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.

6 responses to “Bashing Mao Bashing”

  1. Owen says:

    There is a very worthwhile review of the book from a Marxist perspective in the latest issue of International Socialism Journal. It can be read here, although the for some reason the notes are missing and the formatting is messed – seems to work ok if you cut and paste the text into a word file.

  2. Owen says:

    Just noticed that the online version of this review cuts off before the end too. How infuriating!

  3. That is interesting (what there is of it there): it’s actually one of the most positive detailed reviews I’ve read, though the positive bits mostle come from “yes, we knew that, and it was bad” and from “we don’t have any evidence of this other than this book, but it could have happened”; there’s a pretty big helping of “this didn’t happen that way” and other critical points as well.


  4. CW Hayford says:

    Bill Joseph has a wonderfully helpful website kept at Wellesley which has all sorts of links dealing with Chinese politics —

    There is a section devoted to the reviews of the Chang/ Halliday book: http://www.wellesley.edu/Polisci/wj/ChinaLinks-New/chang-halliday.html

  5. Thanks: I had that linked above under “discussions.” It is a great resource, which I’ve only slightly supplemented here.

  6. Alan Baumler says:

    It just occurred to me that you would be the perfect person to ask what the “revisionist” value of this book is. Although the authors do not situate their book in the historiography (which is to be expected, it’s a popular book) the reviews and blurbs keep emphasizing how it completely changes “our” view of Mao. What I wondered is what the “our” refers to.

    It’s not the ordinary American on the street, or the incoming freshmen in universities. Although “Chairman Moa” is a name that rings a bell, most people seem to come to my classes knowing nothing but the name. I found your concern that they would all show up in your class having read this book touching, but not realistic. It would infuriate me to find out they had read it (What! Why not Wild Swans? I soooo wish you had read Wild Swans instead) but I’m not losing sleep over it. (Do Asian-Americans read this book? We don’t get many here. Maybe you have a different take on this.)

    The book is clearly not revising academic ideas about Mao, since I would say almost all China scholars are aware that Mao personally was a vile person, but they are more concerned with the successes and failures of his political movement than his personal failings. The book is sort of (though not entirely) at cross-purposes with academic work.

    What I was wondering is what the image of Mao is in the more general intellectual culture. Are the New Republic crowd still carrying pictures of Chairman Mao? Did they ever? It sort of seems that the educated-but-not-specialist crowd are the only possible ‘good’ audience for this book, and I’m not sure even there it could have any good effect. What is the “image of Mao?”

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