Who Was Mao Zedong?

Who Was Mao Zedong?

In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an abortive plot to kill the Chairman and then died a traitor in a plane crash, fleeing to the Soviet Union. Why had Lin popped up again on the remote Xinjiang frontier? Did this pencil jar (which I snapped up without bargaining) have some political significance?

None at all. As we wandered around the bazaar, I found a number of other items displaying the Chairman and Lin in happier days. At one shop I pointed to Lin’s image and asked the vendor why he was selling something with Lin’s portrait on it. Didn’t he know Lin was a bad person? “Ten percent off?” was the hopeful reply. I had picked up a piece of Cultural Revolution kitsch.

In their comprehensive, judicious, and finely detailed new biography of Mao, Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine have a phrase for the commercialization of the Mao cult in Tiananmen Square, where hawkers and souvenir shops “do a brisk trade in kitsch: Mao badges and posters, busts, and Quotations of Chairman Mao”: Mao has become “a souvenir of history.”1 Of this, more anon.


Do we need a new biography of this souvenir of history? Over the years, there have been many biographies, some even longer than this one. The short answer is yes, because every year important new sources become available. Indeed, a major problem of writing a life of a man who lived on the grand scale is the plethora of sources. In Chinese, the enormous “official” life is essential reading, too full of detail to be neglected2; there is also a three-volume chronology of the Chairman’s life; and multiple sources, official and unofficial, for his writings and speeches; the memoirs, biographies, and chronologies of Mao’s major colleagues; along with the reminiscences of his principal mistress and almost every minor functionary who ever had contact with the Chairman. History has been the lingua franca of the Chinese elite for two millennia, and every official or his family wants to reserve a place in the Communist pantheon. Used with care, as Pantsov and Levine do, this is a cornucopia. We are no longer solely dependent on Dr. Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao for revelations about Mao’s court, although the doctor must still be read.

Important new material is also available in English translation.3 And no canny biographer ignores earlier toilers in his vineyard,4 whatever his opinion of them. Elementary Kremlinology reveals Pantsov and Levine’s attitude toward their immediate predecessors, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, authors of Mao: The Unknown Story.5 Their subtitle is “The Real Story.”

Their biography uses the new sources extensively, but the authors highlight privileged access to the very important and voluminous Soviet sources as the special mark of their work, and seemingly they exploited the Russian archives more thoroughly than Chang and Halliday.6 Both Pantsov and Levine are at home with English, Chinese, and Russian sources. Pantsov graduated from Moscow State University, and though he now teaches history at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, he apparently has ongoing access to the Russian archives.7 His colleague Levine is a senior research associate at the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana who used both Russian and Chinese sources in his pathbreaking study of the Chinese Communists’ early Civil War victories.8

The Russian archives are used by Pantsov and Levine to support their contention that “Mao was a faithful follower of Stalin…who dared to deviate from the Soviet model only after Stalin’s death,” and that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was dependent financially upon Moscow from its founding through the early 1950s. It is certainly clear that Comintern agents dominated the early CCP. But sometimes the authors confuse the tail and the dog. Mao’s pioneering development of rural soviets and peasant armies was not ordered by Moscow, and was blessed by Stalin only after the strategy proved successful.9 Under attack by Trotsky and his allies for his China policy, Stalin needed the CCP to succeed as much as it needed his material and ideological support.10 He had no option but to order the Comintern to throw money at the problem. We have learned enough about the disbursement of foreign aid in distant conflict zones and factionalized polities to realize how little control donors have over its end use.

Stalin’s only sanction was to denounce or dismiss a leader who had failed, and even then the outcome might be unsatisfactory. For example, on July 23, 1927, the then leaders of the CCP were lambasted for their political defeats by the newly minted Comintern representative, the twenty-nine-year-old, overbearing Visarion Lominadze, whereas they knew that the culprits were the long-distance manipulators in Moscow. The Chinese had asked him for arms and money for a military uprising planned to take place soon in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province. Pantsov and Levine imply that since the Soviet Politburo had just voted to supply the CCP with a major arms consignment, the Chinese had to swallow Lominadze’s insults. But according to one of the Chinese participants, Lominadze queried Moscow and relayed the answer that there would be no cash forthcoming and apparently made no mention of arms. Even though Soviet advisers were ordered to have nothing to do with the proposed Nanchang uprising, it took place anyway.11

