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Weekly Alibi One Hundred Flowers Wilt

By Steven Robert Allen

FEBRUARY 14, 2000: 

Mao Zedong by Jonathan Spence (Viking), hardcover, $19.95

A peasant from the province of Hunan, Mao Zedong's education was sporadic, his talents unexceptional, his intellect far from noteworthy. Yet if this is the case, how did he come to be regarded as the "Great Helmsman, great teacher, great leader, and the Red, Red sun" shining brightly in the hearts of the Chinese masses? How did Mao become the center of a cult of personality of such gargantuan proportions that his image was enshrined in every household, on every street corner, on the side of every Beijing taxi? If Mao's political theories could at best be described as hopelessly simple-minded, why was the "Thought of Mao" offered as the guiding force of the nation in the preamble to the original constitution of the People's Republic of China?

These are not easy questions to answer. Jonathan Spence's biography explains Mao's rise to power as being in part due to luck, in part to Mao's personal charisma, in part to his sly instincts regarding the spirit of his times, and in part to his almost insane love for societal disorder and disruption. This last trait allowed Mao to claw his way to the top during one of the most tumultuous periods in Chinese history.

As a young man, Mao's political ideas often seemed noble, even democratic. In his first political writings, for example, he had regularly called for autonomy and self-rule for Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims. But a certain appalling arrogance and hypocrisy were present in his character from the beginning. Mao may have said that an ability to accept criticism of oneself was the essence of wisdom. He may also have said, "Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend." But when the communists took control of China, the only flower allowed to bloom was Mao's own megalomania. When intellectuals and critics spoke out against his policies, as they were at first encouraged to do, they were quickly condemned as "poisonous weeds" and banned from all positions of power.

Except for a couple of visits to the Soviet Union, Mao never traveled outside of China and consequently had little real knowledge of the way other cultures or societies functioned. As the years passed, Mao became even more isolated from reality. Starting in the late 1950s, he began traveling in a specially equipped train, surrounded at all times by personal assistants and bodyguards. During these years he became cut off from the real lives of the common folk he claimed to cherish. Because of his famous impetuous temper and extraordinary egotism, even his friends and family were afraid to criticize him. It was in this environment that Mao's egotism and isolation grew.

His lack of connection to the real world made the Great Leap Forward possible. The end result of this forced collectivization of industry and agriculture was mass famine and the deaths of at least 20 million people. Yet such was the power of Mao's public persona that he remained beloved by millions. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s took the Maoist cult to astonishing heights as a new generation of fanatics wreaked terror on the nation with interrogations, incarcerations, torture, book bannings and a general hysterical desire to route out "counter revolutionaries."

Jonathan Spence is a professor of history at Yale University. He's written 11 books on Chinese history, including The Gate of Heavenly Peace and The Death of Woman Wang. This biography does a fine job of sketching the trajectory and key events of Mao's career.

What the biography does not do is penetrate the sticky membrane of Mao's mysterious personality. Spence cannot be faulted for this. Following Mao's rise to power, Chinese historians, under the direction of communist authorities, began rewriting history to recast Mao as the primary force behind the Chinese Revolution. Consequently, the historical record has been irretrievably ruined, and a clear picture of Mao Zedong is now difficult to discern through the smoke of decades. Even though contemporary historians from both China and the West have pieced together a rough mosaic from Mao's early writings, poems, drafts of major speeches and personal letters, a complete portrait of the man may never be possible.

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