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...

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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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The Real Deng

Fang Lizhi
<p>When a scientific experiment uncovers a new phenomenon, a scientist is pleased. When an experiment fails to reveal something that the scientist originally expected, that, too, counts as a result worth analyzing. A sense of the “...

My ‘Confession’

Fang Lizhi
<p>From reading Henry Kissinger’s new book <em>On China</em>,<sup id="fnr-1"><a href="#fn-1">1</a></sup> I have learned that Mr. Kissinger met with Deng Xiaoping at least eleven times—...

Making It Big in China

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Jianying Zha describes China as “way too big a cow for anyone to tackle in full.” Therefore, Ms. Zha says, she omits “the rural life, the small-town stories, the migrants working in huge manufacturing plants…continued poverty in parts of...

Are China’s Rulers Getting Religion?

Ian Johnson
<p>With worsening inflation, a slowing economy, and growing concerns about possible social unrest, China’s leaders have a lot on their plates these days. And yet when the Communist Party met at its annual plenum earlier this week, the issue...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds

Ian Buruma
<p>Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week...

China’s Tibetan Theme Park

Richard Bernstein
<p>In the international press, China’s tensions with Tibet are often traced to the Chinese invasion of 1950 and Tibet’s failed uprising of 1959. But for the Chinese themselves, the story goes back much further—at least to the reign of Kangxi,...

China’s ‘Liberation’ of Tibet: Rules of the Game

Robert Barnett
<p>Much of the talk about Vice President Joe Biden’s four-day visit to China last week centered on the man who hosted him: Xi Jinping, expected to become the country’s next president in 2012. Biden’s office has said that the principal purposes...

‘I’m Not Interested in Them; I Wish They Weren’t Interested in Me’

Ian Johnson
<p>Amid the recent crackdown on dissidents by the Chinese government, the case of Liao Yiwu, the well-known poet and chronicler of contemporary China, is particularly interesting. For years, Liao’s work, which draws on extensive interviews...

Murdoch’s Chinese Adventure

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>During a Parliamentary hearing last week in London, the Murdochs, father and son, riveted television audiences with their combination of wide-eyed, hand-on-heart innocence (James), and long silences and “Yups” and “Nopes” (Rupert). After...

China’s Political Prisoners: True Confessions?

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ankle-deep heap of porcelain sunflower seeds bewitched recent visitors to London’s Tate Modern. But in early April Ai’s strong criticisms of the regime led to his disappearance somewhere in Beijing. On June 22...

The High Price of the New Beijing

Ian Johnson
<p>One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned...

The Past and the Future

Fang Lizhi
<p>Concerning the Past:</p><ol><li>I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.</li><li>I...

Kissinger and China

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, <em>On China</em>, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of...

China’s Glorious New Past

Ian Johnson
<p>I first went to Datong in 1984 and was immediately taken by this gritty city in China’s northern Shanxi Province. Along with half a dozen classmates from Peking University, I traveled eight hours on an overnight train, arriving in a place...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,</p><blockquote>As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to...

Quality of Life: India vs. China

Amartya Sen
The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10...

Recharging Chinese Art

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Retirement was not usually a concept of pressing concern to Chinese emperors. Succession and survival were normally quite enough to keep them occupied, and death—when it came—was often unexpected and frequently brutal. But Emperor Qianlong...

China Misunderstood: Did We Contribute to Ai Weiwei’s Arrest?

Ian Johnson
<p>Like many artists, Ai Weiwei enjoys provoking. It isn’t just his finger-to-the-Chinese-government images that he has become known for but also how he does it: his obsessive-compulsive documentation of himself in photos, blogs, tweets, and...

On the Sacred Mountain

Pico Iyer
<p>A powerful, unexpected scene suddenly surfaces near the beginning of Colin Thubron’s characteristically beautiful, though uncharacteristically haunted, new book of travel. As he walks through the mountains of Nepal, toward the holy peak of...

How China Fears the Middle East Revolutions

Perry Link
<p>Chinese authorities have done what they can to stop news—and worse, from their point of view, any influence—of Tunisian and Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. They have been worrying especially about what social media like...

The Secret Politburo Meeting Behind China’s New Democracy Crackdown

Perry Link
<p>In an NYRblog post on February 17 (<a href="" target="_blank">“Middle East Revolutions: The View from China”</a>), I...

Middle East Revolutions: The View from China

Perry Link
<p>Chinese authorities have done what they can to block news of Egyptian people-power from spreading to China. Reports about Egypt in China’s state-run media have been brief and vacuous. On February 6, at the height of the protests, the <em...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

Roderick MacFarquhar
<p>When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science...

China: From Famine to Oslo

Perry Link
Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy...

Finding the Facts About Mao’s Victims

Ian Johnson
<p>Yang Jisheng is an editor of <em>Annals of the Yellow Emperor</em>, one of the few reform-oriented political magazines in China. Before that, the seventy-year-old native of Hubei province was a national correspondent with the...

At the Nobel Ceremony: Liu Xiaobo’s Empty Chair

Perry Link
<p>On December 10, I attended the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize, which the government of China had a few days earlier declared to be a “farce.” The recipient was a friend of mine, the Chinese scholar and essayist...

Unveiling Hidden China

Christian Caryl
<p>Napoleon famously described China as a sleeping giant that would shake the world when it finally awoke. Well, now the giant is up and about, and the rest of us can’t help but notice. 2010, indeed, could well end up being remembered as the...

A Hero of Our Time

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>On October 8, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and one of only three winners ever to receive it while in prison. The Oslo committee had already received a warning from Beijing not to give Liu the prize...

How Reds Smashed Reds

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not...

