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Mao: The Unknown Story
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Mao: The Unknown Story

Mao: The Unknown Story is a 2005 biography of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893 1976) written by the husband and wife team of writer Jung Chang and historian Jon Halliday, and depicts Mao as being responsible for more deaths in peacetime than Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

In conducting their research for the book over the course of a decade, the authors interviewed hundreds of people who were close to Mao Zedong at some point in his life, used recently published memoirs from Chinese political figures, and explored newly opened archives in China and Russia. Chang herself lived through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, which she described in her earlier book, Wild Swans.

The book quickly became a best-seller in Europe and North America and received overwhelming praise from reviews in national newspapers. Academic reviews from China specialists were, on the whole, more critical.



Chang and Halliday do not accept the idealistic explanations for Mao's rise to power or common claims for his rule. They argue that from his earliest years he was motivated by a lust for power and that Mao had many political opponents arrested and murdered, including some of his personal friends. During the 1920s and 1930s, they argue, Mao could not have gained control of the party without Stalin's patronage, nor were Mao's decisions during the Long March as heroic and ingenious as Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China claimed and thereby entered the mythology of the revolution. Chiang Kai-shek deliberately did not pursue and capture the Red Army.

Areas under Communist control during the Second United Front and Chinese Civil War, such as the Jiangxi and Yan'an soviets, were ruled through terror and financed by opium. Mao, they say, sacrificed thousands of troops simply in order to get rid of party rivals, such as Chang Kuo-tao, nor did he take the initiative in fighting the Japanese invaders. Despite being born into a peasant family, when Mao came to power in 1949 he had little concern for the welfare of the Chinese peasantry. Mao's determination to use agricultual surplus to subsidize industry and intimidation of dissent led to murderous famines resulting from the Great Leap Forward, exacerbated by allowing the export of grain to continue even when it became clear that China did not have sufficient grain to feed its population.

The Long March

Chang and Halliday argue that the Long March was not the heroic endeavour portrayed by the Chinese Communist Party and that Mao's role in leading it was exaggerated. Officially portrayed as an inspiring commander, the authors write that he was nearly left behind by the March and only commanded a fairly small force. He was apparently disliked by almost all of the people on the March and his tactics and strategy were flawed. They also write that Chiang Kai-shek allowed the Communists to proceed without significant hindrance as his son was being held hostage in Moscow and that he feared he would be killed if the Communists were crushed.

Mao is also portrayed, along with the Communist elite, as a privileged person who was usually carried around in litters and protected from the suffering of his subordinates, rather than sharing their hardship. Despite the high level of casualties amongst ordinary soldiers, supposedly no high-ranking leaders died on the journey, regardless of how ill or badly wounded they were.

The book says that, contrary to revolutionary mythology, there was no battle at Luding Bridge and that tales of a "heroic" crossing against the odds was merely propaganda. Chang found a witness, Li Xiu-zhen, who told her that she saw no fighting and that the bridge was not on fire. In addition, she said that despite claims by the Communists that the fighting was fierce, all of the vanguard survived the battle. Chang also cited Nationalist (Kuomintang) battleplans and communiques that indicated the force guarding the bridge had been withdrawn before the Communists arrived.

A number of historical works, even outside of China, do depict such a battle, though not of such heroic proportions. Harrison E. Salisbury's The Long March: The Untold Story and Charlotte Salisbury's Long March Diary mention a battle at Luding Bridge, but they relied on second-hand information. However, there is disagreement in other sources over the incident. Chinese journalist Sun Shuyun agreed that the official accounts were exaggerated. She interviewed a local blacksmith who had witnessed the event and said that "when [the troops opposing the Red Army] saw the soldiers coming, they panicked and fled their officers had long abandoned them. There wasn't really much of a battle." Archives in Chengdu further supported this claim.[1]

In October 2005, The Age newspaper reported that it had been unable to find Chang's local witness.[2] In addition, The Sydney Morning Herald found an 85-year old eyewitness, Li Guixiu, aged 15 at the time of the crossing, whose account disputed Chang's claims. According to Li, there was a battle: "The fighting started in the evening. There were many killed on the Red Army side. The KMT set fire to the bridge-house on the other side, to try to melt the chains, and one of the chains was cut. After it was taken, the Red Army took seven days and seven nights to cross."[3]

In a speech given at Stanford University, former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski mentioned a conversation that he once had with Deng Xiaoping. He recalled that Deng smiled and said, Well, that s the way it s presented in our propaganda. We needed that to express the fighting spirit of our forces. In fact, it was a very easy military operation." [4]

Opium production

One of the allegations in the book against Mao was that he not just tolerated the production of opium in regions that the Communists controlled during the Chinese Civil War but also participated in the trade of it, in order to provide funding for his soldiers. According to Russian sources that the authors state they found, at the time the trade generated around $60 million a year for the Communists. This was stopped only due to overproduction driving down the price and Communist officials other than Mao deciding that the practice was immoral.

