Mao: The Untold Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Holliday, has a spectacular first sentence:
Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of
one quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70
million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century
The book is wicked long (don’t ask), and describes human horrors that can be difficult to stomach, yet it makes good on that opening promise. Though some reviewers have quarreled with the authors’ explanations for why Mao undertook certain actions, there is little basis for challenging the central assertion that no leader has managed to kill off so many of his own people — not even a butcher like Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.
The numbers can become numbing, but the most staggering is the systematic starvation of the more than 30 million Chinese people during the Mao’s press for industrialization in 1958-60, called the Great Leap Forward (what could Jon Stewart do with that one?). Among the fascinating propositions put forward by Chang and Holliday are:
- That Mao’s rise to power within the Chinese Communist Party was critically dependent on support from the Soviet Union, and Stalin in particular.
- That on the legendary Long March of 1934, when the Red Army retreated to Northwest China to avoid destruction by the Nationalist army led by Chiang Kai-Shek, (i) Mao was ordinarily carried in a sedan chair, like Chinese emperors of yore, and (ii) he actually extended the march by several months in order to weaken intra-party opponents and other leading Red Army commanders.
- That Mao used bloody purges in the 1930s and through World War II in order to convert the Red Army and the Chinese Communist Party into the perfect instruments of his will. Public executions and torture, including burying opponents alive, were favored techniques.
- Mao had a chilling indifference to the loss of human life (other than his own). In his later years in power, he could speak coolly of how China would prevail in a nuclear war because it had so many people that at least some would be bound to survive.
Gasping to the finish line with this tome, I conclude my Winter of Twentieth Century Asia reading. I can recommend two other books from the effort:
— David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter,, his last book. Covering the first year of the Korean War, Halberstam draws a disturbing portrait of a United States Army not ready for war with a military leader, Douglas MacArthur, who bordered on the delusional.
— Andrew X. Pham’s The Eaves of Heaven, telling the remarkable story of his family’s experiences in Vietnam through the 1940s until the fall of Saigon in 1975. I’m not a big fan of Pham’s choice of narrative voice — he tells the story through his father’s voice, in a first-person account — but the story itself shines through the awkwardness of the literary device.