The Russian archives are particularly valuable in giving access to Mao’s speeches or remarks hitherto unknown. But since these archives date back to the Soviet period, memo writers may have thought it wise to consider the prejudices of their superiors, especially, under Stalin, to prove the wisdom of his policies, and especially during the two decades of Sino-Soviet antagonism to paint Mao in lurid colors. One would have welcomed guidance from Pantsov and Levine about how they assessed the reliability of the materials. Occasionally, too, the focus on Soviet materials leads to a neglect of Chinese sources.12


By now, the outlines of Mao’s early life may be familiar to many readers of this journal. Born in 1893 to a rich peasant family in the southern province of Hunan, he had no intention of staying down on the farm. He managed to squeeze money out of his parsimonious and hardworking father to continue his education in the provincial capital, Changsha. As Pantsov and Levine point out, and Mao admitted in later years, he seems never to have considered the alternative of taking a job to support himself. The future leader of China’s “broad masses” had quickly acclimatized to the attitudes of the student intellectual:

I then used to feel it undignified to do even a little manual labor, such as carrying my own luggage in the presence of my fellow students, who were incapable of carrying anything, either on their shoulders or in their hands. At that time I felt that intellectuals were the only clean people in the world, while in comparison workers and peasants were dirty. I did not mind wearing the clothes of other intellectuals, believing them clean, but I would not put on clothes belonging to a worker or peasant, believing them dirty.

Fortunately for him, Mao had the talents to qualify him for his new status. His schoolmate Emi Siao (Xiao San), later a distinguished poet, recounted that Mao “wrote quickly as if sparks were flying from his writing brush. His class compositions were posted as examples on the walls of the school. He could read two or three times faster than anyone else.”

Under the influence of his favorite teacher and future father-in-law, Mao absorbed the importance of strong personalities for leading people. Among the many annotations he made on a translation of the nineteenth-century German ethicist Friedrich Paulsen, one stands out:

Everything that comes from outside [the truly great person’s] original nature, such as restraints and restrictions, is cast aside by the great motive power that is contained within his original nature…. The great actions of the hero are his own, are the expression of his motive power, lofty and cleansing, relying on no precedent. His force is like that of a powerful wind arising from a deep gorge, like the irrestible sexual desire for one’s lover, a force that will not stop, that cannot be stopped. All obstacles dissolve before him.13

That he never forgot his early concept of the hero was amply demonstrated decades later when he led his 600 million countrymen into the valleys of death, the Great Leap Famine and the Cultural Revolution.

Back in the early twentieth century, the hero’s job was to save China. In common with other Chinese students and intellectuals, Mao was obsessed by the parlous condition of his nation. Even after the 1911 revolution that overthrew the decadent Manchu dynasty, China was still at the mercy of imperialist powers like Britain, France, and newly active Japan. Intellectuals explored Western ideas to find a way to restore China’s greatness. Mao finally committed himself to Marxism in 1920 after the Bolshevik Revolution had demonstrated that a group of well-organized and brilliantly led anti-imperialist intellectuals could seize power in a vast agrarian empire. He was one of twelve delegates to the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Shanghai in 1921.

But the Comintern had little faith in the fledgling CCP emulating the Bolsheviks and seizing control of China. Moscow needed a strong Chinese ally against its Asian nemesis, Japan, and a reluctant CCP was frog-marched into a united front with Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party (KMT), which was seen as a better bet for the immediate future. Unlike some comrades, Mao was an enthusiastic collaborator with the KMT,14 but after Sun’s successor, General Chiang Kai-shek, turned on his Communist allies in April 1927 and butchered thousands,

Mao turned out to be almost the only major leader of the CCP who assessed the situation soberly…that the communists’ struggle for power in China could succeed only on condition that the Communist Party create its own military force.

