Mao: the unknown story

by Jung Chang

Paper Book, 2005




New York, Alfred A. Knopf, c2005


Based on a decade of research and on interviews with many of Mao's close circle in China who have never talked before--and with virtually everyone outside China who had significant dealings with him--this is the most authoritative life of Mao ever written. It is full of startling revelations, exploding the myth of the Long March, and showing a completely unknown Mao: he was not driven by idealism or ideology; his intricate relationship with Stalin went back to the 1920s, ultimately bringing him to power; he welcomed the Japanese occupation; and he schemed, poisoned and blackmailed to get his way. After he conquered China in 1949, his secret goal was to dominate the world. He caused the deaths of 38 million people in the greatest famine in history. In all, well over 70 million Chinese perished under Mao's rule--in peacetime. This entirely fresh look at Mao will astonish historians and the general reader alike.--From publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

This huge biography of the 20th-century political giant is based on prodigious research and contains fascinating new material. Jung Chang, who is of Chinese origin, and Jon Halliday, her British husband, offer plenty of passion and detail in their unremittingly negative but engrossing portrait of Mao Tse-Tung. Overall the book is less the "unknown story" promised by the subtitle than a known story distilled into a polemic.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jcbrunner
This breathtaking biography of one of the 20th century's greatest villains is written with the fiery passion of personal involvement. Jung Chang's family suffered for their privileged position as intellectual upper party members during the Cultural Revolution. While Mao's life is presented from a hostile perspective, it looks to me firmly grounded in fact. The husband and wife team interviewed hundreds of people in China and around the globe (from Albania to Zaire) about Mao. Page after page of interviewees offers testimony to their exhaustive research as does the 58 pages long bibliography.

The most surprising fact about Mao was that he didn't believe in communism. From his early Randian ramblings on, he was interested in power. Joining the Communists. If another party had offered him a better way to power, he would have jumped ship. Not feeling any allegiance to party and idea proved to be a tactical advantage in the power struggle with his peers who often chose to sacrifice themselves for the party's sake. In contrast to most human beings, Mao only cared about himself, abandoning allies, wives and his children without qualms. Chiang Kai-shek let himself be controlled by Stalin holding his son hostage. Mao didn't care about the fate of his son held by Stalin.

Mao's supreme management incompetence is another unexpected finding of this biography. Time and time again, Mao managed to exhaust and destroy territories and armies put under his command. Most of his rivals were much more capable in command. Like a clumsy cat, Mao managed to land on his feet and walk elegantly away from the debris of his latest catastrophe. Despite a track record of failure, Mao fell upward and upward. Stalin somehow admired his survivor capability. Mao would not quit.

Regarding his management style, he was supreme at using Richard Nixon's Orthogonian technique of relying on building coalitions of less efficient but totally dependent toadies. They knew that they owed their position to Mao, a fact Mao made clear by humiliating them in public, again and again. Mao's meanness knew no bound: He even denied Zhou Enlai cancer treatment.

The biography also reveals that many of the commonly told stories need to be revised, e.g. Mao and the Communist leadership did not march but was carried on litters by starving and dying porters during the Long March. The Communists were also not in danger from Chiang Kai-shek who had pre-arranged the destination of the march with Stalin and used the Communists to gain entry into warlord-dominated Sichuan. Only when Mao foolishly deviated from the script was blood shed. Mao also needlessly prolonged the march by senseless deviations. He also didn't fight the Japanese during WWII, using them to weaken Chang Kai-shek and waiting for the war to end.

Overall, a stunning read about the 20th century's greatest butcher. One wonders where China might be now if its economic recovery process had started at the same time as the Wirtschaftswunder. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member mkp
At first, I was put off by the heavily polemical style and constant sneers at Mao. But I pushed on, and I'm glad that I did. Read the book, not as academic history or as a scientific investigation, but more as a bill of indictment. Chang and Halliday spent ten years digging up an extraordinary wealth of material, and I doubt anyone will ever match what they have done. They had access to Russian archival material and various aging eye-witnesses in China that have not been available to previous historians. Of course, it's possible that the authors' attitude to their subject impaired their ability to work, but I think that the sweep of their narrative, combined with the details that they have uncovered, make the whole work compelling. Adding up the plusses and minuses, I would still give it a strong recommendation.

