井底之蛙

4/28/2006

Bashing Mao Bashing

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:03 am

My one regret, really, of not going to the AAS this year, was that I could not go to the 20th Century China Forum round table on Chang and Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story. (Honestly, if I had time to read through the catalog, I’m sure I could come up with other regrets, but this is the only one I know about: feel free to e-mail me or comment here with triumphal gloating about the great panels I would have loved….)

Because I teach 20th century China (and World History; I just covered Mao today, in fact), I’ve been following the reviews and discussions of Chang/Halliday pretty closely; I even have a copy of the book, though I haven’t had time to get more than a few chapters in (and read bits and pieces from middle sections) and certainly not had time to do compare/contrast exercises with my other China sources (which includes a couple of Mao books by Spence, Terrill, Salisbury, and Short). The radical revisionism, the centrality of Mao’s legacy to modern China, and the difficulty of talking about Mao without working through (multiple) political and historiographical lenses, makes this challenging material. More so for teachers, I think, because the popularity of the book makes it all the more likely that we will encounter (versions of) their claims in the classroom and in popular discourse. If we chose to ignore the book in our syllabi, it will be the “Elephant in the Room” — an unacknowledged but massively intrusive presence — in the discussions. If we try to tackle the material directly, by assigning the book, then we’ll be involved in a constant critical struggle. Though it’s possible to have a good educational experience by assigning a bad book, the publicly contested issues and the strain on students of constantly doubting a textbook (when all they want is reliable, testable information) nearly guarantee a difficult term.

So I was thrilled to see one of the Forum participants, Joseph Esherick, announce on H-Asia that a student project he had supervised had produced a web site with carefully sourced fact and source checking on some of the dramatic claims. Since one of the book’s main selling points is its cataloging of Mao’s status as the greatest mass murdering autocrat of modern history, the deconstruction of death figures is a great starting place. The Mao site is part of the UCSD Chinese History Resources, a fantastic collection of quick-reference scholarship and reviews (including this cautious review of Chang/Halliday, which pretty closely captures my own feelings about the book on first reading of it).

It seems pretty clear, from the credible reviews and this web site, that Chang and Halliday have been very sloppy, historically speaking, but there is a great deal of new material which might indeed have new and interesting implications. (Honestly, when I write a sentence like this, I’m put in mind of Holocaust denier David Irving, who frequently drew on previously untouched sources … and abused them endlessly to distort the historical record) It needs to be reexamined, published by scholars who are less opaque with citations and sources; primary source collections and interview notes will be necessary before their claims can be accepted.

I’m going to be going through this material in some detail over the next two months: One of the papers I’m delivering at ASPAC 2006 will be a consideration of the political and historiographical issues of teaching Mao, which I hope will spark a discussion and shed more light on the issues. I’ve also proposed and had accepted a new course here, a seminar course on Mao’s life, with a focus on comparative biography and analysis of the discourse around his legacy. Like Esherick, I hope that my advanced students will be able to draw significant conclusions about the flaws and (if we can find any) strengths of Chang/Halliday, with careful guidance.

I’ll finish up here with a link I’ve been holding on to for a while: Photographs of the Cultural Revolution. Most are unexplained, but seem to be public humiliation sessions.

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