Mao: A Life
By Philip Short
* Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
* Number Of Pages: 768
* Publication Date: 2000-01-19
* ISBN-10 / ASIN: 0805031154
* ISBN-13 / EAN: 9780805031157
The definitive biography of the man who dominated modern Chinese history.
When the Nationalists routed a ragtag Red Army on the Xiang River during the Long March, an earthy Chinese peasant with a brilliant mind moved to a position of power. Eight years after his military success, Mao Tse-Tung had won out over more sophisticated rivals to become party chairman, his title for life. Isolated by his eminence, he lived like a feudal emperor for much of his reign after a blood purge took more lives than those killed by either Stalin or Hitler. His virtual quarantine resulted in an ideological/political divide and a devastating reign of terror that became the Cultural Revolution. Though Mao broke the shackles of two thousand years of Confucian right thinking and was the major force of contemporary China, he reverted to the simplistic thinking of his peasant origins at the end, sustained by the same autocratic process that supported China's first emperors.
One cannot understand today's China without first understanding Mao. Attempts to view Mao's life through Western lenses inevitably present a cartoonish monster or hero, both far removed from the real man. Philip Short's masterly assessment-informed by secret documents recently found in China-allows the reader to understand this colossal figure whose shadow will dominate the twenty-first century.
Of the three great tyrants of the 20th century--Hitler, Stalin, and Mao--the West generally knows the least about the latter. What we do know is that he was every bit as genocidal in his policies as either of the other two great villains of the age. In fact, in purely statistical terms, Mao might have been responsible for the deaths of more people than Hitler and Stalin combined. However, Philip Short's immense but immensely readable and impressively researched biography of the man goes far deeper than this. Yes, he acknowledges, Mao was a tyrant, but then China always has been run by tyrants; it never has had a tradition of democracy. And Mao was also an idealist: the deaths of millions was, as he saw it, the price that his country had to pay for being dragged from a state of medieval servitude--perpetually on the brink of famine--to that of a modern, industrialized, self-sufficient nation, in the space of a single lifetime. Short also humanizes Mao, and shows a man who had a profound and sincere interest in Chinese philosophy and poetry, and a surprisingly sharp sense of humor. None of this can exonerate Mao from the charge of inhumanity on an epic scale. But it does make for a much more rounded and complex portrait of the figure who, as the 21st century unfolds, might be shown to have had more influence on world history than either Hitler or Stalin. --Christopher Hart, Amazon.co.uk
Summary: Hitler, Stalin, ... Mao.
I had to take a sabbatical partway through this book. The savagery was infuriating, nauseating. Human life falls under a boot heel like rice.
Summary: Ultimately effective...
It took a while to warm to Philip Short's Mao, A Life, though it begins traditionally with his ancestry and birth. It is what comes after and lasts through the first third of the book that saps any attempt at momentum. Mao's early political career was as chaotic as the country that gave rise to it. Fledgling communist groups split, reorganized, collaborated with the elitist Guomindong, spurned the Guomindong, split again, reformed, obeyed the Comintern, ignored the Comintern, seemingly ad infinitum. It is Short's job to capture this chaos and present it to the reader with some semblance of order and intrigue. For roughly 200 pages, Philip Short fails to do so. Indeed, his ricochet manner perplexes the reader until Mao's power in China is consolidated.
As Chang Kai-shek flees for Taiwan, Short's biography begins to grow wings. Now, soberly told, is the Mao megalomania, the seeming psychosis, the atrocious social experimentation. Mao's ridiculously arbitrary to-and-fro policies led to the deaths of millions. Snapping this way and that, his manipulative, scheming, whims du jour left his comrades alternately humiliated, imprisoned or dead and the powerless proletariat victims of famine.
Short adds nuance to the retelling of Mao's lunatic purges by referring often to the Chairman's poetry, intellect, brinksmanship, and military genius. Yet, even as Short employs a biographer's moderation, he moves one to embarrassment that a creature such as Mao once existed. I trust this isn't unintentional. 4 stars.
Summary: The men who Would be King: The Chairman and the Generalissimo
Short, Philip (1999) Mao: A Life (Holt: New York)
Fenby, Jonathan (2003) Chiang Kai-Shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost (Carroll & Graf: New York).
On October 1, 1949 Chairman Mao Zedong stood at the Gate of Heavenly Peace and declared the founding of the People's Republic of China. He told the assembled crowd, "We, the 475 million Chinese people have stood up and our future is infinitely bright." He further continued "The Chinese people have stood up." Two months the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) achieved later final victory. The leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, fled with his party to the Chinese provincial island of Taiwan. That day was the endgame of a battle that began twenty-two years earlier during the 1927 Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan.
Both Mao and Chiang are synonymous with the history of modern China. Both men came from similar backgrounds, had similar strategies and similar visions for China. Each man came from humble origins - Chiang the son of a salt merchant and Mao the son of a well off peasant. Mao and Chiang also sought to remake China as a modern nation within the world of nation-states. On more than one occasion each man was willing to use the other for their own struggle within their respective parties. To a degree, they were peas in a pod in modern China.
