Mao: The Real Story, by Alexander V. Pantsov & Steven I. Levine. Simon & Schuster 2012. 784 pages. ISBN: 1451654472; 9781451654479.
Mao Zedong was one of the most important figures of the twentieth century, the most important in the history of modern China. A complex figure, he was champion of the poor and brutal tyrant, poet and despot.
Pantsov and Levine show Mao’s relentless drive to succeed, vividly describing his growing role in the nascent Communist Party of China. They disclose startling facts about his personal life, particularly regarding his health and his lifelong serial affairs with young women. They portray him as the loyal Stalinist that he was, who never broke with the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death.
Mao brought his country from poverty and economic backwardness into the modern age and onto the world stage. But he was also responsible for an unprecedented loss of life. The disastrous Great Leap Forward with its accompanying famine and the bloody Cultural Revolution were Mao’s creations. Internationally Mao began to distance China from the USSR under Khrushchev and shrewdly renewed relations with the U.S. as a counter to the Soviets. He lived and behaved as China’s last emperor.
Alexander V. Pantsov is a professor of history at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Born in Moscow, Pantsov graduated from Moscow State University Institute of Asian and African Studies in 1978. He has published more than ten books, among them The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919-1927.
Steven I. Levine is Senior Research Associate at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Levine has published extensively in the fields of modern Chinese politics and foreign policy as well as American-East Asian relations.
“Mao’s will for power, his vision as a revolutionary, and his prodigious capacity for cruelty marked mankind. Yet it is impossible to understand the transformation of modern China without absorbing the enormity of one man’s impact. Pantsov and Levine have opened what are perhaps the final vaults of archival treasures to buttress their new and engrossing portrait of the Chinese revolutionary titan. With clear narrative and sparkling anecdote, they have chiseled a more complete Mao, in the full dimension of life as a man, as an eager collaborator with Stalin in the Communist bloc and as the tiger on the mountain who both built and ravaged a nation.” — Patrick Tyler, former Beijing Bureau Chief of The New York Times and author of A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China
“Here finally is Mao in the round: vigorous, idealistic, deluded, and ultimately evil–the full human being in rich personal and political detail. The widest possible use of Chinese sources provides deep insight into Mao’s family, colleagues, and rivals and illuminates the dilemmas he faced and the strategies he chose. New materials from the Soviet archives enrich our understanding of Mao’s formative relationship with Stalin.” — Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University
“Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine’s vividly written and highly authoritative biography, steeped in previously inaccessible Soviet archival sources, forever banishes the myth that Mao’s revolution succeeded as if the Russians had never come.”– Alice Miller, research fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University
“A comprehensive, authoritative new study that challenges the received wisdom regarding Mao’s relationship with Stalin and the Soviet Union… The Great Helmsman fully fleshed, still complicated and ever provocative.”– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Definitive.”– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Definitive… Thick with detail, this book sets a high bar for future Mao biographers.”– Booklist (starred review)
“China scholars now will have to reassess every element of Mao’s career… More important than Pantsov and Levine’s scholarly chops, however, is that they spin a balanced and utterly compelling story larded with telling and often newly uncovered anecdotes about Mao’s family, wives, comrades, rivals, and victims. The common sense of the authors’ judgments on Mao’s crimes and achievements builds on their insights into Mao’s complex personality (and, yes, sex life). One of the most important China books of recent years and a page-turner, too.” — Library Journal (starred review)
MYTHS AND REALITIES
Historical figures merit objective biographies. Yet the challenge of writing such biographies is daunting even under the best of circumstances. The biographer must pursue a seemingly endless trail of published and unpublished sources, often in a variety of languages, exhaust the contents of numerous archives, winnow truth and fact from rumor and falsehood, strike the right balance between the public persona and the private person, and judge the wisdom and folly of the subject over the span of a lifetime. Such difficulties are multiplied when the subject of the biography is the leader of a closed society that jealously guards its secrets. This is certainly the case with Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China. But now, more than thirty-five years after his death in 1976, with the release of important new documents from China and exclusive access to major archives in the former Soviet Union, a clearer, more nuanced, more complete portrait of the most important Chinese leader in modern times can be drawn. That is the aim of this biography.
To be sure, Mao has been the subject of numerous biographies in Western languages since the American journalist Edgar Snow first wrote down Mao’s life story just past its midpoint, in July 1936. A year later Snow published that story as the centerpiece of Red Star Over China, an influential book that helped shape history and remains in print to this day. For what it tells about the lineage of Western-language Mao biographies—a lineage from which our own biography significantly departs—it is worth relating why that encounter between the guerrilla commander cum leader of the Chinese Communist Party and the young American reporter took place.
Already a well-known journalist by the mid-1930s, Snow was extremely sympathetic to the Chinese communist movement, although he was not a Marxist. Among the mainstream media for which he wrote, including the New York Herald Tribune, Foreign Affairs, and the Saturday Evening Post, he enjoyed a reputation for being independent-minded, unlike many other leftist reporters in China, who openly paraded their pro-communist views.
It was precisely this reputation that attracted the attention of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, including Mao Zedong. They intended to make use of the thirty-one-year-old American to improve their public image and expand their political influence. Snow had his own reasons for seeking out Mao. An ambitious journalist with an instinct for the big story, he jumped at the opportunity for a sensational scoop. Each man intended to use the other for his own purposes. Snow arrived in Baoan, in northern Shaanxi province, on July 13, 1936, just two days after Mao Zedong himself set up camp in that remote and desolate town. Mao was fleeing from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, head of the National Government and the leader of the Nationalist Party (the Guomindang, or GMD), whose forces had inflicted a serious defeat on the Chinese Red Army.
