Book Review: “Mao ZeDong” by Jonathan Spence (1999)

I came across this short biography while perusing the works of Jonathan D. Spence, the prolific Chinese historian from Yale. I’m currently working my way through an unabridged audio recording of The Search for Modern China by Spence, and saw this pamphlet-by-comparison a more sizeable bite. What Spence lacks in lackluster flare, he makes up for in well-researched and finely-worded historical facts of great relevance. This little book covering the life of Chairman Mao is brief yet thorough, entirely chronological, and well worth the read.

As happens with many other eventually-deified leaders, the true Mao ZeDong (Mao Tse Tung, as I recall his name from my high school textbooks) is a hard nut to crack. Becoming a cult personality as early as 1943 (100, 128) and beginning to rewrite history shortly thereafter (101). Mao ZeDong led a life which is, today, far from simplistic to study properly. Where do the truths end and the legends begin? Spence accomplishes a great feat in relating only the hard facts of this man’s ascension to the proverbial throne of the world’s most populous stronghold of Communism, and he does so economically.

Despite his legendary so-called leadership that led to the starvation and violent deaths of tens of millions of his own countrymen, the “Lord of Misrule” (xii) was a flesh-and-blood man. He was a lover (of three ladies, at least), a father (of six children, four of whom survived, 97), and even a poet (66). But somewhere along the way, he was influenced away from a genuine concern for his fellow man and into a passion for revolution merely for revolution’s sake. In fact, “Mao had stated in the past that it was necessary to ‘set fires’ every few years to keep the revolution alive…Mao came to see his mission as partly to set the fire, but also to teach the young to do it for themselves” (157). His influences were such materials as “The Words of Warning to an Affluent Age” by Zheng Guanying (5) and such people as Lady Yang (25-26) and Chen Boda (95).

Spence paints a fascinating ideological backdrop for such classically-misnamed events as “The Great Leap Forward” (128-129) and the “Cultural Revolution” (157-162), and he develops well the proper contexts for Mao’s famous speeches, such as “Great Union of the Popular Masses” (72). I specifically enjoyed the new perspective on the historic Mao-Stalin meeting (110-113), taken directly from the unedited Russian transcripts themselves. This particular side of Mao is one that the Chinese historians would never have allowed published, but which gives the world a glimpse of how a true Father of Communism viewed this virtual “hick” from Down South.

According to MaoZeDong himself, every leader is likely to be misunderstood in his own time, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It had “happened to Jesus and to Confucius, to Sakyamuni Buddha and to Charles Darwin, to Martin Luther and to Galileo” (131), so why not to MaoZeDong as well? Hopefully this little book can take away some of your “misunderstandings” about this man. It sure did for me.

©2016 E.T.

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