Divine Killer

Divine Killer

“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’
“Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.”
—From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by Quan Yanchi1


These observations should not be taken on trust. The author, a loyal hack of the official Chinese Writers’ Association in Beijing, based his text on interviews with Mao’s former bodyguard, a man named Li Yinqiao. Li knew Mao intimately, it is true. One of his public duties was to unbutton the Chairman’s trousers whenever he sat down, since “Mao was big-bellied” and he didn’t like his pants to “become too tight for comfort.” But unlike Mao’s ex-doctor, Li Zhisui, who wrote his famous account of life with Mao in the freer air of Chicago,2 Li Yinqiao never left China, where the truth about Mao still cannot be told.

And yet these statements about Mao are not wholly implausible. For squeamishness and sentimentality are often to be found in the truly inhumane. Heinrich Himmler couldn’t stand the sight of blood, and neither, for that matter, could Hitler.3 Mass murderers on a monumental scale are not, on the whole, drawn to doing the dirty work themselves. On his one field trip to Auschwitz, Himmler found it all too unsettling and resolved never to go near the place again. Men of this kind usually do not kill out of sadistic passion; a sadist after all has a perverse but intimate bond with his victim. People who kill one person often act out of passion—anger, jealousy, or love that has turned into loathing. People who make a habit of killing others for pleasure are usually mad. But those who are responsible for the death of millions appear not to be feeling anything much at all—hence, perhaps, the cheap tears, the watery evidence of displaced emotion.

Squeamishness when it comes to the sticky stuff is not the only thing some murderous tyrants have had in common. Hitler and Mao both suffered from “neurasthenia,” an affliction that is no longer fashionable but was apparently so prevalent in Mao’s entourage that his doctor called it the “Communist disease.” The main symptoms are insomnia, headaches, dizzy spells, and impotence. Mao’s potency, so his doctor informed us, was much affected by his political fortunes. Things went well when Mao felt on top of things, but any threat, real or imagined, to his absolute grip on power and the Chairman wilted, no matter how many girls shared his bed. Such psychosomatic problems are perhaps the price people pay for living in a state of permanent anxiety of being knifed in the back, either by courtiers or, in the case of the courtiers, by the tyrant himself. It is possible that Mao’s chronic constipation and Himmler’s stomach cramps came from the same source.

But these are all just symptoms of something. More interesting is the question of what drives certain people, sometimes, it seems, quite unremarkable people, to become the killers of millions. Is it just a peculiar set of circumstances? Is it an axiomatic matter of absolute power always leading to moral anesthesia? Or were such people as Mao, Himmler, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin not in fact mediocre at all, but evil geniuses who grabbed the chance to do their worst?

* * *

I read these two new biographies of Mao, one short, one hefty, with this question in mind. Both authors have a thesis of sorts. Jonathan Spence’s is draped in a metaphor. Mao, in his view, was a “Lord of Misrule,” a kind of fiesta prince of the night who turned the world upside down. Spence takes the example of great European households in the Middle Ages, where a Lord of Misrule would be chosen on festival days to reverse or parody the normal state of things: servants acted as lords, men as women, and so on. It is a common carnivalesque phenomenon, a ritual occasion for everyone to shed conventional roles and let off steam, always to revert to the normality of existing hierarchies. But Mao, in Spence’s view, did it for real, and not just on festive occasions. He wanted to reverse the order forever, exterminate all lords and masters, put the servants in charge, install himself as the people’s permanent Lord of Misrule, and create chaos whenever things got too settled.

It is an interesting metaphor, but it does not quite explain why Mao, from an early stage in his career, was so keen on extermination. Philip Short, whose book is in every sense weightier than Spence’s, draws moral distinctions between Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Indeed, he believes Mao is “in a different category from other twentieth-century tyrants.” Hitler exterminated people, mainly the Jews, because he thought they were vermin. Stalin personally signed the death warrants of thousands because they might have threatened him in some way. But Mao, says Short, had a vision, a utopian dream of the total transformation of China, and if many eggs were cracked in the process of cooking that particular omelet, this should count, in the Supreme Court of History, as manslaughter rather than murder. For, as Short puts it, “Even as his policies caused the deaths of millions, Mao never entirely lost his belief in the efficacy of thought reform and the possibility of redemption.”