Campaigns against Mao's opponents

Mao is alleged to have exposed men under his command to unnecessary suffering just to eliminate his opponents. Zhang Guotao, a rival in the Politburo, was sent with his army in 1936 on a hopeless mission into the Gobi desert. When it inevitably failed Mao ordered that the survivors be executed.

Chang and Haliday suggest that Mao used other underhanded means in eliminating opponents. Apart from general purges like the Hundred Flowers Campaign and other operations like the Cultural Revolution, he had Wang Ming (another Politburo rival) poisoned twice, who had to seek treatment in Russia.

Sino-Japanese War

Chang and Halliday write that in comparison to official history provided by the Chinese authorities that Communist forces waged a tough guerrilla war against the Imperial Japanese Army, in truth they rarely fought the Japanese. Mao was more interested in saving his forces for fighting against the Chinese Nationalists. On the few occasions that the Communists did fight the Japanese, Mao was very angry.

Communist "sleepers"

Notable members of the KMT were claimed to have been secretly working for the Chinese Communists. One such "sleeper" was Hu Zongnan, a senior National Revolutionary Army general. Hu's son objected to this description and his threat of legal action led Jung Chang's publishers in Taiwan to abandon the release of the book there.[5]

Korean War

Rather than reluctantly entering the conflict as the Chinese government suggests, Mao is alleged to have deliberately entered the Korean War, having promised Chinese troops to Kim Il Sung (then leader of North Korea) before the conflict started. Halliday had previously conducted research into this conflict, publishing his book Korea: The Unknown War.

Number of deaths under Mao

The book opens with the sentence "Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world's population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth century leader." Chang and Halliday claim that he was willing for half of China to die to achieve military-nuclear superpowerdom. Estimates of the numbers of deaths during this period vary, though Chang and Halliday's estimate is one of the highest. Sinologist Stuart Schram, in a review of the book, noted that "the exact figure... has been estimated by well-informed writers at between 40 and 70 million".[6]

China scholars agree that the famine during the Great Leap Forward caused tens of millions of deaths. Chang and Halliday argue that this period accounts for roughly half of the 70 million total. An official estimate by Hu Yaobang in 1980 put the death toll at 20 million, whereas Philip Short in his 2000 book Mao: A Life found 20 to 30 million to be the most credible number. Chang and Halliday's figure is 37.67 million, which historian Stuart Schram indicated that he believes "may well be the most accurate."[7] Yang Jisheng, a Communist party member and former reporter for Xinhua, puts the number of famine deaths at 36 million.[8] In his 2010 book Mao's Great Famine, Hong Kong based historian Frank Dik tter, who has had access to newly opened local archives, places the death toll for the Great Leap Forward at 45 million, and describes it as "one of the most deadly mass killings of human history."[9]

Professor R. J. Rummel published updated figures on worldwide democide in 2005, stating that he believed Chang and Halliday's estimates to be mostly correct and that he had revised his figures for China under Mao accordingly.[10]

Response to the book

Mao: The Unknown Story became a bestseller, with UK sales alone reaching 60,000 in six months.[11] Academics and commentators wrote reviews ranging from great praise[12] to serious criticism.[13] The review aggregator Metacritic report the book received an average score of 64 out of 100, based on 24 reviews from major English-language media press.[14]


The book has received praise from a number of commentators and academic experts. Simon Sebag Montefiore lauded the book in The Times, calling Chang and Halliday's work "a triumph" which "exposes its subject as probably the most disgusting of the bloody troika of 20th-century tyrant-messiahs, in terms of character, deeds and number of victims... This is the first intimate, political biography of the greatest monster of them all the Red Emperor of China."[15]

In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof referred to the book as a "magisterial work". Kristof said that it did a better job demonstrating that Mao was a "catastrophic ruler" than anything else written to date. In his words Mao's "ruthlessness" was "brilliantly captured in this extraordinary book".[16]

Gwynne Dyer praised the book for documenting "Mao's crimes and failures in unrelenting, unprecedented detail" and stated he believed it would eventually have a similar impact in China as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago did in the Soviet Union.[17]

Historian Max Hastings say the book is a "savage indictment, drawing on a host of sources including important Soviet ones, to blow away the miasma of deceit and ignorance which still shrouds Mao's life from many Western eyes." But that its weakness is "it attributes Mao's rise and long rule entirely to repression, and does not explain why so many of his own people remained for so long committed to his insane vision. "[18]

Michael Yahuda, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, also expressed his support in The Guardian. He referred to it a "magnificent book" and "a stupendous work" which cast "new and revealing light on nearly every episode in Mao's tumultuous life."[19]

