Sunday, 1 July 2007

Mao - The Unknown Story

I'm reading Mao: The unknown story, by Jung Chang who wrote the first book that ignited my fascination with Chinese history, Wild Swans.

A few years ago sitting in a painfully and aesthically hip bar in Shanghai's Xintiandi district (real gold leaf walls, solid coloured glass bar, candles and Buddhas on postmodern plinths) with an extremely bright, hard working and well educated Coca-Cola native-Chinese client in Shanghai, we serendipitously stumbled across a mutual realisation that we both harboured a dirty political hypothesis.

Not only were we both big political history fans but as the banter ranged over Mao Tse Tung's rapacious reading habits and
Tsing Tao beers, we concurred that there might also be some credence in the idea that in the big scheme of things, maybe the Cultural Revolution and The Great Leap Forward were statistically a reasonable thing to pursue. That is in an armchair-General, moral relativism course of discourse. Post Yugoslavia break up, and the Balkan states subsequent internecine warfare it's arguable that losing tens of millions here and there to hold a country as huge as China together is an ugly but a priori, reasonable price to pay. I still suspect it might be in a desperate kind of way for the Shan, Karin, Mon, Kachin and other ethnic groups of Burma; you know save a million lives here and ignore a million rapes there - who knows anyway?

Prior to starting this book I had already concluded that Mao's power had ebbed significantly during the cultural revolution with one of those political fratricides that takes almost everyone out, and isn't unique to communism, although it was certainly most visible say in the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror (that's proper terror, not the overblown petrol bombs that delayed a few punters bound for the Balearic isles this weekend) in Tuol Sleng. If you think you're life is a bit shit and stuff closer to home like asymetrical warfare in Lebanon doesn't hit the radar, you should try to get out to the killing fields a few clicks south of Phnom Penh in Choeung Ek and see the infamous tree where in the mid 70's the Khmer Rouge (who were once backed by Prince Norodom I might add) was used as a target to swing babies by their feet so that their skulls smashed instantaneously on the bark of the trunk. I guess that's better than say the women who for example had their breasts cut off in Tuol Sleng.

Anyway I've changed my mind. Reading this book its clear that Mao wasn't some sort of freedom fighter who galvanised China on a path that is unambiguously now paying debatable dividends and then made philosophical judgements on social engineering, that will in time see the occidental variant of capitalism crushed. He was a brutal thug that intuitively knew that the times were right to divide, and kill, and rule, to achieve his own agenda. Sorry Winnie, I'd love to get a bottle of red in and sit through another intelligent discussion on this one but as this well written book is not allowed on the mainland, having a debate isn't the same if both parties aren't fully informed. Even if that is to discuss the veracity of the text.

Update: I got into a very feisty discussion with an extraordinarily stylish Chinese lady in The
Endeavour Endurance Pub on Berwick Street about this book, and she was very angry that it portrayed Mao as having bourgeoisie tendencies. I accept her point about the possibility of bias in this book but not about Mao's innocence to kill his own. It was a good argument though. Sexy actually and I really liked the protection sock she gave me for my iPod as a gift.


  1. having seen an amazing collective art work at the last asia-pacific triennial, called the Long March Project, i realised that i know sweet FA about Mao's cultural revolution. well, at least in any real terms. thanks for this post and if you feel like sharing a book once you're done, i'd love to borrow Jung Chan's tome.

  2. Its a subject I really should find more about what with my fiancee's family being from Hong Kong...

    Interesting post though.

  3. Thanks Dude. Always a compliment coming from you. Look forward to our next hook up.

  4. Yeah - Chairman Mao, total bastard when it came down to it. I always feel liek the best comment on him was from the Onion's "Our Dumb Century" book: "Giant Poster of Chairman Mao Seizes Power in China".

    I do keep meaning to read the book, but I think, as someone who illogically retains a romantic yen for revolutionary Communism, it would depress the crap out of me.

  5. Hey Skippy. You're not the only one who feels partial to communism. Time for me to to do a post on this.

  6. Was this the Endurance not the Endeavour? Had you had too many beers to read the sign and potentially rationally discuss Mao, Communism and the increasing price of rice?
    Snigger snigger.

  7. Yes, yes, yes and yes charlie. I also left the extension cable for my brand new headphones there so lets put it down to the tasty Friday night Amstel Beer as to why I couldn't find the pub details on the internet the next day.

  8. Endurance never was your strong suit - hence her perception that you needed a protection sock.

  9. That was quite well crafted John. Not bad at all.