Mao:The Unknown Story

Mao: The Unknown Story

Mao: The Unknown Story (2005), an eight hundred and thirty two page biography written by the husband and wife team, writer Jung Chang and historian Jon Halliday, depicts Mao Zedong (1893-1976), paramount leader of China and chairman of the Communist Party of China, as being responsible for more deaths in peacetime than Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

In conducting their research for the book over the course of a decade, the authors interviewed hundreds of people who were close to Mao Zedong at some point in his life, used recently published memoirs from Chinese political figures and explored newly opened archives in China and Russia. Chang lived through the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, which she described in her earlier book, Wild Swans, and her experiences gave vividness to her writing and engagement to the analysis. The book climbed best-seller lists in the United Kingdom and North America, but while initial reviews were warm, the reception from academics ranged from great praise to serious criticism.

The book

Chang and Halliday do not accept the idealistic explanations for Mao's rise to power or common claims for his rule. They argue that from his earliest years he was motivated by a lust for power and that Mao had many political opponents arrested and murdered, including some of his personal friends. During the 1920s and 1930s, they argue, Mao could not have gained control of the party without Stalin's patronage, nor were Mao's decisions during the Long March as heroic and ingenious as Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China claimed and thereby entered the mythology of the revolution. Chiang Kai-shek deliberately did not pursue and capture the Red Army because his son was being held hostage in Moscow.

Areas under Communist control during the Second United Front and Chinese Civil War, such as the Jiangxi and Yan'an soviets, were ruled through terror and financed by opium. Mao, they say, sacrificed thousands of troops simply in order to get rid of party rivals, such as Chang Kuo-tao, nor did he take the initiative in fighting the Japanese invaders. Despite being born into a peasant family, when Mao came to power in 1949 he had little concern for the welfare of the Chinese peasantry. Mao's determination to use agricultual surplus to subsidize industry and intimidation of dissent led to murderous famines resulting from the Great Leap Forward, exacerbated by allowing the export of grain to continue even when it became clear that China did not have sufficient grain to feed its population.

The Crossing of Luding Bridge

Chang and Halliday argue that, contrary to revolutionary mythology, there was no battle at Luding Bridge and that tales of a "heroic" crossing against the odds was merely propaganda. Chang found a witness, Li Xiu-zhen, who told her that she saw no fighting and that the bridge was not on fire. In addition, she said that despite claims by the Communists that the fighting was fierce, all of the vanguard survived the battle. Chang also cited Nationalist (Kuomintang) battleplans and communiques that indicated the force guarding the bridge had been withdrawn before the Communists arrived.

A number of historical works, even outside of China, do depict such a battle, though not of such heroic proportions. Harrison E. Salisbury's The Long March: The Untold Story and Charlotte Salisbury's Long March Diary mention a battle at Luding Bridge, but they relied on second-hand information. However, there is disagreement in other sources over the incident. Chinese journalist Sun Shuyun agreed that the official accounts were exaggerated. She interviewed a local blacksmith who had witnessed the event and said that "when [the troops opposing the Red Army] saw the soldiers coming, they panicked and fled — their officers had long abandoned them. There wasn't really much of a battle." Archives in Chengdu further supported this claim.

In October 2005, The Age newspaper reported that it had been unable to find Chang's local witness. In addition, The Sydney Morning Herald found an 85-year old eyewitness, Li Guixiu, aged 15 at the time of the crossing, whose account disputed Chang's claims. According to Li, there was a battle: "The fighting started in the evening. There were many killed on the Red Army side. The KMT set fire to the bridge-house on the other side, to try to melt the chains, and one of the chains was cut. After it was taken, the Red Army took seven days and seven nights to cross."

In a speech given at Stanford University, former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski mentioned a conversation that he once had with Deng Xiaoping. He recalled that Deng smiled and said, “Well, that’s the way it’s presented in our propaganda. We needed that to express the fighting spirit of our forces. In fact, it was a very easy military operation."''

Communist "sleepers"

Notable members of the KMT were claimed to have been secretly working for the Chinese Communists. One such "sleeper" was Hu Zongnan, a senior National Revolutionary Army general. Hu's son objected to this description and his threat of legal action led Jung Chang's publishers in Taiwan to abandon the release of the book there.

