure as the top incidence of excess mortality in human history.