From late 1927, Mao began to hone his guerrilla tactics during fifteen months on Jinggangshan, in the Jiangxi highlands, relying heavily for his forces on what might be called the lumpen peasantry or éléments déclassés: soldiers, bandits, robbers, beggars, and prostitutes, many linked to secret societies. One biographer has suggested that such nonproletarian elements appealed to Mao’s memories of the bandit heroes of popular novels he had read avidly from childhood. But in truth, Mao had few options: he had his first taste of how difficult it was to recruit hardworking peasants away from the backbreaking daily round that kept their families alive.15

It was also in Jinggangshan that he met a doughty young Communist, He Zizhen, locally known as the “Two-gunned Girl General,” whom he took as his third wife. She bore him six children, of whom only one daughter survived, and later accompanied him on the Long March. Mao’s second wife, Yang Kaihui, who had been left behind in Hunan, learned of his new marriage and might have committed suicide but for the need to look after their two sons. Later she was arrested by the Nationalists in reprisal for Mao’s revolutionary activities, and executed when she refused to renounce him.

To pay for her gravestone, Mao sent his mother-in-law “thirty pieces of silver,” as Pantsov and Levine put it; decades later, he was nudged into writing about her loyalty in one of his most famous poems, “The Immortals.”16 Pantsov and Levine characterize Mao as the “flirtatious philosopher” in describing how a decade later, in Yan’an, He Zizhen was discarded like Yang Kaihui when Mao took up with an actress, Lily Wu, and then, more permanently, with another actress, Jiang Qing, who became his fourth wife and bore him a second daughter. Jiang Qing was highly unpopular, especially with the Communist wives, for displacing the admired He Zizhen. She would get her revenge during the Cultural Revolution.


He Zizhen, unlike Yang Kaihui, got to accompany Mao when he and his loyal military alter ego, Zhu De, were forced to retreat southeast, eventually setting up a Central Soviet Region under Mao’s leadership in Ruijin in the more prosperous and defensible surroundings of the Jiangxi–Fujian border. There, he and Zhu managed to repulse three of Chiang’s “bandit extermination” campaigns. Fortunately for Mao, communications from Moscow took time to reach the Party leadership in Shanghai and more time to be forwarded to him in Ruijin, because the exigencies of Stalin’s policies in Moscow produced changing Comintern orders about what the CCP should be doing. As long as he could, Mao gave oral support to whatever he was told to do, but continued to do what he thought best, and indeed by the late 1920s, the Comintern began to support Mao’s policies.

Mao despised the Soviet-trained Chinese inserted by the Comintern into the CCP leadership despite their ignorance of conditions on the ground. “Practice as the criterion of truth” became his favorite watchword, but Pantsov and Levine assess his work style differently:

Mao always adjusted his conclusions to fit his radical views. The result was that it was not practice that served as the criterion of truth but rather leftist ideas that were the criterion of reality.

However, this judgment seems less appropriate for the revolutionary period, when excessive attachment to ideology could have meant defeat and death, than to Mao’s years at the helm of the PRC.

Eventually Mao’s luck ran out. Zhou Enlai left the CCP’s increasingly unsafe headquarters in Shanghai and took over the leadership of the soviet base. Despite evidence of Moscow’s support, Mao was sidelined. But as it turned out, it was a well-disguised blessing: he was not in charge when the Red Army suffered devastating defeats during Chiang Kai-shek’s more effective fifth extermination campaign. The Communist forces had to abandon their soviet and embark on what turned into the Long March. During their flight, Mao forced a confrontation, knowing that Zhou and the Comintern representative Otto Braun would have to take the blame. He was reinstated in a leadership role, the first step toward his becoming party chairman—an unprecedented title—in 1943. The Russians played no role in this crucial transformation of the Chinese leadership.

The Long March has rightly been seen both in China and abroad as an epic of endurance and survival. Of the 86,000 Red Army men who fled Ruijin, some five thousand completed the year-long odyssey, reaching the northern province of Shaanxi in October 1935. Various episodes, notably the crossing of the Dadu River, became legendary acts of heroism. Strangely, Pantsov and Levine rely on Otto Braun’s account of it, which parallels the propaganda film version that has been debunked in recent years.17 But however much myth-making has been injected into the Long March, it was a historic achievement that, along with victory in the Civil War, helped to convince Mao and his colleagues that, properly led, organized, and motivated, the Party could overcome all obstacles. The hubris of the Great Leap Forward was one disastrous consequence.

