Thu, May 25, 2000 - Page 9 News List

In search of Mao Zedong -- two views of history

A pair of new biographies about the leader of the Chinese revolution approach their subject from differing viewpoints, but both agree he was a political and military genius who caused immense turmoil

By Timothy T. S. Tung

Mao Zedong (毛澤東) has been an mysterious figure in my mind since the beginning of the "Anti-rightist Campaign" in 1957. I was not in China at that time and was not familiar with the situation there. It was not until many years later that I realized how innocent and naive my enthusiasm had been when I read On the People's Democratic Dictatorship (論人民民主專政) and other of Mao's writings as a teenager.

Not long ago, I published a short essay about idealism. In the essay, I wrote "I used to believe in Marxism. And what really makes me angry is that my youthful idealism was raped by people like Stalin and Mao."

"Rape" is a very strong word and I might have gone too far to use it in my essay. But many people at my age, including my leftist American friends, have the same feeling -- we were all cheated because we were young and naive. Nonetheless, we are still very curious about the personality and behavior of Mao.

Some people in China still speak very highly of him. But they might not mean what they say -- a reflection of the typical hypocrisy of the people in power.

Two views of Mao

Two new biographies of Mao have recently been published. One is Mao Zedong by the well-known scholar and author Jonathan Spence; the other is Mao: A Life by British journalist Philip Short.

Spence's book is part of the Penguin Lives Series, and is very short, just 188 pages, while Short's biography runs 782 pages. Despite the differing lengths, both authors have attempted to objectively analyze Mao.

They both focus their attention on how Mao transformed a divided country -- one subject to foreign control with a stagnant economy and low international status -- into a strong world power.

Neither denies Mao's contribution to the achievements of the modern China: the reduction of illiteracy, brilliant economic performance and an international power due to its nuclear weapons. Both Spence and Short think China has regained the reputation it enjoyed on the international stage before the decline of the Ming Dynasty.

But we should never forget the " 10 year disaster" of the Cultural Revolution when we mention China's prosperity today. In my opinion, the "disaster" of China actually originated in the "Anti-rightist Campaign" of the early 60s and lasted at least 20 years.

Spence and Short both ask the same questions: Should we evaluate the history of China with Chinese standards or Western ones? Are Western scholars supposed to judge Mao by Western values? Communist China has pardoned Mao's mistakes, but should Western countries follow suit?

Mao's dark side

Both authors mentioned that some new material about Mao has been published recently, including memoirs written by Mao's confidants and intimate subordinates. This material reveals Mao's sinister side when he was in power; his means to suppress the dissidents was more ruthless than we previously believed.

In comparing the two biographies, it is easy to see the differing perspectives adopted by a scholar and a journalist.

Spence is considered one of the most authoritative experts on modern Chinese affairs. He is a professor at Yale University and has published over 11 books about Chinese history. Although his biography is short, it is fact-filled.

Short was a correspondent in China for The Times and the BBC and has more than 25 years experience in interviewing and reporting. He was sent to Beijing after Mao died in 1976 and looked at China from a fresh perspective.

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