A Very Superior ‘Chinaman’

Richard Bernstein
<p>Charlie Chan, the fictitious Chinese-American detective from Hawaii, makes his first appearance in the movie <em>Charlie Chan in Egypt</em> (1935) looking out the window of an airplane while flying over the Pyramids and the...

Rumblings of Reform in Beijing?

Ian Johnson
<p>Over the past six weeks, China’s thin class of the politically aware has been gripped by a faint hope that maybe, against all odds, some sort of political opening might be in the cards this year. <a href="

‘A Turning Point in the Long Struggle’: Chinese Citizens Defend Liu Xiaobo

Perry Link
<p>It would be hard to overstate how much the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to <a href="" target="_blank">Liu Xiaobo</...

A Hero of the China Underground

Howard W. French
<p class="dropcap">As a poet and chronicler of other people’s lives, Liao Yiwu is a singular figure among the generation of Chinese intellectuals who emerged after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Unlike the leaders of Beijing’...

The Question of Pearl Buck

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third...

Jailed for Words: Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>On October 8, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and one of only three winners ever to receive it while in prison. The Oslo committee had already received a warning from Beijing not to give Liu the prize...

Beijing’s Bluster, America’s Quiet: The Disturbing Case of Xue Feng

Richard Bernstein
<p>Quiet diplomacy, as it’s called, has served for years as the principle guiding U.S. relations with China: the theory is that it is far better to engage the Chinese government quietly, behind the scenes, rather than through more robust...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful

Ian Johnson
<p>In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth...

Booming China, Migrant Misery

Richard Bernstein
<p>At the beginning of September, a Beijing criminal court announced a decision that called attention to the difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances of millions of migrant workers in China who have left their countryside homes to work for...

Waiting for WikiLeaks: Beijing’s Seven Secrets

Perry Link
<p>While people in the U.S. and elsewhere have been reacting to the release by WikiLeaks of classified U.S. documents on the Afghan War, Chinese bloggers have been discussing the event in parallel with another in their own country. On July 21...

The Message from the Glaciers

Orville Schell
<p>It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only...

Talking About Tibet: An Open Dialogue Between Chinese Citizens and the Dalai Lama

Perry Link
<p>Following is an English translation of an Internet dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Chinese citizens that took place on May 21. The exchange was organized by Wang Lixiong, a Chinese intellectual known for his writing on Tibet and for...

Brutalized in China

Jonathan Mirsky
<blockquote>She wonders if this is what people call falling in love, the desire to be with someone for every minute of the rest of her life so strong that sometimes she is frightened of herself.</blockquote><p>“She” is Granny Lin,...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed...

Locked Out: Beijing’s Border Abuse Exposed

Perry Link
<p>On February 12, Chinese human rights campaigner Feng Zhenghu was allowed to return to Shanghai after a 92-day stay in diplomatic limbo at the Tokyo Narita airport. Having left China last April to visit family in Japan, Feng, who is a...

What Beijing Fears Most

Perry Link
<p>On December 29, four days after being sentenced to eleven years in prison for “subversion of state power,” the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo filed an appeal to a higher court. For many familiar with the Chinese regime, the decision seemed...

The Trial of Liu Xiaobo: A Citizens’ Manifesto and a Chinese Crackdown

Perry Link
<p>One year ago, the Chinese literary critic and political commentator Liu Xiaobo was taken away from his home in Beijing by the Chinese police, who held him without charge for six months, then placed him under formal arrest for six more...

Copenhagen: China’s Oppressive Climate

Perry Link
<p>As the UN’s Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen this week, much attention will focus on China and the United States, who are, by a wide margin, the world’s two leading emitters of greenhouse gases. The success of the conference...

Specters of a Chinese Master

Jonathan D. Spence
<h4>1.</h4><p>Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand...

China: The Fragile Superpower

Christian Caryl
<p>Some China watchers believe that China’s dramatically rising prosperity will inevitably make the country more open and democratic. President Barack Obama’s <a href="

The Empire of Sister Ping

Richard Bernstein
<p>The headquarters of what was once the global people-smuggling operation of Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister Ping, who is serving thirty-five years at a federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut, is now the Yung Sun seafood restaurant at...

China’s Boom: The Dark Side in Photos

Orville Schell
<p>I have seen some woeful scenes of industrial apocalypse and pollution in my travels throughout China, but there are very few images that remain vividly in my mind. This is why the photographs of Lu Guang are so important. A fearless...

The Enigma of Chiang Kai-shek

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Back in 1975, when he died in Taiwan at the age of eighty-seven, it was easy to see Chiang Kai-shek as a failure, as a piece of Chinese flotsam left awkwardly drifting in the wake of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary victories. Now it is not easy...

Obama’s Bad Bargain with Beijing

Perry Link
<p>As the echoes of China’s spectacular <a href="" target="_blank">military parade</a> on October 1 were subsiding, officials in the Obama...

China at 60: Who Owns the Guns

Perry Link
<p>The most striking feature of China’s October 1 celebration of sixty years of Communist rule was the spectacular and tightly choreographed <a href="" target="...

China’s Dictators at Work: The Secret Story

Jonathan Mirsky
<p><em>Prisoner of the State</em> is the secretly recorded memoir of Zhao Ziyang, once holder of China’s two highest Party and state positions and the architect of the economic reforms that have brought the country to the edge of...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>{vertical_photo_right}</p><p>Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent...

‘A Hell on Earth’

Pico Iyer
<p>“The situation inside Tibet is almost like a military occupation,” I heard the Dalai Lama tell an interviewer last November, when I spent a week traveling with him across Japan. “Everywhere. Everywhere, fear, terror. I cannot remain...