Mao was not a racist killer. Yet the moral distinction does not appear as clear to me as it does to Philip Short. For Hitler had a vision too. His murders were also means to an end. Is it Short’s contention that some means are “in a different category” (manslaughter, not murder) because their ends are less repulsive? And were Mao’s utopian ends really so different from Stalin’s? Is he suggesting perhaps that Mao actually regretted the necessary killings, or, as Short puts it, “the human detritus, of his epic struggle to transform China”? If that is the case, we ought to find some evidence for it in Short’s fascinating account of Mao’s life.

* * *

Mao was born in 1893, the son of a relatively well off farmer in the southern province of Hunan. At the age of thirteen, he was already better educated than his father, who had only two years of schooling. In 1910, while he was still at school, Mao got his first taste of political violence. The sequence of events was typical of many modern Chinese rebellions. A flood in the Yangtse River caused a famine in Hunan; people were forced to sell their children, eat bark off trees, even the flesh of fellow human beings. Foreign traders and local gentry refused to stop exporting rice to other, less famished regions. In desperation people attacked the foreigners, always the first to be blamed for Chinese misfortunes, and then the local Chinese authorities. Buildings were wrecked, people killed, gunboats sent down the river, government troops restored order, and two poor wretches who had taken part in the riots were paraded through town in wicker baskets, after which their heads were lopped off and spiked on a couple of lampposts.

Mao said he never forgot it. “I felt that there with the rebels were ordinary people like my own family,” he later said, “and I deeply resented the injustice of the treatment given to them.”

This incident, recorded in both biographies, portrays Mao in the most sympathetic light. It shows that he had a social conscience—even though this sounds odd in a man who would one day be responsible for the starvation of as many as 30 million people. The story also sketches the atmosphere of violence he grew up in. If one wished to make an argument that Mao, unlike Hitler, began as a rebel with a just cause, this would be the way to do it. And it would fit the myth, commonly held in China and elsewhere, that Mao was a heroic figure until the late 1950s, when the old man, increasingly out of touch with reality, became a paranoid and brutal despot.

However, there were early signs in the young Mao of a more sinister cast of mind. Already as a schoolboy Mao was an avid reader of Chinese history. He had a special fondness for romantic tales of noble banditry, but also for stories about the ancient emperors. It has often been remarked that Mao particularly admired the emperor of the Qin dynasty who unified China in the third century BC. The Qin emperor, so far as we can know, was a ruthless tyrant who demanded absolute obedience, and is still commonly regarded by Chinese as a demonic figure. All that mattered to him was submission to his laws, and to make sure they were not softened by Confucian morality, or questioned by educated men, Confucian books were burned and Confucian scholars buried alive.

* * *

The most hated man of this much-hated dynasty lived a century earlier, before the Qin emperor created his empire. His name was Lord Shang, a minister of the legalist school who, according to Sima Qian, the great Han dynasty historian, castrated for his honesty, was “endowed by heaven with a cruel and unscrupulous nature.” Mao, aged eighteen, wrote a school essay praising this Lord Shang, whose laws, he argued, were much needed to whip into line a stupid, backward, and slavish people. Indeed, he said, updating his thesis, the Chinese, in the course of their long history, had accumulated “many undesirable customs, their mentality is too antiquated and their morality is extremely bad…. [These] cannot be removed and purged without enormous force.”

Such sentiments have been shared by many intellectuals from poor and humiliated countries, usually after encountering the wealth and power of richer nations. Pol Pot returned from his studies in Paris in this kind of mood. Mao did not even have to leave his native Hunan. Contempt for his own immoral, backward people went together, as it usually does, with a desire for iron leadership. Mao developed ideas on the Great Leader principle early on, writing as follows in the late 1920s:

The truly great person develops… and expands upon the best, the greatest of the capacities of his original nature…. [All] restraints and restrictions [are] cast aside by the great motive power that is contained in his original nature…. His force is like that of a powerful wind arising from a deep gorge, like the irresistible sexual desire for one’s lover, a force that will not stop, that cannot be stopped.

