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I’ve been reading Mao: The Unknown Story by the husband and wife team, historian Jon Halliday and writer Jung Chang. She of Wild Swans fame. The book is a revisionist history of Mao Tse Tung, the great Chairman Mao who is popularly lauded as the founder of modern China.

The eleven years of research for the book included interviews with hundreds of people who were close to Mao, revealing the contents of newly opened archives. Additional knowledge comes from Chang’s personal experience of living through the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The book appears to be meticulously researched, with wide ranging series of interviews that are combined with archives to put together what actually happened.

It is a penetrating insight into the difference between what the official story is according to the Chinese government and how different reality can be. Events that have passed into the propaganda mythos of the CCP such as the Long March, the Battle at the Luding Bridge and many other minor events that populate the official history of modern China are revealed to be the propaganda they are. They are all event spun after the fact to make Mao a hero and to make the CCP look more benevolent then it ever was.

The underlying theme is Mao as Monster. There is consistent focus on his brutal purges, his constant scheming, his manipulation of both the CCP command structure and of the USSR to support him personally instead of the hierarchy of the CCP. His personal incompetence shines out. Mao comes across as a bumbler, unable, but ruthless who knew what his goals were and sacrificed all other people to achieve them. Including his wives (3 of them) and his children (lots of them), friends (when he had any) and any other person that was useful as a mere pawn.

Standing alongside Mao’s ruthlessness is his single mindedness. He wanted power above all things. Even, perhaps especially, given that he had no wider reason for power, no goals or hopes that he hoped to bring to fruition through power. Power was the means and the ends for Mao, and it had to be achieved at all costs. And the costs were terrible and the human costs unbelievable.

On a personal level, reading the book has been an eye opener because as part of the GCSE History syllabus you do a module on the rise of Modern China. And that module it is now clear to me is entirely based on the propaganda – that it lacks any of the depth, nuance or reality on the subject that would have really made it enjoyable and appreciable or even accurate.

We got that kind of contextualisation in the more modern scholarship of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution which admittedly were A-Level subjects, but I think that we would have been better off studying the Chinese Revolution in the same way. It’s a rich rich topic with so much underlying the spin and so much concealed facts that sometimes it seems to me ridiculous what we believed in hind sight as to be the true history. Stuff about how well the CCP treated its peasants, and how the leadership suffered equally with the solders during the Long March, or how Mao was an instrumental leader of early Chinese communism now seem ridiculous in the light of Jung Chang’s book.

What I can’t get over though, on the personal level is that my teachers lied to me. The scholarship was there before the book, albeit in different sources and not collated together as well. I hope that if they’ve had a chance to read the book that they won’t be teaching the same lies to a new generation of people. Not everyone is going to find out some parts of the truth by themselves.