A look back in anger

by Tze Ming Mok / 27 August, 2005
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday have written a thorough, damning, outraged biography of Mao Tse Tung, but is China listening?

For writing Mao: The Unknown Story with her historian husband Jon Halliday, Jung Chang has been called "a true running-dog bitch" and an "agenda-driven fanatic" by Chinese Internet commentators.

You know, she doesn't seem like an agenda-driven fanatic. Chang does speak with absolute conviction, but also with measured, genteel grace. Her tiny frame poised at the edge of a vast couch appears about as wide as the 800-page hardback edition of The Unknown Story. In another echo of the book, Chang's natural diction is intent, emphatic, but above all, precise. Meanwhile, Halliday is a lanky, lively and donnish Englishman, fond of affable anecdote, with a dry-lemonadey wit. Promoting the book in Auckland, they turn their backs on an epic, glistening view of the Hauraki Gulf, leaning in to their interviewer as if proffering sheaves of their dusty evidence accumulated over 10 painstaking years. "Look at what we found!" their postures say. "Can you believe it?!" More than anything, they present as committed history-geeks - Halliday describing how he broke into a sweat over material in the Russian archives, Chang how she haunted Beijing book fairs and second-hand bookstores, buying up every piece of Communist Party documentation she could lay her hands on.

So far the Chinese Government has remained silent on this inflammatory new biography. Says Chang with utmost care, "They haven't denounced it; they have not said anything." Though her Wild Swans was banned in China early in the 1990s, Chang has never been prevented from entering China to visit her mother and she wants to keep it that way.

Although the regime also knew that Chang was researching Mao during her yearly trips to China, they "sort of tolerated me doing research ... I think most people in the leadership don't know a lot of the things in the book themselves. I'm curious to see how they react when they realise the truth." A little spark of nervous excitement shoots between the two authors. When they realise the truth. Such optimism. As scholars, they harbour an unfashionable belief in the power of truth to reach the ears of the wilfully deaf. There is an unspoken hope that the regime is curious about its own history. At the same time, Chang suggests that the Party "may not have realised what a devastating book this was going to be". Because, at the time, neither did Chang and Halliday. Says Chang, "I knew Mao was bad, but I didn't know he was this bad."

With The Unknown Story doubtless to be banned in China, how long will it take for Chinese people to be convinced of this alternate history? "I think as soon as they read the book!" says Chang, with absolute sincerity. "If they're allowed to read the book and see how persuasive - no - how true the facts are, they will believe it."

Will they? In China, where Mao is the closest thing to a national religion and one of the last touchstones of the regime's ideological legitimacy, The Unknown Story would be literally heretical in its revision of early, inviolable myths - those that paint the making of Mao, the Communist Party and the modern Chinese nation as one, indivisible, riotous blooming. Just a few of The Unknown Story's heresies: the practically biblical story of the Long March was a fraud disguising a bout of Mao's intra-Party manoeuvring that squandered over 70,000 lives. Bam! Mao welcomed the Japanese invasion, hoping for a Soviet counter-invasion that would split and colonise China. Pow! The massive famine of the Great Leap Forward was not a result of socialist incompetence, but an intentional policy that knowingly traded lives for Soviet nuclear technology. Ka-BOOM! The Unknown Story savages Mao with an army of endnoted, attributed details backed with masses of archival material and eyewitness interviews. Every event is accounted for. Western critics take no issue with the facts unearthed by Chang and Halliday, but instead, questioned the withering glare and furious bitterness apparent in Chang's prose, worrying that this will reduce the book's ability to persuade those who need the information the most - the citizens of the People's Republic. Did Chang and Halliday decide it was less important to seem objective than to be correct? Did they get carried away into character assassination?

"It's not as though there's a kind of 'good Mao' and 'bad Mao'," says Halliday. "I do think we are very, very objective because we made a decision to write about everything."

By this, he means everything about Mao. The other widespread observation of The Unknown Story has been its lack of context or a world outside Mao - in the words of my review "as if Chang and Halliday chose by omission how a nation and its social movements were obliterated by one pathological ego". The Times Literary Supplement appealed almost desperately for a glimmer of good news about the work undertaken by socialist idealists in the name of Mao, if not by Mao himself. But as Chang points out, "it is a biography", and their project was to address the Mao mythology, not Chinese social history, nor the history of the Communist Party. In those other histories, redemption and resistance can be found, or, perhaps, relief for reviewers trawling an 800-page tome. But in the world of Mao alone, there is neither relief nor redemption - only a bleak and consistently appalling portrait of inhumanity. Halliday asserts, quite convincingly backed by the weight of every decision Mao ever made, that "if [Mao] appears relentlessly awful, it was because he was relentlessly awful. Not a single critic to the best of my know-ledge has yet come up with a single fact - either a single thing that's incorrect, or a single point on which they can substantiate that Mao was quite good." Elegantly exasperated, Chang continues: "I wish people would just tell us what good things they know about Mao ... I wish people would just name something ... When you write about Hitler, you can't say, 'He is good and he is bad.' It's the same as writing about Mao." A potent comparison.

"Maybe there is passion in the book," Chang acknowledges, "There is outrage in the book. Passion about the Chinese people, when we realise how much they suffered. And there is outrage that Mao was so awful. I was constantly outraged. If the facts are true, then I think we're entitled to be outraged about Mao."

Chang's shock and disbelief as she and Halliday unearthed The Unknown Story convincingly square with the Chang we know from Wild Swans. Despite the accusations of bias and personal vendetta, Chang's greatest failing as a Red Guard was excessive moderation and lack of a killer instinct. When she says, of reading Mao's pronouncements on the benefits of mass starvation, "I couldn't believe my eyes", it seems believable that this biography was not a premeditated 10-year exercise in revenge. Chang did not start researching the book knowing what she'd find. She didn't know that Mao was this bad.

