Thursday, August 11, 2005

Mao, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday


Let me say from the outset that I am not a good reader of history. All of those names and dates and who did what to whom I can never keep up with. I find that I need to do a sort of primer first, then once I’ve become familiar with key figures and events, then go on to read other books on the same subject. So, due to my lousy reading ability, I’d have to read a dozen books on the one historical subject to get an idea of it.

In my defence, let me just say that Doctor Johnson preferred biography to history (as I do), and that Schopenhauer thought the study of history was pretty meaningless, as all history was pretty much the same, i.e the attainment of power.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book. I got through the first 400 pages okay, but then found myself running out of puff and interest, no matter how much of a rogue Mao was.

The most infamous parts of his rule are well known, the madness of the Cultural Revolution, the criminal mass starvation of his own people in order to try and become a super power. One thing I didn’t know was the extent to which the Chinese Communist Party was backed and brought into being by Russia’s Stalin.

Reading through this biography, I still wondered at how one man could attain power over so many hundreds of millions of people. How one man could even control the way millions of people think. His edict against ‘speaking weird words’ is extraordinary.

What also amazed me was the fact that Mao’s favourite hobby was reading. He was a real bibliophile. Yet he wanted to keep the people as dumb as possible. To all those who believe that reading leads to moral improvement, here’s proof to the contrary. Intellectuals can be very nasty, brutal and calculating people.

Here’s a good quote from the book on the effect of Mao’s dictatorship:

‘After years of living surrounded by daily brutality, and with almost nothing constructive to see or do in the way of entertainment, tension in society had built up to an almost unbearable pitch. An Italian psychoanalyst who was in China just before this time observed to us that he had never seen anything like the number of facial tics and extreme tension in people’s faces.’

Not an enjoyable read, but worth the effort if you have the time.

Related Links:

Witnessing History, by Jennifer Zeng

Chris' interview with Jennifer Zeng

Falun Gong: The End of days, by Maria Hsia Chang

The Case of Chen Yonglin

Chen Yonglin on Defection and Delay


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