After the Long March, Mao personally had two strokes of luck: the army of his potent rival for party leadership, Zhang Guotao (Chang Kuo-t’ao), suffered a catastrophic defeat, and a few years later Zhang left the Party18; and on July 7, 1937, the Japanese, having already taken over Manchuria, launched a full-scale attack on the rest of China which forced Chang Kai-shek to bow to public opinion, agree to a united front with the Communists, and cease his onslaught on their soviet bases. For China, the Japanese onslaught was an unmitigated disaster, but during the war, Mao was able to consolidate his leadership, reorganize and expand the Party and army, imbuing them with his ideas, and extend CCP control over large areas of north China. By the end of World War II, the CCP and what would be renamed the People’s Liberation Army were better prepared for the final struggle than the Nationalists.19


There are few volumes in English on the Chinese Civil War, which ended with Chiang Kai-shek’s flight to Taiwan and Mao’s inauguration of the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949,20 and Pantsov and Levine do not have the space to remedy this gap. They give four reasons for the PLA’s victory: its well-honed guerrilla tactics during the early stages; the demoralization and corruption of the Nationalist armies; the skyrocketing postwar inflation; and the position of the Soviet Union.

The latter point should arouse discussion. The authors depict Stalin as cautious but supportive of the CCP, downplaying his advocacy of the PLA stopping at the Yangtze River and accepting his unconvincing explanation of why the Soviet ambassador (unlike the American and British) retreated with the Nationalist government to Canton. Levine shows elsewhere that Soviet aid was important in the PLA’s conquest of Manchuria,21 but as Mao found when he went on his victory lap to Moscow in 1949–1950, Stalin had designs upon that part of China, so it would be to the Soviet Union’s advantage if it were ruled by the CCP. Pantsov and Levine do not lay to rest the speculation that Stalin was hedging his bets, unsure whether it was to the Soviet Union’s advantage to have a powerful, united Communist China on its borders. Stalin’s fear that Mao would turn into Tito on steroids was only allayed when, after lively debate in the CCP Politburo, Mao muscled the reluctant majority into sending “People’s Volunteers” into the Korean War, saving Kim Il Sung’s regime from annihilation.22

Fighting the US-led UN forces in Korea to a draw, and without an American nuclear assault upon the Chinese mainland, confirmed Mao’s strategic brilliance among his colleagues. His second great post-1949 success, defying Stalin’s advice, and again overruling his hesitant colleagues, was to steamroll the socialization of agriculture, industry, and commerce, attained by 1956. The pace was faster than in the Soviet Union and without the devastation that accompanied Stalin’s struggle for “socialism in one country” a quarter-century earlier. Then Mao began to make major mistakes, with disastrous consequences for the Chinese people and the CCP. As one of Mao’s senior colleagues allegedly put it after the Chairman’s death:

Had [Chairman] Mao died in 1956, his achievements would have been immortal. Had he died in 1966, he would still have been a great man. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?23


Mao’s first error was to encourage nonParty intellectuals to criticize the CCP in a “rectification campaign” launched in 1957. This was in reaction to the 1956 Hungarian revolt. The lesson he drew from that explosion was the need to open a safety valve to dissipate popular discontent before it boiled over. Most of his senior colleagues and, as he admitted, the bulk of the Party were against him, fearing that they would now get their comeuppance. So he promised that the criticisms would be like a “gentle breeze and mild rain.” They were not, especially after the students joined in. Making the best of a bad job, he pretended that he had all along been intending to lure out the critics. To appease the Party he launched an anti-rightist campaign that resulted in half a million intellectuals being sacked, sent to labor reform camps, or simply imprisoned. It was a big blow to China’s development program.

Smarting from this humiliation, and inspired by Khrushchev’s boastful promise to overtake the US in fifteen years, Mao committed China to a “Great Leap Forward,” a bootstraps economic drive designed to substitute China’s abundant labor for capital and to overtake Britain in fifteen years. Labor would be more efficiently organized, with collective farms bundled into large egalitarian communes. As with collectivization, Mao cleverly launched his campaign in a year, 1958, that promised a bumper harvest. Plentiful food would enthuse everybody. But the harvest rotted in the fields while the peasants were making “steel” in backyard furnaces to try to reach Mao’s overambitious target.