The Death and Life of a Great Chinese City

Richard Bernstein
<p>Judging from the evidence of Michael Meyer’s portrait of life in a narrow backstreet of Beijing as China prepared for the Olympic Games, old Beijing has been vanishing for a very long time. “Peking you simply would not be able to recognize...

The China We Don’t Know

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In the late 1990s, Chinese peasants in the village of Da Fo, many of whom between 1959 and 1961 had survived the twentieth century’s greatest famine, felt free enough to install shrines to Guangong, the traditional war god of resistance to...

China’s Charter 08

Liu Xiaobo & Perry Link
<p><em>The document below, signed by more than two thousand Chinese citizens, was conceived and written in conscious admiration of the founding of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, where, in January 1977, more than two hundred Czech and...

An Asian Star Is Born

Christian Caryl
<p>Ian Buruma’s life would itself make a nice subject for a novel. His father was Dutch; his mother was British, from a family that emigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century; as an undergraduate in the Netherlands he focused on Chinese...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics

Orville Schell
<h3>The Incident</h3><p>On a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a...

The Passions of Joseph Needham

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of...

Why Didn’t Science Rise in China?

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>In response to:</p><p><em><a href="../../node/491">The Passions of Joseph Needham</a></em> from the August 14, 2008 issue</p><p><em>To the Editors</em>:</p><p...

How He Sees It Now

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>It is open season on the Dalai Lama and not just for Beijing, for whom he is “a monk in wolf’s clothing,” or for Rupert Murdoch, who dismissed him as a “very old political monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.” During his trip to London in...

Casting a Lifeline

Francine Prose
<p>Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel <em>Beijing Coma</em>, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai

Pankaj Mishra
<h3>1.</h3><p>In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to...

Thunder from Tibet

Robert Barnett
<h3>1.</h3><p>Every so often, between the time a book leaves its publisher and the time it reaches its readers, events occur that change the ways it can be read. Such is the case with Pico Iyer’s account of the fourteenth Dalai...

Twelve Suggestions for Dealing with the Tibetan Situation, by Some Chinese Intellectuals

Wang Lixiong
<ol><li><p>At present the one-sided propaganda of the official Chinese media is having the effect of stirring up inter-ethnic animosity and aggravating an already tense situation. This is extremely detrimental to the long-term goal...

He Would Have Changed China

Perry Link
<p>In trying to make sense of their country’s turbulent modern history, Chinese intellectuals sometimes resort to counterfactual speculation. How might things have been different if one or another accidental event had happened differently? For...

He Won’t Give In

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>On June 4, 1989, having heard that the Tiananmen demonstrations had been lethally crushed, Kang Zhengguo, a professor of literature at a university in Shaanxi province, pinned a piece of paper to his chest displaying the words “AIM YOUR...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet

Pankaj Mishra
<p>Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke...

‘Ravished by Oranges’

Simon Leys
<p>How can we be informed? Chesterton famously observed that when we read in today’s newspapers that one window-cleaner fell to his death, our general understanding of window-cleaning is distorted; the information that 35,000 window-cleaners...

The Amazing Wanderer

Christian Caryl
<h3>1.</h3><p>I could tell you a lot of potentially useful things about Colin Thubron’s latest travel memoir—for example, that he’s a gifted linguist, a dogged reporter, and an elegant writer. For a start, though, perhaps it’s...

China’s Area of Darkness

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>The very first anonymous star on the CIA’s wall of honor at Langley, Virginia (the agency rarely identifies its dead heroes), refers to Douglas MacKiernan, the agency’s man in Urumqi, the capital of what is now called the Xinjiang Uyghur...

The Dream of Catholic China

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>From the later sixteenth century until the end of the seventeenth, the Jesuit educational system was the most rigorous and effective in Europe. As one senior Jesuit wrote proudly in 1647, each Jesuit college was a “Trojan horse filled with...

Mission to Mao

Roderick MacFarquhar
<p>“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.<sup id="fnr1"><a href="#fn1">1</a></sup> The hyperbole was justified,...

Chinese Shadows

Perry Link
<p>In 1920 a young Chinese poet named Guo Moruo published a poem called “The Sky Dog,” which begins:</p><blockquote><p><em>Ya, I am a sky dog!<br />I have swallowed the moon,<br />I have swallowed the sun...

Court Favorite

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>At seven feet six inches tall and about three hundred pounds, Yao Ming, the basketball superstar who plays for the Houston Rockets, is, for many Americans, the most famous living Chinese. In 2002 he was the number-one overall pick in the...

China’s Great Terror

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the...

Why They Hate Japan

Ian Buruma
<h3>1.</h3><p>Those who think that the Japanese are a little odd will have been confirmed in their prejudice by the behavior of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro during his June visit to the United States. The social highlight was a...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise

Pu Zhiqiang
<p>The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun...

China: The Shame of the Villages

Jonathan Mirsky
<h3>1.</h3><p>Published fifteen years ago, <em>Chinese Village, Socialist State</em>, as I wrote at the time, not only contained a more telling account of Chinese rural life than any other I had read; it also produced a...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)

Perry Link
<p>Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind...

Portrait of a Monster

Jonathan D. Spence
<h4>1.</h4><p>It is close to seventy years since Edgar Snow, an ambitious, radical, and eager young American journalist, received word from contacts in the Chinese Communist Party that he would be welcome in the Communists’...

China: The Uses of Fear

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Instilling deadly fear throughout the population was one of Mao Zedong’s lasting contributions to China since the late Twenties. In the case of Dai Qing, one of China’s sharpest critics before 1989, fear seems to explain the sad...

