Review of “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Someday, an incredible "life and times" of Mao will be written. This is not that book, but when that book is written, it will draw heavily from this book.

Chang and Halliday present a portrait of Mao that remains unsatisfying because Mao comes across as unbelievably evil and petty. I do not mean to suggest that Mao was not unbelievably evil and petty, however there must have been more to his character than evil and pettiness. Mao, after all, did run the world’s most populous country for a long time. He also managed to get a lot of people (e.g. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger) say a lot of nice things about him.

Chang and Halliday portray Maoist China as a Soviet creation. Someone may not have lost China, but the Soviets definitely won it. This telling helps one to understand the Sino-Soviet split. The Sino-Soviet relationship was clear while Stalin was still in power – Stalin was in charge. However, when Stalin died, the form of the relationship became unclear. There was less of a direct Sino-Soviet split, following the death of Stalin, than there was a jockeying for position as head of international Communism between Khrushchev and Mao.

Chang and Halliday estimate that Mao was responsible for 70 million deaths. That number certainly seems believable. According to their telling, Mao wanted advanced weaponry. All China had to offer (the Soviets) for such weaponry was food. Unfortunately, China didn’t produce a lot of excess food. So, Mao confiscated food to exchange for weaponry, resulting in mass starvation. If Mao could starve a few more Chinese peasants to increase his weapons knowledge or his international prestige among the Communist Party, he would do so.

Another interesting part of the story relates to the Korean War. In the book, the Korean War was portrayed as a war run by the Russians and fought by the Chinese. Paging General MacArthur . . .

Marshall comes under fire for his involvement in the Chinese Civil War as well implicitly at the end of the Korean War. Marshall intervenes at a very key time to virtually ensure that Chiang Kai-Shek loses (and Mao wins). Chang and Halliday don’t really offer an explanation for Marshall’s apparent screw up.

Nixon and Kissinger also look like buffoons near the end of the story for supplicating to Mao for no apparent reason.

Chang and Halliday portray Mao as someone whose regime ended the day he died. Mao did not choose his successor and if he could have chosen his successor, he would not have chosen Deng. In fact, Mao had done terrible things to Deng and his family. Mao’s successors have maintained the myth of Mao (like Caesar maintained the Roman Senate), but departed from his style of leadership.


7 Responses to Review of “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

  1. spandrell says:

    Chinese authors in general have a big problem with objectivity. You can read pure sycophancy, or raging hate, but not often you see a Chinese intellectual writing a detached, objective narrative about any political issue.

    Of course there is much to hate about Mao, but yet again she could have written a better sourced, more objective narrative of the disaster that Mao was for China. It is a very bad book. I have the feeling that Chang’s husband is some sort of missionary with an agenda against the CCP.

    Again, I wonder what does Moldbug think about having millions of peasants killed in exchange for the political stability that nuclear weapons gave China. Mao is still universally praised for getting the nuclear deterrent.

  2. Handle says:

    Given the history of the lengths to which ruthless regimes will go to acquire nuclear weapons, upon what possible basis can anyone even pretend to believe that some mild economic sanctions – themselves dependent on enforcing an impossible degree of global consensus and cooperation – will dissuade the Iranians in their efforts?

    And when the Mullahs get their bomb every other envious regime in the world will learn the lesson of what a tiny and temporary price one has to pay these days to acquire such a weapon. And gradually they all will. Time to buy Uranium futures?

  3. Tschafer says:

    I would imagine that it’s about as hard for a Chinese to write an objective book about Mao as it would be for a Jew to write an objective book about Hitler, for obvious reasons. Of course, I have no doubt that what Chang wrote was true, but it can’t be the whole truth – I mean, Mao must have had something on the ball to run China for so many years, and I personally find it hard to believe that ALL of Chiang Kai Shek’s generals were traitors. In fact, historians are coming to believe that Chiang was actually a pretty good leader – which makes Mao’s triumph over the KMT all the more impressive. But there’s no doubt that Mao was the bloodiest of the twentieth Century’s dark triad of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and I can hardly blam Chang and Halliday for hating his guts.

    • Spandrell says:

      The analogy is not fair. The problem with moderns is that genocides are thought to be a matter of numbers. It is not, Chinese leaders have been butchering their own peasants for millenia. Whole provinces have been emptied and ‘refilled’ with peasants from other lands. It is pretty standard. The problem with Mao is that he lived in a time where population densities are greater.

      You must understand Chinese leaders with a Chinese perspective. Mao was a terrible leader, but he unified the country, with pure terror, but he did it nonetheless. Even Deng Xiaoping said something like “Doesn’t matter what Mao did wrong, Mao won the war. Without Mao, there is no Commuinst party, none of us would be here”.

  4. Allan says:

    I read the Chang Halliday book
    and I found it quite good
    certainly it is a useful antidote
    to the many sycophantic books
    which were and still are being written.

    If Mao had any positive qualities
    maybe someone here could mention what they were.

    I don’t know what they might have been
    unless the ability to acquire power
    by brutal and devious means
    is to be regarded
    in a positive light.

    I was amused to read
    that Mao’s major Communist rival
    for leadership
    eventually converted to Christianity
    and ended his days in a rest home
    in Scarborough Ontario.

  5. filey360 says:


    […]Review of “Mao: The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday « Foseti[…]…

  6. […] Marshall next took interest in the Chinese Civil War between the forces of Chiang and Mao which was going on during China’s war with Japan. The US was allied with China and was arming China in its struggle against the Japanese. Here Marshall insisted that aid would only go to China if it suspended its civil war (Mao was delighted, as I’ve noted elsewhere). […]

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