"Mao: A Life" by Philip Short and "Mao Zedong" by Jonathan Spence

Two new biographies of "the cuddly dictator" are nearly definitive -- but one is 600 pages longer.

Published January 26, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The leveling of the Berlin Wall may have been the pageant that signaled the end of Soviet-style communism, and the events at Tiananmen Square may have been its greatest drama. But the decline of the Soviets became truly irrevocable at the point when scholars of the former communist bloc countries began to gain access to original sources once again -- and it thus became possible to romp around on Sino-Russian territory researching exposis and unflattering political biographies without engaging the iron boot of the proletariat in sharp dialectic with your ass.

There's never been a shortage of books on the communist bloc and its leaders, but for nearly 75 years following Emma Goldman's bitterly contested 1923 work "My Disillusionment in Russia," it was very difficult to write anything definitive. Lately, Russia has begun to rise to the challenge with its own native strain of post-communist muckraking, through the works of such authors as Stalin biographers Edvard Radzinsky and Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov and former secret policeman Peter Deriabin. But in China's case, since reforms have been slower and more tenuous, and since the current government traces directly back to the party of the revolution, it's taken a bit of Western imperialist-style carpetbagging to get the sluices flowing.

Mao: A Life

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Mao Zedong

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Jasper Becker's 1997 study, "Hungry Ghosts," unearthed new evidence about famines caused by the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962, in which up to 30 million people may have died. University of Chicago professor Dali Yang follows the effects of the famines into the present day in his 1998 "Calamity and Reform in China." Now both Philip Short, in his "Mao: A Life," and Jonathan Spence, in "Mao Zedong," have gone into the archives to pry the big moose head off the wall: the enigmatic arch-Heffalump of Red China, the Bamboo Curtain bugaboo -- the cuddly dictator.

Mao's crimes and achievements alike have been veiled for a half century beneath a fog of rumor and propaganda. In the "rumor" category is the 1996 potboiler "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by the late Chinese expatriate Li Zhisui, who claimed (without solid proof) to have been Mao's private physician and shrugged off charges of inaccuracy by saying that it was up to the historians to sort things out. While there's clearly a lot more sorting out to do than any two books can accomplish, Short (a credentialed British journalist who, while not strictly a historian, has spent a lot of time in China) and Spence (who teaches at Yale and is acclaimed for his 11 books on Chinese history) are at least the right sort of men for the job.

Think of Short's volume as the Big Red Book and Spence's as the Short One. The latter arrived in October as part of the Penguin Lives series of nearly bite-sized biographies, and while it stands easily on its own, it also works rather neatly as an eloquent Cliff's Notes version of Short's far more expansive (and somewhat drier) book. The similarities between the two works go past the level of basic narrative: Both authors rely on the same anecdotes and quotations to illustrate Mao's boyhood and early career; and each draws a similar picture of his subject as a man and a politician.

Mao was, like Hitler, Stalin and Napoleon, a canny provincial whose sentiments held sway over his intellect, and who fell badly out of touch with reality once his power became so great that his advisors were no longer able to reel in his fancies. He was also one of an odd and, it appears, specifically Asian variety of bloodstained tyrant. Like Pol Pot, Mao doesn't seem to have really meant anybody any harm. It was doctrine, and a childishness of mind that grew out of a complacent over-reliance on doctrine, that made him the architect of the most fatal period of misrule that China has ever seen: Once he got an idea in his head -- on generalship, politics, law or agriculture -- he simply couldn't be persuaded to let it go.

That extreme tenacity is what carried him, and the Communist Party into whose forefront he slowly moved, through decades of struggle against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces, against Japan and other foreign powers and against warlords and bandits of every stripe -- all of whom were contending, in ever-changing combinations, for the power left behind by the Qing dynasty, which was deposed at the turn of the century. By the time the People's Republic of China was proclaimed, in Beijing in 1949, Mao was 56 and had been conducting a military campaign for 22 years. But the character traits that can lead a revolutionary army to victory aren't necessarily the ones that make for a good head of state.

Upon attaining office, Spence recounts, Mao carried on the struggle as though the fronts had merely shifted, beginning a campaign to "resolutely eliminate bandits, spies, bullies, and despots," which eventually claimed more than 700,000 lives, and becoming embroiled, for ideological reasons, in the Korean War, which claimed 148,000 more. When the time came to focus on domestic policy and economic development, he developed increasingly unrealistic ambitions and an increasingly forcible style of carrying them out, culminating in the Great Leap Forward, the massively botched scheme that was intended to transform China overnight from a struggling peasant economy into a powerhouse of technology and production.

The plan was based on ideological principles rather than practical ones, but at that point Mao was beginning to find it hard to distinguish between the two. Short quotes a 1958 speech: "When we study a problem, we must subdue the facts ... The relationship between politics and numbers is like that between officers and soldiers: Politics is the commander." History would record the results -- and Short's and Spence's histories show Mao, after having been scorched badly by the refusal of facts and numbers to kowtow to his notions of ideology, crossing over into a condition indistinguishable from paranoid dementia. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, in the mid-'60s, that chubby, smiling face on the posters belonged to a disheveled, peevish man lounging in bed all day amid a pile of books as he systematically plotted to take out everyone in China who might disagree even inwardly with his notions of Mao Zedong Thought.

If not for the 30 million shades (or more) that were sent on to prepare a place for him in the Workers Paradise of extinguished communists, "Mao: A Life" and the shorter Spence book would taper into perfect, blackest farce. As it is, his rule was the tragedy of a continent. But with China moving toward a (highly provisional) freedom of opinion and conscience, thanks in great part to Mao's having ruined the country forever for Soviet-style communism, and with a nation of more than a billion souls still awaiting their own turn to criticize their former chairman, call the story only provisionally tragic, and these books themselves only provisionally definitive. If China follows once again in Russia's path, we may yet see a spate of homegrown Beijing muckrakers.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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