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One of the most striking figures of the twentieth century is Mao Zedong.  It was Mao who brought China from being a backwards state dominated and humiliated by foreign powers to being a nation whose power and presence in the world could not be ignored.  Rising from the ranks of the commonplace peasantry, imposing his vision with a ruthless will on his divided and diverse people, he united his country against terrible odds and inspired millions of people throughout the world.A professor at Yale and a historian widely regarded as one of the leading scholars on modern Chinese civilization, Jonathan Spence has written a dozen books on China, including several widely recognized works.  In Mao Zedong, he undertakes the truly daunting challenge of producing a small book, just 188 pages, in which he tries to cover the life of a figure who truly looms large over the twentieth century.   Of necessity, Spence’s review of Mao’s life is brief and lacks the copious detail of weightier tomes.  Nevertheless there is an admirable amount of information in this book, and it has the advantage of being written in a detached style.Spence finds Mao a contradictory figure, and he has trouble reconciling all of the various facets of the man’s life.  He explains in his forward that he explains that one of the metaphors he uses to approach Mao is metaphor drawn from the European seasonal traditions of the Middle Ages.  Nobles would appoint a “Lord of Misrule” to exercise free reign and turn the world upside down, making right wrong, wrong right, and wreaking havoc with social status.1  Mao was both the ruler who created China, and at times the ruler who misruled China, plunging the country into wild excesses that brought suffering to millions for truly questionable gains.  Since his death, ongoing revelations about details of his rule have made it increasingly difficult to understand how it was that in China and throughout the world so many people held him in awe, praising his book a quotations as a font of wisdom to which they devoted unqualified, unquestioning zeal.Mao Zedong swam throughout his life.2  Spence finds this a metaphor for his political skill:  Mao had a genius for not sinking, despite facing constant opposition:  militarists, who resented his attacks on their incompetence;3 party rivals, who found him too zealous;4 landlords, who feared and hated his pro-peasant attitude;5 Chiang Kai-shek, who saw him as a mortal enemy;6 the United States after China intervened in the Korean conflict;7 the Soviet Union, after he broke with Khrushchev for his anti-Stalinist rhetoric.8  Mao was equally unsinkable in the domestic turmoil — much of which he brought about — that marked the last decades of his life.9Mao was born in 1893, in a China verging on disintegration, Mao lived in the fading years of the Qin dynasty, a government collapsing amid social and economic unrest, and crumbling under increasing foreign demands.10  The dismemberment of China seemed to be at hand.11Early on as a student, Mao came across the writings of China’s notorious early exponents of cynicism and realpolitik, a 4th century B.C. administrator Lord Shang Yang.  Mao found in Lord Shang someone after whom he could model his own political rise to power.  Lord Shang had put in place laws which he enforced ruthlessly, punishing anyone he considered wicked or rebellious in order to protect the rights of the common people.  Historically, Lord Shang remained one of the most feared figures in China’s long past.  Mao believed this fear and distrust stemmed from a misperception of Lord Shang’s policies:  “At the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the mass of the people always dislike it.”12After the communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Mao became absolute ruler of China.  Soon, he launched into the “Great Leap Forward” of the late 1950s.  It was intended to bring China into the modern age, largely through the efforts of peasants working in communes.13  The results were disastrous, as party zeal overrode all other considerations, leading to widespread famine, the effective collapse of much agriculture, and disastrous misreporting of the food situation throughout the country.   It is now established that some 20 million Chinese died during the famine that followed the Great Leap between 1959 and 1961.14  In the Cultural Revolution of just five years later, millions suffered or perished as Mao combined the ruthlessness of Lord Shang while drawing strength from the waves of Red Guards, chanting slogans taken from his writings.15Despite the agony he caused, Mao was both a visionary and a realist.  As a student, he learned not only how Lord Shang imposed harsh laws on the Chinese people, even when they had no desire for such rule, but also how Lord Shang rigorous rule laid the groundwork in 221 B.C. for the fearsome centralizing government of Qin.  The Qin rulers were hated and feared. But they did precisely wait Mao was able to do:  despite overwhelming obstacles, they had established a united state from a universe in chaos.16  Like the Qin, Mao created modern China out of the chaos it had fallen into.  For his lifetime, he managed to impose his will on the swirling multitude that it China, forming a nation out of chaos.Although brief, Spence’s account shows his command of the material, and his ability to present a wealth of material in a concise format.  While he has included only a brief annotated bibliography, and neither detailed notes on sources nor an index, this book shows an academic’s rigor in the writing.One of the most telling revelations about Mao is his hypocrisy in matters of morals.  Spence openly discusses Mao’s strange sex life, relating his many contacts with young female assistants, several of whom might share his bed together on any given night.  In a nation in which he had declared extramarital sex ”counterrevolutionary,” the Great Leader had banished his wife from his sight, replacing her with young women at whim.17Spence evaluates Mao as a man full of contradictions.  He made serious mistakes, which cause terrible suffering, the consequences of which continue to be felt today.18  On the other hand, despite all of the setbacks that the nation suffered from his ill-advised programs, he built China as a modern nation.  As a political and military leader, he was a genius who towered over his contemporaries.  He remade the most populated nation on earth, and brought it from the brink of dismemberment onto a path to modernity.In the end, Spence is only partly successful in his task.  He crowds a great deal of information into these pages, but eventually, the task he undertakes weighs heavily upon this book.  The changes that came about in China during Mao’s rule are so massive that this book leaves a sense of incompleteness.  The subject is so huge that a treatment of this brevity simply skips to many of the details, the explications of social movements, the interrelationships of what was done that it feels rushed and incomplete.  One almost needs more than this to arrive at a sound understanding of Mao and what he did.

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