The sexual aspect is interesting in the light of Mao’s later potency problems. More disturbing, however, is the idea that the great hero should not be held back by common restraints, that the truly great man is above all laws. Mao argues in the same essay that chaos can be desirable, for “pure peace without any disorder of any kind would be unbearable…. It is the times when things are constantly changing and numerous men of talent are emerging that people like to read about. When they come to periods of peace, they…put the book aside.” These early throbbings of Sturm und Drang are still the fantasies of a bookish young romantic. It would take some years before they were turned into action. But Mao’s basic ideas on humanity, leadership, history, and politics were already firmly in place before his conversion to communism.

* * *

Mao was a child of his time. Cultural self-loathing and revolutionary fervor were all around when he was a student. When the May 4th Movement exploded in 1919, first as a protest against the Chinese government for giving away territory to Japan in exchange for much-needed financial loans, and later as a radical intellectual movement for cultural and political renewal, Mao was working as a history teacher. “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” were the twin slogans of May 4th. But the movement was diverse, including radical Marxists as well as liberal followers of John Dewey, who was lecturing at the time to full halls in China. Mao was not yet a Marxist, but he had written an anti-Confucian tract that (like the May 4th Movement itself) was both radical and steeped in older Chinese attitudes. Mao wrote that China was not just ripe for radical change, but that “there must be a complete transformation, like matter that takes form after destruction, or like the infant born out of its mother’s womb.”

This idea of a complete transformation makes sense in a tradition that sees politics as part of a cosmic order. Since in the Great Chinese Tradition political order is based on a moral orthodoxy, upheld by scholar officials and symbolized by a semidivine ruler, whose virtuous governance must reflect the order of the cosmos, you cannot really change one part of the picture without changing the whole thing. In 1919 the semidivine ruler had already gone and political orthodoxy, based on Confucianism, was under attack. A new order had to be put in its place. Communism, with its hermetic world view, its claims to embody Mr. Science, its historical dogma, and its clerisy of Party mandarins, fit the bill more easily than Dewey’s wishy-washy liberalism. It was to be China’s deep misfortune that Mao Zedong had the brilliance and the unstoppable will to marry this new order with concepts of divine kingship that went back all the way to the wicked emperor of Qin.

Violence, even mass murder, was part of this enterprise pretty much from the start. In 1920, Mao had rejected all but one of the many isms floating around, including anarchism and of course liberalism, and become a Communist. His first task was to mobilize the rural population of Hunan, whom he had once described, in the typical manner of a young intellectual who had only just made it out of the village himself, as “stupid and detestable people.” But since the Chinese Communist Party was still tiny in the early 1920s, the strategy of the Party leaders was to join the Nationalist Party, or Guomindang (GMD), and push it as far as possible to the left. It has sometimes been argued that Mao, like Ho Chi Minh, was essentially a nationalist, and if only the US had been more accommodating, he would surely have become less anti-Western. In fact, already in 1925, even as he had joined the GMD, Mao knew precisely who his enemies were. There was “absolutely no neutral ground,” he said, between “a Western-style, middle-class revolution,” urged by the right wing of the GMD, and the Communist cause. “He who is not for the revolution,” he wrote, “is for counterrevolution.” And since he believed that one quarter of China’s population of 400 million was irredeemably hostile, something had to be done about them.

Two years later peasants in Hunan revolted against the landlord class. Properties were raided, looted, and burned. Anyone suspected of being an enemy was taken prisoner, paraded through the streets, mutilated, and often killed. Even some Communists thought the reign of terror was going too far. Not Mao. He defended “excessive actions,” and said the only effective way to suppress “reactionaries” was to shoot a few in every county. This was the occasion for one of his most famous dictums: “A revolution is not like a dinner party.”

