Education About Asia: Online Archives

Mao: The Unknown Story

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832 PAGES,  ISBN 0679422714, HARDBACK

Reviewed by Charles W. Hayford

If you visit Tiananmen Square in Beijing, you can’t avoid the huge portrait of Mao Zedong that presides over tourists, an amazing number of automobiles, and his own mausoleum. Few who see that portrait today think of Mao’s classic slogans: “to rebel is justified,” “a single spark can start a prairie fire,” “never forget class struggle,” much less the catastrophic famines of the 1950s. The Party’s claim to legitimacy has shifted from Marxism and revolution to economic development and nationalism. Mao is now teamed with Confucius and Buddha as symbols of China’s historic national greatness, all in support of the present leadership’s program of political stability and economic growth. Ironically, while this leadership calls upon Japan to acknowledge its crimes of the 1930s and 1940s, there is no parallel move to examine Mao’s history.

In America, eagerness to explain Mao’s revolution, to open relations, and, for some, sympathy for Maoist ideals, once colored scholarship. Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972 changed things. Government policy changed from hostile “non-recognition” to dealing with China as an anti-Soviet partner. American scholars, reporters, and government China watchers could live in China; they saw Maoism in practice and quickly realized it was not what they had read about. A new generation of scholarship then reassessed Mao and his revolution. (note 1) Recent Mao biographies readably synthesize new findings and raise arguments to a new level. While some are sympathetic to the original ideals of the revolution, (note 2) all recognize both the considerable gains after 1949 and the price paid in blood. (note 3)


1. Joseph Esherick assesses these changes in “Ten Theses on the Chinese Revolution,” Modern China 21.1 (January 1995), 45–76, reprinted in Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, ed., Twentieth-Century China: New Approaches (London; New York: Routledge, 2003), 37–65.

2. For example, Lee Feigon, Mao: A Reinterpretation (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002).

3. Ross Terrill, Mao: A Biography (New York: Harper & Row, 1980); Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong (Penguin, 1999); Philip Short, Mao: A Life (New York: Holt, 2000); Michael J. Lynch, Mao (London; New York: Routledge, 2004).