In this slim volume, historian of China Spence (Yale; The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds, 1998, etc.) offers a biography of one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic personages. Mao Zedong was born in 1893, as the last imperial dynasty of China was approaching its demise, and died in 1976, as a powerful communist China was entering dÇtente with the US. Between these dates lies a complex and convoluted history that Mao both shaped and was shaped by. Born in relative comfort in rural China, Mao was a diffident student but a voracious reader. He became involved in the many struggles and movements to unite China and free it from Western domination. He came to communism only incrementally and seems to have been more of a liberal as a young man, for instance, as an early defender of women’s rights. Nor was his rise in the Communist Party preordained: he was too nonconformist, his views too unorthodox, especially on the need for rural revolution. Yet by at least the 1940s, Mao was the undisputed leader of the party and thus of China. Mao’s leadership was, as Spence notes, “a long-drawn-out adventure in upheaval.” Increasingly cut off from day-to-day reality, with few if any checks on his power, during the 1950s and “60s, Mao launched China onto one disastrous project after another. Spence does an admirable job of placing Mao in history, but it’s the private man with whom he is most concerned. Aided by many newly available sources, especially correspondence Mao wrote throughout his lifetime, Spence creates a Mao both wise and foolish, cruel and romantic, pragmatic and naive. Yet Mao’s deepest motivations remain elusive, the origins of his megalomania a mystery. Perhaps Mao had created a self that even he could not control or even truly understand. While much is left out here, this is a fine introduction to the mystery of Mao.