The “counterrevolution” was not noted for its gentility either. When landlord militias struck back at the peasants, they were at least as ferocious. Mao reported that in the province of Hubei

the brutal punishments inflicted on the revolutionary peasants by the despotic gentry include such things as gouging out eyes and ripping out tongues, disembowelling and decapitation, slashing with knives and grinding with sand, burning with kerosene and branding with red-hot irons. In the case of women, they pierce their breasts [with iron wire, with which they tie them together], and parade them around naked in public, or simply hack them to pieces.

Even though Mao was, to say the least, parti pris, there is little reason to doubt that such things happened. Mao suffered personal losses from the periodic outbreaks of White Terror. In 1930 his wife, Yang Kaihui, was arrested and shot when she refused to renounce her husband. In fact, by then Mao had already abandoned her, somewhat guiltily, for another woman, named He Zizhen. In 1934, He and Mao were forced to abandon their two-year-old son during a narrow escape from GMD troops. The child was never recovered. Philip Short writes that because of this “another small part of Mao’s humanity withered on the vine.” This is possible. But the seeds of Mao’s extraordinary brutality had already been sown long before then.


Short’s description of the amazing events of 1930 shows how quickly those seeds had ripened. Since they set the pattern for so much later violence, it is puzzling that Spence passes over them, even in a short book. Mao was based at the time in Jiangxi, a province next to Hunan. The Communists in Jiangxi were often drawn from the rural elite, rich farmers and the like, and they resented having men from Hunan, such as Mao, telling them what to do, especially when it came to land reforms that amounted to confiscation and forced labor. Suddenly there were rumors of a mysterious right-wing clique, named the AB Corps, which was supposed to have infiltrated the Communist Party. Whether this was true, or Mao actually believed it, was beside the point. Since he had been embroiled in some vicious quarrels with fellow Communist leaders as well as locals in Jiangxi, a campaign against reactionary infiltrators was just what Mao needed to cut rivals, or potential rivals, down to size. Mao was about to use Stalin’s methods even when he had only a fraction of Stalin’s power.

The fact that the existence of an AB Corps was never proven hardly mattered. The way to weed out the “counterrevolutionary” conspirators was to arrest a few likely suspects and torture them until they “confessed” and implicated others, who would then be arrested and tortured in turn. Tortures, bearing such quaint names as “toad drinking water” and “monkey pulling reins,” were such that people would say anything at all to survive. Not that it helped them, for most were killed anyway. Women who came to find out what had happened to their husbands were given some peculiarly nasty treatment: their breasts were cut off and their genitals burnt.

First it was a few hundred, then it was thousands, and more thousands, all fellow Communists. Naturally, Mao himself never pulled out anyone’s fingernails or scorched any genitals. That was hardly his job. But he gave orders and benefited from the purges he had instigated, particularly after a link was drawn between the AB Corps and the so-called Li Lisan Line. Li Lisan was a former student in France, like Zhou Enlai, who became a Party leader in Shanghai. His strategy, or “line,” for the Chinese revolution was to concentrate on the cities. Mao disagreed. Since China was mostly a rural society, he believed that the countryside should be liberated first. He turned out to be right. But these disagreements were about power and class as much as strategy, and by associating the secret counterrevolutionary plot with Li Lisan and other metropolitan intellectuals, Mao, the provincial upstart, was able to discredit his rivals and get that much closer to ruling the Party himself.

* * *

As Short points out, Mao was always ready to sacrifice even his closest and oldest comrades when it suited him. Ensconced in the caves of Yan’an during the war with Japan in the early 1940s, he unleashed his security chief, Kang Sheng, a shriveled Beria-like figure with a taste for torture and black leather, who had learned his trade from the NKVD in Moscow. Agnes Smedley, the American revolutionary groupie in Yan’an, once described Mao’s sense of humor as “grim.” Kang’s was even grimmer. His idea of a joke was to arrest a former landowner (and Communist supporter) named Niu, meaning ox, have an iron ring with a rope shoved through his nose, and order that the poor man be dragged through the streets by his own son. Kang’s specialty was the fabrication of charges against anyone Mao wanted out of his way.