Professor Richard Baum of the University of California, Los Angeles said that "it has to be taken very seriously as the most thoroughly researched and richly documented piece of synthetic scholarship yet to appear on the rise of Mao and the CCP." Though it was "not a sufficiently rich or nuanced interpretive scaffolding to support the full weight of the Chinese experience under Mao," Baum still believed that "this book will most likely change forever the way modern Chinese history is understood and taught."[20]

Stuart Schram, while criticizing certain aspects of Mao: The Unknown Story, argued in a review in The China Quarterly that Chang and Halliday's book was "a valuable contribution to our understanding of Mao and his place in history."[21]

Perry Link, then a Princeton University Professor of Chinese literature, praised the book in The Times Literary Supplement and emphasized the effect the book could have in the West.

"Part of Chang and Halliday's passion for exposing the 'unknown' Mao is clearly aimed at gullible Westerners..... For decades many in the Western intellectual and political elites have assumed that Mao and his heirs symbolize the Chinese people and their culture, and that to show respect to the rulers is the same as showing respect to the subjects. Anyone who reads Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's book should be inoculated against this particular delusion. If the book sells even half as many copies as the 12 million of Wild Swans, it could deliver the coup de grace to an embarrassing and dangerous pattern of Western thinking."[22]


Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University published an extensive evaluation of the book in the London Review of Books. While he was complimentary of the book in some respects noting for example that it "shows special insight into the suffering of Mao s wives and children" and acknowledged that it might make real contributions to the field, Nathan's review was largely negative. He noted that "many of their discoveries come from sources that cannot be checked, others are openly speculative or are based on circumstantial evidence, and some are untrue."[23] Similarly, Professor Jonathan Spence of Yale University argued in the New York Review of Books that the authors' single focus on Mao's vileness had undermined "much of the power their story might have had."[24]


Chang and Halliday's book has been strongly criticized by a number of academic experts. While not denying that Mao was "a monster," as one article on the debate over the book phrased it, a number of scholars specialising in modern Chinese history and politics questioned the factual accuracy of some of Chang and Halliday's conclusions, pointed out their selective use of evidence, and called into question their objectivity, among other criticisms.[11]

David S. G. Goodman, Professor of Contemporary China Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, wrote a sharply critical review of Chang and Halliday's book in The Pacific Review. He suggested that there is an implied argument in Mao: The Unknown Story that there has been "a conspiracy of academics and scholars who have chosen not to reveal the truth." Goodman also argued that the style of writing was "extremely polemic" and was highly critical of Chang and Halliday's methodology and use of sources as well as several of their specific conclusions.[25]

Professor Thomas Bernstein of Columbia University referred to the book as "... a major disaster for the contemporary China field..." because the "scholarship is put at the service of thoroughly destroying Mao's reputation. The result is an equally stupendous number of quotations out of context, distortion of facts and omission of much of what makes Mao a complex, contradictory, and multi-sided leader."[3]

A detailed examination of Mao: The Unknown Story was published in the January 2006 issue of the The China Journal. Professors Gregor Benton (Cardiff University) and Steve Tsang (University of Oxford) argued that the book "misread sources, use them selectively, use them out of context, or otherwise trim or bend them to cast Mao in an unrelentingly bad light."[26]

Timothy Cheek (University of British Columbia) argued in his review that "Chang and Halliday's book is not a history in the accepted sense of a reasoned historical analysis," rather it "reads like an entertaining Chinese version of a TV soap opera."[27]

In 2009, Gregor Benton and Lin Chun edited Was Mao Really a Monster: The Academic Response to Chang and Halliday s "Mao: The Unknown Story", which compiles fourteen previously-published academic responses, most of which are highly critical. Benton and Lin wrote that "unlike the worldwide commercial media... most professional commentary has been disapproving." [28] Mobo Gao, Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide, wrote that The Unknown Story was "intellectually scandalous", and characterised it by saying that it "it misinterprets evidence, ignores the existing literature, and makes sensationalist claims without proper evidence."[29]

Authors' response to criticism

In December 2005, an article by The Observer newspaper on the book contained a brief statement from Chang and Halliday in regards to the general criticism.[30] The authors said that "the academics' views on Mao and Chinese history cited represent received wisdom of which we were well aware while writing our biography of Mao. We came to our own conclusions and interpretations of events through a decade's research." The authors also responded to Andrew Nathan's review in a letter to The London Review of Books.[31]

English language publication

Cover of the American edition
Cover of the American edition

Mao: The Unknown Story was on the Sunday Times bestseller list at number 2, in July 2005.

Chinese language publication

  • Publisher: Open Magazine Publishing (Hong Kong)

See also


External links

ko: : nl:Mao, het onbekende verhaal ja: no:Mao: The Unknown Story pt:Mao: A Hist ria desconhecida ru: sv:Mao: den sanna historien zh:

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