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on March 9, 2000
Two brand new biographies of Mao Zedong came out this year at the same time. One is by the very famous historian of China, Johnathan Spence and the other, this one, by Philip Short. Though I had heard of Spence and not of Short, I picked this one up because Spence's book was over 25$ and only about 100 pages, Shorts book is 600 pages of biography and another 100 pages of notes, pictures, cast of characters, and index. For the money, I figured this book was a better buy!
The book was excellent. The real strenght of this book was the great use of primary sources and the great job the author did on Mao's early life and the history of China from the fall of the Qing Dynasty to the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.
The only faults I had with the book were the post-1949 years with the exception of the chapters on the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The author just did not do as good a job of the post-1949 Mao and China. However, the pre-1949 stuff was great.
The book was well written and easy to read despite the size of the book. I enjoyed reading the book and learned a lot and felt it was time well spent. HOwever, again I enjoyed the first 400 pages much more than the last 200 pages.
The author is fair showing both Mao's brilliance and ruthlessness. Having recently read A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China which looked at China from Nixon to the Present, and this book I feel am I pretty up to date on recent scholarship.
If you like Chinese history and have the time, this book is very good.
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on February 16, 2000
Overall, Philip Short does a fine job of analysing Mao and the struggle for communist China. Despite taking a generally sympathetic view of Mao, he remains objective throughout, never ignoring or diminishing Mao's sinister side. Furthermore Short does a good job of investigating how much Mao was directly behind the many purges revealed through the course of the book. He also reveals Mao's fascinating development from strident feminist, anarchist and military hero to ruthless purger, sexist and control freak.
Where Short does error occasionally is in his emphasis. Sometimes he designates paragraphs to minor squabbling, then reveals a major change in only one short sentence, which will cause confusion to those who like to skim read. He also donates hundreds of pages to the communist army build up, then only ten or so to the actual post WWII battle for supreme victory over Kai-Shek.
However don't let these quibbles put you off- for those that want a greater understanding of Maoism and the amazing Red Army victory encapsulating the legendary and heroic 'Long March', you will find this book very enlightening. I would not recommend it to those of you who are particularly right wing as this book isn't the denunciation of Mao as a tailed devil you'd probably want to read, thus you'll only get all hot and bothered then right a dismissive review giving the book one star. Short's conclusion is highly satisfactory, rightly stating that Mao did not belong in the same category of the likes of Hitler or Stalin, whilst certainly not belonging in the same group as Gandhi or such like. The book depicts the good and evil sides of Mao, and the struggle his conscience eventually lost.
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on December 10, 2006
This is a superbly written biography of Mao Zedong who I feel should be in any Sinophile's library. The great detail of Mao Zedong's early life and how he got into Communism is excellent. The description of his Anarchist/Marxist philosophy gives a reader a very clear understanding on why Communism came about in China; that it was mostly accepted by the majority of the Chinese population (especially peasants) and not initially enforced upon them, a view held by most Americans. The sad developments of Hundred Flowers Campaign, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are also revealed in great detail.

However, no matter how good this book is, I'm still a little bothered by some of it's lack of details on certain very important aspects of modern Chinese history.

1) Not enough was mention about his relationship with Japanese when China was engaged in the war with Japan. Nothing was mentioned on any possible collaboration with Japan that would have upset certain Chinese who claimed that the Communists did more against Japanese than Nationalist.

2) And talking about the Sino Japanese War, why wasn't the big battle of Operation Ichigo mentioned? China would have faced annihilation from Japan during this gigantic operation in 1944, something that worried China greatly and affect the future of the Communists and Nationalists.

3) Not enough about Zhou Enlai was mentioned. Zhou Enlai's proposal of the Four Modernization program was used by Deng Xiaoping to transformed China. I felt this is ultra-important information that should have been mentioned about the 70s. The contrast of Mao Zedong's ultra left views with Zhou's moderate views would have given the reader a great understanding how Deng's program succeeded in the great transformation of modern China from Mao's disastrous programs.