Chinese Shadows

Ian Buruma
<p>There are many reasons for getting tattooed. But a sense of belonging—to a group, a faith, or a person—is key. As a mark of identification a tattoo is more lasting than a passport. This is not always voluntary. In Japan, criminals used to...

China: Wiping Out the Truth

Perry Link
Somehow poison got into the food at a snack shop in Nanjing, China, on September 14, 2002, and more than four hundred people fell ill. After forty-one of them died, the official Xinhua News Agency posted a notice warning of contaminated food in...

Passage to China

Amartya Sen
<h4>1.</h4><p>The intellectual links between China and India, stretching over two thousand years, have had far-reaching effects on the history of both countries, yet they are hardly remembered today. What little notice they get...

Taiwan on the Edge

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>The events in Taiwan since March 19, the day before the presidential election, can be seen as a Taiwanese version of the long wrangle between Al Gore and George W. Bush more than three years ago. No matter how the election is resolved,...

The Party Isn’t Over

Jonathan Mirsky
<h3>1.</h3><p>Early in the years following China’s post-Mao reforms, a Chinese sociologist told Princeton’s Perry Link, “We’re like a big fish that has been pulled from the water and is flopping wildly to find its way back in. In...

Chiang’s Monster

Jonathan D. Spence
<h4>1.</h4><p>During the late 1930s and World War II, it was common to call Dai Li “China’s Himmler,” as if Chiang Kai-shek’s secret police and intelligence chief during that period performed functions similar to the head of the...

The Hong Kong Gesture

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>On September 5, in an astonishing victory for liberty in Hong Kong and an equally unexpected defeat for Beijing and its hand-picked chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, the Hong Kong government withdrew a proposed new law against subversion and...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison

Jiang Qisheng
“What I did, what landed me in prison, was really quite simple—I just said in public what my fellow citizens were saying in all those other nooks.” —<em>Jiang Qisheng<em>

A Little Leap Forward

Nicholas D. Kristof
<p>The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and...


Ian Buruma
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-...

How the Chinese Spread SARS

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Communist China’s long obsession with secrecy is one cause of the present SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) crisis. This passion for secrets—protected by lies—can involve events more than forty years ago, and it is heightened by a...

China’s Psychiatric Terror

Jonathan Mirsky
<h3>1.</h3><p>At its triennial congress in Yokohama last September, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) overwhelmingly voted to send a delegation to China to investigate charges that dissidents were being imprisoned and...

China’s New Rulers: What They Want

Andrew J. Nathan & Bruce Gilley
<p><em>Following are the members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, whose election is expected in November 2002, listed by their rank according to protocol, with their main Party and future state positions. Ages...

Taking Rights Seriously in Beijing

Ronald Dworkin
<p>Last May I was invited to China for two weeks, first to take part in a two-day conference at the law school of Tsinghua University in Beijing, and then to give several public lectures there and in other cities. The Tsinghua conference was...

China’s New Rulers: The Path to Power

Andrew J. Nathan & Bruce Gilley
<p><em>Following are the members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, whose election is expected in November 2002, listed by their rank according to protocol, with their main Party and future state positions. Ages...

There Were Worse Places

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In the mid-1980s I made occasional trips to Harbin in Manchuria to report on the Orthodox White Russians who lived there, the remnant of a community that had fled from the new Soviet Union after the revolution. There were once so many of...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier

Perry Link
<p>In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (<em>mao</em>, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (<em>...

Inside the Whale

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Ian Buruma is a powerful storyteller and much of his story about Chinese rebels is very sad. This sadness persists throughout his long journey, starting in the United States, where he met most of the well-known dissident Chinese exiles, and...

China’s Assault on the Environment

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In 1956 Chairman Mao wrote the poem “Swimming,” about a dam to be built across the Yangtze River. This is its second stanza:</p><blockquote><em>A magnificent project is formed. The Bridge, it flies! Spanning<br />...

On the Road

Pico Iyer
<p>Books that “follow in the steps of” a well-known traveler are more and more ubiquitous these days, but many of them are slightly suspect. Following in the footsteps of some distinguished predecessor can look a little like a gesture of...

Un-Chinese Activities

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In the first week of November 1728, China’s Emperor Yongzheng (who reigned between 1723 and 1735) ruled over something like 200 million people and the vast territory that Beijing today claims as the People’s Republic. He had plenty on his...

Writers in a Cold Wind

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Early in 1979 the Chinese officials in charge of culture declared that the Maoist ban on nineteen traditional classics and sixteen foreign works, including <em>Anna Karenina</em>, was lifted. On the day the books became...

Tibet Disenchanted

Ian Buruma
The first time I visited Tibet, in the fall of 1982, scars of the Maoist years were still plain to see: Buddhist wall paintings in temples and monasteries were scratched out or daubed with revolutionary slogans. Now that new winds are blowing, these...

‘Taiwan Stands Up’

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Politics in Taiwan is a deadly business, sometimes literally. Chen Shui-bian’s first public act, on the morning of his inauguration as president on May 20, was to carry his wife in his arms to their waiting car. In 1985 she had been run...

Found Horizon

Ian Buruma
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...

China’s Dirty Clean-Up

Sophia Woodman
<p>Every year, millions of China’s poorest and most vulnerable people are arrested on the streets of the nation’s cities merely because the way they look or speak identifies them clearly as “outsiders,” not native to the city in question, or...

A Lamas’ Who’s Who

Jonathan Mirsky
<blockquote><em>A one-l lama, he’s a priest.</em><br /> <em>A two-l llama, he’s a beast.</em><br /> <em>And I will bet a silk pajama,</em><br /> <em>There isn’t any three-l lllama...

