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Mao: The Unknown Story Hardcover – October 18, 2005

3.7 out of 5 stars 453 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the epilogue to her biography of Mao Tse-tung, Jung Chang and her husband and cowriter Jon Halliday lament that, "Today, Mao's portrait and his corpse still dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart of the Chinese capital." For Chang, author of Wild Swans, this fact is an affront, not just to history, but to decency. Mao: The Unknown Story does not contain a formal dedication, but it is clear that Chang is writing to honor the millions of Chinese who fell victim to Mao's drive for absolute power in his 50-plus-year struggle to dominate China and the 20th-century political landscape. From the outset, Chang and Halliday are determined to shatter the "myth" of Mao, and they succeed with the force, not just of moral outrage, but of facts. The result is a book, more indictment than portrait, that paints Mao as a brutal totalitarian, a thug, who unleashed Stalin-like purges of millions with relish and without compunction, all for his personal gain. Through the authors' unrelenting lens even his would-be heroism as the leader of the Long March and father of modern China is exposed as reckless opportunism, subjecting his charges to months of unnecessary hardship in order to maintain the upper hand over his rival, Chang Kuo-tao, an experienced military commander.

Using exhaustive research in archives all over the world, Chang and Halliday recast Mao's ascent to power and subsequent grip on China in the context of global events. Sino-Soviet relations, the strengths and weakness of Chiang Kai-shek, the Japanese invasion of China, World War II, the Korean War, the disastrous Great Leap Forward, the vicious Cultural Revolution, the Vietnam War, Nixon's visit, and the constant, unending purges all, understandably, provide the backdrop for Mao's unscrupulous but invincible political maneuverings and betrayals. No one escaped unharmed. Rivals, families, peasants, city dwellers, soldiers, and lifelong allies such as Chou En-lai were all sacrificed to Mao's ambition and paranoia. Appropriately, the authors' consciences are appalled. Their biggest fear is that Mao will escape the global condemnation and infamy he deserves. Their astonishing book will go a long way to ensure that the pendulum of history will adjust itself accordingly. --Silvana Tropea

10 Second Interview: A Few Words with Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Q: From idea to finished book, how long did Mao: The Unknown Story take to research and write?
A: Over a decade.

Q: What was your writing process like? How did you two collaborate on this project?
A: The research shook itself out by language. Jung did all the Chinese-language research, and Jon did the other languages, of which Russian was the most important, as Mao had a long-term intimate relationship with Stalin. After our research trips around the world, we would work in our separate studies in London. We would then rendezvous at lunch to exchange discoveries.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about how the book is, or will be received in China? Did that play a part in your writing of the book?
A: The book is banned in China, because the current Communist regime is fiercely perpetuating the myth of Mao. Today Mao's portrait and his corpse still dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, and the regime declares itself to be Mao's heir. The government blocked the distribution of an issue of The Far Eastern Economic Review, and told the magazine's owners, Dow Jones, that this was because that issue contained a review of our book. The regime also tore the review of our book out of The Economist magazine that was going to (very restricted) newsstands. We are not surprised that the book is banned. The regime's attitude had no influence on how we wrote the book. We hope many copies will find their way into China.

Q: What is the one thing you hope readers get from your book?
A: Mao was responsible for the deaths of well over 70 million Chinese in peacetime, and he was bent on dominating the world. As China is today emerging as an economic and military power, the world can never regard it as a benign force unless Beijing rejects Mao and all his legacies. We hope our book will help push China in this direction by telling the truth about Mao.

Breakdown of a BIG Book: 5 Things You'll Learn from Mao: The Unknown Story

1. Mao became a Communist at the age of 27 for purely pragmatic reasons: a job and income from the Russians.

2. Far from organizing the Long March in 1934, Mao was nearly left behind by his colleagues who could not stand him and had tried to oust him several times. The aim of the March was to link up with Russia to get arms. The Reds survived the March because Chiang Kai-shek let them, in a secret horse-trade for his son and heir, whom Stalin was holding hostage in Russia.

3. Mao grew opium on a large scale.

4. After he conquered China, Mao's over-riding goal was to become a superpower and dominate the world: "Control the Earth," as he put it.

5. Mao caused the greatest famine in history by exporting food to Russia to buy nuclear and arms industries: 38 million people were starved and slave-driven to death in 1958-61. Mao knew exactly what was happening, saying: "half of China may well have to die."