The capturing of these complicated men in their pod has been a complicated process for most writers. Many writers are trapped in their internal politics to capture the true person behind the images. Mao and Chiang both have had devoted followers and devote detractors who were more than willing to take a blind eye to things both good and bad done by these men.
Short and Fenby, however, do not. These two biographies are both extremely objective and sound. Mao is seen as the terrible dictator that he was. "His rule brought about the deaths of more of his own people than any other leader in history." Short admires Mao as being the man "who wrenched China from it medieval torpor and forced it into the contours of a modern nation."
Fenby, meanwhile, is equally objective in his assessment of the Generalissimo. Chiang's regime, both on the Mainland and on Taiwan, was not the thriving democracy it is even though of in the west. But in fact, it was a authoritarian one "organized on Leninist lines with a repressive internal security apparatus." Yet in the wake of three decades of horrid revolution, "Chiang and his era become less of the nightmare painted after the Communist victory."
Without Mao or Chiang China would probably still be the semi-colonial backwater it was when they were born in the late nineteenth century. Both men helped to unmake the old feudalist China ran for the betterment of Qing Dynasty and laid the groundwork for the extreme economic growth both on the Mainland and on Taiwan. Each Short and Fenby attempt to capture these two complicated men who will dominate the pages of history for centuries to come. Each is a fantastic read about the two men who would be king.
Summary: A nuanced portrait of a complex man.
Of all the great 20th century dictators, Mao seems the hardest to fathom. This is probably because of the way his mind worked and the peculiarities of his weltenschaung. It is useless to pin down his psyche with a choice quotation or two. The man who famously said that "power flows out of the barrel of a gun" has also been reported as saying that it is "a mistake to believe that weapons decide everything". Above all -- in Phillip Short's excellent biography -- Mao comes across as a man of contradictions. He saw the world in dialectical, yin-yang terms. One feels, almost, that the great turmoils he unleashed were his way of ensuring that the great proletarian revolution remained permanant and forever dialectical and always violent. Stasis would be bad for China.
To those brought up under a western-inspired education system and world-view, Mao seems like a capricious crank, a heartless monster. In Philip Short's treatment, however, Mao displays a preternatural sense of nuance and subtlety of thought, and a finely-honed sense of brinkmanship (as in the Cultural Revolution where he let loose the forces of revolution upon the Party itself).
And what of his legacy ? Short argues that an important distinction needs to be made between Mao and the other dictators: The overwhelming majority of deaths under his rule were the unintended consequence of policies, not the deliberate genocide of a class of people (like the Jews or the Kulaks). Mao's cavalier attitude towards deaths on a massive scale is acknowledged. To Mao, a million deaths is merely a part of the dialectics of revolution. In this sense he was indeed a monster.
Today China is a capitalist country in all but name. I think Mao would have seen this as a natural state of affairs, given the contradictions inherent in world history.If he were to come back from the grave, he would judge that the time is now ripe for him to unleash another great upheaval. Capitalist stasis is also not good !
Summary: Excellent Book...But Missing Some Info
This is a superbly written biography of Mao Zedong who I feel should be in any Sinophile's library. The great detail of Mao Zedong's early life and how he got into Communism is excellent. The description of his Anarchist/Marxist philosophy gives a reader a very clear understanding on why Communism came about in China; that it was mostly accepted by the majority of the Chinese population (especially peasants) and not initially enforced upon them, a view held by most Americans. The sad developments of Hundred Flowers Campaign, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are also revealed in great detail.
However, no matter how good this book is, I'm still a little bothered by some of it's lack of details on certain very important aspects of modern Chinese history.
1) Not enough was mention about his relationship with Japanese when China was engaged in the war with Japan. Nothing was mentioned on any possible collaboration with Japan that would have upset certain Chinese who claimed that the Communists did more against Japanese than Nationalist.
2) And talking about the Sino Japanese War, why wasn't the big battle of Operation Ichigo mentioned? China would have faced annihilation from Japan during this gigantic operation in 1944, something that worried China greatly and affect the future of the Communists and Nationalists.
3) Not enough about Zhou Enlai was mentioned. Zhou Enlai's proposal of the Four Modernization program was used by Deng Xiaoping to transformed China. I felt this is ultra-important information that should have been mentioned about the 70s. The contrast of Mao Zedong's ultra left views with Zhou's moderate views would have given the reader a great understanding how Deng's program succeeded in the great transformation of modern China from Mao's disastrous programs.
4) Mao Zedong developed some sort of mental illness later in life which caused the strange series of events during the cultural revolution, especially his purge of Liu Shaoqi; this mental illness was possibly caused by drugs (this was mentioned in Harrison Salisbury's "New Emperors" this would have explained his erratic behavior during his old age.
But otherwise this is a truly good book. I am most impressed by Short's ultra unbiased viewpoints.
Anybody who read this book should compare it with the Chiang Kai Shek's biography, " Chiang Kai Shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost", by Jonathan Fenby.