The latest of many, many biographies of Mao – Mao, the Unknown Story by Jung Chang – starts with that point, to get us in the mood for the full-frontal iconoclastic view of the great man which is to follow.
Chang is known as the author of Wild Swans, the book which touched millions with its description of how the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s impacted on one family. This new book looks at the same issue from another angle, and goes for the jugular. And why not? The facts justify it.
A driver I know in Shanghai, an ordinary guy who sells pirated DVDs on the side, has a Mao pendant swinging from his rear view mirror. I ask him what he thinks of Mao, and he says: "He was a great man." By which he does not necessary mean a good man. Mao is swinging there in his rear view mirror because the driver recognizes Mao as a man of power and determination. "My god, the damage he caused!" he exclaims as Mao nods away at him. "Generations thrown to waste! What a nightmare!"
Perhaps it is his aura of raw power that explains Chairman Mao's status now as the icon representing the modern Chinese state. China's printed money these days features him alone, the old notes depicting a pantheon of collective communist heroes having been retired, in spite of the fact that everyone agrees Mao made mistakes.
Overall, this biography is readable and wonderfully detailed, including all the little bits that get glossed over in the official version of Mao's life. Much of the detail is pulled from unexpected corners, like quotes from Liu Shaoqi on his death bed as given in an obscure book on Liu's case published in Beijing in 1998, and therefore a credible source. It's true, Mao was ruthless and power-hungry and monomaniacal, and he caused untold destruction and the deaths of many people. The story of the fate of his faithful general, Peng Dehuai, tells it all.
But some of the comments are a bit of a stretch, such as this one, describing Mao in 1926 while on a visit to Hunan: "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."
The fact that Mao was selfish and ruthless also doesn't rule out the possibility that he was simultaneously working for what he believed to be the good of China. In light of such a view, comments like the following from Chang undercut the fundamental truth and balance of the book: "He decided to use the CCP and the Russians for his own ends." Somewhat simplistic, surely.
A key question is, what is the connection between the Communist Party of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party of today. In the 1980s, Fox Butterfield's book Alive in the Bitter Sea addressed this with a quote from an unnamed party official saying that the party contained within it the seeds of constant upheaval – in other words, that it had not fundamentally changed.
In Mao, the Unknown Story , Chang addresses the same question with an epilogue which says in its entirety: "Today, Mao's portrait and his corpse still dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital. The current Communist regime declares itself to be Mao's heir and fiercely perpetuates the myth of Mao."
In the context of this book and all the violence and dictatorial arrogance that it describes, is this fair? No.
Mao, the Unknown Story, by Jung Chang, published by Jonathan Cape. Available on Amazon.com for US$23.10