9.12.2010

Book Review: Mao - The Unknown Story

He sent Nasser a battle plan for a Mao-style 'people's war,' telling him to 'lure the enemy in deep,' by withdrawing into the Sinai Peninsula, even to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.  Nasser declined to follow the Maoist road, explaining to his distant adviser that Sinai 'is a desert and we cannot conduct a people's liberation war in Sinai because there are no people there.'

This is typical fare on the 616-page long march through Mao-The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.  The excerpt quickly reveals one of the chief things that becomes apparent in an assessment of Mao: he stood on the knife's edge between delusional insanity and a sort of dark brilliance that was frightening for its sheer ruthlessness and heartlessness. 

Well researched, but very much biased in its outlook, the book incorporates extensive interviews and research.  This makes it difficult for the reader to disagree with the underlying premise: Mao, ultimately responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths - was one of the most evil and totalitarian human beings ever to have lived.  It's a disturbing, literally stomach-churning book, recounting repeated stories of an all-powerful communist government starving, terrorizing, brainwashing, and dehumanizing its own people and its own high officials in mass events like the absurd, Kafkaesque nightmare of the Cultural Revolution.

The authors also make another point rather convincingly: no matter how much instability came to China at any point following the Communist takeover in 1949, Mao had his hand on the controls - he was the ultimate agent of chaos.  Chaos provided him with avenues to power.

One additional aspect of the book proved quite insightful.  The authors, even as they stretch to conclusions at times, assess Mao's involvement in and impact on various global crises.  It made me re-think several major historical events.  The Korean Conflict, the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, Nixon going to China - all of these looked slightly different in my mind's eye when I put down the tome.

And it is a tome.  One full of intrigue, historical data, strange supporting characters like Madam Mao, and the endless scheming of the man at the center of all the spider webs.

It's not a book for everyone.  It requires a keen interest in political machinations and geopolitics for sure.  But, for the right reader, it provides revelation after revelation about both Mao and modern China.  If you're looking to get behind the myths and propaganda, it's an engaging read.