Mao in History
Mini Teaser: During the first decades of Mao's China, a time of American self-confidence and strong sense of purpose spurred by the World War II victory, U.S. Sinology for the most part took on an "idealist" rather than a "realist" orientation: hopeful about s
Early one morning in the summer of 1972, John King Fairbank, my
senior colleague among Harvard's East Asia faculty at the time,
phoned to ask if I would look over a draft article for Foreign
Affairs summing up his first trip to China since the 1940s. The piece
was fairly indulgent toward Mao's regime. Over lunch that day, I said
to Fairbank, "This trip to China must have been moving." He nodded
and said, "Well, you know, I've been on their side ever since 1943."
In Fairbank's draft I queried the sentence: "The Maoist revolution is
on the whole the best thing that has happened to the Chinese people
in many centuries." The dean of American Sinology, to whom I owe
much, stuck with it. But he added the words: "At least, most Chinese
seem now to believe so, and it will be hard to prove otherwise."
During the first decades of Mao's China, a time of American
self-confidence and strong sense of purpose spurred by the World War
II victory, U.S. Sinology for the most part took on an "idealist"
rather than a "realist" orientation: hopeful about social progress,
benevolent in its view of human nature, open to strong leadership.
Since America was the chief bastion outside China of contemporary
China studies, this buoyant, progressive mindset influenced the
worldwide image of Mao Zedong. True, during the first years after
1949 Mao was viewed in a totalitarian framework as a junior Stalin,
but within a decade this view gave way to a more open-minded one of
the Chinese leader as a flexible Asian communist. The Sino-Soviet
split in the early 1960s and the subsequent Nixon opening to China of
1971-72 further softened Mao's image.
While he was serving as President Nixon's national security adviser,
Henry Kissinger, back at Harvard in January 1971 for a dinner with
international affairs faculty, remarked that whereas in the Kennedy
and Johnson administrations "Dean Rusk used to compare Mao
unfavorably with Hitler, in this administration we compare Mao
favorably with Hitler." A small change, strictly speaking, yet a
large change in political-philosophical terms.
Even after Mao's death in 1976, Sinologists, influential Americans
like Nixon and Kissinger, and many leaders of the Democratic Party
tended to defend the rationality and sincerity of the Chinese
leader's attempts at social engineering, while acknowledging his
excesses and errors in the Great Leap Forward (communes, backyard
steel furnaces) of the late 1950s, and the Cultural Revolution (Red
Guards, book burning) of the late 1960s. Distilled through U.S.
Sinological research, the popular image of Mao in the West--until the
1990s--was less bleak than those of Stalin and Hitler, which were
more shaped by the "realist" approach of European political science.
It took most of the Deng Xiaoping era (1979-97) to make Mao look
American Sinology was traditionally more idealistic, too, than
Sinology pursued in Taiwan. Among American scholars there was well
into the 1960s a tenacious expectation of unity in the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP), against mounting signs to the contrary and in
the face of evidence collected by China scholars in Taiwan that Mao
was in tension with his top colleague, Liu Shaoqi, and other senior
figures. As a student embarking on China studies, I adopted some of
this idealism--modified by Australian skepticism--and my early
writings lacked realism about Chinese politics. During the Cultural
Revolution, American analysts were more inclined than those in Taiwan
to see idealistic impulses behind the Red Guard turmoil. In general,
from 1949 onward American Sinology focused on what made communist
China tick, while Taiwanese analyses focused on cracks in the edifice
of the regime.
The loss of life during Mao's Great Leap Forward was estimated by
Richard Walker, a leading anti-communist scholar of the 1960s and
1970s, at 1-2 million. As a graduate student at Harvard in the late
1960s, I remember John Fairbank scoffing at Walker's "extreme views"
about sufferings during the PRC's first decade. Some indulgence
toward Mao's errors by Fairbank and others stemmed from resentment at
Senator Joseph McCarthy's potshots at China specialists. Still, the
picture we now have of the Great Leap Forward, based largely on
documentary sources available within China, is much bleaker than that
suggested by the hardest of anti-communists in the 1960s. A thorough
1996 study, Hungry Ghosts, by the British journalist Jasper Becker,
puts the loss of life at 30 million.
