- Was Mao Really a Monster? The Academic Response to Chang and Halliday’s Mao The Unknown Story
Rarely does one write a review of reviews of a book. In the present case, the endeavor is justified. The publication of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story, in 2005, stirred up great interest, with popular media in the West heaping dazzling praises and professional historians frowning. Whatever one says about it, Chang and Halliday’s work is massive in terms of subject matter, length, and the strong reactions it generated. Consequently, the collection of the reviews we see here, edited by Gregor Benton and Lin Chun, is definitely a worthwhile work. Among other possibilities, the book can be constructively used to teach how to and how not to write history and write about China.
As the subtitle of the volume indicates, the essays in the collection, penned by scholars known for their knowledge on China and Mao, constitute an “academic” response to Mao: The Unknown Story (henceforth The Unknown Story). The editors put forward this book as an “antidote” to Chang and Halliday’s popularly acclaimed book, one that, in a way, serves as a reality check (p. 3). Of the fourteen reviews in the collection, one is clearly laudatory, a couple or so are mildly positive on some points while unfavorable on some others, and the remaining essays turn out to be overwhelmingly critical of The Unknown Story. The editors take care to explain their selection of these reviews: “[T]here has been no bending of the stick. What might seem like bias reflects the weight of opinion in reviews by experts. Unlike the worldwide commercial media, which embraced the book with uncritical and even fawning adulation, most professional commentary has been disapproving” (p. 11). This is most likely the case, given the issues identified in the collected essays, which are serious problems that professional scholars cannot easily overlook or ignore. Still, perhaps something could have been done — for example, providing a simple tally of positive and negative reviews available — to reassure anyone who is inclined to question the selection.
In this connection, a brief report on popular media’s applause of The Unknown Story would have been useful. Something of that nature would have made clearer that a rational academic response is necessary and important. A number of reviews in the collection do address that issue in their own ways. [End Page 408]
As noted above, most reviews in the collection are critical of The Unknown Story. Viewed as a whole, the criticism expressed therein concentrates on three issues. First, Chang and Halliday have a closed mind as they approach their subject; set firmly against Mao from the beginning, they organize their whole work to portray Mao as a monster. Second, there is serious deficiency in the way Chang and Halliday handle evidence. Third, eager to close in on Mao the monster, Chang and Halliday use Mao’s evilness to explain numerous events, large and small; with inadequate consideration of larger historical forces behind the man and the events, Chang and Hallliday offer a simplistic and distorted view of what happened in modern China.
That Chang and Halliday do not show the cool-headedness required of biographers and historians is recognized by many reviewers. Delia Davin (University of Leeds) sees that “Chang and Halliday eschew any attempt to balance the good and bad”; what is original in The Unknown Story “is its unrelenting demonization of its subject” (p. 16). David S. G. Goodman (University of Sydney) observes that Chang and Halliday are predisposed to write “a demonography — there is to be not an ounce of good behavior, not a scintilla of high purpose, to be found in Mao” (p. 93). Gregor Benton (Cardiff University), Steven Tsang (Oxford University), and Timothy Cheek (University of British Columbia) see a similarity between Chang and Halliday’s approach to Mao and the vilification of political enemies...