They conclude: “The scale of his life was too grand to be reduced to a single meaning.”
Still, the portrait of Mao that emerges from their pages is that of a thoroughly repulsive political operator, a man who was brought to communism by its “apologia for violence, the triumph of will, and the celebration of power.” Pantsov and Levine document Mao’s many abusive marriages and numerous love affairs, his distant relations with his children, and the personal tragedies that ravaged those closest to him. Of his 10 children, he lost four sons, the last courtesy of an American bomb in the Korean War; a daughter was handed away to a peasant on the Long March and is believed to have died. Another son was institutionalized. The Nationalists executed one of his wives; and his final bride, Jiang Qing, spent years as her husband’s attack dog, ruining the lives of countless Chinese intellectuals during his last political campaign, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
Like most good works about China, Pantsov and Levine’s book would do better if it were available to readers in mainland China. But the chances of that are tiny. Since China’s leader Deng Xiaoping decided to preserve the regime’s continuity by committing the party to an official view of its former ruler as “70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong,” nothing much critical of the Great Helmsman can be published in China.
While the authors’ most serious contribution is probably their insight into Mao’s Stalinist creed and his movement’s complete financial and ideological reliance on the Soviets, they also make another important allegation about Mao’s revolution. For decades Americans have been taught that Mao led China’s farmers to victory in his fight against the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek. Pantsov and Levine disagree. Mao found the cannon fodder for his rebellion in the countryside all right, but they weren’t farmers. Rather they were landless day laborers, vagabonds and bandits — “a lawless mob,” as Panstov and Levine call them. They, and not China’s peasants, constituted the foundation for Mao’s revolution — an uprising of hooligans who “wanted to dominate, humiliate, and grind into the dirt everyone who was even slightly better off than they.” Even Mao’s comrade Zhou Enlai was shocked. “Mao’s troops are just bandits who roam here and there,” he said in 1927. “Such leaders do not believe in the strength of the popular masses.”
And that leads to one of the book’s two main weaknesses. Pantsov and Levine flirt with but never launch fully into an exploration of Mao’s enduring legacy in China. His corpse, or at least something resembling a corpse, remains embalmed in the heart of Tiananmen Square. His face is on every Chinese banknote. Maoism is stamped indelibly on the coin of political discourse in China. “Throughout his life in the revolution,” they write, “Mao manipulated the basest of human emotions. It was not brotherly love that he conveyed, but rather enmity and universal suspicion.” How has that affected today’s China? The reader is left to wonder.
And finally, for a book that so excellently skewers the American China-watching fraternity in the mid-1940s for believing Mao when he pretended to embrace American-style democracy and floated the idea of changing the Communist Party’s name to the New Democratic Party, the book comes up short when the United States next figures in Mao’s story: the rapprochement with Richard Nixon. That story is told mostly from an American perspective and is widely known. In such a detailed book about the chairman, we deserve to know his side of the tale.
, a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, is the author of “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.”