4) Mao Zedong developed some sort of mental illness later in life which caused the strange series of events during the cultural revolution, especially his purge of Liu Shaoqi; this mental illness was possibly caused by drugs (this was mentioned in Harrison Salisbury's "New Emperors" this would have explained his erratic behavior during his old age.

But otherwise this is a truly good book. I am most impressed by Short's ultra unbiased viewpoints.

Anybody who read this book should compare it with the Chiang Kai Shek's biography, " Chiang Kai Shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost", by Jonathan Fenby.
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This is now the standard life of Mao, but for me it was like reading a history of the Cuban Missile Crisis that still talked about how Kennedy stared down Khrushchev without mentioning the secret deal for the U.S. to remove missiles from Turkey. That is, it is sympathetic to the point of touting an official line at the expense of giving us the full story. Still, it is useful to know what the official line is and this is a good life of Mao from his youth through his entire career.

Personally, I consider Mao one of the great killers of the 20th century, but I also know that most Chinese do not see him that way. There are some who see him as a monster for what he did to hundreds of millions of people while he ruled China and for the tens of millions who died because of his policies. Short always has a ready excuse to absolve Mao of direct evil, even while admitting that Mao is indeed responsible. The Chinese I have spoken to who admire Mao do so because of his strength in freeing China from the West and making China into a world power.

China has a history of strong emperors who ruled with an iron fist and under whose rule many people died. Mao was a great student of Chinese history and knew how to appeal to its themes and traditions. In the Chinese view, they have plenty of people, and if some die and China becomes strong, so be it. Mao played on this sensibility to the hilt. However, I am not Chinese. But I am free to judge him according to my lights and for me he was one of the greatest monsters of all time. Anyone who condemns ANY American leader in our history as a killer or a monster and yet praises Mao is a hypocrite beyond the power of the word to convey a strong enough level of hypocrisy. But my view isn't the view of this book or the view of the Chinese and they should have the leaders they want. It is their nation and culture after all. And this book will give you a view of Mao more in line with how he is viewed by the country he helped re-create than the critical books such as "The Unknown Mao" or "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" (which are often attacked by people who support Mao - however, the details of most of the horrible events described do show up in even this biography if you read closely and look past the airbrushing).

The book does read well and will likely lead the unwary into feeling admiration for this man. He certainly was an amazing man and one of great genius. Whether you see him as a hero worthy of veneration or one of the great monsters in history, Mao is certainly an historic figure that one should know. Reading across the spectrum of views is probably the best way to get a more true picture of the man and his career than you will get from either his supporters or his detractors. So, this would be a good candidate for one of the kinder views of Mao that is still authoritative and fairly comprehensive.
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on February 16, 2006
Few have had so much influence on the lives of so many people. Who was this man? It is impossible to answer that question without knowing something about China. Mao was an emperor. It is no secret that Mao patterned himself after the Qin emperor. Like the Qin emperor, he despised Confucius. And like the Qin Emperor, he was ruthless in the implementation of his vision for China. Mao was so full of contradictions which seemed somehow to make sense. His rhetoric seemed to indicate a disregard for the common people, yet as a revolutionary, he treated peasants well, to win their support. He governed a party structure that was almost Puritanical in it's expectations, yet he lived a profoundly promiscuous life.

Lord Acton said that, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." I believe that this is key to understanding what happened to Mao. To be sure, Mao had some pretty wacky ideas from the very beginning. But he seemed to deteriorate as his power increased. One of the main problems with the early Communist party is that there was no way to balance power. Mao saw to this, but the Party allowed him to. This book does an excellent job of demonstrating the steady downward pattern of this sickness. It culminated in the Cultural Revolution, and the defining moment is the point where Liu Shao Qi, the president of China, comes to Mao, who has no power, but has used his status as a cultural icon to destroy the country, and literally overthrow the government. Liu literally begs for his life. He asks to be allowed to leave government and return to his home community. What unearthly cowardice would bring the president of any country to the place where he would have to beg for his life from someone who wasn't even in a legitimate position of authority? This, more than any other phenomenon, illustrates the weakness of the party structure. Mao's response to Liu was terse, "Take care o f yourself." A few days later, Liu's phone line was cut; shortly afterward he was placed in solitary confinement to begin a time of imprisonment that would end in his death when he was refused proper medical treatment.