The Chairman began to make a graceful retreat, blaming his subordinates for errors, but when his old comrade-in-arms and leader of the Chinese People’s Volunteers in Korea, Marshal Peng Dehuai, criticized the Leap as “petty bourgeois fanaticism,” Mao reacted in fury. Peng was replaced as defense minister by Mao’s favorite marshal, Lin Biao, and was put under house arrest. Mao’s colleagues in the Politburo all knew that Peng was right, but kept quiet, and Mao’s leftist allies relaunched the Leap. The “three bitter years” of the famine, 1959–1961, cost China tens of millions of lives.24 In 1960, the country had negative population growth.

By 1966, China had recovered. After a three-year pause, China was about to launch its third Five-Year Plan. Mao could still have been accounted a great man by his colleagues! But alas, he launched the Cultural Revolution, which devastated the Party. Mao was convinced by the Soviet foreign policy of détente with the US and friendship with “bourgeois nationalist” countries like India that the Moscow leadership was deserting Leninism and restoring capitalism. He feared that his own colleagues could be headed down the same path. He planned the Cultural Revolution to vaccinate China’s youth against such “revisionism” by encouraging them to make revolution at home, to “bombard the headquarters” knowing that “to rebel is justified.”

From 1966 to 1968, mayhem ensued as “Red Guards” ran wild. Party members, from the highest official—head of state Liu Shaoqi, hitherto Mao’s heir apparent—to the lowest cadre, were denounced, humiliated, beaten, imprisoned by mobs of college and high school students. Some, like Liu, died as a result of mistreatment. The well-oiled central committee machine created by Liu and Deng Xiaoping was trashed. Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and the Central Cultural Revolution Group of Mao trusties effectively took its place. Premier Zhou Enlai survived to maintain some kind of order in the country because Mao could rely on him to obey even his most outrageous commands.The army remained intact and only when the generals were getting restive at the chaos, and teams of workers sent by Mao to calm the campuses were assaulted, did the Chairman send the Red Guards packing, 12 million of them, to farm and factory.

The last years of Mao’s life were dominated by a struggle for the succession between three groups: the Maoist ultras, the so-called Gang of Four; the survivors of the old guard led by Zhou and later by Deng; and the beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution, junior officials who had risen to take the place of their disgraced bosses. After Mao’s death, it was Deng who triumphed, opened up the country to the outside world, and restarted its development process, burying Mao’s leftist ideology that had led China so long and so far astray.


As he approached his death in 1976, Mao ruminated that he could claim two great victories: the conquest of China and the Cultural Revolution, though he acknowledged that some might disagree about the latter. He made no mention of socializing the country in the 1950s or masterminding China’s emergence from isolation with the Nixon visit and entry into the UN in the 1970s. Mao’s self-image was as a revolutionary, and it is that persona that connects his three great errors. He thrived on upheaval, yet after the post-1949 socialist revolutions that he had led, the prospect for Chinese nation-building was the magnification of bureaucracy and routine in an endless series of Five-Year Plans on the model of the Stalinist command economy. The great organizers of nation building, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, would be in their element. But Mao, who knew nothing about economics, would find his expertise in revolution to be a surplus to requirements.

In the 1957 rectification campaign, he aimed to shake up the Party bureaucracy to prevent it from getting into the comfortable rut of ruling by fiat. He failed. Mao’s romantic concept of the Great Leap Forward was intended to unleash the revolutionary energies of China’s masses, but Liu and Zhou knew that the masses unorganized would achieve little, and the formation of the communes and the backyard steel drive owed everything to the bullying of Party cadres at all levels. Frustrated by the failures of rectification and the Leap, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in a final effort to reignite revolutionary fire under the CCP. In this way, he knew he would once more be setting the agenda.

