- Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History
Rebecca E. Karl has written a rich, deeply analytical, yet highly accessible account of Mao Zedong, who has defied both deification and demonization and remained relevant to historians and the general reading public. While breaking no new ground, Karl takes a fresh approach to explaining Mao. She contextualizes Mao and Maoism in international upheavals of the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century, which interacted with China’s own search for its place in the changing world. This new assessment of Mao contains two hundred pages, divided into ten chapters. The narrative follows a chronological order, starting with the birth of Mao in 1893 and ending with “The 2008 Beijing Olympics and Beyond”—the last section heading in the last chapter of the book.
As Karl herself admits, this book is for general readers more than for specialists. The inspiration behind writing the book came from her encounters with people over the years who are “genuinely interested but perhaps not very knowledgeable about China” (China Beat, interview with Jeff Wasserstrom, June 10, 2010). Indications that it is not written for specialists include spartan usage of footnotes and a very focused yet limited bibliography. As a result, her narrative reads smoothly, without much interruption from footnotes. Each of the ten chapters is further divided into sections, with headings that clearly signify the focus of the following content. In fact, while the chapter titles generally indicate a period in history under review, such as “Great Leap and Restoration, 1958–1965” of chapter 7, the section headings are chosen to capture a specific moment of that period. For example, in the chapter “The Cultural Revolution: Politics in Command, 1966–1969,” the section headings guide the reader through several key moments during those chaotic years—“The Prelude: Hai Rui,” marking the beginning of the gathering of clouds, and “The Ninth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party,” signifying the end of the most luan (disorderly and lawless) period in the Cultural Revolution.
Aiming at a broader reading public, the author does not scale down her analytical rigor and reduce Mao to either the simple caricature of a tyrannical monster or an iconic charismatic leader. Her purpose is to examine and comprehend Mao in a volatile and often hostile environment. Mao and Maoism can only be understood in the historical moment in China and beyond that produced Mao the person and Maoism the philosophy. The bibliography reflects this effort of the author. It may not impress a specialist at first glance, but a careful reader can discern that all the books in the bibliography are directly relevant to the author as she successfully interweaves Mao’s life, character, and ideology with the immediate and transcendental environment that tumbled and forged him. [End Page 338]
It is, therefore, imperative to bring the reader to the world into which Mao was born. The book opens with the section “Free Trade, Opium, Tea, and Silver,” clearly a time when China was fast disintegrating in the face of Western intrusion and imposition. It was the beginning of the “century of humiliation,” which Mao and many people of his generation devoted their lives to ending. Against this backdrop, Mao would emerge as the leader who ultimately founded an independent China in 1949, after decades of struggle against his enemies, both foreign and domestic, including many members from within his own party.
As for Mao’s childhood and early adulthood, Karl does not offer much new material or fresh viewpoints. Mao left home when he was sixteen, too young and too inexperienced to have a firm ideology. At the same time, Karl points out that his rural roots would shape his personal habits that he would purposefully maintain “as an expression of political purity” (p. 8). By the end of chapter 2, when Mao was twenty-eight years of age, he had transformed from a liberal to a Bolshevik Communist. This...