But I don't want to ramble on about Mao. What I want to do, briefly, is to point out what I feel are the unique strengths of this book"

1. It is well researched and well documented. The first thing you will notice about this book is the scholarly manner in which it is put together.

2. This book gives the best analysis of the Korean War that I have read. It lets you see the road to war and the development of the conflict from the Chinese-Soviet-North Korean side of the conflict.

3. It is objective. There are two kinds of personalities, simple and complex. Mao was a complex personality. Deng Xiao-ping was much simpler. (I am talking about personality, now, not intellect.) Because of the complex nature of Mao's personality, it is very hard to deal with him objectively. Philip Short does an excellent job of looking at Mao in a cool-headed manner.

4. It is exhaustive. This book covers the whole span of history surrounding Mao's life. It does not leave out critical details. Key events are given full treatment.

5. The pictures are good, very clear, and well labeled. And there are lots of them.

Having said all this, the book will probably be easier for you to understand if you have some previous knowledge of the key players. I bought this book a number of years ago, and started reading it, but I quit. I went on to other things. When I finally dusted it off last fall (2005) and decided to read it, it just seemed to go much faster. Part of that was because I had read Jonathan Fenby's book (Chiang Kai Shek : China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost) last spring. But there were actually quite a number of good books dealing with some of the key personalities that I had read between the first time I tried to read this one, and last fall when I finally got around to doing the job. You don't have to follow my example, but if this is your first book about Mao, do yourself a favor, and spend a little time reading up on the Dramatis Personae. There is an excellent list of them in the back of the book. Five stars; Philip Short is a first-rate scholar.
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on December 19, 2006
Of all the great 20th century dictators, Mao seems the hardest to fathom. This is probably because of the way his mind worked and the peculiarities of his weltenschaung. It is useless to pin down his psyche with a choice quotation or two. The man who famously said that "power flows out of the barrel of a gun" has also been reported as saying that it is "a mistake to believe that weapons decide everything". Above all -- in Phillip Short's excellent biography -- Mao comes across as a man of contradictions. He saw the world in dialectical, yin-yang terms. One feels, almost, that the great turmoils he unleashed were his way of ensuring that the great proletarian revolution remained permanant and forever dialectical and always violent. Stasis would be bad for China.

To those brought up under a western-inspired education system and world-view, Mao seems like a capricious crank, a heartless monster. In Philip Short's treatment, however, Mao displays a preternatural sense of nuance and subtlety of thought, and a finely-honed sense of brinkmanship (as in the Cultural Revolution where he let loose the forces of revolution upon the Party itself).

And what of his legacy ? Short argues that an important distinction needs to be made between Mao and the other dictators: The overwhelming majority of deaths under his rule were the unintended consequence of policies, not the deliberate genocide of a class of people (like the Jews or the Kulaks). Mao's cavalier attitude towards deaths on a massive scale is acknowledged. To Mao, a million deaths is merely a part of the dialectics of revolution. In this sense he was indeed a monster.

Today China is a capitalist country in all but name. I think Mao would have seen this as a natural state of affairs, given the contradictions inherent in world history.If he were to come back from the grave, he would judge that the time is now ripe for him to unleash another great upheaval. Capitalist stasis is also not good !
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on December 30, 2005
An excellent account of Mao's early life, indoctrination into Marxism, early role in Chinese politics and then gradually his rise to power in the Chinese Communist Party. His encirclement campaigns against Chiang-Kai-Shek's Kuomingdang battalions, and the early years of turbulence in Chinese politics is so very well illustrated and exemplified. Moreover, two of his biggest blunders, the GREAT LEAP FOWARD and CULTURAL REVOLUTION in which more than 10-15 million Chinese civilians, peasants, workers and CCP party workers were purged are explained in an outstanding fashion. Though a ruthless man, yet his knack for poetry, philosophy and political strategy planning prepared him to become one of the greatest political icons of the 20th century. A must read for anyone who wonders HOW one man changed the fate of the most populous nation in the world, converting it from an utterly impoverished nation to one of the strongest super-powers of the current period. 5 stars in all!