East Is West

Ian Buruma
<p>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:</p><blockquote>I ran up the...

Divine Killer

Ian Buruma
<blockquote>“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.’<br /> “Another thing which upset Mao was...

China in Cyberspace

Ian Buruma
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...

Misfortune in Shanghai

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Connoisseurs of traditional Peking opera would have enjoyed the recent meeting in Shanghai sponsored by <em>Fortune</em> to consider “China: The Next 50 Years.” The audience of approximately three hundred CEOs of US and other...

Room at the Top

Pico Iyer
<p>The last time I was in the Himalayas, I met a young, highly Westernized Tibetan who, misled perhaps by my Indian features (born in England, I’ve never lived in the subcontinent), started talking to me about the strange ways of the exotic...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery

Orville Schell
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...

The Dalai Lama on Succession and on the CIA

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet into Indian exile. He is sixty-five and some day even god-kings must die. But in the eyes of Tibetans he is also the fourteenth incarnation of the first Dalai Lama...

Message from Shangri-La

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>On October 6, 1939, on the outskirts of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, Hugh Richardson, who is now ninety-three and the West’s foremost living Tibetanist, saw the arrival in the city of the five-year-old boy who in early 1940 would be...

Talking with Mao: An Exchange

Henry Kissinger & Jonathan D. Spence
<h5>In response to:</h5><p><a href=""><em>Kissinger &amp; the Emperor</em></a> from the March 4, 1999 issue</p><p><em>To the Editors...

Kissinger & the Emperor

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>From the moment when they first began to keep historical records, the Chinese showed a fascination with the complexities of diplomacy, with the give-and-take of interstate negotiation, the balancing of force and bluff, the variable powers...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan

Ian Buruma
<p>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...

Democratic Vistas?

Jonathan Mirsky
In August 1980 Deng Xiaoping laid down the Communist Party’s view of democracy. It continues to cripple China and is used both inside the country and by its apologists abroad to avoid the issue of repression. Deng said: Democracy without socialist...

Goodfellas in Shanghai

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Just over two thousand years ago, China’s first great historian, Sima Qian, decided to include a chapter on assassins in his long history of his newly united homeland. He chose five men as representative examples of those who had tried to...

Talking with Wei Jingsheng

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Speaking to a small group in London this January, nearly two months after he was expelled from China, the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng told his somewhat startled listeners, “The earliest human rights movement in the world was the ‘People...

The Mark of Cain

Jonathan Mirsky
<h3>1.</h3><p>In Hong Kong’s China Club, fashionable people have lunch beneath pictures of Mao Zedong after a drink in the Long March Bar. Most of the members are refugees from Mao or the children of refugees. In Russia, or Germany...

Lost Horizons

Pico Iyer
<p>Tibet has always cast a dangerously strong spell upon visitors from abroad. When the first major European expedition marched on Lhasa in 1904, led by Colonel Younghusband at the behest of his old friend Lord Curzon, it ended up slaughtering...


Jonathan Mirsky
<p>It is unusual in British political life for a high official to leave his position and immediately reveal in his own words or through an intermediary what in his opinion really happened while he was in office. Furthermore, unless he has been...

Selling Out Hong Kong

Ian Buruma
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...

Peking’s Choice

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>The recent sentence to six years in prison of one of Tibet’s supreme monks shows Peking’s determination to dominate all events in the region and bring to an end a period of intense confusion within the Chinese Communist Party. For a brief...

Holding Out in Hong Kong

Ian Buruma
Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine modeled after the London Tatler, I was reminded of a story I once heard about the Rothschild house in Paris. When Victor Rothschild visited the Avenue de Marigny...

Peking, Hong Kong, & the US

Jonathan Mirsky
No recent book has blown a bigger hole in the proposition that the US must follow a policy of “positive engagement” with China than The Coming Conflict with China. It is a mark of the wound they inflicted on Peking that the authors, ex-reporters in...

What Confucius Said

Jonathan D. Spence
<h4>1.</h4><p>The first Western-language version of Confucius’ sayings—later known as the Analects—was published in Paris in 1687, in Latin, under the title <em>Confucius Sinarum Philosophus</em>, with a brief...

Demolition Man

Roderick MacFarquhar
<p>Deng Xiaoping was eulogized by his colleagues as the “chief architect” of China’s reform program and its opening to the outside world.<sup id="fnr1"><a href="#fn1">1</a></sup> This was misleading...

China: The Defining Moment

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>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...

The Risks of Witness

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>With this, the third book that Harry Wu has published about China’s forced-labor prison camp system, we can see that he has been moving on a discernible trajectory, one that has taken him from the world of reality to the world of appearance...

The Hope for China

Fang Lizhi & Perry Link
<h4>1.</h4><p>“Some people,” declared Mao Zedong in 1959, “say that we have become isolated from the masses.”<sup id="fnr1"><a href="#fn1">1</a></sup> By “some people” Mao meant Peng...

How China Lost Taiwan

Jonathan Mirsky
<h3>1.</h3><p>For foreign correspondents who had been present in Peking’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the events of the night of March 17, 1996, in the plaza in front of the Taipei city hall, showed more clearly than any other...

One More Art

Simon Leys
<h4>1.</h4><p>The discovery of a new major art should have more momentous implications for mankind than the exploration of an unknown continent or the sighting of a new planet.<sup id="r1"><a href="#fn1...

River of Fire

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In her introduction to a collection of Karl Marx’s newspaper dispatches on China, Dona Torr conceived a charming fantasy in which Marx speculates that</p><blockquote>When our European reactionaries have to take refuge in Asia...

Is There Enough Chinese Food?

