John Pistelli


Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong: A Penguin LifeMao Zedong: A Penguin Life by Jonathan D. Spence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like the old Penguin Lives series of brief biographies; they were published between 1999 and 2002 and then abruptly discontinued. I used to read or peruse them back then—I remember reading the one on Woolf in full and maybe Austen too, as well as looking through the Joyce and Melville. So I decided to revisit the series with this volume on Chairman Mao by the distinguished historian Jonathan Spence. It has convinced me that the brief biography format works better for writers than for politicians, since the lives of the latter are so crowded with incident and action and personality.

Moreover, this book is rather oddly structured, leaving for its last third the narrative of Mao’s actual rule over China and providing less detail about that period than about Mao’s earlier life. This creates a certain “balance,” but it neglects the obvious fact that readers, especially those coming to Mao for the first time, will probably be most interested in his leadership. Spence, who rarely editorializes, seems to need this narrative structure to make his argument, though: he casts Mao’s life as a tragedy in which the thoughtful, humane, gifted, idealistic young man from the rural provinces rises to world prominence and is then undone by his own hubris. People who know more than I do about modern China will have to decide if this is plausible.

Spence also emphasizes Mao’s intellectual ambitions and inadequacies, a motif that climaxes in the Cultural Revolution. In this ghastly episode (though one that will no doubt find more and more defenders today), Mao revenged himself on party leaders for the failures of his own highly ideological plans to modernize China in the Great Leap Forward. Calling on the populace—especially the young—to revolt against their teachers, parents, and other authorities, to “attack the headquarters,” in Mao’s words, he consolidated his own authority since his ideology was the guide to the revolution. Spence attributes to Mao a resentment for intellectuals with roots in his rural background and in his own failure to become a genuine scholar or thinker himself:

Mao had also grown more hostile to intellectuals as the years went by—perhaps because he knew he would never really be one, not even at the level of his own secretaries, whom he would commission to go to the libraries to track down classical sources for him and help with historical references. Mao knew, too, that scholars of the old school like Deng Tuo, the man he had summarily ousted from the People’s Daily, had their own erudite circles of friends with whom the [sic] pursued leisurely hours of classical connoisseurship, which was scarcely different from the lives they might have enjoyed under the old society. They wrote elegant and amusing essays, which were printed in various literary newspapers, that used allegory and analogy to tease the kind of “commandism” that had been so present in the Great Leap, and indeed in the Communist leadership as a whole. It was surely of such men that Mao was thinking when he wrote: “All wisdom comes from the masses. I’ve always said that intellectuals are the most lacking in intellect. The intellectuals cock their tails in the air, and they think, ‘If I don’t rank number one in all the world, then I’m at least number two.'”

Here Spence’s insistence on going into detail about Mao’s early studies, his attraction to the classics, his love of poetry, pays off. One is even tempted, if one has known a lot of literary intellectuals, to laugh ruefully along with Mao’s insult. (And I am even tempted to suggest an analogy along these lines between Mao and Nixon, both of whom built policy around their and their constituencies’ resentments, justified and unjustified, against academic and cultural elites.) The Mao who made the Cultural Revolution, though, was living in comfort and luxury beyond even most scholars, traveling around the country in his specially outfitted train and dallying with his mistresses.

And Spence’s clear, factual, and even decorous prose can have a quality of euphemism about what actually went on in the Cultural Revolution, leading readers to believe that it might be an example of some regrettable but necessary excess in the birth of a modern nation rather than a top-down pogrom against civilization itself by a despot preaching self-criticism even as he was immured in the appurtenances of authority. Spence does mention torture as the Revolution’s method, and he holds up some Red Guard rhetoric for implied mockery, but the New York Times review of the biography, written by a penitent journalist taken in at the time by Maoist propaganda, gives a more vivid sense of the actual atrocities involved than the biography itself does:

For a year or more, I wrote uncritically, even enthusiastically, about dreadful things — nuclear scientists shoveling out pigpens who insisted they had been ignorant until ”educated” by the peasants; classical musicians with fingers smashed by the Red Guards who described their past work as ”poisonous weeds”; acupuncture as the sole ”anesthetic” for deep-brain surgery in operations that, as we learned years later, few patients survived. Only when the rationalizations became too great to bear did I revert to my instincts.

To understand is not to excuse. One can see, reading this book, how a man of Mao’s intelligence and sensibility could nevertheless proceed by degrees into tyranny by the extremity of the circumstances in which he had to maneuver: decades of war and deprivation. And it is useless, also obnoxious, to airily insist on liberalism as bromide and panacea to historical actors born far away and long ago. I don’t fault Spence for avoiding such rhetoric in 1999, when it was so fashionable. All the same, the lessons for us in Mao’s life, especially its final third, should not be avoided: theory must subject itself to observable reality; what looks like popular activity is often manipulated by elites; populist rhetoric is usually promoted by elites themselves for their own purposes; the arts and sciences may be open to all in terms of opportunity, but considered in themselves they are inegalitarian insofar as not everyone is talented enough—perhaps only a few are—to attain great achievements within them. Spence makes the pattern of Mao’s policies clear: he destroyed wealth, whether economic or cultural, in the guise of distributing it equally.

Of course, it is more difficult to evaluate Mao than, say, Hitler: many of his goals seem laudable—the elimination of poverty, the reform of unjust hierarchies, the resistance to imperialism. All the more reason, then, to be clear about the lies and cruelty and stupidity into which such goals may be corrupted.

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