How did Mao get away with these colossal and costly errors? His senior colleagues were all revolutionaries, hardened in battle, ruthless in action. Yet when Marshal Peng criticized the Leap, few stood up beside him, and none in the top leadership. In the aftermath of the Leap, Mao briefly ceded control of the economy to his colleagues. But when he judged they were about to permit the return of family farming, he returned proclaiming the importance of class struggle, and his colleagues folded. Rural reform did not take place until after his death. And at the start of the Cultural Revolution, first one senior leader and then another was denounced and purged. Mao adapted his guerrilla tactics to political struggle, and picked off his opponents in bite-sized pieces. At no stage did any one of them dare to rally his comrades to prevent the Chairman decimating a leadership that had lasted almost unchanged for twenty years.25

Trepidation must have been one factor. I am reminded of a senior Indian politician whom I once asked why he had not opposed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency.” With disarming candor he replied: “In my case, it was fear!” Mao aroused and angry was indeed a fearsome opponent: his excoriation of Zhou Enlai in early 1958 for previously resisting high-speed economic advance frightened the most senior potential opponent of the Great Leap Forward into self-critical obedience. The Mao cult, initiated by Liu Shaoqi in 1945, made the Chairman almost unassailable for it became a major buttress of the legitimacy of the Communist regime, as it still is. A Leninist party is leader-friendly and Mao was the imperial Chairman, to whose revolutionary triumph millions of CCP officials owed their roles in ruling China. Perhaps most importantly, Mao stuck by his own motto, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and ensured that he always had at his back a majority of the generals he had led to victory.

In light of Mao’s dominance, as increasing evidence has emerged of the death toll of the Great Leap famine and the chaos and killing of the Cultural Revolution, recent biographies of Mao have focused on the Chairman’s responsibility for these human disasters. Mao famously said early in his career, “a revolution is not like inviting people to dinner,”26 and there is much evidence that he did not shrink from terror or bloodshed, even when comrades were involved. An estimated 100,000 CCP members were executed in the decade from the early 1930s to the early 1940s, from the “Futian Incident,” for which Mao had major responsibility, through the Yan’an “Rectification Campaign.” The latter was officially aimed simply at uniting the Party around his ideas, but still resulted in 15,000 executions.27

But these purges in the heat of revolution pale in comparison with the loss of life within the peaceful, united China over which the Chairman presided after 1949. In the very first sentence of their first chapter, Chang and Halliday state baldly that Mao was responsible for “well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.”28 Philip Short estimates the loss of life in all the various post-1949 campaigns—Land Reform, two campaigns against counterrevolutionaries, the “three-anti five-anti” urban campaigns, thought reform of the intellectuals, collectivization, the anti-rightist campaign, and the Cultural Revolution—plus the famine brought about by the Great Leap Forward—to have been exceeded only by all the dead in World War II, variously estimated at between 50 and 70 million.29

Pantsov and Levine make no precise calculation, saying only that

several tens of millions perished as a result of hunger and repression…. Mao’s crimes against humanity are no less terrible than the evil deeds of Stalin and other twentieth-century dictators. The scale of his crimes was even greater.

And yet this is not their final verdict. Rooted in the Soviet sources, they distinguish Mao from

the ideologists and practitioners of Russian Bolshevism even in his totalitarianism…. No less suspicious or perfidious than Stalin, still he was not as merciless…compelling his real or imagined opponents to confess their “guilt” but not sentencing them to death.

They cite the example of Deng Xiaoping. On the other hand, another biographer, Stuart Schram, assessed “the blackest aspect of Mao’s behaviour” during the Cultural Revolution as

his propensity to wreak vengeance on those who had slighted or crossed him…. Even if he did not explicitly order that they be killed, a word from him would have saved them—and he chose not to utter that word.30

He cited the death of Liu Shaoqi, and Pantsov and Levine share this view of Mao’s guilt. Pantsov and Levine conclude about Mao:

A talented Chinese politician, an historian, a poet and philosopher, an all-powerful dictator and energetic organizer, a skillful diplomat and utopian socialist, the head of the most populous state, resting on his laurels, but at the same time an indefatigable revolutionary who sincerely attempted to refashion the way of life and consciousness of millions of people, a hero of national revolution and a bloody social reformer—this is how Mao goes down in history. The scale of his life was too grand to be reduced to a single meaning.