Vaclav Smil
<h3 align="center">1.</h3><p>Many Americans think they know something about Chinese food. But very few know anything about food in China, about the ways in which it is grown, stored, distributed, eaten, and wasted, about...

The Beginning of the End

Ian Buruma
<p>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...

In China’s Gulag

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Near the end of <em>The Gulag Archipelago</em>, 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...

Jumping Into the Sea

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>“Be sure to prevent any contact between the barbarians and the population,” the Emperor Qianlong ordered in 1793. This is one of the many pointed epigraphs in <em>China Wakes</em>, and it shows what Chinese rulers knew for...

The Underground War for Shanghai

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>During the night of November 21–22, 1928 a steamer moored at the docks in the Chinese section of Shanghai, and a group of harbor coolies, flanked by a squad of thirty armed guards, began to unload chests onto the dock. Alerted by a tip some...

Unmasking the Monster

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:</p><blockquote>In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm...

The Bottom of the Well

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Do Chinese women, as the Communist Party has held for decades, “hold up half the sky?” Or, like the frog at the bottom of a well in a famous Daoist legend, do they see only a little blue patch? Why is it that tens of millions of them are...

Remembrance of Ming’s Past

Jonathan D. Spence
To many readers in the past, The Plum in the Golden Vase has seemed an inchoate mass of a story. Even if it was clearly “about” a wealthy urban merchant Hsi-men Ch’ing, his six consorts, and numerous other sexual companions, it was also full of...

The Prodigal Sons

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>What do Xi Yang, Wei Jingsheng, and Wang Juntao have in common? Yes, they are all “counter-revolutionary elements, subversives, splittists, black hands”—whatever Peking cares to call them—and all three are familiar with the Party’s prison...

The Old Man’s New China

Perry Link
<p>The Communist Party of China has regularly warned Western observers like Merle Goldman not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. China, it says, has its own culturally distinctive ideas on topics like freedom, democracy, and human...

The Battle for Hong Kong

Jonathan Mirsky
<h4>1.</h4><p><em>Hong Kong</em>—The first weekend of the Year of the Dog, February 11–13, was not a good one for those of us who live in Hong Kong. The annual fireworks display, sponsored by the Bank of China (in...

Where the East Begins

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Between 1965 and 1977, Donald Lach published the first two volumes of his <em>Asia in the Making of Europe</em>, an illuminating and erudite survey of the various ways that Asia has affected scholarship, literature, and the...

The Chinese Miracle?

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Over the last few months the news and reportage about China have become almost incomprehensibly divided between two points of view. According to one set of reports, China is now confirmed as an economic “colossus,” shaking off all the...

Unjust Desserts

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Can there be any justice in today’s China? It is the deepest question that the film director Zhang Yimou has asked so far. His best-known earlier films, sexually supercharged, suffused with violence or the threat of it, always found some...

The Party’s Secrets

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Not long after Mao Zedong died in 1976, one of the editors of the Party’s <em>People’s Daily</em> said. “Lies in newspapers are like rat droppings in clear soup: disgusting and obvious.” That may have been true of the Party’s...

Deng’s Last Campaign

Roderick MacFarquhar
<p>China had its own form of grueling political campaign this year, which ended when the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party (CCP) took place in October. There, too, the issue was “change” and the main concern the economy. But in China...

Squaring the Chinese Circle

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>“China,” according to Lucien Pye, “is a civilization pretending to be a state.”<sup id="fnr1"><a href="#fn1">1</a></sup> This is an elegant formulation of an idea which eventually occurs to most...

The Other China

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>On the same late fall day in 1991, two stories about China appeared in the Western press. One announced that thirty-five drug dealers had just been executed in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, probably by a single police bullet...

Blazing Passions

Geoffrey O’Brien
<p>In a coincidence of programming in New York City a selection of the commercially most successful Hong Kong movies of the 1980s ran at the same time as a retrospective of work (some of it only marginally released in its country of origin) by...

Literature of the Wounded

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In <em>Legacies: A Chinese Mosaic</em>, Bette Bao Lord’s memoir of her three years in Peking as the American ambassador’s wife, she recalled that “all Chinese were in pain, and taking their pulse, reading their temperature,...

John King Fairbank (1907–1991)

Roderick MacFarquhar
<p>John Fairbank, who died on September 14 at the age of eighty-four, read virtually all serious Western works on China. Reviewing them, principally for <em>The New York Review</em> in the last several years, was for him one way of...

The Anatomy of Collapse

Roderick MacFarquhar
<p>In Moscow, 1991, as in Beijing in 1989, eight hard liners made a last-ditch stand to preserve communism. Yet in both cases, the Communist party was left on the sidelines and no appeal was made for support in the name of Communist doctrine...

China on the Verge

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>During the play-off matches for the intercollegiate East China soccer title in the early 1920s, passions ran high. The president of Shanghai’s prestigious Communications University was no less a soccer fan than anyone else, but he was also...

The Myth of Mao’s China

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In <em>China Misperceived</em> Steven Mosher strikes back at the profession, clan, or family of China watchers that cast him out. The official reasons have never been made public, although his university, Stanford, hinted at...

Brutality in China

Merle Goldman
<p>At the same time that President Bush is speaking up against Saddam Hussein’s human rights atrocities, he is appeasing China’s octogenarian leaders on the very same issue. In order to persuade China to cooperate in the United Nations actions...

Lost Horizons

Jonathan Mirsky
Except for the Chinese Communists, who call him names like “the wolf in monk’s robes,” or “the criminal Dalai,” virtually everyone speaks well of the Dalai Lama. The latest incarnation is the Fourteenth in a line that began in 1351 and exists...

History on the Wing

John K. Fairbank
<p><em>Golden Inches</em> 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-...

