Mao: 'The Great Poet And Visionary'

Orrin Judd links to a profile that appears in The Australian of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, who have a new history of Mao Tsetung coming out this fall:

“I wanted to get inside his head and understand him because he dominated my life and ruined things for a quarter of the world’s population,” [Chung] says.”We thought it would take about two years but as we dug deeper — like a pair of detectives — we discovered more and more. We were so constantly surprised [that] we kept going. He killed more people than anyone in history and was as evil as Hitler or Stalin, yet it is astonishing how little the world knows about him.”

Mao’s portrait still hangs over Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where government leaders proudly present themselves as his heirs, and Western politicians, from Kissinger to former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, who were so thrilled to visit Mao, have still failed to understand his ghastly nature, she says.

“This is the greatest mass murderer in history, a man we calculate killed at least 70 million people and was prepared to let many, many more die if necessary to pursue his mad policies.”


But. You just know the B-word is coming. And sure enough, it appears in a defense of Mao, later in the article:

Philip Short, a British author and journalist who published a book on Mao in 1999, says that Chang and Halliday have come close to a hatchet job. Speaking by telephone from northeastern China, where he is lecturing and conducting further research on Mao, Short says it does nobody any good to exaggerate the obvious monstrosities of Mao.”I fear this is a case of writing history to fit their own views; doing what the Chinese call cutting the feet to fit the shoes,” Short says.

“Mao was ruthless and tyrannical enough in real life that there’s no need to reduce him to a cardboard cut-out of Satan. Do we really gain in understanding by denying his complexity, his perversity, his genius and reducing him to a one-dimensional caricature?

“Mao was a tyrant, but [also] much more than that. He was the reverse of a one-dimensional man. He was a great poet, a visionary and, I would argue, a military strategist of genius. He had great skills and enormous failings. Let’s not oversimplify and pretend he was just a monster.

As Orrin sardonically writes, “Surely we can all agree that his poetry redeems him. Just like with Hitler’s paintings”.

This part of Short’s defense of Mao is particularly amusing in a grim sort of way:

The handling of the Great Famine was atrocious but it was not just Mao who cooked it up; almost every other Chinese leader was enthusiastically involved in it. It was not just one man who caused all this pain.


Get that? It’s a weird inversion of the Nazis’ “I was just following orders” defense at Nuremberg. Mao was giving the orders–but hey, so many others were following them. It was the law of the land, the conventional wisdom. And that makes it OK, right? Who are we to judge?!

Let’s reword Short’s defense of Mao to see how it would look with a more occidental flavor:

The Final Solution was atrocious but it was not just Hitler who cooked it up; almost every other German leader was enthusiastically involved in it. It was not just one man who caused all this pain.

Or, let’s take it to the Russian T-for-terror room:

The handling of the Great Famine was atrocious but it was not just Stalin who cooked it up; almost every other Soviet leader was enthusiastically involved in it. It was not just one man who caused all this pain.

Doesn’t quite fly, does it? Hitler and Stalin are seen by most civilized people as the pair of 20th century monsters they were. Hopefully Chang and Halliday’s book will help cement Mao’s atrocities into most people’s minds as equally well.

Update: As I was assembling the links for this post, the speech by Anne Applebaum in this link that also appears under Stalin’s name in the paragraph above helps to explain one of the reasons why Mao’s name is often ignorned when discussing the 20th century’s biggest murderers:


Until recently, it was possible to explain this absence of popular feeling about the tragedy of European communism in the West as the logical result of a particular set of circumstances. The passage of time is part of it: Communist regimes really did grow less reprehensible as the years went by. Nobody was very frightened of General Jaruzelski, or even of Brezhnev, although both were responsible for a great deal of destruction. Besides, archives were closed. Access to camp sites was forbidden. No television cameras ever filmed the Soviet camps or their victims, as they had done in Germany at the end of the Second World War. No images, in turn, meant that the subject, in our image-driven culture, didn’t really exist either.

Long before there was a History Channel, I remember when I was growing up, The World At War seemed to be on TV at least once a week, with its endless images of Hitler and the Final Solution and Olivier’s baritone narration. Similarly, the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s reminded us of how evil Stalin was. But how often does TV run anything on Mao? And when they do, it’s usually benign-appearing videotape of him meeting Nixon. To borrow Applebaum’s sentence about Stalin, no images means that the subject–in this case, Mao’s great famines and other horrors–in our image-driven culture, don’t really exist.


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