Born in rural China in 1893, Mao Zedong led his country through "a long-drawn-out adventure in upheaval". In the process he became one of the monumental figures of the 20th century. He died in 1976, just as China was entering detente with the U.S.
This excellent biography illuminates Mao's family life, his early years as a revolutionary, and his brief paradoxical flirtation with capitalism. Spence, the author of 11 books on Chinese history, provides both a panoramic portrait of China and a private portrait of the man at the center of so many historic events. Using sources not readily available, he penetrates the complex persona of Chairman Mao to provide an intimate portrait of a chilling enigma.
"China historian Spence blends historical facts with cultural analysis, creating a work that is fluid and informative." (Publishers Weekly)
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Any insight at all into Mao's driving motives and character; any power of evoking the moral and emotional atmosphere of the political culture in which he thrived and that he dominated; any ability to offer a sense of causal connection among major historical events.
The bland, generic quality of the narrative. So far as theme and tone are concerned, Mao's story, as Spence tells it, could have been the story of virtually any political figure in the liberal bourgeois democratic West. Mao comes across as mild, benevolent, avuncular, but sadly a little too confident in his own omniscience, and misled, poor fellow, by those around him who could have steered him aright but who for reasons unspecified failed to do so. A colorless narrative. The East in this story is not only not Red; it is scarcely even the East. Decades of terror, purges, intrigues, power struggles, treachery, deceit, manipulation, betrayal, and homicide on an unimaginably gargantuan scale--one gets the impression that Spence is himself so bland and mild that he would consider it impolite to evoke such things with any vividness. Or perhaps his vision is itself so neutral, so anodyne, that he really isn't capable of registering them.
ordinary, moderately clumsy, not too distracting
Shock and dismay, disorientation, a dizzying, vertiginous sense of unreality
The biography by Jung Chang and John Halliday offers the power and color absent from Spence's account. They depict Mao as a power-mad monster, a supremely cunning psychopathic gangster boss. One could say it's a hatchet job, but they have a lot of evidence to back up their depiction, including many of Mao's own statements. Without the recognition of Mao's psychopathy, it would be hard to account for quite so many corpses and shattered lives, so much deliberate and prolonged torment. Their story is compelling, linked causally one episode to the next (Spence's is not). The one main thing missing from their account is the ideological fervor that must have animated so many cadres, along with sheer terror and intimidation. I had hoped Spence would compensate some for that large hole in the Chang/Halliday biography. It didn't. I'm on now to David Priestland's The Red Flag: A History of Communism, which promises better in that respect.
- Occasional Reviewer