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Mao: The Unknown Story

(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 814 pp.

by

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

The twentieth century was undoubtedly the bloodiest and most lethal known to man. One need only think of the two world wars, the Holocaust, the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, just to mention a few.

I’ve heard numerous debates as to who was the most barbaric of those latter three. Hitler’s evil exploits hardly need to be rehearsed. Stalin was responsible for more than 30 million deaths (that’s probably a conservative estimate) in Russia, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge eradicated over 2 million people. Although the latter may not sound like much, let’s not forget that the entire population of Cambodia at the time was approximately 10 million (that’s one in every five people he is responsible for killing!).

Often overlooked in this hall of shame is Mao Tse-Tung, born on December 26, 1893 (he died in 1976). The failure of the west in the first half of this century to grasp the extent of Mao’s barbarism was due, in small part, to a book by Edgar Snow, Red Star over China (1938), in which this American journalist painted a somewhat flattering picture of both Mao and other Chinese Communist leaders.

That picture is shattered in the pages of the newest biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday entitled, Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).I’ve not finished this massive work but hope to soon, yet I’ve read enough to think it warrants recommendation. If you are unable to read all of its 814 pages you might consider taking a look at an excellent review of it in the November 3rd edition of The New York Review of Books (the article is by Jonathan Spence), or by reading today’s (10-20-05) commentary by Al Mohler at http://www.albertmohler.com/.

The opening line of the book captures the essence of its content: “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” (3). That’s right: 70 million deaths!

This book by Chang and Halliday is the result of over a decade of research and careful analysis of previously unavailable archives and personal interviews with people who knew Mao intimately. In fact, there are thirteen pages in the back of the book listing those consulted for this book: family and relatives of Mao, old friends and colleagues, close staff (including secretaries, interpreters, bodyguards, household and medical staff, as well as numerous girlfriends), families of Mao’s colleagues, staff of other Chinese Communist leaders, not to mention dozens of key eyewitnesses to the major events of the twentieth century.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing insights of the authors is their conclusion that Mao was not driven primarily by idealism or ideology. He was not an especially intellectual man and his personal habits were quite revolting. What characterized Mao most vividly was his passion for violence. In reading portions of this biography of Mao I was reminded of something I read about Stalin. It was said of him that he believed every human problem could be solved by death. In other words, whatever the dilemma, whatever the obstacle, it could most likely be overcome by killing someone. Mao carried this philosophy to the extreme.

Spence cites one passage in the book where the authors describe Mao’s love of violence:

“What really happened [when Mao was ordered by his superiors in 1927 to foment rural revolution in his own province of Hunan] was that Mao discovered in himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery. This gut enjoyment, which verged on sadism, meshed with, but preceded, his affinity for Leninist violence. Mao did not come to violence via theory. The propensity sprang from his character, and was to have a profound impact on his future methods of rule” (23).

This is as frightening as it is stunning. Mao was evidently driven to massive acts of violence and torture and death, not because of some settled conviction or belief, but because he enjoyed it. Violence was less a political means to an established goal than a way of satisfying his perverse delight in seeing others suffer.

Of course, that isn’t to say that Mao didn’t have political goals. World domination is a fairly lofty aim, by anyone’s standard! Among the countless passages in this book that describe Mao’s character (or obvious lack thereof), one is cited by Spence that best captures Mao’s approach to life and leadership in China:

“What Mao had in mind was a completely arid society, devoid of civilization, deprived of representation of human feelings, inhabited by a herd with no sensibility, which would automatically obey his orders [by the way, Mao toyed more than once with the idea of eliminating human personal names and identifying people only by a number]. He wanted the nation to be brain-dead in order to carry out his big purge – and to live in this state permanently. In this he was more extreme than Hitler or Stalin, as Hitler allowed apolitical entertainment, and Stalin preserved the classics” (24).

It’s breathtaking to think of the contrasts between, on the one hand, Mao’s brutal and unspeakable tyranny and, on the other, the widespread revival that is currently sweeping China. Reports have it that as many as 25,000 people a day are coming to faith in Christ all across China. I have no way of knowing if there is any connection between these two phenomena, but perhaps the decades of political, cultural, and religious oppression tilled the soil in which, by God’s providential grace, the seeds of spiritual awakening have now sprouted.

Such indeed are the mysteries of divine sovereignty, that the God who, according to Daniel 2:21, “removes kings and sets up kings” (yes, even “kings” like Mao Tse-Tung) can bring life where once there was only death. Let us not forget that Daniel said this while he and vast numbers of his fellow Israelites languished in exile under the tyranny of Nebuchadnezzar! Daniel rebuked Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar, with the reminder that “God gave . . . your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty. . . . And whom he would, he killed, and whom he would, he kept alive; whom he would, he raised up, and whom he would, he humbled” (Daniel 5:19). It was Nebuchadnezzar’s failure to acknowledge “that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will” (5:21) that led to his judgment (see Daniel 4).

Why God would “set up” someone such as Mao over such a vast empire and permit him to rule as long as he did is beyond my ability to fathom. But I am confident of this, both that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1), and that “those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [will receive] wrath and fury” (Romans 2:8).

So, do two things: first, read this book (if you have the time and energy); and second, pray for the church in China (take the time, and God will give you the energy).