I've never blogged a book review, but this book is an exception. It's not just for how well it's researched and written; Jung Chang and Jon Halliday have done an excellent job. This book's an exception for it's content.
I grew up when Mao was in power. In school we learned he lead "Red China" which somehow was even more scary than our obvious cold war foe, the USSR. Maybe it was because less was known about Red China.
I remember wondering many times what was really going on there, as the limited news out of Red China never made much sense. From their success with AGRIculture, to the destruction of ALL culture I suspected much was not being reported. In this case "much" is an understatement.
This book is amazing. It will stand as one of the greatest contrasts between perception and reality ever written. At the time, and in spite of communism, Mao was presented to me as hero of his people. Nothing could have been further from the truth. This book documents the greatest social mismanagement of all human history. What's even more amazing, it was largely accomplished by one man for one purpose - Mao and to keep his position of power. Or was Mao something more? A true villian?
Neal Stephenson referred to Mao as, "Buddha's evil twin", which makes a lot of sense if you think about his looks, nature and the impact on history.
Mao makes the French revolution look civil and fair. Mao makes Hitler look reasonable. Mao even out-murdered his mentor, Stalin, by a wide margin. And he does it all by maintaining his political hierarchy largely through intimidation - this was no conspiracy of fifty, or even five. FEW around him actually agreed with his actions for any significant period of time. But he managed control in spite of more rational minds at hand. This was the genius of Mao and probably the ONLY thing he did well.
I started this post to note some of the things done by Mao or at his direction. Some of these might be considered "spoilers" if you plan to read the book, which you should. If so, stop now. If not, you've been warned...
You've probably heard, Mao was responsible for over 70 million deaths. The book will detail why, when and where this was done, as well as how this was calculated - fascinating. Here are a few examples...
Mao deliberately sent thousands of his OWN soldiers into probable death simply so HE could be the first to rendezvous at the Russian border. He did this for political reasons. And those troops who DID return were made to dig their own mass grave before being executed and buried in place. This was all done to take a political competitor out of play.
Mao also personally defined methods of torture and enjoyed watching them being performed on large a scale. Many were old favorites from history such as death by a thousand cuts, red-hot rods forced into rectums and various other forms of death using water and weights.
He also helped develop new ones, like stuffing gun power into the sinuses of the subject which then were of course, lighted. Or forcing people to eat things not normally digested until they died slowly. In some cases people were kept alive for years so they could learn of their family's fate before meeting their own.
And there was no safety in being close to Mao - just the opposite. Those closest often went first. His own son fell in love with a girl Mao originally brought to court for himself - when she was 12 years old. At first Mao refused to let them marry, but relented and let his jealousy take another course.
A few months later his son was sent to the active Korean battle front where he was quickly killed. Mao then continued the relationship with this daughter-in-law not telling her until years later her husband had died not long after their honeymoon. You'll have to read the book to learn what he did to his other children and wives. I'll warn you, it's not nice.
But let's put aside death for a moment. After all, Mao learned from Stalin that if you keep the numbers up, death is just a statistic. Shit happens when you run a government.
Actually, the bigger crime was probably done to those who LIVED. There were HUNDREDS of MILLIONS living on the EDGE of starvation for YEARS on end so that Mao could send their grain to Russia in exchange for weapons and weapon technology. Literally 38 MILLION people died so Mao could buy the technology to build an atomic bomb which was never used in anger. How's THAT for a Zen weapon? It was WAY more effective at killing people than the two wimpy bombs we dropped on Japan. Oops, I'm back on death.
Other amazing elements of Mao's policy is how he separated couples and families for long periods on a massive scale while not allowing communication with loved ones. It's hard to understand WHY he would do this, but Chang and Halliday show the reasons. And it makes a weird kind of sense. Well sort of, some of the time. The rest of the time Mao just comes off as a wacko with WAY too much power. Taking away each family's wok? Nothing to cook anyway.
Another one of my favorite books is "Hawaii". In one section James Michener describes the hardship of common life in 19th century china. What he described is paradise compared to what Mao created for his "People" in this modern age.
These people were made to sleep outside with no shelter for long periods. In some cases women literally went naked for months at a time because of lack of clothing. Many died of exposure, but the ones who lived, didn't live well. Modern America has NO CLUE about hardship. This book will give you a taste of what humans can endure. It will also allow you to appreciate how easy it can be to turn your back on life, when even endurance becomes a luxury.
This book tells so many secrets on so many levels it's really hard to believe. But what's written seems to be pretty well documented and the detail is amazing.
I've finally discovered what was happening in Red China as I grew up. I never could have imagined it. This book may be the key to never having this happen again. We can hope. Or can we? I wonder what's REALLY going on in North Korea right now.
But that's another post.
If you're interested in China, this is a must read.
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