Has anyone read Mehra's works....he is our own China scholar. It is a shame that we hear about China through pop analysis from the likes of Pallavi Aiyar than these scholars.
Mao: ‘the Lord of Misrule’
Review by Parshotam Mehra
Mao by Jonathan Spence. Phoenix paperback, London. Pages xviii plus 205. £ 6.99.
IN his lifetime and since his passing away almost a quarter century ago Mao, the "great helmsman" as he came to be called, attracted no end of attention. His achievements were prodigious: unifying with an iron hand a vast country torn apart by decades of bankrupt political leadership, foreign imperialism and war. And a virtually unending civil strife.
In the event, the birth of the People’s Republic of China which Mao proclaimed on October 1, 1949, was in itself no mean feat. What was more remarkable was that China soon emerged as a powerful state both at home and abroad. The Soviets courted and spurned him by turn. And yet dared not ignore him.
And after all the fire and bile it spewed for two decades and more, the mighty Uncle Sam eventually knocked at his door (1972) to seek a rapprochement. By then, Mao’s China had already taken its place as a great power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
In the bargain though, the price Mao exacted from his land and his people had few equals. The famine and the privations of the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) were unprecedented; millions more were to perish in the mighty cataclysm of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1968-74). In the process, China’s polity and economy, and its traditional hierarchies, were turned upside down. Both in their nature and scope, and the havoc they wrought, these were titanic upheavals whose impact still reverberates in China. Nor has the last word been said on what elemental forces — for good or evil — they represented.
Some biographical details help to put Mao in perspective. He was born (1893) in a small farm village, Shaoshan, almost 30 miles south and slightly west of Changsha, the capital of the province of Hunan. It was a large peasant household of seven children, of whom only three survived, all boys and; Mao being the eldest. Despite his father’s lack of support, he managed some schooling and graduated to reading not only the traditional Confucian canon but a wide range of books, especially historical novels about his country’s past.
By the first decade of the 20th century, China’s ruling Qing dynasty was teetering on the edge of collapse. And when the massive military mutiny at Wuhan (October 10, 1911) toppled it, Mao briefly enrolled himself in the republican army. This was an aberration, for presently he joind a normal school, with its free tuition, cheap room and board. A five-year stint at the school gave Mao support and focus through his language and social science teachers he both admired and respected. And helped him to a clerical job in the Beijing University library. Not that it lasted. Mao was soon back in Changsha teaching history in a primary and middle school and was part of the "May Fourth (1919) Movement", keeping his students and the people up to date on developments. He campaigned hard too for the ouster of Hunan’s ruling militarist General Zhang Jingyao, organised a students’ association and turned into a small businessman, book-seller and school principal.
By the end of 1920, Mao was part of the Changsha Communist "small group" which had emerged in four other cities — Beijing, Wuhan, Jinan (in the province of Shandong) and Canton. And at a public meeting he violently contested Bertrand Russell’s formulation that while communism was alright, he was against "war and bloody revolutions". Mao’s dictum: "This is all very well in theory; in reality, it can’t be done". In July, 1921, he was to attend the first Communist Party congress in Shanghai which laid stress on the overthrow of the capitalist class and the establishment of a classless society with all means of production under "social ownership".
The Comintern-enforced "united front" between the Communist Party and the Guomindang did not carry much conviction with Mao and for a while he withdrew from all party work. By the spring of 1927, however, Chiang struck back — and hard. And with the help of a local secret society and criminal organisations, and the connivance of western powers, he swooped down on Communists and labour leaders. Thousands were killed in Shanghai alone and the Communist movement in the city was nearly wiped out.
Mao’s one lesson from this excruciating experience: the importance of adequate military force to back one’s political goals. Another, to develop the new base area, the Jiangxi Soviet, on the Fujian border where he was to spend the next five years (1930-34). Sadly, it was the subject of repeated assaults by Chiang who was determined to obliterate this main symbol of communist survival.
