MAO: The Unknown Story *

By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Knopf. 814 pp. $35

Chairman Mao has always been an acceptable tyrant. Compared to Hitler and Stalin, Mao Zedong has usually gotten good if not great press, despite having been responsible for the peacetime deaths of millions of his countrymen because of bad policies or purges. On the left, the view of the chairman has remained petrified in the 1930s, when the American journalist Edgar Snow wrote Red Star Over China, a flattering account of Mao and his communist comrades' fight against Japanese aggressors and Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt nationalist regime, and in the 1960s, when Mao fever swept American college campuses. (I remember going to sleep as a youngster to the chants of Columbia University students: "Mao, Mao, Chairman Mao.") From the right, Mao looked good for standing up to the Soviets in the 1970s. Generally speaking, China lovers have given Mao a break and followed the official Communist Party line: that the chairman was 30 percent wrong and 70 percent right as he united China and led tens of millions of people to their deaths.

But unlike in the West, where the view of Mao has remained petrified, scholars in China are battling over the meaning of the man. For a growing group of them, who have published their books and essays in out-of-the-way or overseas publishing houses, Mao was a tyrant. In recent years, historians writing in mainland China have made enormous contributions to the study of Mao's life -- showing how his particular brand of cruelty helped fashion China's peculiarly successful brand of totalitarianism, dissecting his debauchery and sexual deviancy, detailing his sadism, his disastrous policies, the famines he caused and the lives he destroyed. Another group has shown how Mao's crimes have devastated China's culture, creating a broken snitch society absent a moral compass.

Against that backdrop arrives the extraordinary Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and her husband, the scholar Jon Halliday, who last collaborated on Chang's bestselling family portrait, Wild Swans. Their 814-page tome relies heavily on new Chinese scholarship; indeed, it probably could not have been written without it. The biography also benefits from solid research by Halliday in newly opened Soviet archives.

When it sticks to the new Chinese and Russian sources, the book shines, providing readers with the most detailed portrayal of the "Great Helmsman" to date. But when it pretends to tell us what the chairman is thinking and feeling, the book veers toward magical realism. Finally, its tendency toward hyperbole damages its otherwise persuasive case against Mao.

In short, if you're hoping for staid, balanced scholarship, don't read this book. It's not history; it's a screed, albeit a screed on the side of the angels. Chang writes with the zeal of the converted. As a youth, she, like millions in her generation, was intoxicated with Mao and viewed him as a god. But he ravaged untold lives, including hers. Chang obviously figured she didn't need to get mad; she got even.

Even screeds have their place, however, and this is an extremely entertaining one. Indeed, sometimes an emotionally charged account -- one written with obvious biases -- can reveal the truth better than ostentatious, morally numbed objectivity that cloaks a lot of Western scholarship on China. Chang and Halliday's point is very simple: Like a small group of scholars in China, they believe that Mao wasn't a revolutionary but a monster. He wasn't a communist but a bandit king. The result is a page-turner with a point.

And that point is honed razor-sharp. "Turning ordinary organisations into virtual prisons was a significant innovation of Mao's," they write. "Here he went far beyond anything either Hitler or Stalin achieved: he converted people's colleagues into their jailers. . . . He greatly enlarged the number of people directly involved in repression, including torture, making the orbit significantly wider than either Stalin or Hitler, who mostly used secret elites (KGB, Gestapo) that held their victims in separate and unseen locales." Chang and Halliday are determined to pin Mao high in the pantheon of 20th-century villainy.

This massive biography traces Mao's life from his rural origins in Hunan province, detailing his hatred of his father and arguing that from the start he was a "lukewarm believer" in communism. The book contends that Mao grew into a young man without a moral code and obsessed with "upheaval and destruction."

"Mao shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty," Chang and Halliday write. "He explicitly rejected any responsibility towards future generations. . . . Mao did not believe in anything unless he could benefit from it personally." He viewed himself, they write, as one of society's "Great Heroes," who lived by their own rules. In fact, they argue, the young Mao was lazy, hated physical labor, failed when he attempted to learn foreign languages and exhibited no leadership skills.

The middle of the book is devoted to Mao's resistible rise. Chang and Halliday portray Mao as perhaps the most disastrous example ever of the Peter Principle: He fails at everything, and yet, because of his ruthlessness, he is cultivated by Soviet agents and destined for prominence. Chang and Halliday argue that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Mao was a creature of Soviet communism. From the age of 27, they write, he was on the Comintern's payroll.

This point is a significant one. For decades, Western scholars and China buffs -- starting with Edgar Snow -- have sought to emphasize Mao's independence from the Soviet Union. But Chang and Halliday, relying on archival material from Moscow, show that, time and again, Soviet influence, money and weapons saved Mao from his Chinese comrades.

Unfortunately, some of the "scoops" that Chang and Halliday claim for themselves actually belong to others. For example, Chapter Eight focuses on the first bloody purge launched by Mao in Jiangxi province in southern China in 1930, arguing that the purge was "in many ways the formative moment of Maoism" and that it "is still covered up to this day." In fact, in 2000, Gao Hua, a Chinese historian from Nanjing University, published a book in Hong Kong that told this story at length, arguing that the Jiangxi purge created a paradigm for all subsequent Maoist political campaigns. (Gao's work is included in the bibliography, but he is not cited in the text.)

Worse, when Chang and Halliday depart from their Chinese and Soviet sources and engage in historical guesswork, the book borders on the unbelievable. One of their central tenets is that Mao didn't truly love China; rather, he loved power, and therefore the real patriot of 20th-century China was Mao's nemesis, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist Party, who fled to Taiwan in 1949 as the communists seized power. As such, the book downplays the massive corruption that infected Chiang's party and government and turns him into a hero of sorts. The book concocts a fanciful argument that the reason Chiang's troops did not destroy the communists during the Long March and other military campaigns was not incompetence on the part of the Nationalist forces but that Chiang, petrified that Stalin would kill his son if the Nationalists crushed their leftist foes, pulled his troops back.

The latter half of the book is devoted to Mao's years leading China. There again, when the book hews close to original Chinese research, it provides much that will be new to American readers. (For instance, Chang and Halliday make a strong case, contrary to conventional wisdom, that Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, the leader of the notorious Gang of Four who led the Cultural Revolution, rarely if ever acted on her own and was, as she claimed in her 1980 trial for "counter-revolutionary" crimes, nothing but Mao's "dog.") But when it swerves into speculation, the story again breaks down. Take the way the book treats the Great Leap Forward, Mao's disastrous 1958-60 campaign to "surpass Great Britain and catch up to America" that left millions dead of starvation. Chang and Halliday allege that the real cause of the famine was not bad agricultural policies but Mao's obsession with getting the atomic bomb. Mao, the book alleges, exchanged China's harvests for nuclear technology, thereby beggaring the countryside. In fact, there is no strong evidence that China was a major food exporter then.

Chang and Halliday also do not explore the effect Mao has had on Chinese society, choosing instead to end their book by reminding readers that his body and portrait "still dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital." This would be a rich area to probe because Mao's nihilism still exerts a powerful influence on a rising China today.

Chang and Halliday's work is destined to become a classic, but it's a flawed classic. Mao is a great read but not worth believing wholesale. Nonetheless, their central point -- that Mao was a monster and should be remembered as one of history's great villains -- is right on the money. *

John Pomfret was The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief from 1998 to 2003. He is now its Los Angeles bureau chief.

Communist Chinese workers with portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong on National Day, Oct. 1, 1950