I feel as though I come to this biography from a different route than many others. I would imagine that most people who pick up 'Mao: The Unknown Story' are probably already familiar with 'Wild Swans' - Jung Chang's bestselling family autobiography that sold over ten million copies and became a worldwide sensation. However, when I first bought 'Mao' (studying post world war II China in A-Level meant that I had to buy the biography, despite the dread that having to read such an enormous book inspired in me!) I had no idea that Chang was already such a well-known author.
The first thing to note about 'Mao' is it's sheer readability. Coming from a person who, if confronted with any other biography (political or otherwise) of this size, would run a mile in the other direction, I could not put it down; it is an absolutely riveting read. Being a history graduate, I have read many a dry, dull, and leaden history book in my time, ones which I almost had to prop my eyelids open with toothpicks to read without falling asleep. This is none such book. Not once did I feel as though I were being talked down to, or as though I needed to have previous knowledge of the subject matter to even understand what the author was talking about. The writing style was full of verve, vigour and passion, and packed an emotional punch to boot. Believe me, it really was a fascinating, enjoyable read!
BUT, and that is a big but... this biography is the very definition of a one-sided narrative. It is absolutely savage in its condemnation of Mao. His crimes are recounted in horrifying, unrelenting detail. It's hard to believe that this book was intended to be an honest and impartial look at the rule of Mao, when right from the very beginning it's clear that Chang and Halliday are doing their very best to persuade you otherwise. At times I felt a bit like I was just reading a very long, one-sided rant. No attempts at impartiality are seriously made. I did feel as though much of the evidence was selected to give an extremely biased account. You only need to take a quick scan of the sources at the end of the book to see that far too many of them are unknown, or suspect.
This is a political biography of incredible magnitude. As far as serious history books go, this doesn't really qualify. It's entertainment, pure and simple. Well-written, heartbreaking, shocking, squirm-in-your-seat-make-you-really-uncomfortable entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless. It's designed to be as shocking as possible, to act as an diatribe against a man who had no qualms about killing millions of people in order to achieve his own, personal glory. And I don't think anyone will deny that Mao was a monster - being responsible for over 70 million deaths is something that he will never shake off, and neither should he be able to. But both Chang and Halliday seem to have taken it upon themselves to show Mao in the worst light possible and their objectivity in writing this book clearly has to be questioned.
The first thing I should probably point out before starting this review is that this is not the kind of book that ordinarily I would read but, after finishing Wild Swans by the same author last year, I became deeply interested in this paticular period of Chinese history and wanted to discover just how one man could come to have so much terrifying power and influence over a country. I read Wild Swans as part of a read-a-long with other members of an online book group and, to be honest, this was one of the most moving books I had ever read. It was with that in mind that I picked up Mao; an epic journey through Chinese history that has taken me a whole 10 months to read! No small feat when you consider that I am normally a fairly fast reader!
Mao, The Unknown Story is written by Wild Swans author, Jung Chang, along with her western husband, Jon Halliday. It begins with the dictator's humble beginnings, takes a good long look at his early life and dispells many of the myths associated with The Long March before going on to recount Mao's later life and finally his death in '76.
The book is very detailed and highly extensive and is described as the most accurate account and definitive biography yet of the life and times of Mao Tse-tung. Many of the facts and details described here appear for the first time and it is highly evident that Chang and husband Halliday have done extensive research into a character of whom many myths and grevious errors have long been associated. As Chang says at the very beginning and again at the climax of this book, Mao was responsible for over 70 million deaths; many of which were in peace-time and as a result of his thirst to make China a Super-power regardless of the cost to his own people. These people he subjected to much tyranny during his reign as Chairman and it is fair to say that much of his rule was based entirely on fear! This makes for very uncomfortable reading at times but this is a highly compelling book and one I believe everyone should read at least once!
Some reviews of this book I have read suggest that a few of the "facts" presented here have since been reputed but seeing as how Chang actually lived for much of her life in Mao's China, I am more inclined to believe her account as she is party to sources that most other researchers may not be able to lay their hands on! Certainly she has a very easy-going style for such a heavy and serious subject matter and it is as much her writing as the story that gradually unfolds that hooks the reader in and keeps their interest. It is not the easiest of books to read by any stretch but Chang defenitely does a great job with what has come to be regarded by critics as "an Atom Bomb of a book!" At nearly 800 pages long before appendices and accompanied by memorable photographs, it is a book that will take you a while to read but is increasingly more and more difficult to put down. Without question I am now certain that I know much more about world events and recent modern history than I ever did before especially in regards to the highly secretive Communist nation of China......
If you fancy an epic journey of a book with a very serious subject matter, then this is something you really need to read! It may take you a while to reach this journeys end but when you get there, your perception of the world will more than likely have greatly altered. Certainly this is a book that has been jut as memorable for me as Wild Swans before it and a book I will always remember! It is also a book to which no review I write could ever do any justice!!
Jung Chang's Wild Swans was an extraordinary bestseller throughout the world, selling more than 10 million copies and reaching a wider readership than any other book about China. Now she and her husband Jon Halliday have written a groundbreaking biography of Mao Tse-tung. Based on a decade of research, and on interviews with many of Mao's close circle in China who have never talked before - and with virtually everyone outside China who had significant dealings with him - this is the most authoritative life of Mao ever written. It is full of startling revelations, exploding the myth of the Long March, and showing a completely unknown Mao: he was not driven by idealism or ideology; his intimate and intricate relationship with Stalin went back to the 1920s, ultimately bringing him to power; he welcomed Japanese occupation of much of China; and he schemed, poisoned and blackmailed to get his way. After Mao conquered China in 1949, his secret goal was to dominate the world. In chasing this dream he caused the deaths of 38 million people in the greatest famine in history. Combining meticulous history with the story-telling style of Wild Swans, this biography makes immediate Mao's roller-coaster life, as he intrigued and fought every step of the way to force through his unpopular decisions. The reader enters the shadowy chambers of Mao's court, and eavesdrops on the drama in its hidden recesses. Mao's character and the enormity of his behaviour towards his wives, mistresses and children are unveiled for the first time. This is an entirely fresh look at Mao in both content and approach. It will astonish historians and the general reader alike.