Newest Review: ... 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... more
A gripping, but questionable history of Communist China
Mao: The Unknown Story - Jung Chang
Member Name: Ventilicious187
Mao: The Unknown Story - Jung Chang
Advantages: Immensely readable, absolutely gripping.
Disadvantages: A completely one-sided narrative. Questionable sources.
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.
Summary: An unbalanced biography, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
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