Back to the hawkers in Tiananmen Square: the implication of Pantsov and Levine’s summing up in this major study is that it is up to the individual visitor, Chinese or foreign, China scholar or tourist, to make up his or her own mind whether or not to buy a souvenir of a hero of national revolution or to reject it as a reminder of a bloody social reformer who presided over the death of countless millions.

  1. Actually, some Chinese have bigger ambitions for the late Chairman, and if UNESCO members are not alert, there is a chance that Mao will graduate from Chinese souvenir to global icon. Mao’s mausoleum in the center of Tiananmen Square is being pushed by some Chinese officials as part of the application for world heritage status for Beijing’s “central axis,” the main feature of which is the Forbidden City. See Raymond Li, “World Heritage Bid Likely to Include Mao’s Tomb,” South China Morning Post, August 4, 2012.
  2. Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong zhuan (1893–1949) (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1996); Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong zhuan (1949–1976) (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, two volumes, 2003).
  3. In English, there is the ongoing multi-volume edition of Mao’s Revolutionary Writings, 1912–1949 (M.E. Sharpe, 1992), edited until his recent death by Stuart R. Schram under the auspices of Harvard’s Fairbank Center. Complementing it is Tony Saich’s massive documentary collection The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party (M.E. Sharpe, 1996). Another major ongoing translation project in the US is the Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project, edited by Christian F. Ostermann at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., which publishes valuable documentary materials from all over the onetime Communist bloc.
  4. The most influential biographies have been Jerome Ch’en, Mao and the Chinese Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1965); Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-tung (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1966); Lucian Pye, Mao Tse-tung: The Man in the Leader (Basic Books, 1976); Ross Terrill, Mao: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 1980; Touchstone, 1993; Stanford, 1999); Philip Short, Mao: A Life (Henry Holt, 2000); Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (Knopf, 2005). There are a number of other biographies, each of which is given a fair-minded assessment by Ross Terrill in a bibliographic note in the 1993 edition of his Mao.
  5. For a discussion of issues raised by the controversial biography by Chang and Halliday, see Gregor Benton and Lin Chun, Was Mao Really a Monster? The Academic Response to Chang and Halliday’s “Mao: The Unknown Story” (Routledge, 2010).
  6. One deduces this from their respective bibliographic notes. On the other hand, Pantsov and Levine do not list nearly as many Chinese sources as Chang and Halliday.
  7. Pantsov has been publishing in Russian and English for some thirty years; his English-language studies include The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution, 1919–1927 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), which stresses the importance of the Comintern role for the CCP.
  8. Anvil of Victory: The Communist Revolution in Manchuria, 1945–1948 (Columbia University Press, 1987).
  9. Mao: The Real Story, pp. 236–237.
  10. Leon Trotsky, Problems of the Chinese Revolution (University of Michigan Press, 1967).
  11. Mao: The Real Story, pp. 188–189; Chang Kuo-t’ao, The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party, I, 1921–1927 (University Press of Kansas, 1971), pp. 669–673. The uprising took place on August 1 and is celebrated as the birthday of the People’s Liberation Army.
  12. For instance, in discussing the still murky Gao Gang purge in the early 1950s in which Stalin allegedly played a key role, Pantsov and Levine seem not to rely on the important testimony of his secretary Zhao Jialiang even though his memoir is listed in the bibliography. At one point (p. 397), the authors talk of “Mao’s personal dislike of Gao” without any substantiation or source, whereas one very knowledgeable Chinese official has written that Mao’s favorites were Gao Gang, Lin Biao, and Deng Xiaoping, in that order; see Li Rui (a onetime secretary of both Gao and Mao) in Hu Yaobang yu Zhongguo zhengzhi gaige (Hu Yaobang and China’s political reform), edited by Zhang Bozhu (Hong Kong: Chen zhong shuju, 2009), pp. 27–28.
  13. Mao: The Real Story, p. 41; I have expanded the quotation taken from Schram, Mao’s Road to Power, Vol. 1, pp. 263–264.
  14. Schram, Mao Tse-tung, pp. 80–81, argues that this was later an embarrassment to Mao and party historians.
