Mao: A Life; Mao Zedong

As the era of Mao's rule is eclipsed by the great economic strides following Deng Xiaoping's reforms, it becomes harder to judge Mao's place in history. But his biographers are still inclined to make him a larger-than-life figure, even though it is no longer possible to ignore the horrors he inflicted on China. Short's massive study benefits from the intimate portrayal of the private Mao revealed in the recently published memoirs of people who had firsthand dealings with him. First came the shocking revelations in the memoirs of Mao's doctor, followed by reports from former bodyguards and secretaries that further blackened the reputation of the private Mao. Short recognizes the personal flaws, but he is still puzzled about how Mao could have become such a tyrant, outdoing Hitler and Stalin by killing more of his own people than any other leader in history. To his credit, Short keeps his prose lively despite the book's length, but he seems adverse to providing any psychological interpretations that could solve his central question.

Spence's short review of Mao's life is less detailed but more elegant than Mao: A Life. A detached account, his book is written from the perspective of a future historian. Like Short, Spence has trouble reconciling the contradictions and self-defeating elements in Mao's story. In trying to make sense of this mystery, he recalls the practice in Europe's grand households during seasonal celebrations in the Middle Ages, when a "Lord of Misrule" was appointed to exercise free reign and turn the world upside down, making right wrong, wrong right, and wreaking havoc with social status -- an imaginative but rather lighthearted metaphor for someone who forced so much horror on China. One cannot minimize the impact that Mao had on Chinese history. But with every revelation about what transpired in Mao's court, it becomes harder to explain the awe in which he was held not just by Chinese but by people throughout the world.

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