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Mao Zedong: A Penguin Life (Penguin Lives) Hardcover – October 1, 1999
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From humble beginnings in rural Hunan, Mao Zedong became the "Great Helmsman" of Communist China. By the time he died in 1976, he had profoundly changed the course of history. His increasingly erratic whims and graspings at a wild utopia destabilized his immense achievements, and he was ultimately responsible for the deaths of perhaps 60 million people. Jonathan Spence brings great erudition to the story of this flawed colossus. He is particularly enlightening on Mao's early years--it is nearly two-thirds through the book before Mao stands on the walls of the Forbidden City in October 1949 and declares the establishment of the People's Republic of China. The young revolutionary's infamous willfulness is soon apparent, yet Spence rounds out his character by, for example, quoting a poem to his beloved first wife and mentioning the profit he made from an early capitalist venture, a bookstore. Mao Zedong is excellent biography--and more. China was convulsed for nearly a century by almost constant war and revolution, and Spence uses the life of the man at the heart of so many historic events to elucidate the whole momentous epoch. In his many writings, Spence has proved a master at making complex themes easy to understand, and this compact book provides yet another example of his skills. --John Stevenson
From Publishers Weekly
In the latest of the concise Penguin Lives series, China historian Spence (The Gate of Heavenly Peace, etc.) blends historical facts with cultural analysis, creating a work that is fluid and informative despite its brevity. Portraying an intimate Mao (1893-1976), Spence leaves much of the political commentary to other historians, focusing instead on how a boy from the farm villages of Hunan rose to rule the most populous nation in the world. Spence gives readers a Mao who is smart but not wise, unexceptional in almost all qualities except his "inflexible will" and "ruthless self-confidence." He points out that, even at a young age, Mao's perception of governing foreshadowed much of how he eventually did rule: in an essay written about Lord Shang, a Qin dynasty minister, Mao argued that Shang's rule, considered by historians to be cruel, was just ("At the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the mass of the people always dislike it"). "I have come," writes Spence, "to think of the enigmatic arena in which Mao seemed most at home as being that of order's opposite, the world of misrule." The shortness of the form enablesAor requiresASpence to accelerate the pace of Mao's life, thus adding drama to the sea change in Mao's character from na?ve idealist to cunning political infighter and center of a personality cult. The Mao who lingers on the last page is a somewhat diminished, Lear-like figure, estranged from his wife and ultimately unsure of whether his revolution had a future. When Henry Kissinger praised Mao's writings during their famous meeting, the chairman responded: "I think that, generally, people like me sound like a lot of big canons." (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
Spence certainly succeeds in compressing most of the major events of Mao's life into this thin volume, and concisely reviews much of Mao's political thought and how it evolved. He also does a good job of mining source materials, particularly some of Mao's more obscure writing and poetry. But my major frustration in reading this book was a feeling that I never learned much about Mao as an individual human being, except that he came from obscure bourgeois peasant roots, that he was "married" at least four times and had at least ten children with whom he had rather distant relationships, and that as the years passed, he became more and more of a megalomaniac. I would also fault the book for giving minimal attention to the history of the times and to Mao's principal comrades in arms. (For example, Zhou Enlai does not appear until the final quarter of the book and gets minimal mention at that. The Long March gets only 2-3 pages.) Also somehwat curious is that the book lacks an index.
All of that said, however, this is a remarkably informative book given its length. I should emphasize that the text on each page measures lightly under 6 x 4 inches, too--so not only is it a short book, but also a small book. I put the book down eager to learn more about Mao, which I suppose does commend it to other readers who know as little as I did before I read it.
MAO ZEDONG differs from these Penguin Lives biographies because Jonathan Spence, IMHO, never really transcends a basic chronological approach to his subject. While this approach has value for readers (like me) who have a mere headline-news grasp of 20th century Chinese history, this doesn't really get the man onto the page. Instead, what the reader gets is Mao's activities in times of relentless warfare, as well as profound political, economic, and cultural change. Spence shows the vast landscape change. But Mao, the man, and why he chooses to be irresponsible, reckless, evil, and/or great, isn't really in the book. In this biography, he's just too remote and historical.
Nonetheless, Spence provides an excellent introduction. There, he observes that Mao seemed most comfortable within a world shaped by "order's opposite, the world of misrule." Here, Spence is referring to the European Middle Ages, when "great households chose a Lord of Misrule" who "presided over revels that briefly reversed or parodied the conventional social and economic hierarchies." Later, Spence observes: "It was Mao's terrible accomplishment to seize on such insights from earlier Chinese philosophers, combine them with elements drawn from Western socialist thought, and to use both in tandem to prolong the limited concept of misrule into a long-drawn-out adventure in upheaval."
Read this short biography. But you might find, like me, that as Spence tells Mao's story, it doesn't exactly fall into this context.
Rounded up to four stars.