The Art of Interpreting Nonexistent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page

Simon Leys
<h3>1.</h3><p>In any debate, you really know that you have won when you find your opponents beginning to appropriate your ideas, in the sincere belief that they themselves just invented them. This situation can afford a subtle...

The Chinese Amnesia

Fang Lizhi
<p><em>The following was written while Fang Lizhi was staying in the American Embassy in Beijing, before his release last June</em>.</p><p>In November 1989, during the fifth month of my refuge inside the American...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping

John K. Fairbank
<p>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...

In A Cruel Country

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In her disturbing memoir of three and half years in Beijing, Bette Bao Lord, the author of the novel <em>Spring Moon</em> and wife of Winston Lord, the American ambassador until just before the Beijing killings, retells a...

The Last Days of Hong Kong

Ian Buruma
May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that I arrived in Hong Kong to take up a job. The prime ministerial fall; which preceded a fierce quarrel with Deng...

The Empire Strikes Back

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>“President Bush still regards you as his friend, a friend forever,” Brent Scowcroft told Deng Xiaoping in Beijing on December 10, six months and seven days after Deng ordered the People’s Liberation Army into Tiananmen Square. In Washington...

Keeping the Faith

Fang Lizhi
I am proud and deeply moved to have this opportunity to speak with you here today; but at the same time, I am also filled with a sense of sorrow and shame. I am moved because you have chosen to honor me with the 1989 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights...

Vengeance in China

Merle Goldman
<p>While China’s leaders try to assure the outside world and themselves that “everything is back to normal,” the national problems that existed before the June 4 crackdown have become much worse. China’s students and intellectuals were already...

Stories from the Ice Age

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>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...

China Witness, 1989

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>In response to: <a href=""><em>China’s Spring</em></a> from the June 29, 1989 issue</p><p><em>To the Editors:</em></p><p>The absolute...

After the Massacres

Simon Leys
<p>A historian of contemporary China who is considering the events of three years ago, of ten years ago, of twenty years ago, must feel dizzy: each time, it is the same story, the plot is identical—one needs only to change the names of a few...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy

John K. Fairbank
<p>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...

The End of the Chinese Revolution

Roderick MacFarquhar
<p>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:</p><blockquote><p...

The Curse of the Man Who Could See the Little Fish at the Bottom of the Ocean

Simon Leys
Since the Beijing massacres, the question has already been put bluntly to me several times: “Why were most of our pundits so constantly wrong on the subject of China? What enabled you and a tiny minority of critics to see things as they really were...

Letters from the Other China

Fang Lizhi
During the student demonstrations that swept China toward the end of 1986, the brilliant astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who was then vice-president of the University of Science and Technology, emerged, through his speeches to student groups, as the...

China’s Spring

Orville Schell
<p>To stand, in early May, atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which guards the entrance to the Forbidden City, and look across the vast crowd of people jammed into Tiananmen Square was to have a historically new sense of what Mao called “the...

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Just before the recent demonstrations in Beijing and other cities, which shook the Party to its foundations, a rumor ran through the capital: Mao Zedong’s body, embalmed and mounted in the ugly Memorial Hall which disfigures Tiananmen...

The Chinese Intellectuals and the Revolt

Perry Link
<p>The Beijing revolt of 1989 has caught the world’s attention, but the malaise that led to the emergency is broader and deeper than any of its conspicuous slogans can suggest. For foreigners like myself who live in Beijing, it was already...

Mao and Snow

John K. Fairbank & Jonathan Mirsky
<h3>In response to:</h3><p><a title="&quot;Message from Mao,&quot; New York Review of Books, February 16, 1989" href="/node/595"><em>Message from Mao</em></a> from the February 16...

Message from Mao

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>In Kansas City, Missouri, the family of Edgar Snow, whose <em>Red Star Over China</em> was to introduce Mao Zedong to the world, employed a black washerwoman, Crazy Mary, who hated one of her Chinese competitors. To enrage the...

China’s Despair and China’s Hope

Fang Lizhi
Nineteen eighty-nine is the Year of the Snake in China. It is not clear whether this snake will bring any great temptations. But this much is predictable: the year will stimulate Chinese into deeper reflection upon the past and a more incisive look...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan

Nathan Gardels
<p>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...

Roots of Revolution

John K. Fairbank
<p>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.</p>...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

Roderick MacFarquhar
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...

China on My Mind

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Almost forty years have passed since John King Fairbank’s first book, <em>The United States and China</em>, was published in 1948. A careful blending of Chinese institutional history with diplomatic history, the book proved...

Surviving the Hurricane

Judith Shapiro
<p>At a time when the new freedoms of the post-Mao years are in jeopardy, many issues of intense concern to Chinese can freely be discussed only abroad. Of these, among the most important is the Cultural Revolution, about which Nien Cheng has...

Turbulent Empire

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Among the great and enduring questions in the study of Chinese history are these: In an agricultural country of such extraordinary size how was the land farmed and what were the patterns of ownership and tenancy? How was the rural revenue...

The End of the Long March

Roderick MacFarquhar
<p>In Peking last September, China’s supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, pensioned off the surviving generals of the Long March. Fifty years after their epic exploit, these old soldiers finally agreed to fade away. Deng must hope that the legend...

Our Mission in China

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship <em>Empress of China</em> sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for...

China: Mulberries and Famine

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Near the beginning of the Chinese “Classic of Historical Documents” (the <em>Shujing</em>), where the doings of early mythic rulers are being described, there is a brief passage that stands out among the others for its precision...

China: How Much Dissent?

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>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...

