Jonathan Spence on Mao Zedong

Over the last few years I’ve had pretty good luck with the Penguin Lives books. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with them, they’re a series of short biographies of notable historical figures, all written by respected authors. Not long ago I featured Martin E. Marty’s biography of Martin Luther. Before that, on my old Vox blog I featured Gary Wills’s biography of St. Augustine. I even have a copy of Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, which has been sitting half-finished on my bedside bookshelf for who knows how long.

During one of my recent library visits I happened to find another book from this series. Unlike the three previously mentioned ones, this one is not a biography of a religious figure. From the hand of noted China expert Jonathan Spence, the Penguin Lives edition of the life of Mao Zedong is exactly what I expected. It is a readable but not flashy biography of the Chinese Communist leader. Therefore, like the other books in this series, it delivers the goods.

Even though Spence’s biography is rather short one, I still managed to learn more than a few things about the life of Mao Zedong. For instance, during the height of the Cultural Revolution at a time when the world would always associate Mao with his “Little Red Book” of collected writings, and with it the treatment of the book as a kind of holy writ not only by the Chinese but by the revolutionary minded from across the globe. The reality is Mao, even by his own admission, was always a peasant at heart. Even though he received a modest level of education, and was an avid reader, only later during his years as a guerilla leader that he finally devoted himself to the serious study of Marxist theory, mostly to help him gain an intellectual advantage over his Soviet-trained Communist rivals. Mao was also a bit of a “lady’s man”, marrying several times over his lifetime, fathering children both inside and outside marriage and even as a senior citizen enjoying the comforts of much younger women. Lastly, while his famous meetings with President Nixon would make front page news, little did the world know that at the time Mao was in incredibly poor health and suffering from multiple degenerative afflictions. Barely able to sit up, let alone walk unassisted, Mao would communicate only with help of a secretary who would read his written statements aloud.

While I wished Spence could have spent a bit more time discussing the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, alas this is an introductory biography and therefore I’m quite confident that a more in-depth treatment of those two eras can be found in other Chinese history books. Fortunately, Spence’s biography has inspired me to read other books related to China. I have Ha Jin’s novel Waiting and Aaron Friedberg’s A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia both sitting by my bed needing to be read. Maybe Spence’s biography of Mao will inspire me to finally read them.



Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, History

5 responses to “Jonathan Spence on Mao Zedong

  1. I’m reading Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story. He was an inveterate womanizer, but I think calling him a “peasant at heart” is a bit generous. He “admitted” to many things that made him look better than he was. He hated work, ignored his family’s farm, and did his best to spend his time (and his father’s money) in school — even though he was not always a successful student. Just because he wasn’t a true Communist scholar doesn’t mean he was a peasant farmer, either. But then again, I’m steeped in the mythology (and a desire to undermine it) over here.

    • Good point. Most if not all peasants are hard-working people. Maybe “bumpkin” is a better word to use !
      I’ve heard of those two books, I need to read em!

  2. Good review – Spence’s bio of Mao was very informative, but necessarily abridged due to its short length. If you’re looking for more about his policies, I’d suggest reading “Mao’s Last Revolution” – it’s all about Mao’s role in fomenting and perpetuating the cultural revolution (1966-1977). It’s a scholarly work, so a bit dense, but very informative. Jung and Halliday’s book is a fun read, but it’s more of a polemic than a history. Also look for the The Private Life of Chairman Mao. There’s some controversy over the veracity of this one, but it seems to stand up to scrutiny by China experts.

    • Thanks for the suggestions! I’ll have to check them out. After reading Spence’s biography now I’m a bit intrigued with both the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.
      Long time no see Pete! Drop by again sometime!

  3. Pingback: Biographies of faith: Pope John XXIII by Thomas Cahill | Maphead's Book Blog

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