Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Hollow Man

As soon as I heard mention of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's new biography of Mao Zedong, I ordered it from Amazon UK - the book is not yet published in the US. Jung Chang is the author of "Wild Swans," the popular and critically acclaimed story of three Chinese women through times of war and revolution - her grandmother, mother and Jung Chang herself. "Wild Swans" was one of the first books I'd read when my weird, post-China obsession with trying to make sense of it all finally kicked in (years after the experience), and I'd quite enjoyed it. It's the kind of book you can recommend to those with absolutely no background in China that gives readers a vivid taste of China's recent, bitter history.

So anyway, I ordered the Mao biography, it arrived promptly, a door-stopper over 700 pages, I flipped through the index, skimmed a few sections and put it on my shelf next to my Chairman Mao piggy-bank. And there it still sits.

I could tell from my brief perusal and from all the reviews that were starting to trickle in that this was going to be one depressing and extremely negative view of Mao's regime and the havoc committed in his name. I've read a lot of books like that about China, books about the Cultural Revolution in particular, staying up till late, finally closing the book in a sort of exhausted horror at the sheer, staggering cruelty of it all. I haven't quite been able to psych myself up for the Mao book yet.

Meanwhile, the book has generated a considerable amount of publicity and controversy for its uncompromisingly negative view of Mao. Forget the typical portrait of Mao as rough peasant genius/deeply flawed dictator - this Mao doesn't even get props for military brilliance during the Long March or, perish the thought, for his generally welll-regarded poetry. This Mao is no more than a psychopathic mass murderer whose only motivation for anything was to force others to submit to his will.

Now, John Gittes, writing in the UK Guardian, offers his opinion of the Chang/Halliday biography, one that strikes me as balanced and insightful. Here are a few key passages:
The book is based on impressive research and a formidable array of sources, but its strongly argued conclusions should provoke a lively debate. First, can the Chinese revolution really be explained, as the authors imply, as if the Chinese people were terrorised by Mao into overthrowing the Nationalist government - did they not already have good reason? As Jonathan Fenby's recent study puts it, corruption under Chiang Kai-shek was "a way of life", his carpetbaggers plundered the areas liberated from Japan, and the rural masses were "alienated by oppression". To a significant extent, the civil war of the late 1940s was a class struggle in which, as the US embassy reported at the time, the communists' mass support derived from "the agrarian and industrial proletariat".

Second, to what extent does "lust for power" adequately explain Mao's long career with the Communist party? Even if he was attracted by its revolutionary violence, would it not have been more rational to hitch himself to the rising star of Chiang Kai-shek (who was not averse to shedding blood himself)? Third, although Mao's grasp of Marxist theory in his early years was shaky, were his extensive theoretical writings over five decades really nothing more than camouflage for his ambition?

The real tragedy for China, I would argue instead, is that far from being uninterested in ideology, Mao in his later years became obsessed with it.
Gittes goes on to discuss the role that Mao's utopian idealism played in launching the disastrous Great Leap Forward, and then continues to the Cultural Revolution:
Lust for power also seems an incomplete explanation for Mao's launching of the Cultural Revolution. With China's secret police under the sinister Kang Sheng at his disposal, could he not have simply had his critics cast into labour camps or shot? Instead, and fatally for China, Mao went back to the theoretical drawing board. If the masses were less enthusiastic for socialism than he had thought, the problem must lie in the ideological "superstructure": China needed a Cultural Revolution.
And he points out the role that Mao's own failed utopian dreams had in generating China's democracy movement, noting that:
In the end, Mao himself saved the party from destruction during the Cultural Revolution - having converted it into his docile tool. Significantly, the origins of the post-Mao democracy movement right up until 1989 lie among former Red Guards who were alienated by this refusal to translate egalitarian rhetoric into reality.
I've always held a pretty negative view of Mao, personally. Living in China directly after the Cultural Revolution tends to encourage one towards that opinion. I've read a fair amount about him, a number of his writings, and I tend to think that he was a narcissist of sorts, the kind of person who charms and manipulates and lacks basic empathy, who must constantly prove that he is superior, the best, to guard against a deeply buried insecurity at the core of his personality, some essential and ultimately defining emptiness. I would argue that his ideological "superstructures" were an attempt to buttress his need for power and dominance, which is not to say that he didn't believe in his idealistic castles in the sky, only that this idealism was not what essentially motivated him.

But hey, maybe that's just me.

In spite of this negative appraisal, I would not deny that Mao was a genius of sorts. He led China through a revolution, and he emerged victorious. He helped to create a new China out of the ruins of China's recent past. He was a genius at manipulating the tools of power to achieve his ends. And that's no small talent.

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