Take Back Your Ming

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Until very recently the great expanse of the Ming dynasty, which ruled in China from 1368 to 1644, was largely uncharted in Western historiography. The dynasty was seen either as having come at the end of a great tradition that had been...

Forever Jade

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>A central crisis in modern Chinese letters has been caused by the need to take account of Western forms. Some writers adjusted eagerly to Western literature out of a sincere admiration for Western culture; some grudgingly, out of a total...

Why Confucius Counts

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>One would be hard pressed, surveying any of the political cultures in human history, to find a parallel for the continuity, longevity, and vitality of Confucianism. This moral and ethical system was given initial shape in the fifth and...

The Chinese Dream Machine

Jonathan D. Spence
<p>Simple-looking questions make good starting points for books; for simple questions are usually very hard to answer, and if the author is skillful enough he elaborates the simple question until it is overlaid with hovering qualifications,...

Chinese Shadows: Bureaucracy, Happiness, History

Simon Leys
In the sixth century BC, at the time the Tso Chuan refers to, China’s social hierarchy had only ten degrees. We have progressed since then: the Maoist bureaucracy today has thirty hierarchical classes, each with specific privileges and prerogatives...

Chinese Shadows

Simon Leys
In handbooks on Chinese traditional painting, an advice commonly given to the artist who wishes to learn to paint trees is to sketch them in winter, for then, without the seductive yet confused and blurry effect of their leafy masses, through their...

Sitting on Top of the World

Harold L. Kahn
<p>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...

Traveling Light

Martin Bernal
<p>With the exception of Joseph Kraft’s short work, all the books on China mentioned here have been padded. Barbara Tuchman includes a fascinating historical essay. Galbraith has animadversions on San Francisco, Paris, TWA, and many other...

Rules of the Game

John Gittings
<p>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...

Up Against the Wall at Tsinghua U.

Ross Terrill
<p>Some Chinese refer to their lives before and after the Cultural Revolution as if that storm of the Sixties were a religious conversion. Like John Bunyan writing with enthusiastic horror of his unregenerate days, the cadre or craftsman today...

A Shameful Tale

John Gittings
<p>On the contents page of the latest issue of <em>Foreign Affairs</em><sup id="fnr1"><a href="#fn1">1</a></sup> the new shape of American diplomacy is writ large and in italics. In this...

Who’s Who in China

Martin Bernal
<p>Written Chinese is extremely difficult. Before the revolutions of the twentieth century, the literary language was a barrier protecting the Confucian elite. Anyone who could jump over that barrier by passing the official examinations...

Bringing Up the Red Guards

John Gittings
veryone who has studied the Chinese Cultural Revolution has his own favorite quotation from the Red Guard press. Those who want to make fun of it can always pick one of Mrs. Mao’s ridiculous pronouncements (“P’an T’ien-shou is a counterrevolutionary...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier

John Gittings
<p>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...

How Mao Won

Martin Bernal
<h5>In response to:</h5><p><a href="/node/1532"><em>Was Chinese Communism Inevitable?</em></a> from the December 3, 1970 issue</p><p><em>To the Editors:</em></p><p...

Was Chinese Communism Inevitable?

Martin Bernal
<p>It is likely that, even now, many people in America and Britain still hold to the simple formula that people are good and communism is evil. And, just as good cannot support evil, people cannot support communism. Therefore any political...

Mao and the Writers

Martin Bernal
<p>By the 1930s the intolerable quality of life and the inefficiency, corruption, and conservatism of the Kuomintang had driven nearly every serious creative writer in China to the Left. Most turned toward some form of Marxism, which not only...

Report from the China Sea

Jonathan Mirsky
<p>Since the Communist victory in 1949 there has been very little contact between Americans and Chinese. Although a tiny community of aging Americans continues to live in Peking, no American, except for Edgar Snow, has traveled widely in the...

Still Mysterious

John K. Fairbank
<p>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...

A Mao for All Seasons

Martin Bernal
<p>{vertical_photo_right}</p><p>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...


Martin Bernal
<p>Mr. Pye is disarming and sensible in his description of his method. From the start he makes it clear that <em>The Spirit of Chinese Politics</em> is an “interpretive and largely speculative essay.” He refuses to cite specific...

The Great Wall

John K. Fairbank
<p>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...

Puritanism Chinese-Style

Martin Bernal
<p>Specialists in the USSR and East Europe have both helped and hindered modern Chinese studies. Many scholars such as Benjamin Schwartz came to the serious interpretation of Chinese Communism from Slavic studies. On the other hand, less...

Chinese Checkers

Martin Bernal
<h5>In Response to:</h5><p><a href="/node/1574"><em>Contradictions</em></a> from the July 7, 1966 issue</p><p><em>To the Editors:</em></p><p>Martin Bernal in his...


Martin Bernal
<p>Professor Schurmann is not modest. Near the beginning of his book he writes: “translations from Chinese, Russian and Japanese are my own, and hundreds of articles had to be read in the original Chinese with precision and at the same time...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution

John K. Fairbank
<p>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...

Down There on a Visit

Martin Bernal
<p>In many ways this is the book that everybody interested in China has been waiting for, a book describing what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Chinese Revolution. In the summer of 1962 Jan Myrdal, the thirty-year-old son of...

Mao’s China

Martin Bernal
<p>To most Westerners China is not a part of the known world and Mao is not a figure of our time. The ignorant believe he is the leader of a host of martians whose sole occupation is plotting the destruction of civilization and the enslavement...

The Popularity of Chinese Patriotism

Martin Bernal
<p>Fundamentally China is a sellers’ market. The first half of this century, when there was a glut of books, seems to have been the exception. Since 1949 a veil has once more been drawn over the center of the mysterious east, and the situation...