In Yan’an atrocities were part of a Rectification Campaign. “Spies,” “Trotskyites,” and members of a phantom “anti-Party clique” were to be rooted out. Kang Sheng’s methods were the same as the ones used against the fictitious AB Corps. Charges were made up and public confessions extracted by torture. Some of the most famous cases concerned a few intellectuals who thought they should have the right to criticize Mao. One was named Wang Shiwei, a priggish but principled literary figure who was accused of being a Trotskyite, jailed for years, and then butchered with an axe.4 But the real targets, as so often, were Mao’s potential rivals for the leadership of the Party, and eventually China. These brutal campaigns to enforce Party orthodoxy (as defined by Mao himself) instilled so much terror that hardly anyone dared to criticize him anymore. It was in those romantic yellow grottos of Yan’an, the destination of many a revolutionary pilgrim and admiring Western newsman during the anti-Japanese war, that Mao appropriated the trappings of divine kingship. It was there that people began to sing hymns to the Rising Son in the East, and the People’s Great Savior. Mao’s sayings began to be quoted, as though they contained the wisdom of a holy sage. And those who still refused to be courtiers and sycophants, and also many who did not, would soon meet with early and disagreeable deaths.

The murder campaigns never really let up. Lee Kuan Yew, himself no slouch at the art of eliminating rivals, once put it so well (speaking about the British colonial regime):

I’m told [repression] is like making love—it’s always easier the second time. The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course, with constant repetition, you get more and more brazen in the attack and in the scope of the attack.5

Again, the analogy between ruthless Great Leadership and sex is striking. But neither Spence nor Short shows any evidence that Mao ever felt guilty about it. In Spence’s case, this hardly matters, for he makes no special moral claims for Mao. But since Short bases his thesis on the idea that Mao’s victims were the unfortunate detritus of his political visions, and not the victims of murder, pure and simple, it does. Since both Mao and Stalin had many people killed purely to expand their personal power, I cannot see a categorical difference between them.

* * *

What about Hitler? There are, I believe, similarities between Mao and him as well, aside from neurasthenia, and the rumor that the two Great Leaders had only one pair of descended testicles between them.6 Even though Mao never attempted to exterminate a race of people, he was proud to have destroyed countless members of certain social categories. In 1950 it was “counterrevolutionary elements”—that is, bourgeois, intellectuals, capitalists, former members of the GMD, and so on. In six months 710,000 people were killed or driven to suicide. In 1952 it was landlords and their families: up to one million dead.

The numbers become dizzying; people turned into ghastly statistics. But do sheer numbers have any moral significance? Are the violent deaths of 800,000, because, in Mao’s words, they “deserve to die,” in a separate league from the murders of four, five, or six million? And is it categorically different to murder people because of their class than because of their race? There is a distinction, to be sure: Hitler wanted to kill every Jewish man, woman, or child. Mao still believed that at least some reactionaries could be redeemed through “reeducation.” And yet when one thinks that Mao’s victims included the children and even grandchildren of class enemies, persecuted simply because of their background, the difference may not disappear entirely but surely becomes less categorical.

“Intellectuals,” meaning anyone who was educated, were a group that bore the particular brunt of Mao’s fury. Mao loathed them as much as Hitler did, and the reasons why might help to explain the peculiar nature of their bloodlust. When dogma becomes an instrument of oppression, anyone with the knowledge to challenge it becomes a threat. That is why the emperor of Qin had Confucian scholars killed. Mao—unlike Hitler—was an intellectual of sorts himself who had once challenged many dogmas, beginning with Confucianism. And yet in the more cultivated company of Beijing University graduates and other metropolitan luminaries Mao had always felt inadequate and provincial. His Marxist theorizing, his so-called Mao Zedong Thought, was often improvised, incoherent, and subject to wild shifts and contradictions.

