Review: Tome on Mao takes balanced approach in assessing life of Chinese leader

  • Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:01 a.m.

MAO: The Real Story. By Alexander V. Pantsov with Steven Levine. Simon & Shuster. 755 pages. $35.

Just how bad a guy was Mao Zedong? Often considered one of the 20th century’s greatest monsters, Mao was a peasant turned intellectual turned guerrilla fighter turned dictator. He co-founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, and after sending the Chinese Nationalist Party packing to Taiwan, he entered Beijing at the head of the People’s Liberation Army and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which he ruled until his death in 1976.

He was responsible for millions of deaths, most from starvation during “The Great Leap Forward,” 1958-61, a period of forced modernization as agricultural quotas were increased even as food output plummeted.

This new biography aims for a balanced view. The authors remark that the “scale of his crimes was even greater” than Stalin’s, but he was “not as merciless.” Also, they note how in his early days, Mao was a utopian thinker with genuine concern for the Chinese people.

Most importantly, “Mao: The Real Story” is prodigiously researched, based on new sources from Russian archives. It uncovers new evidence that Mao was always a faithful follower of Stalin and his personal life.

The previous major biography, “Mao: The Untold Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday from 2005, portrays him as vicious and cruel, arguing that his heroic exploits were never more than political propaganda, a finding scholars have disputed.

Pantsov and Levine, on the other hand, say that Mao’s life was too rich and important to be boiled down into a single meaning. This dense tome might not be the best starting place for readers. “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” written by Dr. Li Zhisui, his personal physician and confidante, is gossipy, salacious fun. And Jonathan Spence’s “Mao Zedong: A Life” tells the story well in less than 200 pages.

Reviewer Elijah Siegler is a religion professor at the College of Charleston.

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