Sunday, October 28, 2007

"Mao: The Unknown Story" Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

Chang and Halliday’s book seems to suffer from two fatal errors regarding the nature of history. One is the operation of hindsight, and the other is the selection of a historical method. Let’s deal with the method first.

Chang and Halliday spent years researching this book, conducting hundreds of interviews in China with survivors of the purges, the Long March, and the other vicissitudes of 20th century Chinese history. (Their research was not restricted to this, however, and the bibliography is long and impressive, in English, Chinese and Russian.) While eyewitness accounts and survivors’ memories are fascinating human documents of great events (see Dr Li’s excellent memoir, The Private Life of Chairman Mao), the use of oral history in historiography is not uncontested. Memory is unreliable, the longer, the more so, and may be effected by personal feelings and experiences, mood, emotion and state of mind of the witness, both over the long passage of years, and at the time of telling. These are not easy memories for people. Chang and Halliday seem to be unaware of the difficulties of oral history and seem to take the journalistic view that anything a survivor says makes great copy, rather than the historiographer’s view that any historical evidence must be sifted for its unwitting testimony.

The other error is the use of hindsight. Hindsight is the major problem for any historiographer and biographer; it’s the elephant in the room. The problem is that hindsight can lead to error. It is surely an error to say that during the 20s Mao was motivated by a desire to appropriate various armies in order to consolidate military power and thus become leader of the CCP. Mao set out to lay his hands on some of these men…The aim of this new plan was exactly the same as before – to lay his hands on some armed men. This may have been what did actually happen eventually, but that is hindsight. Did Mao on the ground, stumbling blindly into his personal future at the age of 33, really have such a clear aim? How exactly does one envision oneself ‘laying hands on some armed men?’ Daily life, especially in turbulent times, is usually a lot more messy than biographers would have us realise. As John Lennon says, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Surely it’s the biographer’s responsibility towards his subject and towards his reader, to acknowledge the quotidian on the life of the individual by strenuously avoiding the influence of hindsight. (This is the great strength of Kaplan’s biography of Dickens, by the way, the sense that Dickens was making his life up as he went along; the feeling that we surely all have as we go through our lives.)

These two errors in the view of history are compounded by yet another, more subtle, error: the problem of bias. The historian’s stance is never free from bias, because the historian as a person is never free from the effect of their language, from the influence of their ideology, that imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence, as Althusser has it. Everyone has an attitude towards something they know. And this attitude informs everything a historian produces, no matter how rigorous the research, and no matter how even-handed the collection and weighing of the evidence. For the biographer, the above is also true, but there is another element, that of the personal, human level. The biographer is never free from an attitude towards his subject, an attitude which can of course change as more research reveals more knowledge, and more understanding.

To help clarify what I mean here, let’s look at what Chang is ‘writing against’, and compare this with another biography of Mao: Phillip Short’s Mao: A life. Harold Bloom writes about the anxiety of influence in fiction, how fictional writers essentially write with one eye over their shoulder on their predecessors, haunted by the thought that all stories have already been told, pursued by the anxiety that they are not original. Likewise, each historian and biographer has to write with an eye on what is already known or believed about a period or a person. They have to situate their work in a field of discourse, and more importantly they also have to have an attitude towards that discourse. Now, Jung Chang seems to me to be ‘writing against’ a preconceived notion of Mao that she believes is prevalent, that Mao was a great man who did great deeds. She is ‘writing against’ the view held of Mao in China, the revered Father of the Nation, ‘writing against’ all the official biographies and histories, both Chinese and Western, which have airbrushed over the unsavoury facts of Mao’s behaviour. Moreover, on a very personal level, she is ‘writing against’ the view of Mao as godlike that she once must have held herself, as a member of the Red Guard, as a member of her generation growing up in China under Communism. She is writing, not only to put the record straight, but to exorcise her own demons. And this is absolutely fair enough, in my view. It’s not as if she is hiding this. She makes her hatred of Mao extremely clear all the time. Short on the other hand, seems to be ‘writing against’ mere ignorance, writing to add his knowledge to the field. He has no real agenda. His bias is much more even handed, or perhaps simply much better hidden.
What worries me about Jung Chang’s approach is that I seem to be learning more about Jung Chang, than about Mao or about China during Mao’s life. Also, even before Chang’s book was published (2005), did anyone in the West really believe that Mao was a good man? Short (1999) is just as clear on the brutalities Mao perpetrated, his reliance on violence and realpolitik; and Dr Li’s memoir (1994) even more revelatory about Mao’s wickedness.

Chang’s prose is often not up to par with Short’s. Occasionally she writes rather in the style of an Upper 6th form history paper, summarising great swathes of history in breathy, verb driven sentences. At this time, warlords had been fighting sporadic wars for ten years, and there had been more than forty changes of government since the country had become a republic in 1912. Short is much more ‘professional’, both in his level of detail and in his more noun driven information rich sentences, which are closer to the style one expects from more ‘mature’ ‘serious’ or ‘academic’ writing. In December, as head of the new Federation, [Mao] took a joint delegation of union representatives to meet Governor Zhao, the Changsha police chief, and other top provincial officials to discuss the government’s intentions in view of the workers’ growing demands.
It’s a struggle for me as I read to decide what my attitude to this is. Chang comes across as rather naïve in her writing, as if she might be dodging the complexities of the period because she can’t get her head round them, or because she judges that her readers won’t be able to.

There are moments where Chang’s writing does achieve a kind of limpid, almost lyrical, simplicity, especially in passages where she writes about Mao’s women. Here is Mao’s second wife going to her death: And so she went her death, on a winter day, wearing a thin blouse, at the age of twenty nine. This kind of style is quite Chinese. Anchee Min and the great Eileen Chang (also both native Chinese speakers writing in English) also write like this: sparse, limpid prose.


Bjørn Østman said...

Thanks for your review, I really enjoyed reading it.

I haven't read Mao yet, but I have read Wild Swans. It's true that you get the feeling that you are learning more about her than communist China during that book, but that's fine. I get the idea from your review that you are also mostly ok with that in the case of Mao.

I have spoken to a bunch of Chinese friends about Wild Swans, and have every time I end up being really upset because none of them seem to care that he was responsible for the death of 77 million people. "Mao did good things, too. He got rid of corruption." Are you kidding me? Does the two even compare? Problem seems to be that the Chinese are fully unaware how bad Mao was for their country, and Chang is doing her best to rectify that, and that's what really matters, I think.

Murr said...

Thanks for your comment. I have had the same conversation with Chinese about Mao and their history. A few generations of very expert brainwashing by the communist government, coupled with their indifference towards their history might perhaps explain their attitude towards Mao. It is most frustrating. But then, ignorance and obtuseness always are.

Bjørn Østman said...

But, the Chinese are so proud of their history. We see it in movies, at festivals, etc.

"Have you ever heard of the Cultural Revolution?" I was once asked by a Chinese person when the discussion was on Chinese history. Years later I wonder if I was the only one...