Mao: The Unknown Story (book review)

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
814 pages, Vintage Books (2006)

MaoThis book is an epic biography of Mao Tse-tung, a man who rose from obscurity to become the dictator of China for almost three decades.

If you were asked – ‘Who was the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century?’ – what would be your response? Most people would say Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

The correct answer is in fact Mao. A median of several credible estimates of the number of deaths that occurred under Mao puts the casualty toll at 58 million, ahead of any other 20th century leader, including Stalin and Hitler. This book estimates that he was responsible for well over 70 million deaths.

Mao emerged as leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the civil war between the Nationalist Party and the CCP, in which the latter emerged victorious. He ruled China for almost three decades. It was under Mao’s leadership that China launched its 1962 war against India.

China has since abandoned the hardcore communist ideology of Mao, instead opting for a more free market approach to development and emphasising a sense of national pride, which Mao was not too interested in. Yet he is still treated like a figurehead and hero in history books of China, and criticism of him can invoke serious punishment.

Mao’s influence as an ideologue is not limited merely to China. He continues to provide the inspiration for many guerrilla movements throughout Asia, including in the Indian subcontinent.

Nepal has been in a state of civil war for over a decade, due to the Maoist campaign to create a one-party Communist republic in Nepal. The Maoists of Nepal are believed to be only a stone throw away from achieving power. Unknown to many, India too has a Maoist problem. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described Maoist rebels as the biggest single internal security threat the country has ever faced. Large tracts of the Indian countryside are now effectively under Maoist control.

Despite its mammoth size (814 pages), the book remains highly readable and gripping throughout. Every chapter sheds great insight on Mao’s life and mindset, from his youth till his death at the age of 82. The author, Jung Chang, has a unique and captivating style of writing that really brings history to life, colouring it with the emotions and struggle of the people who the book depicts. She previously authored ‘Wild Swans’, an autobiography that became the best selling non-fiction work in modern publishing history (excluding religious books), selling at least 12 million copies internationally. Jung Chang was born in China, where she lived for many decades, including under Mao’s regime. She is currently a British citizen, and was helped in producing this book by her husband Jon Halliday, former history professor at Kings College London.

Mao: The Untold Story is an epic book that deserved to be widely studied. It is an essential source to learn about Mao’s life and what he stood for. This is especially true for people who have a stake in the future of the Indian subcontinent. We can get a good idea of what would be done by Maoists of India or Nepal should they ever come to power, as well as the relentless strategies they may adopt to achieve their end, by learning about Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ or ‘purges’.

The book provides a chilling portrait of one of the most powerful men in modern history. The book is unparalleled in the depth and breadth of its research. As well as consulting hundreds of reference sources, the authors were able to examine many historical documents relating to Mao that were not made available until very recently. They also interviewed several hundred witnesses to key events in Mao’s life and modern Chinese history, many of whom knew Mao personally. Overall, a very satisfying read, from both a literary and historical perspective.


  1. Govindan says:

    Pl dont accue to promote your ideas and philosophies – Dont act as a Western messenger Dont spoil the “Hindu”Dharma code as you are writing this under Hindu perspective – its wrong on moral grounds.

    • Dear Govindan, the word “accue” doesn’t even exist, so please be a little clearer as to what you mean. As far as me acting as a “western messenger” or “spoiling Hindu Dharma code” – it is not un-Hindu to be able to call out adharma for what it is – and that is indeed what Mao’s life is – adharma.

      If you think I’ve been unfair in anything I’ve wrote – then be specific and I’ll reflect on it.

      Kind regards, Rajesh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: