The Corner

Jonathan Spence On New Mao Book

Jonathan Spence is always worth reading on matters Chinese. In the current

(11/3/05) NY Review of Books he takes on Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s new tome, Mao: The Unknown Story, and raises big, interesting questions — about the book, about Mao, and about the writing of history. Sample (actually the last paragraph of the review):

“As I was reading this book, I kept asking myself why historians should feel that they ought to be fair even to pathological monsters, if that is truly what Mao was. The most salient answer is perhaps structural as much as conceptual. Without some attempt at fairness there is no nuance, no sense of light and dark. The monster, acute and deadly, just shambles on down some monstrous path of his own devising. If he has no conscience, no meaningful vision of a different world except one where he is supreme, while his enemies are constantly humiliated and his people starve, then there is nothing we can learn from such a man. And that is a conclusion that, across the ages, historians have always tried to resist.”

Well, not ALL historians have tried to resist it (Robert Conquest’s biography of Lenin comes to mind)… but the point is a large and important one. That Mao was a monster, there is no doubt. That he was a total, irredeemable monster — this is apparently the burden of the Chang/Halliday book, which I have not read — is not a thought that sits very well with the tradition of Western thought, historical or otherwise. How could it be squared, for example, with the Jewish and Christian belief that each of us is made in God’s image?

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