I read Jonathon Spence's book on Modern Chinese History, which I liked very much. His NYRB review was guardedly critical, mostly because of their attitude, but he didn't seem to criticise specific elements in terms of their veracity.
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LibraryThing member Scapegoats
This is a really well-researched book that is also very readable, but it is also seriously flawed. Chang and Halliday set out to prove that Mao was basically a sociopath, seeing in each of Mao's actions a machiavellian tendency to turn any situation to his advantage regardless of the lives destroyed. Showing that Mao was a sociopath is not that hard, but the authors take it to an extreme. They seem to think they know Mao's inner thoughts and motivations, even when there is no evidence to support them. It weakens an otherwise very interesting book because they overstate what they actually know. It reads more like an extended public lecture on the evilness of Mao. It entertains, but it also glosses over trying to prove some of its assertions.

The authors' overreach is unfortunate because they have done a tremendous job of digging into Mao's past. This is the most thorough biography of the man I have seen. Showing that Mao had no empathy for anyone and was a monster is not hard, so they didn't need to stretch their argument so far.

There are a lot of good points for the book. They do a great job of showing Mao's machinations of the Red Army on the Long March and again during the Rectification Campaigns in Yenan. This is where they pull together some very compelling evidence for his ruthlessness in removing enemies through intrigue and assassination. They also do a good job of showing how Mao used terror to cement his rule. The picture they paint is almost straight out of 1984.

They dismiss Mao's strategic capabilities in both WWII and the Civil War that followed. They instead give credit to his subordinates while also pointing to incompetence or betrayals of key Nationalist figures. While there is certainly some truth to the fact that Mao's reputation for genius is overstated, the authors make it seem like the ultimate victory of the Communists in the Civil War had almost nothing to do with Mao's leadership.

When discussing the Great Leap Forward, they have a plethora of sources, so I can't complain about their conclusions. They paint the GLF in an international context, showing how Mao wanted to supplant the Soviets as the leader of international communism. This led to increased grain exports at below cost prices, which contributed to famines in the countryside. They argue that the famine was initially kept from Mao, but when he found out about it, he considered the reports of famine exaggerated and a price worth paying for the greatness of China (meaning the greatest of Mao). This was probably the best section of the book.

The Cultural Revolution was a little more suspect. The period was full of confusion and contradiction, but the authors seem to think Mao had a plan the whole time, although that plan changed several times. They also attribute a lot of control to Mao, most likely overstating how much he was able to dictate things.

The opening with the United States and his death offer very little new, but it is a very interesting and detailed account. As per usual, they attribute every utterance from his mouth as an attempt to manipulate the situation to his own advantage, but they seem to be on more solid ground for these areas.

Overall, this book is very detailed and readable, but it is long and goes on about Mao's sociopathy ad nauseam. I recommend it if you have a lot of time and really interested in modern China. It covers a lot of ground and tells a very good story.
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LibraryThing member Urquhart
Mao the Unknown Story by Jung Chang


Not a dedicated ideologue but a tyrant who needed money, military supplies, and intelligence from Russia in order to get where he wanted to go..

Not a simple man, but one who truly wanted to rule China and would do absolutely anything to make that possible.

His incredibly complex, cut-throat and self-serving machinations throughout his life were awesome.

He also gives a whole new meaning to terms like paranoid, sociopath, sadist, and criminally insane.

This is the guy who shaped China's history and in doing so shaped China past as well as China present and future. The book is fascinating.

Do great men shape history? This one sure shaped China’s history and he did it all for himself and the fact that 70 million people were killed along the way bothered him not one iota. Tolstoy did not think it was the big men in history and for a long time I agreed with him but no longer. I confess he has revised my view of history and how it is made.

Trust me, you cannot imagine what Mao did; not in the deepest part of your darkest imagination could you imagine what this guy did.

This is a fact based tour de force that leaves one staggering.
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LibraryThing member eswnr
The authors almost stay objective, then words like "evil" start slipping in towards the end. Historical vandalism? Not quite. But to be read with at least a small grain of salt due to the experiences of the author during the Cultural Revolution. For the trove of information within and the clear writing, it's a must. The biases of written history need to be acknowledged and recognized, but that doesn't mean you can't appreciate the work. Still, after 750 pages of text, you don't really come away feeling like you "know" Mao. A silly complaint? Probably. You certainly hate him. Read it anyway.… (more)
LibraryThing member mhaley
Mao: The Untold Story is simply a remarkable work. Authoritative to say the least. If this was a work of fiction, it would be unbelieveable. Meticulously researched, and full of first hand accounts from Mao's inner circle. Mao Tse Tung was the most evil of all the man in the history of the world, with 70 Million deaths attributed by Mao, and that's in peacetime. If you like this book, try Stalin by Robert Service (no, not the poet, this is another writer)… (more)
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
A minutely researched story of how Mao came-to and stayed-in power, with a lot of behind the scenes information, detailed accounts from diplomatic meetings and interviews of people who came into contact with him.