The only way to crush all criticism, then, was to destroy all the possible critics by banishing them to remote labor camps, sometimes for life, or ruining their careers, or turning their children against them, or humiliating them in forced public confessions, or simply by murdering them. In a typical example of the Chairman’s grim humor, he once referred to comparisons made between himself and the Qin emperor. “Well,” he said, “what’s so special about the Emperor of Qin? He only executed 460 scholars. We killed 46,000!”7

Chinese intellectuals were betrayed in the most vicious manner, though not necessarily killed, after the campaign to Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom in 1957. First they were cajoled, bullied, and sometimes even forced to voice their critical opinions about Party policies. People needed to be pushed, for they knew what open criticism normally led to. Once they began, however, they often could not stop. Some were even so bold as to question the right of one party to monopolize every source of power. The result: more than half a million people purged, imprisoned, or branded as class enemies with the usual consequences—lost jobs, children deprived of a decent education, increasing harassment, and so forth. Short believes that the “intellectuals were scorched so badly in the Anti-Rightist campaign that they would never believe Mao again.” I’m not so sure. The awful truth is that many continued to believe in Mao for many years to come, no matter how much he had made them suffer.

There may have been an even deeper reason than class envy and dogmatism for Mao’s hatred of intellectuals. Like Hitler, Mao fancied himself as an artist. Even though Arthur Waley once said about Mao’s poetry that it was better than Hitler’s paintings but not as good as Churchill’s, experts tell me that the early poems in particular had an eccentric charm. Short thinks quite highly of them. Spence calls one of Mao’s poems (about the murdered wife he had abandoned) “moving.” The point of Mao’s artistic bent is, however, not the quality of his poems or his calligraphy but the fact that he had the power and the desire to use a country of over half a billion people as his canvas.

* * *

One of Mao’s most chilling and revealing statements, quoted by Short, bears the unmistakable signs of a mad artist:

China’s 600 million people have two remarkable peculiarities; they are, first of all, poor, and secondly blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.

Mao’s China, then, like Hitler’s Reich, was to be a Gesamtkunstwerk of one man’s crazed imagination. In 1959, a year after he made this statement, Mao embarked on his Great Leap Forward, one of the most fatal schemes (in sheer numbers, the most fatal) cooked up in the twentieth century. The idea that China, by having everyone melt down pots and pans in their courtyards and conduct bizarre agricultural experiments cribbed from Stalin’s ideological scientists, would catch up with Britain in a few years was pure fantasy. But up to 30 million people died of hunger as a result.

This example of l’imagination au pouvoir was not the same as sending millions to the gas chamber. But the carnage arose from a similar kind of quasi-artistic impulse, an aesthetic vision based on pseudoscience. If Hitler’s fantasies were fueled by biology and race theory, Mao’s vision was based on crackpot agricultural theories, mostly borrowed from Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko, the man who tried to “transform nature” for Stalin. The idea of planting grain everywhere, even when utterly unsuitable, was a Soviet inspiration. And so was the notion that fantastic new crops would be conjured up by cross-breeding. In Henan province, sunflowers were crossed with artichokes, in Beijing corn with rice. Cotton plants were reputed to have been crossed successfully with tomatoes to produce red cotton. And Mao’s wisdom was supposed to have produced monster pumpkins, weighing 132 pounds.8 This was the story an awestruck Shirley MacLaine repeated to Deng Xiaoping when he visited the US. Deng gently told her not to believe everything she heard.

Khrushchev had warned Mao against copying Stalin’s mistakes. But the Chairman would not be stopped; the blank canvas had to be filled with his picture. Anything standing between the artist and his vision had to be eliminated: “bourgeois scientists” with their silly objections were sent away, ridiculed, and sometimes shot. When Mao’s old comrade in arms, Marshal Peng Dehuai, carefully but critically tried to draw his attention to the catastrophic consequences of the Great Leap Forward, he was purged and later imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Others, such as Zhou Enlai, who could have told Mao some truths, denounced the brave critic and told Mao that he was a genius. (Some of the best passages in Short’s book describe Zhou’s constant groveling in sickening detail.)

