The portrait of Mao Zedong watches over Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, but it’s still impossible to know the man behind the myth. Nearly four decades after his death, China’s modern leaders invoke his name at their own risk. Consider two of the most popular English-language biographers of the Great Helmsman.
Journalist Edgar Snow wrote “Red Star Over China” in 1937, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was hardly known in the West. His Mao is a hero: both a shrewd thought leader and the “No.1 ‘Red bandit’”, a daring outlaw with epic adventures under his belt. It’s a winsome combination of brawn and brains.
By 2005, when Jung Chang and Jon Halliday published “Mao: The Unknown Story”, the CCP had moved away from Maoist policies, but stuck to the line that he was 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. Their book presents a Mao who is much closer to 100 percent evil. He lacks ideals and his political theory is muddled. His success as a leader depends on a flair for intra-party politics. The authors also take care to diminish his achievements: their account of the Long March sees the young Mao carried in state on a sedan chair, rather than roughing it with the troops.
It’s not hard to explain the difference in perspective. Snow wrote under Mao’s supervision: sections dealing with his early life were submitted to Mao for revisions. He was a leftist dedicated to the war against fascism, and Mao was a worthy leader of the Chinese battle. Jung knew the CCP as the party which had oppressed her family for three generations. Her co-author was an historian, but more significantly also her presumably sympathetic husband.
The works share a basic premise: ignorant readers want to hear the truth. The opening chapter of “Red Star” sets out Snow’s starting point: “there was no greater mystery” than changing China. He offers more than 70 unanswered questions on Mao and China to show how much was still unknown. The title of “The Unknown Story” is a giveaway; the authors’ driving motivation was the conviction that Mao was still not widely understood.
The authors judged correctly: a lack of information and the extremes of his life left ample room for different versions of Mao’s story. Both were considered insightful at publication. After all, even the most determinedly neutral telling would encompass everything from the foundation of a modern superpower to the orchestration of the Great Leap Forward, a development programme which ended with mass starvation.
Today, there are still many Maos – some heroes, some villains and some a mixture of the two. Despite the ambiguity, Mao remains a potent symbol. He is built into the infrastructure of modern China: his portrait hangs over Beijing; his corpse still lies in state; many towns and cities have Mao monuments; and in every part of the country his face adorns yuan notes. This is not going to change any time soon. The CCP probably cannot, and perhaps does not want to, divorce itself from its great leader.
Perhaps the plasticity of the image contributes to its durability. The Chinese Communist government need not abandon Mao, because there is always a plausible version of him who embodies any possible line. When Bo Xilai was a rising star in the CCP, he made use of Mao-era songs and revolutionary slogans.
Bo was disgraced and had disappeared from sight by the time Xi Jinping became president early in 2013. But Xi has called on the memory of Mao with a ‘mass line’ campaign to encourage party members to listen to the masses, and to pay attention to the Chairman’s condemnation of extravagance and corruption.
It’s an attempt to anchor the new generation of leaders in party history. But it’s a risky to take that strategy too far: any positive associations are not easily divorced from the less pleasant memories. Mao’s legacy was – and is – volatile.