Mao granted Snow’s request for a series of interviews, in which he first spoke at length about his childhood and youth before outlining his career as a communist revolutionary. The communists had made a shrewd choice picking Snow. The impressionable American came to view Mao as a wise philosopher-king, Lincolnesque in appearance, perspicacious, easygoing, and self-confident. “He certainly believed in his own star and destiny to rule,” Snow recalled.1 Transcribing Mao’s monologue into his notebook during long nights in the candlelit cave where they met, Snow was sooner Mao’s amanuensis than a critical journalist. Once his mission was accomplished, Snow returned to Beijing with his precious notes and began working on the manuscript that became Red Star Over China.
Just as Mao and Snow had hoped, Red Star Over China created a sensation, particularly among liberal intellectuals and leftists in the West. Its intimate portrayal of Mao as a romantic revolutionary struck a sympathetic chord with Western readers disillusioned with the austere figure of an increasingly authoritarian Chiang Kai-shek. Snow’s pioneering work set the tone for many subsequent books by authors who were equally or even more sympathetic in their depictions of Mao. There was only one major point on which these later works differed from Snow’s. While Snow viewed Mao as a faithful follower of Soviet Marxism, other writers asserted that as early as the late 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao’s leadership had become autonomous and self-reliant. According to this view, Mao, an independent thinker and actor, had basically distanced himself from Moscow, unlike the dogmatic Chinese Stalinists whom he had bested in intraparty struggles. Mao stood tall; he was his own man, an authentic Chinese revolutionary, not Stalin’s stooge. This was Mao’s main attraction for authors trying to explain the Chinese revolution to American readers.
As early as the late 1940s and early 1950s, leading American China scholars including John King Fairbank, Benjamin I. Schwartz, Conrad Brandt, and Robert North propounded what became the classical formulation about Mao’s “independence,” both with respect to his relations with Stalin and his views of China.2 They wrote that Stalin mistrusted Mao and considered him a “peasant nationalist” rather than a communist. Furthermore, the upsurge of the Chinese revolution in the countryside under the leadership of Mao seemed to disprove the orthodox Marxist view regarding the “historic role” of the working class. China’s “peasant revolution” was the opening act in what promised to be a dramatic era of peasant revolutions throughout the postcolonial world. After the split between the Soviet and Chinese communist parties in the early 1960s, Russian and Chinese authors followed a similar line.
Meanwhile, Mao underwent a permutation from down-to-earth revolutionary commander into what one biographer in the early 1960s called the “emperor of the blue ants,” in reference to the blue clothing all Chinese wore.3 After proclaiming the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, Mao moved into the Forbidden City in Beijing, the former imperial quarters. As the cult of his personality developed in the following years, he became inaccessible except to his close colleagues and members of his entourage. His public appearances were carefully stage-managed and his interviews and pronouncements assumed an increasingly Delphic character. The Western-language biographies of Mao published during his lifetime, including the best one, by the prominent China scholar Stuart R. Schram in 1967,4 were constructed largely on the basis of published Communist Party documents; Mao’s published writings, speeches, and statements; impressions of foreigners who had been granted audiences with Mao; a few memoirs by political acquaintances and adversaries; and a variety of other scattered sources. The thesis of Mao’s independence and creative adaptation of Marxism to Chinese circumstances continued to occupy center stage.
At first glance, this thesis seems well-founded. Until the end of 1949, Mao never visited Moscow even once, and Stalin did not know him personally. At the same time, negative reports calling Mao “anti-Leninist” and accusing him of the cardinal sin of “Trotskyism” regularly reached the Kremlin from various sources of information inside and outside the Chinese Communist Party. Thus Khrushchev’s assertion that Stalin considered Mao a “cave Marxist” appears logical.5 In the late 1950s, after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party condemned Stalinism, Mao himself often recalled that he sensed Stalin’s mistrust of him.6
On closer inspection, however, the received wisdom regarding Mao’s relationship to Stalin and the Soviet Union turns out to be wrong. In reality, as newly available Soviet and Chinese archives reveal, Mao was a faithful follower of Stalin who took pains to reassure the Boss of his loyalty and who dared to deviate from the Soviet model only after Stalin’s death.
This revelation is one of many reasons why a thorough reassessment of Mao is warranted. The truth has long reposed in the secret archives of the CCP, the Soviet Communist Party, and the Communist International (Comintern). Only recently have these archives become available, in whole or in part. The most interesting of innumerable revelations regarding Mao’s policies, outlook, and personal life are contained in unpublished documents regarding Mao, his enemies, and his friends, preserved in the former Central Party Archive of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow. The Bolsheviks began to organize the archive shortly after the October Revolution of 1917. From the very beginning its main task was to collect documents not only on the history of the Bolshevik party, but also on the history of the international labor and communist movements. After the liquidation of the Comintern in 1943, all of its documentary collections were transferred to the Central Party Archive. In the 1950s the archives of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) were also deposited there. Finally, in June 1999, the former Communist Youth League Archives were merged into the collection. Today these consolidated archives are known as the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History. A brief survey of the contents of these archives highlights their importance as a source of new information that we have thoroughly mined for this biography of Mao Zedong.
First, they are the biggest depository of documents in the world on the international communist move…