Mao: The Taiwan story

Tales of Communist wickedness so vile even the KMT objects

Published August 29, 2006 9:09PM (EDT)

You would think Taiwan's ultra-literate masses would be a natural market for a Chinese translation of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's "Mao: The Unknown Story," a biography that depicts the notorious chairman as so unredeemably evil in every possible way that even Satan would have second thoughts on making room for him in Hell. Loyal Maoists are in short supply in Taiwan, and not just because defeated Nationalist (KMT) Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and a million or so other mainlanders made the island their home after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communists. Even the brutal repression visited upon the native Taiwanese by Chiang and his cronies left little legacy of Communist fandom.

But there will be no Taiwanese edition of "Mao," at least for now. The reasons, as explained in a fascinating blog post at The Levitator, are a Chinese history geek's dream come true.

As explained by The Levitator, in Chapter 29 of "Mao" the authors suggest that a General Hu Tsung-nan, "one of Chiang Kai-shek's key commanders, might have been a Communist mole." The problem? Hu's oldest son, Hu Wei-jen, a former deputy director of Taiwan's National Security Bureau, is quite unhappy with the allegation, as are a number of other retired KMT generals. Exerting heavy pressure on the would-be Taiwanese publisher of "Mao," they demanded that the accusation about Hu be edited out. Chang and Halliday refused. Publication quashed.

I am no fan of Chiang Kaishek or the KMT, and my normal inclination would be to fully support historians who refuse to yield to censorious pressures. But the self-interested quibbling by loyal Nationalists over the reputation of General Hu raises a serious question about "Mao: The Unknown Story": Is this 900-page tome itself a legitimate work of history?

A quick glance at the hundreds of pages of footnotes and bibliography that purport to back up the 12 years of research committed by Chang and Halliday would seem to suggest that of course, "Mao" is the real deal. But a debate over the validity of the many historical bombshells dropped in the book has been raging since the day of its publication.

It's been an odd kind of wrangle, because almost every critique of the book is framed with unusual contortions: "Yes, Mao Zedong was a bad, bad man responsible for the deaths of millions and untold cultural damage, but still, he's not quite as bad as Chang and Halliday say he was." I originally wanted to review the book for Salon, but gave up the idea after reading two or three chapters and realizing that the sheer level of authorial hatred that infused every single sentence of the book made me lose faith in whether Chang and Halliday had approached their subject with anything close to an objective stance. And I simply did not have the historical chops to evaluate their research.

Andrew Nathan, Columbia's Political Science department chair, does have the expertise, and his takedown in the London Review of Books is a devastating demolition of the notion that "Mao" might be a useful addition to our understanding of modern Chinese history. Despite the voluminous footnotes, Nathan's careful review of the most shocking allegations reveals that the sourcing is fundamentally weak. Too much of it is anonymous, can't be evaluated by other historians, or is actually a flat-out misrepresentation of the historical record to engender confidence in the book's overall accuracy.

The great irony of the Taiwan spat is that retired KMT generals and national security officials, a constituency that one would expect to be the most likely to treat "Mao: The Unknown Story" as long overdue sacred writ deserving of the highest hosannas and most widespread distribution, are preventing its Chinese-language publication in Taiwan because of one paragraph that makes an already considerably watered down accusation. As the authors note in their own account of the affair, "we understood the feelings of Hu Tsung-nan's children, and made some compromises in the Chinese edition that did not go against our principles. Immediately after the statement 'Hu Tsung-nan could have been a Red sleeper,' we added a footnote saying, 'This is by no means conclusive,' and also pointed out: General Hus descendents, friends and relatives may not be able to accept this assessment."

Let's weep no tears for this stifled birth. "This is by no means conclusive," is likely to be history's judgment of the entirety of "Mao: The Unknown Story." We can do better.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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