The decision to abandon it — to which Mao was not a party — was the first step in what later came to be called the Long March.
The March itself, hailed as a great achievement in Communist history was "a nightmare of death and pain" while it was in progress. The huge column of some 86,000 fleeing Communist troops was bogged down with equipment, party files and weapons. And exposed to devastating attacks by the Guomindang artillery and air force which carried away nearly half their number in casualties.
At the end of it all, a bare 7000-8,000 of the column survived to reach the village of Wayahao, in Shagnxi just south of the Great Wall (October, 1935). By the fall of 1936, the Communists had made their headquarters at Yan’an; Mao’s major preoccupation now was to preserve what was left of the Communist organisation and deepen his own hold over the party power.
Meanwhile, the Japanese onslaught in the wake of the notorious Marco Polo Bridge incident, near Beijing, persuaded Chiang to suggest a unified national resistance in which the Communists would also join. And Mao did, with a modicum of "enthusiasm" partly because his base area was insulated from the most desperate zones of fighting — the north China plain, Shanghai, along the Yangtse river.
Chiang and his men suffered the most; the "rape of Nanjing" (December 7) was a mortal blow as were the retreat to Wuhan and later deeper inland to Chongqing.
In a short breathing spell, Mao began to grapple with the adjustment of Marxist philosophy to the ground realities of the Chinese situation even as Lenin had earlier to Russian realities. And here he had the good fortune to avail of the inestimable services of a master theoretician, Chen Boda. The long years of war were indeed a triumph for the Communist Party which emerged stronger and more numerous with powerfully effective techniques of mass mobilisation in China’s rural settings. And genuine skill at the manipulation of belief through well-conceptualised propaganda.
By 1943, there was emerging in Yan’an what may best be called a "cult" of Mao; he was now chairman of the Communist Central Committee and of the Politburo at the same time. The men who had opposed him earlier now hailed him as "the helmsman of the Chinese revolution". An inner core of Mao’s senior colleagues now began to rewrite Chinese party history so that the chairman would forever be at the centre.
One by one, the other rivals of the present and the past were denigrated, their "incorrect lines" exposed and Mao’s wisdom pushed ever further back in time. The party constitution now stated without much ado that it took Mao’s "thought" as the guide for all its work and opposed all "dogmatic or empiricist deviations". As Spence puts it, Marxism was now "signified; the leader was the sage".
The end of the war and the Japanese surrender gave Mao the chance he had been long waiting for. From their Yan’an base and guerrilla units based in Shandong, the Communists moved troops into Manchuria, much faster than the KMT could. And with active Soviet help made deep inroads. In September, 1947, Mao issued what came to be seen as one of his most important pronouncements on military strategy and announced a nationwide counter-offensive to seize the initiative by moving from "interior lines" of warfare to "exterior lines".
His strategy was astonishingly successful; by 1948 Communist troops had totally routed Guomindang armies in Manchuria and were ready to move south. Before long, their military morale collapsed, dogged by civilian revulsion with the financial chaos brought about by rampant corruption. Beijing fell in January, 1949, Nanjing in April, Shanghai in May and Changsha in August. On October 1, 1949, climbing to a reviewing stand on the Tiananmen Gate, Mao proclaimed the birth of the PRC.
His visit to the Soviet Union (December, 1949-January, 1950) was a landmark of sorts. Spence reveals that Mao’s "most frank" exchange with Stalin was over Tibet when he confided that Chinese troops were "currently preparing" for an assault and asked to continue the loan of Soviet aircraft to ferry them. Stalin’s response that Tibetans "need to be subdued" pleased Mao.
