September saw the 30th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong and with it an expected dose of official solemnity. In the run up to the big day there was also the release and re-release of a number of books chronicling the life and times of one of the 20th century’s most influential figures.
Needless to say, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story, which has run the gauntlet of critical praise turned academic scorn since its publication last summer, was not among them.
The Unknown Story makes bold claims for itself: no less than dishing ALL the dirt on Mao, from his teens to his deathbed, and revealing what it describes as unique new insights into a deeply treacherous political and personal life.
Before this sweeping history, Chang was best known for Wild Swans, a best-selling account of three generations of her family living and suffering through China’s turbulent 20th century. The Unknown History received the same raptuous response.
Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times Book Review, said it was a "magnificent biography … a magisterial work". The Observer’s Roy Hattersley declared it "unequalled throughout modern history". "The expectation (that she would rewrite modern Chinese history) [has been] justified," added Chris Patten in The Times.
A breathless tone was set.
Since then, however, a fascinating turnaround has ensued. Chang and Halliday have found themselves on the losing side of a battle to shore up the accuracy of their book against attacks from China scholarship luminaries such as Jonathan Spence, Andrew Nathan and many others.
Too many of the book’s revelations rely on imaginative inference or cause-and-effect suppositions based on chains that collapse if a single link is false, they say.
One of the most thorough and scathing set of reviews was published in Australia’s The China Journal earlier this year.
"[Chang and Halliday] trim and bend [sources] to cast Mao in an unrelentingly bad light ? important claims are controverted by the evidence. [The book] does not represent a reliable contribution to our understanding of Mao or twentieth-century China," wrote Gregor Benton and Steve Tsang on the book’s early chapters.
Timothy Cheek, reviewing the chapters covering 1940-1949, found "a distorted and unprofessional refusal to take account of contrary information".
Most recently, Hong Kong’s Kaifang magazine reported that Yuanliu Publishing in Taiwan had aborted its translation of the book into Chinese on the eve of publication. This is reportedly over serious unease with one of Chang and Halliday’s more extravagant claims – that senior KMT official Hu Tsung-nan was a Red agent, a jump of logic already undermined by Benton and Tsang in The China Journal.
What are we to make of such opposing views? Perhaps the most hopeful outcome is that China has to be taken more seriously by the world of commercial publishing.
In that, as in so many other areas, the PRC is becoming more like other countries. Higher standards of research and accuracy must apply in future, verified by people with expertise and training.
"Know your author" might be the motto. In Chang’s case, the shadows of what her family endured in the Cultural Revolution loom large, resulting in voluminous detail being undermined by a lack of objectivity in its application.
"One must ask whether a vengeful spirit serves either author or reader well, especially in the creation of a mass market work that would claim authority and dominance in the study of Mao Zedong and his history," wrote scholar Geremie Barme.
When it comes to a publishing environment where there is freedom of the press, where there are serious legal consequences for rash or reckless treatment of the reputations of real people and families – as is developing in Taiwan – the book appears to fall short of this crucial yardstick.
Time appears to be no healer, for author or reader.