* * *

Spence puts all this lunacy down to Mao’s wholesale divorce from reality. No one could or would tell him the truth about anything anymore. Short writes that Mao had a medieval idea of science. Both these observations may well be true. But they ignore the sheer loathing of intellectual knowledge that comes over failed artists with dreams of omnipotence. Real expertise, as opposed to pseudoscientific fantasies, can easily make dictators’ dreams look ridiculous. Consider this extraordinary statement: “A change in education is a further necessity: today we suffer from over-education. Only knowledge is prized. The know-it-alls are the enemies of action. What is needed is instinct and will.”9 Hitler said that, but it might as well have been Mao. “Science is simply acting daringly. There is nothing mysterious about it.” Or: “You shouldn’t care about any First Machine Building Ministry, Second Machine Building Ministry, or Qinghua University, but just act recklessly and it will be all right.”10 Mao said these things, but it might as well have been Hitler.

There was, nonetheless, always a rational self-serving core to Mao’s madness. It is true, as Short says, that Mao wished to transform China. But that is not a sufficient argument for putting him in a different moral category from other modern dictators. For in the end, or perhaps from the very beginning, there was but one overriding concern, in aid of which all policies, principles, and artistic visions were twisted and turned, and that was Mao’s own power, his need for total control, his pathological fear of impotence.

Spence is right that Mao’s desire for chaos and misrule was part of his aim to crush the old order. But it was also the most effective way to ensure his dominance. By keeping his comrades, courtiers, and satraps permanently off balance, by setting “the people” upon them, dividing them among themselves, and having them periodically purged, humiliated, and killed, he made sure nobody could ever usurp his throne. This was Hitler’s basic instinct too, and Stalin’s, and every other tyrant who darkened the history of man.

The Cultural Revolution was started for precisely that reason. The aging Mao saw plunging knives in every shadow. Old comrades, who had long ago become terrified sycophants, were still seen as threats. The smallest criticisms that had been made against Mao years before were still brooded over and became in his paranoid mind clear signs of simmering rebellion. That is why he decided, in 1966, to incite millions of frustrated teenagers to pounce on their teachers, fathers, mothers, and finally even the top Party leaders, apart from Mao himself, a handful of useful courtiers, and the coterie of extremists around Jiang Qing, Mao’s detested wife.

In May 1966, the People’s Daily announced that Mao was “the source of our life” and whoever dared to oppose him “shall be hunted down and obliterated.” A frenzied murder spree in every Chinese city was followed by extensive purges inside the Party, orchestrated, as always, by the expert in these matters, Kang Sheng.11 Short mentions one instance which reveals the scale of Mao’s last horrific campaign. A governor and alternate Politburo member in faraway Inner Mongolia was said to have started a “black party” as a rival to the official Communist Party. It was nonsense of course. But in an effort to “ferret out traitors,” 350,000 people were arrested, 80,000 beaten so badly that they were permanently maimed, and more than 16,000 killed.

* * *

None of this information is particularly new. People have known about Mao’s murderous record at least since the late 1950s, and things rapidly got worse after that. And yet Mao’s reputation in the democratic West has indeed been of a different order than that of other twentieth-century tyrants. Hitler never had much credit in the first place. But long after Stalin was utterly discredited, Mao still enjoyed a good press in Paris, Berlin, Berkeley, London, and New York, and we cannot totally blame such boosters as Edgar Snow and Han Suyin for it. It was partly because Mao was seen as a resistance hero against the Imperial Japanese Army—even though Mao’s strategy had been to let Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang do most of the fighting. It was partly the unsavory reputation of Mao’s adversaries: the corrupt GMD and the allegedly “evil” landlord class. But Mao’s best assets, so far as public relations in the West were concerned, were the combination of third-world romanticism and a bizarre and noxious kind of cultural exceptionalism.