From Publishers Weekly

Jung Chang, author of the award-winning Wild Swans, grew up during the Cultural Revolution; Halliday is a research fellow at King's College, University of London. They join forces in this sweeping but flawed biography, which aims to uncover Mao's further cruelties (beyond those commonly known) by debunking claims made by the Communist Party in his service. For example, the authors argue that, far from Mao's humble peasant background shaping his sympathies for the downtrodden, he actually ruthlessly exploited the peasants' resources when he was based in regions such as Yenan, and cared about peasants only when it suited his political agenda. And far from having founded the Chinese Communist Party, the authors argue, Mao was merely at the right place at the right time. Importantly, the book argues that in most instances Mao was able to hold on to power thanks to his adroitness in appealing to and manipulating powerful allies and foes, such as Stalin and later Nixon; furthermore, almost every aspect of his career was motivated by a preternatural thirst for personal power, rather than political vision. Some of the book's claims rely on interviews and on primary material (such as the anguished letters Mao's second wife wrote after he abandoned her), though the book's use of sources is sometimes incompletely documented and at times heavy-handed (for example, using a school essay the young Mao wrote to show his lifelong ruthlessness). Illus., maps. (Oct. 21)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (October 18, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679422714
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679422716
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (453 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #225,926 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By T. P. Ang on June 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I applaud the authors' efforts in producing a sweeping study of Mao and attempting to uncover many hitherto unknown aspects of his fascinating life. `Facts' surrounding the Long March, such as the famous Luding Bridge heroics, are exposed as being untrue. And claims about the engineered killings of more than 70 million Chinese and the often gruesome nature of their deaths take us to a whole new level of understanding about Mao's megalomania and inhumanity. These chilling revelations are all the more absorbing in an age where we're being made increasingly aware of state-engineered brutality both past and present. Reading this book (and accepting its claims wholesale) will revolutionise the way you think about Mao and such events as the Long March and the `Great Leap Forward'.

Yet the main problem with this book lies precisely in how far we can accept its claims. Most of the reviews here have already highlighted the book's many factual inconsistencies, exaggerations and generally speculative assertions. The book's sources, for one, have been criticised for being either unreliable or unverifiable. The emphasis on Mao has also obscured the role played by the Communist party in perpetrating the said atrocities.

No specialist of Chinese history myself, I nonetheless found the claims a little too sensational and the writing too overwrought in places. Mao the man comes across as an utterly self-absorbed, power-crazed, pitiless beast whose one-dimensionality seems too much like a caricature at times. As with other similar books I've read, the authors' profound emotional engagement with the subject (ten years of research, interviewing hundreds of eyewitnesses etc.) seems to have gotten in the way of sober analysis.
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I stopped reading at about pg 300 as I began to suspect that what I was reading was more of a screed than a biography. While I have no doubt that Mao was a murdering, incompetent butcher - it's hardly a debatable observation and was of course a well-known fact before this book came along - I just got the feeling that there was a pseudo-religious zeal in these authors' portrayal of everything Mao ever did as evil, corrupt, ineffective at best and disastrous more often than not. They get their foot on Mao's throat on Page 1 and don't let up. Now while he might deserve it, I just never got the sense that what the authors were saying was necessarily totally accurate. And it's a very long book to read if you have doubts about the authors' intent and factual honesty.
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Before I started reading this book I had great expectations. I knew nothing about Mao at the time and this book seemed like a good place to start. This was a mistake. To make it short, the author's aim is not to tell the story of Mao, but to break his reputation. According to the author, Mao did not believe in communism, he just happened to join the communist party (although when he did join there were very few members and nothing really worth to take advantage of), he was not a great military commander (the writer explains that in all the battles that Mao won, he won because those that were against him were either spies or idiots, or because he was lucky, or because someone from the communist party did all the work and Mao took credit). The author also tried to tell us that Mao was lucky to acquire the nuclear bomb and he actually miscalculated but as in most cases luck was by his side. The issue that the writer really failed to tackle was that when Mao came to power China was in a terrible mess and no one really ruled it. The Russians and the Japanese attacked when they wished and no one could stop them. By the time Mao died China was one of the strongest countries in the world and was united under a single leadership. Yes Mao was a mass murderer, but that doesnt mean he cant be smart or calculating.
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I just finished reading Mao: "The Unknown Story" and think that the author definitley got her point across at portraying Mao for more or less who he was. The problem that I had with this book is the same problem more eloquently expressed in other reviews is its high level of subjectivity to the point of reading like a long drawn out tabloid creating some skepicism surounding the facts. Unlike another reviewer who stated that this book was tough to get through because it was "overly simplistic" I felt that it was easy to get through for that very reason. It needs to be pointed out that whoever was responsible for editing made some very obvious grammatical errors which should be corrected if this book ever gets reprinted.

Mao: "The Unknown Story" would make a good supplement for other more objective biographies written about this enigma called Mao but should not be taken literally as an all conclusive definitive.
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One shouldn't doubt that Jung Chang has reason to despise Mao, having lived through the effects of his reign. Mao himself certainly left plenty of evidence of his tyranny. The problem is that the vendetta is so obvious that it reaches self-parody after a couple hundred pages. The authors purport to know Mao's actual thoughts at specific times, suggest that he deserves the blame (if that's the proper word) for Stalin's death, and take an obvious relish in describing Mao's incompetence regarding such as language acquisition and management. Don't base all of your knowledge of the subject on this single source.
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