Lord of Misrule

Jim Mann writes The Times' International Outlook column and is the author of "About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship With China From Nixon to Clinton."

As the People’s Republic of China triumphantly observed its 50th anniversary this month, the spirit of its founder Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong in China’s current Pinyin spelling) hovers over the celebrations like a visitor from afar, his dominating presence causing both embarrassment for the current leadership and also, more than a little quiet pride for millions of ordinary Chinese. It is so easy to forget now that Mao led China for more than half of the last half century. During that time, he stood for virtually everything China’s current leadership rejects and rejected virtually everything it stands for.

Under the cautious technocrat President Jiang Zemin and his feisty predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist Party has based its claim to legitimacy on the argument that it is bringing stability and prosperity to the Chinese people. Yet Mao despised stability and went to remarkable lengths to undermine prosperity. These days, China finds its way to riches by offering up its huge labor force to make shoes, toys and T-shirts for private foreign companies at wages cheaper than they can find anywhere else in the world. Under Mao, of course, the Nikes and Sonys of the world couldn’t even set up shop in China. Mao thought the more Chinese, the better; under his successors, it has been one child per family. In today’s China, impoverished migrants from the countryside stream to the edges of big cities to beg for work. Under Mao, the peasants stayed put, and nuclear physicists and other scientists and intellectuals from urban China were sent to the countryside to learn supposedly ennobling virtues.

Mao’s successors can’t completely disavow him because he was undeniably the leader of the Chinese revolution, the man who declared at Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1, 1949, that “the Chinese people have stood up.” And so, for the last two decades, the latter-day rulers of China have left Mao’s picture hanging over Tiananmen Square. The regime has embraced a careful formula under which Mao has been officially deemed to have been “70% right, 30% wrong"--although the outsider is left to wonder how the regime calculated those figures and what truisms (or Leninist principles) are included in the 70%.

In his new mini-biography, Jonathan Spence seeks to resolve the contradiction between Mao’s historic success as a revolutionary guerrilla leader and his dismal failure as the leader of China’s government. In Spence’s biting portrayal, Mao was the Lord of Misrule. In Europe’s Middle Ages, he explains, great households often chose a Lord of Misrule during festivals or saints’ days to “preside over the revels that briefly reversed or parodied the conventional social and economic hierarchies.” After a brief interval, order would be restored and everyone would go back to work. This idea of a reversal of status and the dialectic between order and misrule also has had deep roots in Chinese thought. “It was Mao’s terrible accomplishment,” Spence says, ". . . to prolong the limited concept of misrule into a long-drawn-out adventure in upheaval.”


Spence is the best known and most talented historian of China writing in English today. In his many earlier books, such as “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,” “To Change China” and “The Question of Hu,” he has displayed an inventive ability to derive both meaning and narrative from episodes of Chinese history that are little known in the West.

His “Mao Zedong” succeeds but only partially. The account of Mao’s life before 1949--Mao’s childhood years, his ascendance in the Communist hierarchy and his role in leading the party to victory in China’s civil war--rehashes what has been written countless times elsewhere. Spence acknowledges the extent to which this new book relies on past accounts of Mao’s rise to power, particularly Stuart Schram’s biography of Mao and Edgar Snow’s interviews with Mao in “Red Star Over China.” In these chapters, the reader is given little sense of Mao as a revolutionary genius or a military strategist. In an attempt to add some context, Spence takes the reader on an airplane tour of 20th century Chinese history, encapsulating it to the point that the May 4 movement, China’s great intellectual awakening (on which Spence himself has written one of the leading histories), is reduced to half a sentence.

Nevertheless, the portrait Spence paints does remind us of how unusual Mao’s origins were, even among his Communist Party colleagues. His experience was extraordinarily limited. He spent the first 25 years of his life entirely within Hunan province, the rural rice-growing area in central China. For a time, he championed the cause of an independent Hunan. Other Communist Party revolutionaries of the era, like Chou En-lai, Deng and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, broadened themselves during their formative years by traveling to Paris for a period of political activism; such travel was not for Mao who, with the exception of a few short weeks in the Soviet Union, never left China. Other party stalwarts, like Liu Shaoqi, emerged as leaders from the back streets of China’s big cities, like Shanghai, Tianjin or Beijing; by contrast, when Mao first got to Beijing, his Hunan dialect was so strong that he had trouble making himself understood and soon fled back home. Yet through the strength of his personality, rhetoric and cunning, Mao eventually emerged to win out over all these other leaders and to tower over them.

It is only in the post-1949 period, after the Communist Party gains control of China, that Spence’s biography comes alive. Here we see Mao as the Lord of Misrule, directing the disasters of the Great Leap Forward, which resulted in terrible famine, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which resulted in countrywide chaos. Spence skillfully fills his narrative with telling detail: Under Mao’s vision of the Cultural Revolution, he notes, “hospital service would be simplified, and ‘complicated treatment must be abolished.’ ” Spence leaves the reader with a brilliant image of Mao leading the throngs in 1966: “The tiny figure atop the rostrum at Tiananmen, waving his hand in a slow sideways motion to the chanting sea of red flags and little red books spread out before him as far as the eye could see, had only the faintest inklings of the emotions passing through the minds of the weeping faithful. . . . It was enough that to them he had become, at last, the ‘Great Helmsman, great teacher, great leader and the Red, Red, sun in their hearts.’ ”


Spence describes how Mao’s failings as a leader resulted from his increasing isolation. By the late 1950s, he grew alienated from all those who might conceivably have questioned him--his former Soviet allies, his wife Jiang Qing, his children and old party colleagues. Those who did dare to question him, such as the People’s Daily editor Deng Tuo or, most famously, the defense minister Peng Dehuai, lost their jobs. Spence suggests at one point that Mao went astray because he became “more and more divorced from any true reality check.” Yet this analysis seems to conflict somewhat with Spence’s own insightful characterization of Mao as Lord of Misrule, an idea that suggests that Mao didn’t merely err through misperception but intentionally turned China upside down. He saw the realities of ordinary Chinese life--the need for government, education, expertise and the hierarchies that come along with them. But he wanted deliberately to overthrow the social order and, as a previously successful revolutionary, he believed wrongly that he could do so.

This depiction of Mao goes beyond previous biographies because it is able to include considerable new information that has come to light over the last 15 years. Spence makes use of research by Chinese historians and American archivists on how Stalin secretly goaded Mao into sending Chinese troops into the Korean War without accompanying Soviet combat support. Spence also delicately weaves into the book the recent Chinese accounts of Mao’s sexual voraciousness as an old man. “Though his health was not good and his eyesight was deteriorating rapidly,” Spence notes, “he seems to have kept up liaisons with various young companions.”


Mao’s era passed suddenly and tumultuously. On Sept. 9, 1976, Ma Yuzhen, then China’s foreign ministry spokesman and much later its consul general in Los Angeles, announced to the world with tears streaming down his face that Mao had died. The tears soon dried. Today, China’s leader Jiang--born in one of China’s outward-oriented eastern coastal cities, educated at an American missionary school and at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, trained in engineering, capable of speaking several languages, bureaucratic, affable, giggling and polite--is precisely the sort of Communist Party cadre whom Mao, if challenged, would have eaten for lunch. Afterward, as Spence’s savage portrait makes clear, the Lord of Misrule might have happily burped and wandered off for the afternoon, looking to topple the rest of Jiang’s China.