Is it well written? Not sure. A wealth of interesting information, yes, but some repetitions, some unclear stuff, some information willfully omitted. I have never had any doubts about Mao being a ruthless tyrant, and I didn’t need to be explicitly reminded of it every second sentence- I am perfectly capable of forming my own opinion given the facts, thank you very much. The account oozes with hate, and as a result there is a feeling of a biased view there, even if there is a possibility that it isn’t.

That said, it’s definitely worth persevering through, especially if someone is a history buff, especially if they harbour any illusions about Mao’s good intentions, or the quality of life he brought to the Chinese. Having lived in a communist country, I found it very interesting and I fully appreciate that everything written there is a true account of what was happening. Nobody in Poland has had any doubts what life in China under Mao looked like anyway, and if anybody complained that there was no meat or ham to buy in the stores, because there were endless transports of pigs going to the Soviet Union as the repayment for mostly obsolete technology, people jokingly reassured themselves that the life was better there than in the Soviet Union, and definitely better than in China where all the people had to eat were the flies they could catch and the leaves on the trees.

I’m sure the book is not only written to open Western eyes to the true nature of Mao’s regime, but it’s also written to open the eyes of the Chinese, and especially the Chinese youth, who are still brought up in the cult of Mao, and I can testify to that claim having taught scores of Chinese students from the mainland.
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LibraryThing member lgfarlow
A very engaging book, I read it daily until I finished it. Though it was a biography of Mao, it was also a well researched, very revealing look at how Communism (the Maoist version in particular) works. Mao made Hitler look like an amateur (as did Stalin) yet there are those who still defend him. Its amazing to me that no one can defend Hitler without being marginalized as a nut (and rightly so) yet people who defend Mao and Communism in general are seen as having a valid point of view. This book makes that impossible to continue to do. Everyone should read it in my opinion. The world will see more men like Mao and as the saying goes, if we don't understand history we're doomed to repeat it.… (more)
LibraryThing member marient
The most authoritative life of the Chinese leader ever written the book is based on a decade of research, and on interrviews with many of Mao's close circle in China who have never talked before-and with virtually everyone outside China who had significant dealings with him. It is full of startling revelations, exploding the myth of the Long March, and showing a completely unknown Mao: he was not driven by edealism or ideology; his intimate iand intricate relationship with Stalin went back to the 1920s, ultimately bringing him to power. He schemed, poisoned, and blackmailed to get his way. His secret goal was to dominate the world. In chasing his dream he caused the deaths of 38 million people in the greatest famine in history. In all, well over 70 million Chinese perished under Mao's rule-in peacetime.… (more)
LibraryThing member GlennBell
The book is well written by experts. The information presented is detailed and authoratitive. From this book one can obtain a great deal of historical knowledge and a better understanding of how and why events took place during Mao's life.

I must say that after reading a biography on Hitler that comparatively Mao is more cruel and distasteful than Hilter. Mao is responsible for the death, starvation, torture, and poor living conditions of more people than Hitler. It appears that Mao had one strong motive in life; to benefit himself.

Furthermore, the book provides an education on the real interworking of communism, which is rather appauling. Mao's brand of communism assumed complete control of the population by cruelty and deceit.
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LibraryThing member robertg69
Well written, even glib, this bio shows all of Ms. Chang's deep hate for Mao most probably based on the extreme pain, even death, suffered by her parents during the Cultural Revolution, which most agree was unleashed by Mao.
LibraryThing member scubapro25
Excellent, but Chang's anti-Mao bias bleeds through. Not that there's anything wrong with having strong feelings about Mao, having lived through the Cultural Revolution, but I'm not sure an author's personal feelings are relevant in a historical biography. Those sentiment belong more properly in her other book, 'Swans.' Am I wrong here?… (more)
LibraryThing member Cynara
Read and discarded when I couldn't get past the author's (justified) loathing of her subject. Every page seems directed at reminding you how contemptable Mao was, and I didn't even get past his teaching years. Maybe an author with more distance from her subject could have written something more readable.
LibraryThing member Mottecourt
Long, exhaustive biography. It becomes very fast clear how the person Mao works, though never how he thinks. Patterns continues for long pages... Not a beauty, but needs to be read. Should be distributed free all over China.
LibraryThing member xuebi
Jung Chang and her husband tell the story of one of China's most important figures and one the twentieth century's most infamous in a well-written and interesting biography.