Number of deaths under Mao

The book opens with the sentence "Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world's population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth century leader." Chang and Halliday claim that he was willing for half of China to die to achieve military-nuclear superpowerdom. Estimates of the numbers of deaths during this period vary, though Chang and Halliday's estimate is one of the highest. Sinologist Stuart Schram, in a review of the book, noted that "the exact figure... has been estimated by well-informed writers at between 40 and 70 million".

China scholars agree that the famine during the Great Leap Forward caused tens of millions of deaths. Chang and Halliday argue that this period accounts for roughly half of the 70 million total. An official estimate by Hu Yaobang in 1980 put the death toll at 20 million, whereas Philip Short in his 2000 book Mao: A Life found 20 to 30 million to be the most credible number. Chang and Halliday's figure is 37.67 million, which historian Stuart Schram indicated that he believes "may well be the most accurate.

Professor R. J. Rummel published updated figures on world-wide democide in 2005, stating that he believed Chang and Halliday's estimates to be mostly correct and that he had revised his figures for China under Mao accordingly.

Response to the book

Mao: The Unknown Story became a bestseller, with UK sales alone reaching 60,000 in six months. Academics and commentators wrote reviews ranging from great praise to serious criticism. In describing the criticism the book drew, Jonathan Fenby (editor-in-chief of the investment intelligence service Trusted Sources) wrote that "some of the world's leading China experts [had] united to unleash a barrage of criticism of the book in general, and, in particular, of its sourcing."


Simon Sebag Montefiore lauded the book in The Times, calling Chang and Halliday's work "a triumph" which "exposes its subject as probably the most disgusting of the bloody troika of 20th-century tyrant-messiahs, in terms of character, deeds — and number of victims... This is the first intimate, political biography of the greatest monster of them all — the Red Emperor of China.

In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof referred to the book as a "magisterial work". Kristof said that it did a better job demonstrating that Mao was a "catastrophic ruler" than anything else written to date. In his words Mao's "ruthlessness" was "brilliantly captured in this extraordinary book".

Gwynne Dyer praised the book for documenting "Mao's crimes and failures in unrelenting, unprecedented detail" and stated he believed it would eventually have a similar impact in China as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago did in the Soviet Union.

Michael Yahuda, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, also expressed his support in The Guardian. He referred to it a "magnificent book" and "a stupendous work" which cast "new and revealing light on nearly every episode in Mao's tumultuous life.

Professor Richard Baum of the University of California said that "it has to be taken very seriously as the most thoroughly researched and richly documented piece of synthetic scholarship yet to appear on the rise of Mao and the CCP." Though it was "not a sufficiently rich or nuanced interpretive scaffolding to support the full weight of the Chinese experience under Mao," Baum still believed that "this book will most likely change forever the way modern Chinese history is understood and taught.

Stuart Schram, while criticizing certain aspects of Mao: The Unknown Story, argued in a review in The China Quarterly that Chang and Halliday's book was "a valuable contribution to our understanding of [Mao] and his place in history.

Princeton University Professor of Chinese literature Perry Link praised the book in The Times Literary Supplement and emphasized the effect the book could have in the West.

"Part of Chang and Halliday's passion for exposing the 'unknown' Mao is clearly aimed at gullible Westerners..... For decades many in the Western intellectual and political elites have assumed that Mao and his heirs symbolize the Chinese people and their culture, and that to show respect to the rulers is the same as showing respect to the subjects. Anyone who reads Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's book should be inoculated against this particular delusion. If the book sells even half as many copies as the 12 million of Wild Swans, it could deliver the coup de grace to an embarrassing and dangerous pattern of Western thinking.


Chang and Halliday's book has been strongly criticized by a number of academic experts. While generally agreeing with the authors that Mao was "a monster", scholars who specialize in modern Chinese history and politics have questioned the factual accuracy of a number of Chang and Halliday's conclusions, pointed out their selective use of evidence, and called into question their objectivity, among other criticisms.

Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University published an extensive evaluation of the book in the London Review of Books. While he was complementary of the book in some respects — noting for example that it "shows special insight into the suffering of Mao’s wives and children" — and acknowledged that it might make real contributions to the field, Nathan's review was largely negative. Concerned that much of the authors' research was very difficult to confirm or simply unreliable, he noted that "many of their discoveries come from sources that cannot be checked, others are openly speculative or are based on circumstantial evidence, and some are untrue." Nathan suggested that Chang and Halliday's own anger with the Chinese leader caused them to portray "a possible but not a plausible Mao" or a "caricature Mao" and to eschew a more complex explanation of modern Chinese history in favor of "a simple personalisation of blame. Similarly, Professor Jonathan Spence of Yale University argued in the New York Review of Books that the authors' single focus on Mao's vileness had undermined "much of the power their story might have had.

Tom Worger of University of California, San Diego has criticized the statistical methodology employed by Chang and Halliday. Worger concluded that the authors inflate numbers for shock value as a marketing tactic. Worger cites the work of author observers that contradicts the conclusions of Chang and Halliday. In particular, Worger finds it implausible and confusing that according to the author's 10 percent death rate there were 27 million deaths in Chinese labor camps when a total of 50 million prisoners passed through the camps.

Stacy Jer criticizes what she consider to be factual inaccuracies in the book. Specifically, the assertion that Mao's quest for technology was the driving force behind China's participation in the Korean War has been challenged. It's been said that a careful review of the record shows that China was actually hesitant to enter the war in Korea. Jer states that evidence refuting Chang and Halliday's claim that Mao needed the war is ample and well-known.

David S. G. Goodman, Professor of Contemporary China Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, wrote a sharply critical review of Chang and Halliday's book in The Pacific Review. He suggested that there is an implied argument in Mao: The Unknown Story that there has been "a conspiracy of academics and scholars who have chosen not to reveal the truth" - an argument which he likened to the conspiracy theorizing of the The Da Vinci Code. Goodman argued that "the 'facts' in The Da Vinci Code are about as reliable as those to be found in...Mao: The Unknown Story." Goodman argued that the style of writing was "extremely polemic" and that the book could even be thought of as a "form of fiction" where "a strong narrative" is "a substitute for evidence and argument." Like other reviewers Goodman was highly critical of Chang and Halliday's methodology and use of sources as well as several of their specific conclusions. He also noted that their focus on vilifying Mao led them to write "demonography" rather than objective history and biography. Overall Goodman viewed Mao: The Unknown Story as an example of a book that had "sacrificed intellectual reputation on the altar of instant celebrity.

Professor Thomas Bernstein of Columbia University referred to the book as "... a major disaster for the contemporary China field..." because the "scholarship is put at the service of thoroughly destroying Mao's reputation. The result is an equally stupendous number of quotations out of context, distortion of facts and omission of much of what makes Mao a complex, contradictory, and multi-sided leader."

A detailed examination of Mao: The Unknown Story was published in the January 2006 issue of the The China Journal. The editors divided Mao's life into four periods and had expert scholars on these various periods review the relevant portions of Chang and Halliday's book while also evaluating the work overall. Each reviewer pointed out a significant number of factual errors and examples of misuse of sources en route to concluding that the book was too flawed to be considered a valuable scholarly work. For example, Professors Gregor Benton (Cardiff University) and Steve Tsang (University of Oxford) argued that the book was "bad history and worse biography" which made "numerous flawed assertions." Chang and Halliday "misread sources, use them selectively, use them out of context, or otherwise trim or bend them to cast Mao in an unrelentingly bad light." They discuss a number of specific errors and problematic sourcing practices before concluding that the book "does not represent a reliable contribution to our understanding of Mao or twentieth-century China. Timothy Cheek (University of British Columbia) argued in his review that "Chang and Halliday's book is not a history in the accepted sense of a reasoned historical analysis," rather it "reads like an entertaining Chinese version of a TV soap opera." Cheek found it "disturbing...that major commercial Western media can conclude that this book is not only history, but terrific history.

Authors' response to criticism

In December 2005, an article by The Observer newspaper on the book contained a brief statement from Chang and Halliday in regards to the general criticism.

"The academics' views on Mao and Chinese history cited represent received wisdom of which we were well aware while writing our biography of Mao. We came to our own conclusions and interpretations of events through a decade's research."
The authors also responded to Andrew Nathan's review in a letter to The London Review of Books.

English language publication

  • Publisher: Random House
    • Publication date: June 2, 2005
    • ISBN 0-224-07126-2
  • Publisher: Knopf

Mao: The Unknown Story was on the Sunday Times bestseller list at number 2, in July 2005.


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