Campus & Community

Mao under a microscope

7 min read

‘Devious, tricky, complex … either brilliant or mad or both’

Re-evaluating Mao: A conference last weekend commemorated the work of Stuart Schram (above left), editor in chief of a projected 10-volume English edition of Mao’s writings. (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

More than Saddam Hussein, more than Osama bin Laden, Mao Zedong used to terrify people in the West. Absolute leader (or so we thought) of a billion Chinese dressed in identical drab uniforms brandishing their ubiquitous Little Red Books, Mao seemed to embody an implacable anti-individualistic force bent on destroying all that the West stood for and cherished.

Times have changed. It’s been 110 years since Mao’s birth (27 since his death), and Chairman Mao has metamorphosed from a figure of fear to a figure of history. Any lingering doubt about the completeness of this transformation would have been dispelled by a conference that took place recently at Harvard (Dec. 5-7) – “Mao Re-evaluated.”

The conference commemorated the work of Stuart Schram, a research associate of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research and editor in chief of a projected 10-volume English edition of Mao’s writings, titled “Mao’s Road to Power, 1912-49” (M.E. Sharpe). Five volumes have been published, two more are scheduled to appear in 2004, and the remaining three have been translated and are being prepared for publication.

‘What haunts me about Schram’s work is the way it illuminates a meticulous, fussy, account-keeping side of Mao, especially in the early years. I think we have here a new definition of the banality of evil, the small scale from which things develop and which we have no control over at any level.’

– Jonathan Spence, Yale university

The books include nearly every scrap of writing known to have emanated from Mao’s pen, from an early couplet in praise of swimming, to a letter to his maternal uncles, to his early report on the peasant movement of Hunan, to his pronouncements on military strategy and Marxist ideology. During the conference, Pang Xianzhi, a Chinese Communist Party researcher, remarked that when Schram’s work is complete there will be more of Mao’s writings available in English than in Chinese.

The project is being supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Pentagon, and the Fairbank Center. The conference was organized for the Fairbank Center by Roderick MacFarquhar, the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science, and Anthony Saich, the Daiwoo Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government.

The conference attracted prominent Mao scholars from around the world. At the kickoff event on Friday (Dec. 5), a panel of Mao experts presented their views of the great revolutionary leader and extolled the epic contributions of their colleague Schram.

For those nonexperts to whom Mao possesses little more reality than the official portrait of the full-cheeked figure gazing confidently into the Marxist future, these presentations abounded with fascinating revelations.

“What haunts me about Schram’s work,” said Jonathan Spence of Yale University, author of many scholarly and popular books on Chinese history including a short biography of Mao, “is the way it illuminates a meticulous, fussy, account-keeping side of Mao, especially in the early years. I think we have here a new definition of the banality of evil, the small scale from which things develop and which we have no control over at any level.”

Although little specific mention was made of the human consequences of Mao’s errors of judgment, they seemed to furnish a subtext of nearly every statement and assessment. Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958) was responsible for tens of millions of deaths through starvation, while the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) caused millions more deaths, as well as shattered lives.

Delia Devin of the University of Leeds told a story about Mao that conveyed a vivid sense of how the famous “cult of personality” affected ordinary Chinese people in the leader’s later years. As a young English teacher living in Beijing in the early 1960s, she attended a banquet at which Mao put in an appearance.

“He came in at the end of the meal muffled in a great overcoat. Later, when people learned I’d been to the banquet, they would ask if I’d seen Mao, and when I said yes, their faces lit up with excitement.”

Raymond Wylie of Lehigh University characterized Mao as “a revolutionary romanticist. He left a highly ambiguous legacy. He operated on a grand scale, and mere individuals were apt to get in the way. Someone once said, ‘Every great man is a bad man,’ and that was certainly true of Mao.”

Philip Short, a British journalist and the author of a major biography of Mao, said, “Mao is a biographer’s dream. He was devious, tricky, complex, full of human failings, and either brilliant or mad or both.”

Lucien Pye of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), who wrote a psychological study of Mao (“Mao Tse-tung, the Man in the Leader,” 1976), offered the surprising information that the man who condemned bourgeois individualism spent hours as a young man reading the works of Western authors in a search for personal identity.

A first-born son raised by an affectionate, doting mother, Mao felt rejected when his younger siblings were born. Psychiatrists have concluded that the experience turned Mao into a narcissist driven to play the part of a heroic rebel and universal savior.

Pang Xianzhi, speaking through a translator, praised Mao for his crucial role in unifying and strengthening China.

“He transformed a China that was ruled by Western powers, a China that was broken, into a China that was powerful. Without Mao’s theoretical achievements, the Chinese revolution would never have succeeded.”

Finally, after patiently listening to his colleagues praise his work, the man of the hour got to have his say. Schram, 79, a former nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, a formidable linguist who studied French and Russian politics before turning to China, said that his 14-year study of Mao’s writings confirmed the generally accepted idea that the chairman was a great revolutionary leader who made fatal mistakes and committed terrible crimes after he assumed power. He found that this assessment was accepted in China as well.

“I once gave a lecture in Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan. I said that Mao was good at conquering the country but not so good at governing it, and about half the audience applauded.”

Schram said that Mao’s Great Leap Forward was characterized by enormous waste, while the Cultural Revolution, his attempt to regain control through a broad-based purge of “counterrevolutionaries,” was “even worse.”

According to Schram, Mao’s 27 years as ruler of China were marked by “faulty judgment, a failure to face facts, impetuosity, and vindictiveness. He made loyalty to himself the touchstone of ideological thinking, and the conviction that the party had become revisionist provided a fig leaf for an increasingly autocratic dictatorship.”

And yet Schram found much to admire in Mao as well. Asked why it is that Mao’s legacy is not viewed in the same way as that of Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot, Schram replied:

“In many ways his political instincts were sound. He tried to invest in the Chinese people. But in his personal feelings he was emotional, wrong-headed, and hysterical, and these qualities increasingly took over in the 1950s. But despite enormous blunders and crimes, he was a great leader who was trying to do the best for China. I think he’ll be remembered for that.”