Forever ago, like maybe a whole year, a friend passed along Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s The Unknown Story of Mao (Knopf, 2005). It was next up in its vague category on my unwritten reading list and so has become my summer special.
I did not think it was possible to portray Mao in an uncharitable light—how could you say anything fit to print that would be unworthy of the man?—but as Nicholas Kristof wrote in his NYTimes review, this wife and husband team has,
now written a biography of Mao that will help destroy his reputation forever. Based on a decade of meticulous interviews and archival research, this magnificent biography methodically demolishes every pillar of Mao’s claim to sympathy or legitimacy.
And so it does, almost to excess if that is possible. Kristof again: “at times the authors seem so eager to destroy him that I wonder if they exclude exculpatory evidence.” I do too.
“Please return! Return!”
Be that as it may, their ground-breaking reporting on Yang Kaihui, Mao’s second wife, is arresting. Kaihui was raised by a philosophically-minded father who saw great potential in his student, Mao, and talked him up to others, apparently including his daughter. Mao, seven years older than Kaihui, was strongly attracted to the smart, independent, and liberal-minded young lady. Knowing her worth, she was at first determined to hold out for something better, but when her father died she fell passionately in love with Mao and they soon, scandalously, moved in together.
Kaihui with her and Mao’s two oldest sons.
Unfaithful from the beginning, she somehow overlooked Mao’s infidelities, married him, and had his first three children over the next few years. But then, the authors report, he abandoned her to pursue his political ambitions. He remarried, for pleasure, just four months later while hiding out in nearby mountains with a ragtag communist fighting unit.
He was gone, but not far, for three years; he only wrote once and never sent for her. Meanwhile, she knew little to nothing of his whereabouts or conditions, worried constantly for him, wrote frequently, and tried to send him care packages, all the time holding out hope he would return.
He eventually did, but only to lay siege to the city with his growing army. That siege cost Kaihui her life—executed for being Mao’s wife. He could have easily saved her and the children, but didn’t. Worse yet, according to Chang and Halliday, the siege of Changsha was just a ruse Mao staged to increase the size of his army and served no strategic end in the communist cause.
“Ah! Kill, kill, kill!”
Although she only heard from Mao once, she did hear a good bit about Mao and his violent ways. To be fair, murder and brutality were everywhere. But she had been a true believer and thought communism was going to be better than this. She also believed in Mao and was dismayed that he was no better.
As she wrestled with the weight of care for Mao while living as an abandoned wife and mother of three in a war-torn region, she began writing letters she never sent. Seven, carefully wrapped in wax paper and hidden in the cracks of her home, were discovered in 1982, another in 1990. Together they chronicle the anguish of her soul and her growing disillusionment with communism.
Her love for Mao is striking:
He is very lucky to have my love. I truly love him so very much! He can’t have abandoned me. He must have his reasons not to write . . . Father love [as in the love of a father] is really a riddle. Does he not miss his children? I can’t understand him. Heaven, I can’t help worrying about him. As long as he is well, whether or not he belongs to me is secondary. May heaven protect him.
Her situation was desperate:
I cower in a corner of the world. I am frightened and lonely. In this situation, I search every minute for something to lean on. . . . I seem to have seen the God of Death—ah, its cruel and severe face! Talking of death, I do not really fear it, and I can say I welcome it. But my mother, and my children! I feel pity for them! This feeling haunts me so badly—the night before last it kept me half awake all night long.
Her confidence rocked when a comrade’s wife is beheaded, she turned theological:
And yet her killing was not due to her own crime. Those who enjoyed her head and thought it was a pleasurable sight also did so not because of her own crime. So I remember the stories of killing relatives to the ninth clan for one man’s crime in the early Manchu period. My idea that killers are forces into killing turns out not to make sense here. There are so many people so exultantly enjoying it that we can see glad articles representing them in newspapers and journals. So my idea that only a small number of cruel people kills turns out not to be true here. So I have found the spirit of our times . . . and the human head is becoming a work of art needed by many!
Ah! Kill, kill, kill! All I hear is this sound in my ears! Why are human beings so evil? Why so cruel? Why?! I cannot think on! I must have a faith! I must have a faith! Let me have a faith!
Her executioners stripped her outer garments for spoils, took her out to a field, and shot her. They then threw her shoes far away so her ghost would not follow them home, and went and had lunch. Turned out they botched the job. Seven of them returned “and finished her off.” Chang and Halliday note that “in her agony her fingers had dug deep into the earth,” just as her tormented mind, we might add, had already done.