Wednesday, June 27, 2007


MAO: A LIFE by Philip Short, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2000. 782pp. [PART 2]
Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an important work. Over the next few weeks I will be making entries one chapter at a time (there are sixteen). Comments are invited, especially from anyone who has read the book and wants to critique my take on a chapter, but anyone is welcome to comment.

Chapter Two: "Revolution"

This chapter recounts the events leading up to the overthrow of the Manchus and the swearing in of Sun Yat-sen as the first president of China on 1 January 1912, and the aftermath.

Chapter Three "Lords of Misrule"

After China became a Republic, Mao spent about five years in school in Changsha, the capital of Hunan. He studied to become a teacher. Many of the views he would hold for the rest of his life were formed at this time. He read many books, including Rousseau's Social Contract, Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws, Smith's Wealth of Nations and works by Herbert Spencer, Darwin, Huxley and John Stuart Mill.

It was a Chinese book, however, that was most influential: Si-Ma Guang's Comprehensive Mirror for the Aid of Those Who Govern. Si-Ma Guang was a minister to an emperor in the middle of the Song Dynasty who lived over seven hundred years ago. Mao kept this book and referred to it all his life. Its message was simple. Good and honest men were more important than the laws in ruling the Empire.

He also read the German thinker Paulsen's System of Ethics. Short says Mao retained three main principles from this book, First, the need for a powerful state; second, the centrality of the individual will; third, the ambiguous relationship between Chinese and Western culture.

He published his first article (in New Youth) in 1917 at age 24. He extolled the individual will. The quote from Short shows that Mao was far from Marxism at this time. "Ultimately, the individual comes first... Society is created by individuals, not individuals by society." At this time he also developed a "cardinal principle" that stayed with him the rest of his life. This was to ground "foreign ideas in Chinese reality to establish their relevance." This of course makes sense and is the origin of the later notion of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Mao also reflected on the view (Paulsen's) that cultures go through old age and then decline. "Revolution does not mean," he said, "using troops and arms, but replacing the old with the new." Yet, the basis of classical Chinese thought must be preserved. The future Cultural Revolution will test this idea, but it is 50 years in the future.

Short says "a chilling hint of future ruthlessness" can also be detected at this time. This is Mao's attitude of "focusing on what he considered the principle aspects of [a] problem... and disregarding what was secondary." An example was his support of a local warlord "Butcher Tang" who killed people all over the place in order to enforce "law and order" in his area (i.e., stability). Mao supported Butcher Tang since order was the main need at the time and the mass killings were therefore secondary. Later, however, he changed his mind about Butcher Tang-- but not the principle.

He also developed his life long views on education at this time. Short says he was against rote learning, anti-elitist and pro "open learning" and he supported Kant's dictum that "our understanding must come from the facts of experience." I should note that the future inspiration for The Little Red Book also had "an abhorrence of book-worship."

At this time, when most of the youth and radicals, were against China's traditional culture and only thinking in terms of the advantages of Western culture and science, Mao had a vision that Short calls "astonishingly modern." This was "a synthesis that would reconcile the traditional dialectic of the country's ancient ways of thought with Western radicalism."

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