It is "almost inconceivable", Spence argues, that Mao wanted the Korean war but once it had come, he followed the campaigns with "meticulous attention" and intervened "countless times" with his orders and tactical suggestions. As "instigator and manipulator" of the war in Korea, Mao slowly began to assume the same total roles in his "supervision" of the Chinese people. For by late 1953 he was not only chairman of the five million-strong CCP but of the Military Commission that controlled the armed forces as well as chairman of the PRC. Presently, the end of the Korean war and Stalin’s death (1953) left Mao in a virtually unchallenged position in the world communist pantheon.
The long text of Mao’s four-hour speech on "Contradictions" (February, 1957) was the harbinger of the Great Leap Forward campaign launched towards the end of the year. In the chairman’s mind, the GLF was to combine the imperatives of large-scale agriculture with a close utopian vision of the ending of distinctions between occupations, sexes, ages and levels of education. The end-result though was catastrophic; the 1960-61 famine alone claimed 20 million lives.
Sadly, as Spence underlines, Mao was now "more and more" divorced from the ground reality and seemed to care "less and less" about the consequences that might spring from his own "erratic" utterances. He had never visited any foreign land apart from the Soviet Union (1949 and 1957). And at home, he was increasingly intolerant of all opposition to his views. Deng was dismissed as editor of the party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (June, 1957) and Marshal Peng Dehui consigned to the doghouse in the wake of the Lushan plenum (summer of 1959). The crisis deepened as the party continued to enforce its laws on grain procurement from fields "where almost no crops grew". The Maoist vision had "finally tumbled into a nightmare".
In the 1960s as he grew older, Mao had apparently further increased his isolation from his own people even as he "claimed to speak in their name". Later while he "did not precisely orchestrate" the Cultural Revolution, he "created an environment" that made it possible. The violence of the revolution was manifested at two levels. From the political centre controlled by a small group totally loyal to Mao; and unorchestrated revolutionary violence in a vaguely designated direction in search of rightists or "feudal remnants", "snakes and monsters" and "people in authority taking the rightist road". The number of victims from this uncoordinated violence was "incalculable". But "there were many millions", some killed; some committed suicide; some crippled or scarred emotionally for life.
Shortly before his death, the chairman rated his two achievements; battling Chiang for years and finally chasing him off to that "little island" of Taiwan. And making the Japanese return to their ancestral home. As for the cultural revolution it seemed unfinished, the task must pass to the next generation — peacefully if possible; in turmoil if necessary.
What will happen to the next generation if all fails? he asked. There may be a foul wind and a rain of blood. How will you cope? Heaven only knows?
A slim volume with less than 200 pages of text, it offers an excellent sum-up of Mao, his "thought" and all that it stood for. Based on the most up to date research, the objective is to show how Mao was able to rise so high and sustain his eccentric flight for so long. Mao’s "terrible accomplishment", it argues, was to seize "insights" from earlier Chinese philosophers and combine them with "elements" from western socialist thought. And to use both in tandem to prolong a long drawn-out adventure in upheaval.
Recalling a well-worn European tradition of the Middle Ages about a Lord of Misrule in great households who presided over the revels that briefly reversed and parodied the conventional social and economic hierarchies, Spence underlines that in sharp contrast to that tradition, Mao was to prolong his misadventure for far too long. More, this Lord of Misrule could not be "deflected" by criticisms based on conventional premises, his own sense of omniscience being too strong.
Refraining from any overall assessment, Spence furnishes a balanced and reliable array of facts and makes them speak for themselves. He offers an illuminating insight into Mao’s development through a close and careful examination of all that he read and wrote during his early formative years. One of the toughest and strongest in China’s long tradition of formidable rulers, Mao possessed "a relentless energy and a ruthless self-confidence"; his rhetoric and inflexible lead to the mobilisation of millions of his people.
Jonathan Spence, rated "one of the greatest historians" of China, has written extensively and authoritatively, both on the old and new China; among his better-known works two stand out: ‘’The Gate of Heavenly Peace" and "The Death of Woman Wang". Spence teaches Chinese history at Yale University and in 1994 was appointed honorary professor at the University of Nanjing.