Sun, Dec 05, 2010 - Page 14 News List

A reasonably balanced study of the Chairman

Rebecca E. Karl asks readers to view Mao Zedong against the backdrop of his own times, not of ours

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World

What Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World in essence represents is an attempt to rehabilitate Mao Zedong (毛澤東), at least in part, following the catastrophic plunge in his reputation over the last 20 years, both internationally and within China. Subtitled “A Concise History,” it’s written in the form of a biographical narrative, with regular excursions intended to illuminate the background situation at the time. The style is succinct and lucid, and when the author refers to the student classes at New York University on which she tried out versions of the material, you begin to understand that the book is probably intended for similar students in the future.

When Rebecca E. Karl refers in her title to “the 20th century world,” what she’s asking us to do is view Mao against the backdrop of his own times, not of ours. Today, she argues, the world is divided between proponents of what’s claimed to be capitalist freedom and its largely totalitarian enemies. But 50 years ago there were other options available, she believes, primarily an optimistic belief in the possibility of peaceful progress and social improvement following a socialist model.

Before reading this book I’d been warned to expect something of an intransigent, ideology-laden lecture. But this was not what I found. By and large, it seems to me a reasonably balanced, clear-headed survey of the Great Helmsman’s career and influence. It’s certainly not a belated attempt to counter Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story (reviewed in the Taipei Times on Jan. 8, 2006), even though that was a book that contained not a single sentence in Mao’s favor. (Karl mentions it in her first sentence, but it’s significantly absent from her bibliography.)

Publication Notes

Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World

By Rebecca E. Karl

202 pages

Duke University Press


There are certain tests that can be applied to a book with aims such as this one’s. Three of them are as follows: First, what does it have to say about China’s 1950 annexation of Tibet? Second, what does it have to say about the Great Famine? And third, what is its approach to the Cultural Revolution? All three topics are sticks with which Mao’s critics have been more than happy to assault him in the past.

The author can be said to fail the first of these tests, pass the second by a narrow margin, and be at her most provocative on the third.

Tibet is scarcely mentioned, and China’s invasion not at all. The Famine is acknowledged, but with the number of deaths, according to “most responsible demographic estimates,” put at 15 million to 20 million. In his recent book Mao’s Great Famine (reviewed in the Taipei Times on Sept. 9), Frank Dikotter tentatively put the figure at 45 million, and perhaps more.

But it’s the Cultural Revolution that gets the most revealing treatment. It is as if it’s the author’s trump card, and she plays it with panache. The book’s opening remarks speak of her intention to take the phenomenon “seriously.” The movement, she eventually says, can be compared with the 1960s in Western countries. In both China and the West, she declares, it was an era of creativity and healthy rebellion against old norms, and essentially a new dawn.

The problem with this is that although in 1967 students in Western countries could certainly be seen brandishing Little Red Books, there was nothing Marxist about the hippies, and it was they who most characterized the era. Their so-called “counter-culture” was based on Buddhism, pacifism and free love, and a general turning away from money-making and the work ethic in favor of “cosmic consciousness.” The Red Guards didn’t stand for anything remotely comparable, and though professor Karl might enjoy reminding her students of the heady times enjoyed in earlier decades, in making the comparison she risks masking the true extent of the Red Guards’ lethal actions.

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