[Marxism] Debunking Chang and Halliday

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 10 09:45:45 MST 2005

LRB | Vol. 27 No. 22 dated 17 November 2005 | Andrew Nathan
Jade and Plastic

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday [ Buy from the London 
Review Bookshop ] · Cape, 814 pp, £25.00

Mao Zedong’s long, wicked life has generated some lengthy biographies in 
English. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s is the longest, having overtaken 
Philip Short’s Mao (1999) and Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao 
(1995). It represents an extraordinary research effort. The authors have 
been working on the project since at least 1986, to judge by the date of 
the earliest interview cited, which – and this is typical of the access 
they gained to many highly-placed and interesting people – was with Milovan 
Djilas. They have visited remote battle sites of the Long March, Mao’s cave 
in Yan’an, ‘over two dozen’ of Mao’s secret private villas around the 
country, the Russian presidential and foreign ministry archives, and other 
archives in Albania, Bulgaria, London and Washington DC. They even tried – 
and failed – to get access to the Chinese war memorial in Pyongyang.

The book cites by name 363 interviewees in 38 countries, including two 
former US presidents; Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore; 
the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko; the Mao aide and later Chinese 
head of state Yang Shangkun; a former Japanese cabinet secretary who 
confided that Mao escorted his prime minister to the lavatory in 
Zhongnanhai; Mao’s daughter and grandsons; and the Red Guard leader Kuai 
Dafu. Chang and Halliday also cite dozens of interviews with anonymous 
sources, including a laundry worker who describes the fine cotton used for 
Mao’s underwear in Yan’an; a pharmacist who allegedly prescribed lysol for 
one of Mao’s political rivals in the 1940s; Mao’s daughter’s nanny in 
Yan’an; staff at Mao’s villas; and ‘multiple’ Mao girlfriends. They have 
used about a thousand non-archival written sources, including published and 
unpublished works in Chinese, English, Russian, French and Italian. These 
include many that are unfamiliar to me and perhaps to many other 
specialists on Chinese Communist history and politics.

As their subtitle proclaims, in virtually every chapter Chang and Halliday 
have turned up ‘unknown stories’ of Mao. Some, if true, will be big news 
for historians. Mao amassed a private fortune during the Jiangxi Soviet 
period; his troops fought only one real battle during the Long March; their 
break-out from Nationalist military encirclement was deliberately allowed 
by Chiang Kai-shek; the most famous battle of the Long March never took 
place; Mao attacked India in 1962 with the support of the Soviet Union.

Other scoops have important implications for Mao’s character. He poisoned a 
rival during the Yan’an period. He would send his own soldiers to be 
massacred if it would help him to move up the ranks of the Party. He took 
pleasure in the slow, agonising death of Liu Shaoqi. We already knew that 
Mao was selfish and ruthless. Chang and Halliday add that he was a brutal, 
sadistic power-monger lacking in vision or ideals, comfort-loving and often 
lazy, riding the revolution to power to satisfy a lust for torture and sex.

It is hard to imagine a more panoramic subject in terms of time, geography 
and historical forces. Yet Chang and Halliday focus tightly on Mao. Around 
him we glimpse a Communist Party leadership of cowards and fools, either 
manipulated by Mao, as Zhou Enlai was, or killed by him. In the deeper 
background, we perceive a political-movement-turned-regime that engaged in 
fifty years of mass torture, killing and destruction for no good purpose, 
leaving its people impoverished and exhausted. Lost in the distance are the 
larger forces of history that some might think explain the violence and 
longevity of Mao’s regime: sociological or institutional explanations, or 
explanations based on China’s geostrategic position between two contending 
superpowers in the Cold War. Such theories would presumably be too 
impersonal for this intensely moralising work. They might seem to exculpate 
Mao by suggesting that he did not always intend the disasters he presided over.

That Mao’s story might still be to some extent unknown need not surprise 
us, given the secrecy that surrounds the Chinese archives, the regime’s 
tight control over historiography and propaganda, and Deng Xiaoping’s 
decision in 1981 to preserve the regime’s continuity by committing the 
Party to an official view of its former ruler as ‘70 per cent right, 30 per 
cent wrong’. Mao (or something resembling Mao) remains embalmed in the 
heart of Tiananmen Square, and his image remains branded on the official 
heart of the Party. Deng’s decision influences all officially sanctioned 
writing on the former dictator, and that means everything openly published 
on Mao in China. Few historians outside China in recent decades have clung 
to the older romantic image of Mao as a sage, visionary and humanist, but 
Chang and Halliday’s Mao is a revelation even for today’s demystified 

There are problems, however: many of their discoveries come from sources 
that cannot be checked, others are openly speculative or are based on 
circumstantial evidence, and some are untrue.



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