[This article was published in the Spring 2007 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 61-73.]
China’s Maoist Legacy
Dwight D. Murphey
Wichita State University, retired
Key Words: Mao Tse-tung, China, Communist China, Mao’s Long March, China’s Great Leap Forward, China’s Cultural Revolution, Korean War, Vietnam War, Leninism, Chinese Communist Party, starvation as political weapon, Sino-Soviet split, Nixon’s visit to China, Mao’s “world revolution.”
epilogue at the end of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story (Anchor Books, 2006) makes it clear that the
life story of Mao Tse-tung—and especially the powerful “myth of Mao Tse-tung”
that was fashioned during his lifetime as the substance of his personality
cult—is not simply of historical interest, but remains relevant in China today,
despite China’s modernization and rapid social changes. “Today,” we are told, “Mao’s portrait and his
corpse still dominate
The 1994 book The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Mao Tse-tung’s personal physician of twenty-two years, Li Zhisui, revealed from grueling first-hand knowledge how pitiless a tyrant Mao was. Our review here in the Summer 1998 issue observed that such revelations about Mao and about the nature of Chinese Communism should eventually force a sweeping re-thinking of the history of the twentieth century. The double standard, which persists to this day, that views Hitler as the quintessential demon while taking a rather benign view of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Che Guevara, and others, will certainly disappear over time—assuming the world intellectual culture is paying attention. If the double standard vanishes, many of the events and leaders of the century, both Communist and non-Communist, will have to be reassessed.
Other recent books play an important role in this “deconstruction” of Communism. The Black Book of Communism by Stephane Courtois and others within a group of French scholars presented a country-by-country survey of Communist brutalities. Dmitri Volkgenov’s Lenin: A New Biography stripped away the customary gloss that has seen Lenin as a moderate predecessor to Stalin. Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread was an extended essay on Stalin. And now although the Chang-Halliday book revisits Mao, it is by no means redundant, since it is a work of broad scholarship that supplements Dr. Zhisui’s more personal account.
was born in
they set out on what has to be one of the more extensive historical research
projects ever undertaken. The last 150
or so pages are replete with footnotes to innumerable sources. The list of interviewees continues for 14
pages; there is a 27-page bibliography of Chinese-language sources, and a
24-page list of non-Chinese sources. The
authors consulted archives in ten countries.
The text is an easily readable recounting of what this voluminous
research revealed. The interviews
themselves, many with now-aged survivors, are a resource of inestimable
value. Chang and Halliday have, in
effect, established their own archive.
Future scholars will hardly be able to study Mao, the Chinese Communist
movement or the twentieth century history of
While this is something of great scholarly value, it poses a not-uncommon conundrum for conscientious historians. When so much of the material comes from interviews that can’t be replicated by others (in particular because of the advanced age of many of those interviewed), all of the techniques of critical historiography will be needed to assess and corroborate the information and perspectives that the two authors have gathered. This especially needs to be mentioned in an age when so many accounts on important subjects are accepted at face value—for reasons of ideological partisanship or special interest or perhaps simply out of intellectual lethargy—without any critical scrutiny whatsoever.
Although this need for corroboration by experts working in the field will remain as a caveat throughout our discussion here, it is worth noting how much Mao: The Unknown Story corresponds to what Mao’s personal physician had to tell us in his book. Each reinforces the other. Needless to say, this later book tells much of what Dr. Zhisui told. As we take up particular points, we will in the main select material that is new, rather than to repeat aspects we mentioned in our review of the Zhisui book. We are impressed by how much valuable information there is that we won’t have any hope of touching upon. The book demands a reading of its own.
Items of Particular Interest
personal characteristics, and details of his life. Born in
recruited early as an operative of the
March” of over 10,000 kilometers began in late 1934 as Chiang Kai-shek closed
in with one of his many offensives. Mao
started with a force of 80,000, but this was down to a mere 4,000 by the time
he arrived in northwest
Sino-Japanese war between Chiang’s Nationalists and the Japanese from 1937 to
1945 cost some “twenty million Chinese lives.”