Subhasish Ghosh

St. Cross College,

University of Oxford
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on November 12, 2005
From an affluent peasant's home in Hunan, and the rote learning of rural schools in early 20th century China, Mao Zedong becomes the most powerful man in Chinese history, leading an army of millions to revolutionary triumph. Besides a portrait of Mao, this is a wonderful survey of seven decades of Chinese history. One marvels at the wide epic sweep of events, from the "coolie" revolts of Mao's youth, to mass "struggles" in which the very top Communist leaders are subjected to humiliating public beatings. Mao himself emerges as a supremely contradictory figure, a romantic revolutionary, a poet and military genius who is ruthless and cold-blooded once he gets hold of power. The many gripping and tragic events of Mao's rise from rural backwater to totalitarian leader are related here: from the heroic drama of The Long March, to the excesses of the Cultural Revoultion. Short is a serious researcher, and a wonderful story-teller with an eye for the absurb, and this book very smartly carves out a path between the popular and the academic. For students of the Left, this is a must read, along with Jon Lee Anderson's equally gripping "Che: A Revolutionary Life."
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on February 7, 2006
Mao Zedong. Love him or hate him, he is inarguably one of the greatest men of the twentieth century. His ideas and vision, whims and passions directly impacted nearly a quarter of humanity and nations far beyond.

If you totally love and idolize him (like many Chinese over fifty), hate or vilify him (as many similarly aged Westerners do) or follow one of the more pragmatic formulations; seventy percent right, thirty percent wrong (current official Party policy) or believe he was good before 1956, but the last twenty years of his life were damaging to China (the formula I personally hold to), Philip Short's rendering of Mao's life is a fascinating read, at times difficult to put down.

I have not seen a work on Mao (and I have read many) as well balanced as Short's. He crafts Mao as a very human individual, crafted and shaped by events around him. Short portrays Mao in his youth as a patriotic individual pained at seeing foreigners running rampant through his own country. Short spends a lot of time looking into oft overlooked parts of Mao's life: his childhood and youth. Understanding this helps one to understand the man Mao became.

If you are interested in the history of modern China, or you are simply interested in studying the great men of the twentieth century (i.e. Churchill and Stalin, Roosevelt and Hitler), Mao: A Life is a highly recommended read with much to offer. You will not come out of it feeling quite the same about arguably the most important man of the twentieth century.
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on September 12, 2005
There is no one like Philip Short to place in its proper context what may have seemed to outsiders an unfortunate consequence of importing foreign ideas (those of marxism-leninism) into confucian China. This is an elegant, extremely well-written and perceptive recapitulation of Mao Zedong's life and career. The life of its protagonist is full of extreme events and apparent contradictions. It takes a master historian to make sense out of it - and Short brilliantly succeeds. Like in his masterful analysis of the career of Pol Pot, Short makes us realize that there is no such thing as an isolated tyrant - the roots of dictatorship necessarily are deeply buried into the society that gives birth to it. Most of all, neither Mao nor Pol Pot are solely the product of the irruption of foreign ideas into a traditional society. What surprises us, on the contrary, is that marxism-leninism was experienced by both as a late addition to a frame of mind that was deeply marked by traditional beliefs and conceptions (confucian or buddhist, respectively), that in our mind usually evoke images of peace and harmony. In both cases this mixture of ideas was put to work in reshaping a society at war, and in giving birth to a thoroughly transformed society, which also aimed at affirming itself against powerful neighbours (Russia and Vietnam, respectively). The intensity of the forces involved in this upheaval can only be grasped by realizing that Mao was the leader which caused the death of the largest number of his followers in all of human history, and Pol Pot presided over the extermination of one-fifth of the entire country he governed. There is much to think about here, concerning the power of ideas to transform society, and to cause pain and suffering entirely out of proportion to their apparently benign outlook.
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