China specialists during the 1960s and 1970s could see a number of
evils and injustices in China; if pressed, few of us would have
denied that China harbored tens of thousands of political prisoners,
or claimed that the former Defense Minister Peng Dehuai--who
questioned the Great Leap Forward--got a fair go from Mao in their
confrontation of 1959. Yet an intellectual fascination with the
gyrations of Chinese communist politics operated to restrain our
judgment. This tendency toward a hands-off objectivity was reinforced
by the existence of polemicists who did only evaluation, wielding
totalitarian theory crudely or taking a purely moral stance toward
Who would have guessed at Mao's death in 1976, or even at the tenth
anniversary of his death in 1986, that by the twentieth anniversary
in 1996 much of the focus on Mao would have shifted to his personal
ways--indeed to that most personal of all realms, sexual life? But
then Americans of the Ronald Reagan era in the 1980s might not have
guessed that a U.S. president elected in 1992 would spend his first
months in the White House on the issue of homosexuals in the
military, the first weeks after his re-election in 1996 on the issue
of sexual harassment in the military, and much of early 1998
defending himself against rumors of sex in the White House.
In 1980, I was criticized in reviews of the first edition of my
biography Mao for paying too much attention to Mao's personality and
personal life. Professor Edwin Moise spoke for many when, in the
bibliography of his 1986 book Modern China: A History, he recommended
my book but warned that it "concentrates too much on details of Mao's
personal life." Yet a decade later, in a number of serious works,
details of Mao's personal life took center stage. Although my
suggestion of the possibility of intimacy between Mao and his
"confidential secretary" Zhang Yufeng had been rejected, later
revelations turned possibility into certainty. Today, indeed, Mao is
as often viewed as a conspirator and lecher as he is as a unifier of
China, philosopher of Asian communism, and major architect of the
collapse of the communist bloc.
A tendency to believe the best about Mao was not the only reason why
Western Sinology was for some years disinclined to see the
pathological in him. Another was the absence of authoritative
evidence of his willful and mindless ways. By the 1990s the material
base for viewing Mao's methods of rule has become much more extensive
than it was during his lifetime. More than any other single work in
English, it is The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994) by Dr. Li
Zhisui that consolidates this new perception in the West. Despite
questions one might have about the reasons for Mao's physician's
sourness toward Mao and the CCP, the book is the only memoir we have
by a close associate of the leader who defected from China and then
told his story.
Li Zhisui was an elitist intellectual. Little in his background or
the working of his mind suggested sympathy for communist goals. But
Mao liked staff members who had been in the West or had a Western
education: Li had returned to China from Australia after the
communist takeover, seeking to make a contribution to his homeland.
When summoned to serve as Mao's doctor in 1954, he demurred on the
ground that his "class background" was far from working-class, but
Mao told him that "sincerity" was all that counted. Perhaps there was
an admirable root to Mao's embrace of the stubborn physician.
Sycophancy was the norm in Mao's court, but Dr. Li was a rather
arrogant man who sometimes declined to oblige, and something in Mao
may have recognized the authenticity of Li's independence of mind. Or
perhaps Mao liked the challenge of correcting a wayward intellectual.
The West is in a phase of skepticism about leadership, and it needs
China less than it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Both points have
affected the discussion of Mao, as they have affected U.S.-China
relations. Two or three decades after the death of the last titans of
the World War II era--De Gaulle, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao--China studies
have become influenced by the anti-heroic lens now typically applied
to political leaders. Economists and sociologists, with their focus
on structure rather than will, lead the field in China studies. It is
revealing that Lucian Pye told us in 1996 that he pulled his punches
in his 1976 book Mao Zedong: The Man in the Leader in not stating--as
he says he believed--that Mao "was probably a narcissist with a
borderline personality." By 1996 he felt he could come out with his
long-held conclusion. The evidence for Pye's delayed conclusion of
Mao as a borderline personality mounts by the year. It includes his
youthful loneliness and fascist ideas, the constant psychosomatic
illness to which his doctor testifies (Li uses the term
"neurasthenia", which is no longer in wide professional use), his
treatment of family members, his addiction to barbiturates, his lack
of give-and-take with colleagues, and his suspiciousness.