Book Review: Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and John Halliday

For reasons I can not really articulate the lives and times of despots has always fascinated me. Maybe it’s staring into the abyss of the human condition to understand why. Maybe it’s the same urge to stare at a car accident, a morbid curiosity.

I’ve read about Stalin, I’ve read about Hitler, I’ve read about Pol Pot, I’ve read about Nanjing and I’ve read about Auschwitz. I’ve read about the Tai-Pan rebellion. I’ve read about the Norse raiders.

However, somehow, in all of that madness there seemed something redeemable in these madmen. They were deluded visionaries who believed that they could create a better man and therefore a better world. They were the kind of men who believed that if you had to kill a single innocent child to build a better world, why stop at one when you can kill a million.

Somehow the Mao of Jung Chang and John Halliday emerges as the most despicable vile disgusting self-absorbed butcher of our times. Unlike the others it was all about his own personal power. He cared about China not because he cared about China but because he viewed China as a projection of his own personal power. He was no patriot. He was no hero. He was no visionary he was a butcher who wanted to be at the top of the pyramid and was willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to get there.

The authors make a compelling case for putting Mao at the top of the inverted pyramid of despicable leaders.

The book is a very thorough treatment of the period. Consisting both of a secondary research and a significant amount of new primary materials we learn more about the details of Mao. We also learn about China.

One of the more interesting aspects about China is that China was a far more fluid and dynamic society than originally I had known. It was possible for anyone to scale into the Imperial Bureaucracy. Mao managed to destroy that and create the artificial homogeneous Chinese world we knew in the ’80s.

The one tragic figure in this book, other than China, is Chiang Kai-Shek. Tragic because he was too decent. Too caring of his family. Too willing to trust. Tragic because his lack of ruthlessness brought Mao.

As a counterpoint to Mao, Chiang let the Red Army flee on their Long March to save his son from the Soviets who held him hostage. Mao never cared for any of his children. Mao was too ruthless, Chiang too decent.

An excellent book.

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