Chang pulls no punches in exposing Mao as a dictator whose cruel rule inflicting much suffering on the Chinese (though it does not explain why so many followed him so absolutely); nevertheless, it is a well-researched book, particularly concerning the rise of Mao and the CCP.

Though there are legitimate criticisms, particularly its polemical tone, Mao: The Unknown Story is still valuable for furthering our understanding of Mao and his rule.
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LibraryThing member bradleybleck
I don't know enough about China to know just how historically accurate Chang's work is, but the book makes for a great read and provides considerable insight to Chinese history since about 1930. What I have come across that is contrary to what I've read before does not seem outlandish or implausible.
LibraryThing member Eagleduck86
Forget everything you learned in school about Chairman Mao! This book corrects countless misconceptions and reveals the unvarnished truth about one of the most evil leaders in world history.
LibraryThing member YossarianXeno
Clearly and lucidly written, this account of Mao is a significant advance in the West's understanding of 20th Century China. According to the book, Mao's policies led to the death of 70 million Chinese after the civil war had ended in 1949. Determined to use food exports to gain international leverage, Mao kept the population so short of food that millions died. He had no compunction about torture and execution; he even set targets for state sponsored murder. The extraordinary thing is how his control over China meant that very little of these facts emerged during his lifetime.

Mao's amoral nature shines through this history. He really doesn't seem to care about the deaths he has caused; indeed, he thinks they are unimportant compared to turning himself into the world's leader. His colleagues are all pawns in his quest for power and determination to keep it, regularly at risk of denunciation, torture or murder. He treats his family, his wives and his children appallingly. The Mao in this book has no redeeming features, which seems odd; no matter how bad they are, most people have some kind of attractive characteristic. No doubt because of that, some reviewers have complained it has an anti-Mao bias; but the authors are careful to analyse their subject through recitation of facts rather than rhetoric. It is the facts than condemn Mao as a cynical, self absorbed and selfish, mass-murdering psychopath.

For anyone with an interest in China or twentieth century history this is worth reading. It isn't, though well written, an easy read, because of both the subject matter and as it is so densely packed with information.
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LibraryThing member catzkc
I didn't get very far with this one, but that's a fault of mine, not the book. I did get far enough to start to get a picture of just how much of a *freak* this guy was! It's really scary how someone like that could get into a position of such power!
LibraryThing member Jthierer
This biography definitely had a point of view about its subject, and any information presented was filtered through that point of view. It often felt like this book was prepared as an incredibly detailed rebuttal to an argument that Mao wasn't a tryannical dictator...which isn't an argument I've ever heard made seriously. Ultimately, I think the book suffered from having such a strong POV and could have made its point just as effectively by presenting an accurate outline of Mao's actions and letting the reader draw the conclusion about his character.… (more)
LibraryThing member dbeveridge
Fascinating biography and history of a man who was largely caricature to me. While I knew he was a "bad guy" I had no idea that he joins Hitler and Stalin as 20th century monsters. Must reading if you want to understand global politics of the century, or the social and psychological background of Chinese people. It reminds one that what's happening in North Korea today is not abstract news, but a living horror.… (more)
LibraryThing member neddludd
This is one of those biographies that astounds. Many of the common assumptions about Mao are turned on their head. He is portrayed as a selfish, sadistic, monomaniacal leader who cared only about his own rise to power--and damn the consequences! According to the authors, he killed more people than Hitler and Stalin combined! Some reviewers have called this a polemic rather than a definitive, academically sound biography because so many of the authors' conclusions are based on unverifiable interviews. But I don't think anyone disagrees with the basic assumption, that Mao was a master myth maker and liar, and his ability to absorb events into his legend was his greatest gift. His Machiavellian activities continued to his last breath on his deathbed. Well written and compelling, if a bit long.… (more)
LibraryThing member sandysage
Definitely biased and not written as a "normal" history/biography. But, incredible research and an outstanding writing style definitely make it a good read. I would recommend reading Wild Swans before or at the same time you read this book to understand the personal hatred that drips with every word.


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