Such books as 800,000,000: The Real China and The Future of China: After Mao have earned Terrill a well-justified reputation...


MAO: A Biography

Such books as 800,000,000: The Real China and The Future of China: After Mao have earned Terrill a well-justified reputation as a scholarly popularizer of Chinese politics and history. But now it is beginning to look like the popular is taking over from the scholarly. In the second Mao biography to appear since the Chairman's death (the other was Dick Wilson's The People's Emperor, p. 207), Terrill focuses on the continuity of Mao's life in order to highlight the changes undergone by China since the early 20th century. According to Terrill, the revolutionary fervor and radical excitement of Mao's youth left him with an unreal view of the world; and the effort to recapture these experiences amid the exigencies of post-Liberation political stability led to much of the disruption of recent Chinese history. This is not an implausible thesis (Terrill advanced it in The Future of China), though it carries an implicit bias toward pragmatism and stability. Unfortunately, however, Terrill fleshes it out with presumptuous psychologizing and unnecessary bits of spicy trivia. For example, Terrill (like Wilson) makes much of Mao's youthful rebelliousness toward his father, and then goes on to speculate that Mao had an authoritarian bent which resulted from an unconscious adaptation of his father as a role model. The early beginnings of the ""Mao cult"" are therefore laid to Mao's ""boyhood traumas""--an ascription which only detracts from the exigencies of wartime leadership which Terrill has also shown us. On the spicy side--aside from forays, like Wilson, into Mao's bedroom--there are frequent ill-considered characterizations. To Terrill, Agnes Smedley, the American writer, radical, and biographer of Zhu De, was the ""Maid Marian of world revolution"" whose ""standard among CCP leaders was the earthy stud which she believed Zhu De to be."" In China, as elsewhere, sex often has political significance, but this kind of writing is clearly more tuned to exploitation than explanation. There's more here than in any other Mao biography, but more is not necessarily better.

Pub Date: May 14, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1980