This greatly weakened Chiang, while Mao’s forces continued to grow. Much of the time, Chiang had to balance a
three-front war: with the Japanese, with the Communists, and with assorted
role of the
give considerable detail about the
As to this
latter, Chang and Halliday say that “
We know, of
course, how fateful this has been for the
role of Western intellectuals in cloaking Mao with a benign ideological aura. Chang and Halliday don’t give an exhaustive
account of the ubiquitous influence that the leftist intellectual culture in
Puncturing the Maoist myth. As we have seen, Chang and Halliday say that Mao’s image and myth continue to inform the current Communist regime. The fact that the myth has been continued, leaving undisturbed decades-old falsehoods and crucial omissions, makes Mao: The Unknown Story particularly significant.
Here are some of the details:
· It has been claimed that Mao was one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. The authors say he became an apparatchik early, but wasn’t a founder.
The Chinese people haven’t been told that Mao’s
initial rise was greatly aided by the Nationalist chief in
· The myth makes Mao into a “great peasant leader” because of his supposed role in the “Autumn Harvest Uprising” in 1927, whereas in fact Mao had for purposes of his own actually tried to sabotage the uprising.
· Even now, the facts have not been revealed to the Chinese people about Mao’s having slaughtered tens of thousands of his fellow Communists in 1930-1 in one of his many purges.
· The assistance of Soviet Russia in the 1931 offensive against the Nationalists still hasn’t been acknowledged.
The myth has been perpetuated that the
Communists were “more patriotic and keener to fight
The story of the “Long March” is “one of the
biggest myths of the twentieth century.”
As we have said, the withdrawal of the Communists from the
The authors consider this a major mistake
on Chiang’s part, but they explain his motivations. One was to cause the warlords, which Chiang
was fighting, to have to worry about the Red Army and for that reason allow
Chiang’s forces into their areas.
Another was to make a goodwill gesture toward
authors call the story of the crossing of the
Long March ended in October 1935 when Mao and the remnant consisting of 4,000
men arrived in northwest
· The central role of the Communist “sleepers” in bringing about the eventual defeat of Chiang hasn’t been revealed. “Mao’s military genius would look a lot less brilliant if it were known that the enemy’s top commander had offered up much of his force—and many of Chiang’s best troops—on a platter.”
The Chinese people are still given to believe
that Mao’s willful starvation of millions of Chinese under the Great Leap
Forward in 1958-1961 was caused by the cancellation of some large-scale
projects. In fact, it was caused by the
seizure of food based on deliberately overstated estimates of the harvests, the
export of food to
The tens of millions killed. Chang and Halliday conclude that “Mao Tse-tung was responsible for well over 70 million deaths during peacetime.” Mao claimed that 700,000 “class enemies” were executed right after the Communist take-over of the mainland in 1949, but Chang and Halliday estimate that some three million died at that time from execution, mob violence or suicide. They say that 38 million died during the Great Leap Forward, although it is impossible to know the exact figure, as we see when we recall that Dr. Zhisui placed the figure at between 25 and 43 million. At least three million died violently during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Most of these killings, the authors say, were committed by the Communist state, not by the Red Guards.
Stalin in using starvation as a weapon and instrument of terror. We have mentioned the Great Leap Forward,
but it’s noteworthy that an estimated 70,000 Tibetans died of hunger between
1959 and 1963. In the early 1950s, Mao
“left the peasants to starve” in a pre-Great Leap Forward episode of exporting
food to the
Sino-Soviet split, and Mao’s desire to lead the “world revolution.” Although the Sino-Soviet split is said to
have started in 1960, Khrushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing the by-that-time dead
Stalin was a severe jolt to the Mao-Moscow relationship. There followed Khrushchev’s “rapprochement
with the West,” which “Mao saw… as a historic opportunity to put himself
forward as the champion of all those around the world who saw peaceful coexistence
as favoring… the status quo… Mao envisioned a situation where ‘Communist
parties all over the world will not believe in [
We are told
that Mao’s ensuing efforts in
All of this
leads to an important reflection. There
has been much talk during the past century of one movement or another’s “drive
for world domination.” There is no
question but that Hitler’s expansionism, Communism’s “world proletarian
revolution,” and the current militancy of radical Islamism have been matters of
concern, meriting response. Even if a
series of semi-independent thugs took over much of the world, that would
arguably be as bad as for a fully-consolidated movement to do so. But the authors’ telling of how “African
radicals rather astutely took Mao’s money… with a big smile, but his
instructions with a deaf ear” reminds us of how very difficult it is it keep so
many willful personalities in tow.
