An ambitious but labored joint political biography of China's late-20th-century rulers, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, that overreaches in its attempt to parallel, contrast, and interweave their paths to power. Veteran China-watcher Salisbury (The Great Black Fire, 1989, etc.) writes an exhaustively detailed anecdotal narrative without ever getting under the skin of either Mao or Deng. Though he tells us that both men grew up in the Chinese back-country, came from well-to-do families, and received above-average educations, Salisbury never makes important or clear enough the psychological differences that made Mao into a sexually promiscuous, egomaniacal addict (sleeping-pills) and Deng into a shrewd, resilient, but tempered bureaucrat. The author is better at demonstrating how Deng's stubborn independence and sheer bad luck delayed his emergence as Mao's handpicked successor. As early as 1932, Deng suffered his first censure from the Communist Party for leading a ""rich peasant life."" Later, during the Cultural Revolution, he was shipped off to a menial industrial job for bucking Mao's ""cult of personality,"" and was readmitted to power only when, in 1971, Mao himself deemed it prudent to groom someone he essentially controlled to be the next ""emperor."" Salisbury astutely notes that Deng's infinitely more modest self-image, personal tastes, and political flexibility (at least up until Tiananmen Square) are the deeply felt lessons of his own political victimization, lessons Mao taught but ironically never learned. The book's most brilliant drama comes in Salisbury's re-creation of Nixon's 1972 visit. Feigning good health and hiding political atrocities at home, Mao double-talked Nixon silly while the duplicitous Jiang Qing escorted the Nixons to a night at the opera. Compelling if overwrought, but a must for Sinologists.