Book: Mao

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Mao: A Life

Author: Philip Short
Publisher: Owl Books

The definitive biography of the man who dominated modern Chinese history.

When the Nationalists routed a ragtag Red Army on the Xiang River during the Long March, an earthy Chinese peasant with a brilliant mind moved to a position of power. Eight years after his military success, Mao Tse-Tung had won out over more sophisticated rivals to become party chairman, his title for life. Isolated by his eminence, he lived like a feudal emperor for much of his reign after a blood purge took more lives than those killed by either Stalin or Hitler. His virtual quarantine resulted in an ideological/political divide and a devastating reign of terror that became the Cultural Revolution. Though Mao broke the shackles of two thousand years of Confucian right thinking and was the major force of contemporary China, he reverted to the simplistic thinking of his peasant origins at the end, sustained by the same autocratic process that supported China’s first emperors.

One cannot understand today’s China without first understanding Mao. Attempts to view Mao’s life through Western lenses inevitably present a cartoonish monster or hero, both far removed from the real man. Philip Short’s masterly assessment-informed by secret documents recently found in China-allows the reader to understand this colossal figure whose shadow will dominate the twenty-first century.


Of the three great tyrants of the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—the West generally knows the least about the latter. What we do know is that he was every bit as genocidal in his policies as either of the other two great villains of the age. In fact, in purely statistical terms, Mao might have been responsible for the deaths of more people than Hitler and Stalin combined. However, Philip Short’s immense but immensely readable and impressively researched biography of the man goes far deeper than this. Yes, he acknowledges, Mao was a tyrant, but then China always has been run by tyrants; it never has had a tradition of democracy. And Mao was also an idealist: the deaths of millions was, as he saw it, the price that his country had to pay for being dragged from a state of medieval servitude—perpetually on the brink of famine—to that of a modern, industrialized, self-sufficient nation, in the space of a single lifetime. Short also humanizes Mao, and shows a man who had a profound and sincere interest in Chinese philosophy and poetry, and a surprisingly sharp sense of humor. None of this can exonerate Mao from the charge of inhumanity on an epic scale. But it does make for a much more rounded and complex portrait of the figure who, as the 21st century unfolds, might be shown to have had more influence on world history than either Hitler or Stalin. —Christopher Hart,

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