Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mao – A Life, by Philip Short

Chen Yun: " Had Mao died in 1956, his achievements would have been immortal. Had he died in 1966, he would still have been a great man. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say"
(Chen Yun – one of the most influential leaders of the People's Republic of China and one of the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party for almost its entire history.)

That statement pretty much summarize Mao’s Life in a succinct statement.   Before 1956, Mao unified China. Between 1956 to 1966, he started the Great leap Forward. Between 1966 to 1976, he started the Cultural Revolution.

In the end, Deng Xiao Ping used Mao’s usual rule of thumb of 30:70 to evaluate Mao’s contribution and mistakes. Mao used the same rule of thumb when he was evaluating the effectiveness of the Great Leap Forward.

Previous MAO Books:
Before this book, I have read 2 other books on Mao: “World's leaders Past and Present: Mao ZeDong” and “Mao: A biography” by Ross Terrill. I remember the one by Ross Terrill affectionally because I was engrossed with the book after my prelims and didn’t do more practice for my O levels.  It was probably my first or second biography that lead me to many other biographies.  From that book, I remembered that I was impressed by 2 things which in the end I wrote a leadership essay on:
- 1. Mao’s courage and determination at a young age whereby he often rebelled against his father and in the end, left home to study at East Mountain Higher Primary School. We admire him for his courage to leave home at such a young age for what he believed.
-2. In September 1926, declaring that peasants and not workers were the future of the China’s revolution and going against the majority of the Chinese Communists who still wanted to emulate the Russian model of workers revolution.

Philip Short’s MAO:


In this book by Philip Short, he actually translates Mao’s writings from various newsletters and from that, he tries to analyze and dissect Mao's thinking. It was very different from the previous MAO books that I read which were more factual. 

Mao was very well read and in a sense, saw life similarly to Taoism or by the motto “ The only constant is change”.  As a student in the Hunan Fourth Province teaching college, he already had those thoughts at the age of 24:

“Where by the others simply rejected the baggage of the Chinese past, Mao sought a synthesis that would reconcile the traditional dialectic of the country's ways of thoughts with Western radicalism.
He understood that change is a constant. China would not disappear but that one form of government will simply change for another. He ends with a line similar to that of Taoism : “I am the most exalted person, and also the most useless one””

He also realized that an overall guiding ideology will be needed: ”All the reforms about parliamentary system, the president are all minor details, side details. Without ultimate principles, such details are superfluous.”

Mao has never left China till he went to Russia to look for aid when China was near unification. Despite that he is very knowledgeable  through books.   On one hand, Mao sees through all the frivolous details and see the bigger picture – for example, when he says “We can’t even discuss communism if we are robbed of a country” when he proposes working together with the nationalists to fight the Japanese;  or taking a very practical approach towards the revolution by quoting  “Power comes from the barrel of the gun!” and not just idealistically thinking that workers uprising in cities throughout China will overthrow the various military governments then present in China.

Yet on the other hand, he always place ideological correctness over economic welfare of the people.  During the Great Leap Forward, Mao understands that big communes may not be productive because everyone lack the self-motivation since you are not paid according to how much you contribute.  However, Mao is not willing to completely remove communes and reinstall individual farms because that is completely removed from the ideals of socialism. 

Hence, it is such a contradiction because Mao understands that nothing last forever, no government lasts forever and no system is perfect.  Yet, on the other hand, he aims to install an ideological system and successors that will carry on even after his death.

All in all, there were 3 core themes that surrounded Mao's life:
  • need for a strong state
  • overriding importance of individual will
  • and the sometimes conflicting, sometimes complimentary relationship between Western and Chinese culture.
MAO’s 2 strategic tactics:
Mao exercised Sun Zi’s Maxims of “Attack where the enemy is the weakest” and “Avoid where the enemy is strong” to near perfection as a guerilla fighter. 

The other key tactic that Mao used very much in political situations was to be ambiguous.  He would lead in a particularly direction, then step back.  From there, he would see how his comrades react.  Suddenly, he would change directions to the other extreme and catch everyone off guard. Mao was a master of political maneuvers. By leading a movement first, then letting his lackeys takeover, Mao can also step in anytime if he disagrees with any action. At the same time, these lackeys would do all the dirty jobs.   No wonder, Lin Biao said the way to survive under Mao was to be “passive, passive and passive.”

Other Takeaways – Peng DeHuai and Liu Shaoqi:

This book also gave me a new insight into historical figures like Peng De Huai and Zhou Enlai.  Peng was the only few that dared to speak up after the Great Leap Forward against the disastrous policies.  For that he paid a heavy price – whereby he lost all his powers and finally died during the Cultural Revolution.   But, Peng was a man who put his country, the party before himself, before Mao.  His allegiance was to the soldiers under him and to the people of China.

I was particularly upset because subsequently Liu Shaoqi also undertook more economically productive polices that went against socialism. He too was subsequently attacked and disgraced during the Cultural Revolution.The saddest thing was that these two men had similar thinking and put the country before self and allegiance to Mao, but just that Liu Shaoqi also jumped on the bandwagon to attack Peng De Huai initially. If Liu had put aside personal disagreements with Peng then, and united with him against Mao, maybe things could have turned out differently.

Zhou Enlai:
Zhou En lai.   He was my hero because of the few events that I learnt about him:  That when he passed away, tens of thousands lined the streets of Beijing to sent him off. And that when the Gang of Four removed  the flower wreaths at the Tiananmen square offered in memory of Zhou , it spark off the protests that subsequently removed the Gang of Four. It was evident how much the Chinese people then loved and respected Zhou Enlai.  Zhou was  a public hero that gave his life (  literally worked) to death.

Zhou was similar to Che Guvera:  Born in a privilege background, he went against his class and gave his life to the welfare of the common people. He was like a romantic hero. 

In personal life, he seems like a perfect man too.  Unlike other communist leaders of that time who divorced their old wives and married younger women where they rose to power, Zhou stuck with his wife even though they were not able to have any children.  When asked about that ( and carrying on the family line was very important to the Chinese context), Zhou said: “ All the children of China are my children!”

In my eyes, he was a perfect man like Gandhi. Afterall, Che had a messy personal life with many dalliances.  Zhou was impeccable both in public life and in personal conduct.  However, in this book, Zhou was also recorded as being responsible for many of the communist internal purging which occurred while they are fighting the nationalists.

So whose left as the perfect person?  Gandhi?  Just that his life had a religious context. 
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