Conducting a world revolution involves, of course, a much larger scale,
but it is somewhat like a college dean’s relationship with his faculty: it is
very much, as the expression goes, “like herding cats.” Mao himself provides the best illustration of
this. He was simultaneously “
who stood up to Mao. Gaining and
maintaining his hold on
A couple of
amusing episodes (amusing, of course, only from a distance of time and place)
show the extent of this submissiveness in the totalitarian states. Martin Amis told us in Koba the Dread how in Soviet Russia no member of an audience dared
stop applauding after Stalin had finished a speech, leading to a ludicrous mass
exhaustion. Chang and Halliday tell
about something similar to this that occurred in
Over the decades, however, there were many who stood up against Mao—and who paid for it dearly. The horrors of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) gave rise to several examples. We are told that Marshal Peng De-huai was the only member of the Politburo who dissented early. As a result, Peng was among the ten million victims of Mao’s purge in late 1959 and 1960. In 1961, members of Mao’s Praetorian Guard spoke up bitterly about him, and were purged; and we are told that a number of local officials felt pity for the peasants and so held back from seizing their food. In fact, Mao’s “number 2,” Liu Shao-chi, spoke critically of the GLF at a 1962 meeting, which forced Mao to cancel the draconian food levies planned for that year; indeed, the authors say the abandonment of the GLF was due to “collective pressure of virtually the whole Chinese establishment.” (The Cultural Revolution, even though it didn’t start until 1966, was more appropriately called The Great Purge, and this resulted from Mao’s long-lingering hatred toward those who had forced his hand on the GLF. Needless to say, Liu and many others suffered grievously during that purge.)
Cultural Revolution (CR), also called the Great Purge, started with a campaign
to destroy all culture, seeking nihilistically to wipe the slate clean. The mayor of
The Great Purge saw millions of the Party faithful replaced by army men. For this, Mao relied on his decades-long apparatchik Lin Piao, who headed the army. Lin was made Mao’s “number 2” in place of Liu Shao-chi. By 1971, however, Lin’s son “Tiger” came to hate Mao’s tyranny, and laid plans for a coup and Mao’s assassination. At about that time, Mao decided to purge Lin (as he did most everybody in time). Lin, his wife, and Tiger attempted to flee by airplane, but were reported by Lin’s daughter, Dodo. This caused the family to rush and in doing so to fail to obtain enough fuel for the trip. They were killed when the plane crashed.
Xiao-ping showed considerable independence from time to time, and went through
phases of ostracism and rehabilitation before emerging as the head of
Two “incidentals” of interest. We can make no attempt to summarize more than a few points in the Chang-Halliday book. But before concluding, we think two items that caught our eye worth mentioning. The first is interesting because of the ironic, twisted justice it entailed. In 1936, Mao disposed of a rival Communist contender, Chang Kuo-tao, by sending him and his army off on a “doomed mission” to fight “a fierce anti-Communist Muslim army.” Only about 400 of the soldiers made it back. Mao, dissatisfied with their return, wanted even them dead. “A local official described what happened: ‘At first, we said to them with smiles: “Comrades, dig the pits well, we want to bury Nationalist troops alive.” They really worked hard, one spade after another, wiping sweat from their faces… After they finished, we shoved them and kicked them all in. At first, they thought we were joking. But when we began to shovel earth in, they started shouting….”
item tells how the
This book deserves a wide readership. If it receives it, it may not be so chic in the future to wear a Mao button.
 The Black Book of Communism was reviewed in this journal in its Fall 2000 issue. That review is available on the just-mentioned web site as Book Review 56.
 The Volkgenov book was reviewed here in the Fall 1998 issue, and is available as Book Review 45.
 Amis’ book was reviewed here in the Spring 2006 issue. It appears on the web site as Book Review 98.
 In this way, an “age of ideology” soon becomes an “age of illusion.” Instead of joining in this, serious scholars will wish to retain their critical sense.
 The reference here to “hundreds of millions” relates to Mao’s expressed willingness to see nuclear war, not caring how many were killed. The authors quote Mao in 1957: “There are 2.7 billion people in the world…I say that, taking the extreme situation, half dies, half lives, but imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.” He told Khrushchev that “we are willing to endure the first [U.S. nuclear] strike. All it is is a big pile of people dying.”