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the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

Book cover: Mao: A Life

Author's response


Mao: A Life

Philip Short
Hodder and Stoughton
ISBN: 034060624X; pp. xiii + 782

Philip Richardson

University of Bristol

Dr Richardson raises a number of interesting points. The first concerns the nature of biography, as distinct from history. Here there may be a legitimate difference of opinion. For myself, I hold that it is indeed the biographer's prime task to 'set out the facts and let them speak for themselves', to use Dr Richardson's phrase. Quite deliberately, therefore, 'interpretation is not placed centre stage'. Of course it is present, and quite properly so, in the selection of the facts related and the context in which they are placed – not to mention the writer's opinions, and the culture, society and time in which he or she lives. 'Objective biography' does not exist, any more than 'objective' history. But that is not the same as telling the reader what to think. The object of biography, in my subjective view, should rather be to fashion the narrative in such a way as to enable the reader to draw his or her own conclusions; to point the way, certainly, by structuring the sequence of events and painting in the social and cultural environment in which they occur, but to ensure, as far as possible, that the writer does not come between the reader and the subject.

In this sense biography, at its best, has some of the same strengths as the novel, with the crucial difference that the biographer, unlike the novelist, is bound by historical fact and cannot (or at least should not) pretend to know the workings of his subject's mind.

The role of the historian, in my sense, is thus fundamentally different. The historian analyses, interprets and concludes, presenting an account in which he – not his subject – is the prime mover. It is his business to intrude, to argue a case, to present his vision of the events described (although I recognise that not all historians subscribe to this view). The biographer has a different task.

This is why the final chapter of the book is an epilogue, rather than a conclusion. The purpose was not for me, as the writer, to draw up a balance sheet of Mao's life, but to look at his continuing role in China 'from beyond the grave', a role connected, firstly, with the question of what post-Mao China will become (and is becoming); and secondly, with the related issue of how present and future generations in China will look back on his rule. It is not a cop-out to say that a final judgement is a long way off: in China, it is. And it is in China that it matters, because there the issue of how Mao should be viewed is inextricably intertwined with the country's slow but inexorable progress towards political pluralism.

In this context, I have been struck by how many reviewers have latched on to my brief comparison between Mao, Stalin and Hitler. On a point of fact, I must disagree with Dr Richardson that Stalin's famines were unintended: the famines resulting from the expropriation of the kulaks, carried out by the Komsomol and by Red Army troops, were politically engineered – not only in the Ukraine, where the death toll was highest, but also elsewhere. In this case, no less than in the Great Purge, Stalin deliberately set out to liquidate a section of society he regarded as untrustworthy. That was not Mao's purpose in the Great Leap Forward. It is true that he made matters far worse by digging in his heels after Peng Dehuai spoke in 1959. But his responsibility was not the same as Stalin's.

I agree with Dr Richardson that a contributory factor in the Great Leap was Mao's imperial isolation, in which he was surrounded by more or less supine courtiers (of whom the first was Zhou Enlai). Indeed, this is a major theme of the last quarter of my book. But one has to understand the context, which is of an autocratic tradition, feudal (in the Chinese, not the western sense), and reinforced by Leninist centralism. I am not sure it is helpful to point to 'deep, and deepening, flaws' in Mao's character. I am not a psychologist; nor, I suspect, is Dr Richardson. Attempts to interpret Mao's life from the psychologist's chair (for instance, Lucian Pye's, 'Mao: the Man in the Leader') have not been particularly happy. After all, everybody in the world has character flaws of one kind or another – from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair to myself and each reader of this review. Unless they are pathological, which is almost never true, they are not helpful in understanding political behaviour. Far more important, I would argue, is the political, economic, cultural and social context, for that is the bedrock on which any credible explanation of a person's actions must be based.

Two minor points, and one-and-a-half whinges. I do not devote much space to Mao's economic ideas, because, by his own admission, he simply did not understand economics. His writings on the subject in the late 1940s are pedestrian; his interventions in the 1950s disastrous; and thereafter he left the topic alone. (By contrast, I reproach myself for not having explored more fully Mao's view of China's place in the world, apropos his foreign policy.)

'Mao's own life' is a different matter. He lived it by his own lights. Who are we to say that he should have had more of a family life? The fact is that he did not. With Yang Kaihui and He Zizhen he did have close relationships. These I have chronicled as fully as the available information allows (including much that has never been published in English before) – and it is fascinating to speculate how different Mao might have been, as a politician and as a person, had He Zizhen not left him. But from the mid-1940s onward, his personal life all but disappears. By then, his siblings had all been killed, most of his children had died or been lost during the civil war, and what remained was his unsatisfactory relationship with Jiang Qing. Agreed: that was his fault. But the result was that for the last 20 years or so of his life, he lived and breathed politics. One cannot invent a family where there is none.

The one whinge concerns a hoary old chestnut. Dr Richardson alleges my 'unqualified acceptance of the "No dogs and Chinese" sign'. Unqualified acceptance? I referred, in a long description of the bund in Shanghai in 1921, to 'the park with its apocryphal sign, "Chinese and dogs not allowed"'. Apocryphal, in my book, means 'probably or certainly not true, but widely believed to be true' – in plain English, the sign was reputed to exist but in fact did not. The story seemed to me relevant because it encapsulates the attitude of a sizeable part of the foreign community in the days of extraterritoriality: if the sign did not exist, the mentality did. But, in retrospect, the reference was unwise, and I will not do it again!

The half-whinge relates to the notes and bibliography. Yes: it would be splendid to include a proper bibliography, But that would have added 30 to 40 pages to a book already 782 pages long – and since most of the references would have been in Chinese only a tiny minority of readers would have benefited. The system used in the notes – full bibliographical details for the first reference, thereafter short titles at the start of each new chapter, thereafter author's name only, was predicated on the notion that every scholar now has internet access to library catalogues, and a short-title or author-pair can instantly be transmuted into a full bibliographical record. Again, the alternative would have been a longer book. The problem of endnotes bedevils everyone who writes seriously on historical topics. We all know we need to devise new methods of dealing with it, and I shall be the first to admit that I do not have the perfect answer.

November 2000

Original review

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