  15. The landmark work on Jinggangshan is Stephen C. Averill’s Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006); for the suggestion that Mao admired the bandit chiefs he allied with, see Schram, Mao Tse-tung, pp. 126–128; see also Mao: The Real Story, pp. 202–204.
  16. For a detailed background of He, see Averill, Revolution in the Highlands, pp. 119–121, 133–134, 180–181. “The Immortals” is translated in Schram, Mao Tse-tung, p. 352. Mao was first married at the age of fourteen in traditional style to an older local girl his parents picked for him. Shortly thereafter he left home to continue his studies.
  17. Mao: The Real Story, p. 283. See the books by journalists who traced the course of the Long March whose works are not listed in Pantsov and Levine’s bibliography: Sun Shuyun, a BBC producer, The Long March: The True History of Communist China’s Founding Myth (Doubleday, 2006), a book that includes a picture of the Luding bridge over the Dadu River inside the cover, pp. 156–165; also Ed Jocelyn and Andrew McEwen, The Long March: The True Story Behind the Legendary Journey That Made Mao’s China (London: Constable, 2006), pp. 247–255. The latter source is at pains to modify the version in Chang and Halliday, pp. 158–160, in which it is stated: “There was no battle at the Dadu Bridge.”
  18. Chang Kuo-t’ao, The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921–1938.
  19. According to Philip Short, Mao told Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka (in 1972) of the importance of the Japanese invasion for the CCP’s conquest power; see Mao: A Life, p. 352.
  20. Odd Arne Westad, Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946–1950 (Stanford University Press, 2003). Lionel Max Chassin, The Communist Conquest of China: A History of the Civil War, 1945–1949, published in French in 1952 and later translated into English (Harvard University Press, 1965), was written mainly on the basis of French intelligence reports that the author saw in his capacity as vice chief of the French General Staff. General Chassin did not serve in China during 1945–1949.
  21. Levine, Anvil of Victory, pp. 32–33, 46–51, 63–64, 239–241.
  22. Mao: The Real Story, pp. 374–389. At the outset, p. 374, Pantsov and Levine muddy the waters by stating that Mao sent in the Chinese troops “in accordance with Stalin’s wishes,” whereas a little later they state in a more appropriately nuanced way that the decision “appears at least in part to have been a conscious demonstration of the PRC leaders’ devotion to the Kremlin boss.” For a full analysis of the CCP Politburo’s discussions and a solution to the mystery of the contradictory messages about entry that were sent from Beijing to Moscow on the same day, see Shen Zhihua, Mao, Stalin and the Korean War: Trilateral Communist Relations in the 1950s (Routledge, 2012), pp. 149–177.
  23. Short, Mao: A Life, p. 629.
  24. In Mao: The Real Story, p. 475, a range of estimates of deaths is quoted, from the official 20 million to 36 million in Yang Jisheng, Mubei: Zhongguo liushi niandai da jihuang jishi (Tombstone: Unforgettable Facts about the Great Famine in the 1960s) (Hong Kong: Tian di tushu youxian gongsi, two volumes, 2008), to 45 million in Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962 (Walker, 2010). A shortened English translation of the Yang volumes will be published this year.
  25. A group of senior but not top-rank leaders railed against the Central Cultural Revolution Group in February 1967 thinking that Mao was tiring of his leftist allies. But they were wrong, and without the backing of the pusillanimous Zhou Enlai, the one moderate top leader left standing, they achieved nothing.
  26. Schram, Mao’s Road to Power, II, p. 434.
  27. Li Rui, op. cit, p. 27. Mao’s onetime secretary gives these figures on the basis of his post-Mao work on the organizational history of the party. The horrific tortures involved in the Futian incident are described in Mao: The Real Story, pp. 238–246.
  28. Mao: The Unknown Story, p. 3.
  29. The World Almanac and Book of Facts (World Almanac Books, 2000), p. 593; Short, Mao: A Life, p. 631. The total figure is given as 61 million at
  30. Stuart R. Schram, Mao Zedong: A Preliminary Reassessment (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1983), p. 73.
Roderick MacFarquhar is the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science and formerly Director of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. His...
Reviewed in This Article

Mao: The Real Story
by Alexander V. Pantsov with Steven I. Levine
Simon and Schuster, 755 pp.

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This article was first published in the October 25, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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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...

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...

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...