Mao enjoyed a particularly good run in France, on both sides of the left/ right divide. On the conservative side, such figures as Alain Peyrefitte, De Gaulle’s former education minister and amateur China expert, thought Mao was a great man in the Chinese “tradition,” and since this tradition, in Peyrefitte’s view, did not include human rights or civil liberties, we should not apply such standards to Mao.12 This argument is echoed to this day, most notably by Henry Kissinger. On the left, a typical admirer would be Jacques Vergès, the radical lawyer who became famous for his defense of Klaus Barbie. Half Vietnamese himself, he put the romantic third-world case perfectly. His enthusiasm for China, he said, dates from his childhood. His French father greatly admired Asian civilizations, and to the young Jacques, “China was a model of heroism. The Long March, et cetera. I was enthusiastic when the Chinese triumphed in 1949. And when I visited China in 1951, I was absolutely seduced.”13

Like many Mao worshippers, Vergès has contempt for democracy. What he especially admires about Mao, and Stalin too, is their Robespierrean quality, their will to sacrifice everything for the grand design. Vergès calls it “grandeur.” He is “fascinated by destiny, not happiness, especially since happiness in Europe became an idea polluted by social democracy.”14 Anything for a bit of excitement, then, as long as you don’t have to suffer the consequences yourself.

Mao has been dead now for twenty-three years, and China itself is yet to be officially “de-Maoified.” Even the reformers in the 1980s, such as Hu Yaobang or Zhao Ziyang, did not dare go that far. His embalmed corpse, which has taken on a greenish tinge around the sunken lips, is permanently on display in a squat mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. During my last visit, I took a taxi to the square and noticed, with a feeling of slightly horrified amusement, a little gold pendant bearing the young Mao’s image dangling from the driver’s mirror, as though he were now a god.

* * *

My taxi driver was not an eccentric, for a god is indeed what Mao has become to some people, and not only in his native Hunan, where pilgrims visit the Mao family home, the Mao clan temple, and a 10.1-meter-tall bronze statue of the Chairman. There is a Mao folk legend, somewhat like the many legends of the Holy Virgin that you find scattered around Europe. It is said to have originated just across the border from Hong Kong, in Shenzhen, the most modern, glittering, greedy, relatively freewheeling showcase of Chinese capitalism, the kind of place that Mao would have absolutely abhorred. One day a man in Shenzhen had a terrible car crash in which several people were killed. But the man himself survived without a scratch, protected from harm by an image of Mao on his dashboard. Soon similar occurrences were noted all over China.15

It is hard to tell whether Mao’s divine status will survive his true story when it eventually can be told in China. It probably will. History is history and legend is legend. But whatever happens in China, Mao will be remembered as a Great Leader, and also as the most terrifying ruler since the emperor of Qin. Either way, I don’t think Mao would be at all displeased.

  1. Published in 1992 in Beijing by Foreign Languages Press.
  2. Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (Random House, 1994).
  3. H.R. Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (Macmillan, fourth edition, 1971), pp. 22, 80.
  4. Dai Qing, Wang Shiwei and ‘Wild Lilies’: Rectification and Purges in the Chinese Communist Party 1942-1944 (M.E. Sharpe, 1994).
  5. Legislative Assembly Debates, October 4, 1956. Quoted in Francis T. Seow, To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison (Monograph 42/Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1994).
  6. Li, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, p. 100.
  7. Quoted by Simon Leys in Essais sur la Chine (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1998).
  8. Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (Free Press, 1997), p. 70.
  9. George L. Mosse, Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich (Schocken, 1981), p. 10.
  10. Becker, Hungry Ghosts, p. 62.
  11. Kang Sheng was so eager to purge people that even as he lay dying of cancer he offered to purge Jiang Qing herself, who was not only Mao’s wife but Kang’s closest ally.
  12. For a brilliant short critique of Peyrefitte, see Simon Leys, Essais sur la Chine, p. 809.
  13. Jacques Vergès, Le Salaud lumineux (Paris: M. Lafon, 1990), p. 78.
  14. Vergès, Le Salaud lumineux, p. 82.
  15. Geremie Barmé, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader (M.E. Sharpe, 1996), p. 22.
Ian Buruma was educated in Holland and Japan, where he studied history, Chinese literature, and Japanese cinema. In the 1970s in Tokyo, he acted in Kara Juro’s Jokyo Gekijo and participated in...
Reviewed in This Article

Mao: A Life
by Philip Short
Holt, 782 pp.

Mao Zedong
by Jonathan Spence
Lipper/Viking, 188 pp.

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This article was first published in the February 24, 2000 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age


Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?


In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...