This is because total ruthlessness, a complete lack of empathy, is quite unexpected in human behaviour. It was Mao's greatest asset, his very own element of surprise that enabled him to outmanoeuvre and out-terrorise his rivals. In short, Mao was a psychopath - a self-selecting condition among mass-murdering dictators. You can't expect to get to that level otherwise.

To deal with such unexpected circumstances, historical memory and rumour move with their own rationality and surrealism. Folk explanations arise that interpret and subvert political insanity. The Unknown Story relates a panicked rumour that spread throughout rural provinces after the Communist victory: Mao's officers were coming to cut off men's balls to send to Russia, to convert into atomic bombs ("balls" and "bombs" being homonyms in Chinese). And Mao did later convert the bodies of the peasantry into bombs with the practical simplicity of that metaphor, starving 70 million people to death by exporting their food to the Soviet bloc in exchange for weapons technology. As simple as that.

Rumour also rationalises what would otherwise seem irrational. Mao went mad from syphilitic brain-lesions, my mother, a doctor, still confidently asserts. How else to explain the Cultural Revolution? "Yes, exactly!" Chang agrees. "'Why would this man want to destroy his own Party?' many people would ask. 'He has to be insane.'" But both Chang and Halliday claim that Mao was in complete control of his faculties until the very end. Chang says: "Because of the deprivation of information, people couldn't form a complete picture of Mao, and people would find his actions inexplicable. I think we ... " - and she pauses, checking her obvious enthusiasm over this achievement, " ... if I may say - I think we have made sense of all Mao's actions and policies."

Like others of her generation, Chang had not known, even when she wrote Wild Swans, that the famine of the Great Leap Forward was caused by anything but economic mismanagement. But when Mao was alerted to the famine in 1958, he responded that to achieve his goals "half of China may well have to die". If this is sense, China may well prefer nonsense.

In fact, there is an awful possibility that Chinese society is all too capable of absorbing the knowledge that the great famine was a calculated trade of lives for prestige. The Great Wall, after all, was the same deal. "People say Mao made China great," Chang protests, "but he didn't! The year Mao died in 1976 the average food intake was lower than in the 1930s before the Communists took power ... Mao simply didn't make China great! He had the atom bomb, but ... " But ... the greatest interpretational conflict lies here. The Chinese people do unequivocally believe that acquiring the bomb made China great. So what does "great" mean, and what is it worth? The tension over this question seems to make Chang and Halliday speak in overlaps, in spurts and failures of sentences.

"But ... " says Chang, "the atom bomb cost so many lives that it cost exactly a hundred times ... " Halliday picks up the thread: "a hundred times the number of people who were killed by both the atom bombs dropped."

And Chang continues: "If he'd used the money used to build the bomb to feed his population - not a single person in China had to die."

Perhaps the massive sacrifice of lives that bought China its nuclear power status has only increased the acknowledged worth of that status, feeding the need to believe that the sacrifice was for something as important as the lives of 70 million, rather than an utter betrayal of humanity. People may not be able to rationalise it any other way. Chang and Halliday may then be fanatics after all, evangelists for a competing, unpopular rational force - a history without heroes. Halliday likens the painful work to be done in China to a Truth and Reconciliation process. Chang insists that airing The Unknown Story "is not going to split the nation. Everyone who lived under Mao knew what Mao's rule was like." This is certainly the case for her generation and its predecessors, and The Unknown Story is the hidden testament of those generations. Chang notes that despite government warnings, or even because of those warnings, their old guard interview-subjects held surprisingly little reluctance to talk. "We were constantly moved by how keen people were to open themselves up - and to tell the truth. It just seemed absolutely extraordinary."

But neither they nor Chang grew up in post-Mao China. Today, Mao is ranked number one by Chinese youth out of a top 10 list of all-time heroes. They are able to love Mao precisely because they did not live under Mao. Although Chinese youth have few qualms about showing cynicism towards the current leadership, Mao has become the one unshakeable nationalist symbol - both kitsch and deadly serious - embodying a perfect, nostalgic idealism and anti-imperialist pride. This kind of idolisation is no longer reserved for the living - it will not be easy to prise it from Mao's cold, dead grip.


Medical specialist and writer Eileen Merriman's prescription for success
104920 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Profiles

Medical specialist and writer Eileen Merriman's pr…

by Clare de Lore

Eileen Merriman doesn’t have to dig too deep to find the angst, humour and drama for her award-winning novels.

Read more
We still remember them: The best in new Anzac Day reading
105020 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

We still remember them: The best in new Anzac Day…

by Russell Baillie

The tide of great New Zealand books on the world wars shows no sign of going out. Russell Baillie reviews four new Anzac books.

Read more
Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for kids
105028 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for…

by Ann Packer

A telegraph “boy”, heroic animals and even shell-shock make for engaging reads for children.

Read more
Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of restoring NZ's lighthouses
104978 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of res…

by Fiona Terry

Ensuring lighthouses stay “shipshape” isn’t a job for the faint-hearted.

Read more
The former major reuniting service medals with their rightful owners
105015 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

The former major reuniting service medals with the…

by Fiona Terry

Service medals are being reunited with their rightful owners thanks to former major Ian Martyn and his determined research.

Read more
PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of social media for terrorism
104952 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Politics

PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of soc…

by Noted

A meeting aims to see world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’.

Read more
Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story from tedium
104942 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story…

by James Robins

The fictionalised account of a British woman who spied for the Soviet Union is stiflingly quaint.

Read more
What to watch on TV this Anzac Day
104749 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Television

What to watch on TV this Anzac Day

by Fiona Rae

Māori TV once again devotes the day to Anzac programming, including a live broadcast from Gallipoli.

Read more