A triumphant return to blogging! All those whose lives have been the poorer for want of concise long-windedness and enthralling ennui, rejoice! Johnny Gun's death has been greatly exaggerated, not least by the Gun himself. Armed with a new camera, an alcohol-addled brain and oodles of spare time, he returns to embrace the blog just as it threatens to become passe. Perfect.
So anyway. I'm reading the Mao biography by husband/wife team Jung Chang (of Wild Swans fame) and Jon Halliday, as recommended by most newspapers, literary mags, and the Dirk. My low attention span loves short books with shorter chapters to allow for maximum break time, so picking up this tome was a challenge. Well met.
Although filled with meticulous research and facts, Chang and Halliday have made it very easy to read by pacing it well and allowing certain overlaps in time periods to focus more on subject matter than a direct chronology - although it is chronologically arranged too.
The reason I usually find history books uninteresting is that I know the ending. Would you sit through a 3-hour movie already knowing the story and how it ends? If you liked Lord of the Rings, you've probably done it three times, but that's beside the point. Without having done any research or special reading, I already had a rough idea of the book: Mao born, leads peasant revolt, champions disastrous Long March and Cultural Revolution leading to the deaths of millions of his subjects, dies, in hindsight officially said to have been 70% right and 30% wrong (beautifully precise figures). The End.
Turns out a little different. I harboured no illusions that Mao was anything but an evil dictator, but I never imagined how evil he was - or more accurately, how selfish, greedy and hypocritical. Rising to power at roughly the same time Stalin and Hitler did, but in greatly different circumstances, he offers an interesting comparison to those two. Using Hitler as an example, he was obviously evil and insane, but it could be said that he had an 'ideal' that he was striving for - as warped as that ideal may have been. On the other hand, Mao comes across as a man with no clear vision or philosophy, just a horrible, self-centred person trying to keep himself in luxury and hitching a ride on anyone who can help him stay there - Stalin, the US, Chiang Kai-Shek, anybody.
At the moment I am only about halfway through the book, at the point where Mao has finally risen to the top of the Party and given Chiang the boot, leaving China as his own. It has been a little repetitive in the sense that every chapter describes a different way that Mao backstabbed his benefactors, terrorised his subjects or blackmailed his colleagues, but that is Chang and Halliday's obvious intent - to portray Mao as the cold, selfish killer that he apparently was. This repetition, though, rather than being tedious, just deepens my hate and disgust for such a hideous monster, and leaves me wondering what massive sin he will accomplish next. I found myself hating Mao for his machinations during the civil war, but then I remembered that after all, it was a war, and spying and double-crossing is par for the course. Chang and Halliday's rhetoric and barrage make it difficult to objectively look at Mao's life - but when you already know how evil he was, who really wants to look at him objectively any more anyway? Having said that, the authors' reliance on random, though relevant, peasants etc, gives room for accusations of exaggeration, opportunism and lack of credibility in places. This link
might be interesting.
Mao is reasonably well known in Japan, mostly thanks to his inclusion in Japanese retorts to Chinese historical criticism - eg. How can Koizumi visit Yasukuni and attempt to smooth over Japan's past atrocities? to which a common ad hominen response would be, Hey, China, who are you to talk? Until you own up to your own secrets and truths, don't push ours on us.
An interesting example I just read in the book was the claim that, in the late stages of the civil war when Mao's Communists were trying to take Changchun, a Nationalist city in Manchuria, in 1948, they, on orders of Mao and his terror advisors, laid siege to it until the city starved. Citizens would stumble emaciated to the Communist army, begging to be let out, but the army would refuse unless they had money, skills or arms to offer. And so they watched the people die in front of their eyes. The death toll ended up being more than in the infamous Japanese Rape of Nanking during WWII. It's a horrible, meaningless act to compare such atrocities, but it is not without import that while the average Japanese person can find out about both, should they wish to do so (accepting that some textbooks do brush over the Nanking slaughter), such information is not easily available to a Chinese. In the same way that it stinks for the US to criticise Iran over nuclear ambitions, the closed Chinese bureaucracy has little moral high ground to cling to as it abuses Japan over this topic.
At the very least most people know, to some extent, that Mao was certainly no hero. How absolutely empty and vile he was, though, is not so publicised - until NOW! I saw a Japanese translation of this biography in Junkudo the other day, so hopefully it will gain readership in Japan too - and one day in China, of course.
Anyway, in my usual habit of laziness and lack of editing, this is a short piece on my impressions of the book so far. Looking forward to talking to you about it in Mongolia next month, Dirk, and I urge other people to read it as, if nothing else, an account of how such a lazy, selfish man can rise to such power. As I said before, the overlap in time of Mao's rise with that of men like Hitler , Stalin and Mussolini is quite interesting in itself, and I would be keen to know if anyone knows of similarly well-researched studies of those blokes too. If Chang and Halliday can research in notoriously closed China to write such a detailed book, I'm sure there must be far more on the others. Do tell. JG
On a lighter note, I took some awesome shots at Summer Sonic
earlier this month, and some OK ones from Fuji Rock
too. Check them out.