By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

When a biography sets out to tell “the unknown story” of a public figure, be it a politician or a movie star, you don’t expect it to be comprehensive or balanced. You expect it to be aggressively revisionist, polemical, full of behind-the-scenes gossip and fresh dirt.

Mao: The Unknown Story doesn’t disappoint. Not that Mao Tse-tung has had a lot of good press recently. Despite the continuing presence of an official cult of Mao in Communist China – his giant portrait still presides over Tiananmen Square – he is now widely regarded as being one of the worst political monsters of the twentieth century, which is saying quite a lot. His method of rule was terror and repression. His stated principle of morality was to “do to others precisely what I don’t want done to myself.” Calculations of the loss of life he can be held directly or indirectly accountable for are almost impossible, with estimations varying by tens of millions.

So why is this book so controversial? Why has it been described by Philip Short, author of the 1999 biography Mao: A Life, as “a hatchet job”? How do you do a hatchet job on a figure like Mao?

While perhaps not a hatchet job, author Jung Chang (at the age of fourteen a Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution) certainly has an axe to grind. Her portrait is wholly negative, never missing an opportunity not just to debunk the “Mao myth” but to add any negative spin she can.

The best example of this is her account of the Long March. Chang call the the Long March not only “the most enduring myth in modern Chinese history,” but “one of the biggest myths of the twentieth century.”

The myth is that Mao heroically led his rag-tag band of revolutionaries on an epic trek of 6,000 miles against overwhelming odds, forging a new nation in the process. The reality, at least according to Chang and Halliday, is that Mao was carried in a litter the whole way, and there was no real fighting because Chiang Kai-Shek gave the Reds a free pass to go wherever they wanted.

Why Chiang did this is one key to Chang’s Mao. Chiang’s “secret and totally private reason” for letting the Reds go was because his son was being held hostage in Russia. Not going after Mao was his way of “emphatically telling the Russians he was closing his eyes and letting the Reds go,” signaling a “Reds-for-his-son swap.”

This argument is not persuasive. There is no evidence for such an offer being made (emphatically or otherwise), and even if it had been Chiang’s intention (which is hard to believe), it didn’t work. But Chiang’s “Reds-for-his-son swap” is important for Chang because it helps in her painting of Mao’s character.

Chiang Kai-shek’s obsession with his son is “steeped in Chinese tradition” and morality (not to mention obvious human feeling). In contrast, “Mao’s attitude to his sons was one of indifference.” According to Chang he had little if any interest in their well-being. And sure enough, when his eldest son An-ying is later killed in the Korean War, Chang describes it as follows:

When Mao was given the news of his son’s death, he was silent for some time, and then murmured: “In a war, how can there be no deaths?” Mao’s secretary observed: “He didn’t really show any expression of great pain.”

Contrast this with Philip Short’s recounting of the same scene:

He crumpled, Peng remembered, trembling so violently that he could not light his cigarette. For several minutes, they sat in complete silence. Then Mao lifted his head. “In revolutionary war,” he said, “you always pay a price. An-ying was one of thousands . . . You shouldn’t take it as something special just because he was my son.”

What can we say about these two different accounts? They come from two different sources, and Chang has chosen to give us the one that casts Mao in the most unflattering light. But perhaps the main thing to take from both is what they share: a moment of silence. What that silence meant is open to interpretation, but must remain part of a truly unknown story.

The other reason Mao’s “indifference” is an important part of Chang’s portrait of Mao is because it draws an implied connection between Mao and his political, if not spiritual, father: Stalin. Chang’s Mao is nothing if not Stalinist to the core, and Stalin’s own rejection of a ransom offer from the Nazis when his son Yakov was being held in a prisoner-of-war camp, and his rumored indifference over Yakov’s subsequent death, is an obvious parallel.

Mao: The Unknown Story contains a wealth of original research and insight, revealing shades and depths of character, and doing much to fill gaps in the historical record. It is personal and gossipy at times, but this is part of history too. And it is highly readable, in an almost tabloid kind of way. But its picture of Mao isn’t entirely convincing.

At the end of the day it’s hard to believe that someone so unlikable, uncharismatic, lazy, dull, and flat-out inept as Chang’s Mao could have achieved what he did. Chang and Halliday would respond that he was totally ruthless (his “most formidable weapon was pitilessness”), opportunistic, and had a lot of help (from Chiang Kai-Shek, the Russians, and even the U.S.). No doubt all this was true, but there is still something missing. The Mao we see here is unpleasant in every way: a lecherous skirt-chaser, a paranoid, a dirty old man (he never bathed) with rotten black teeth, a sleeping-pill addict, a petty and vindictive sadist, a literary dilettante and philistine, a thorough cynic and hypocrite, a military bungler, a foul-mouthed pseudo-intellectual, but never any kind of leader. The Unknown Story is not the whole story – making it a necessary biography, but incomplete.

Review first published November 5, 2005.