Franklin Reviews: Mao Zedong: a life by Jonathan Spence

As the title would belie, this book is a biography of the late and not-so-great Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. Written by historian Jonathan Spence, a rather celebrated American historian of China, it is a relatively short biography at only 178 pages. While it is a biography, the book itself proves to be just as much of an intellectual history of Mao as a tale of his life, charting his intellectual progression from early days in Hunan province to the atrocity that was his takeover of China. In this way, it is reminiscent of other books like Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism by A. James Gregor.

Throughout the book, you see the general progression of Mao. With him going from a simple nationalist-leaning youth who was desperate and eager to see a China return to her former glory in the face of continued foreign aggression and colonization. To someone who fell in with Marxists, which, during the 1920s, had made their way into China at the behest of the Soviet Union, spreading their Marxist-Leninist ideology in China. Herein he struggled to enlighten himself in traditional Marxist thought and theory to keep up with his many competitors. As time passed, however, he soon began to develop his own theories that would morph into his own brand of Marxism: Maoism. An ideology, in his view, better suited for the characteristics of China.

Another sense of progression that the book gives off exceptionally well is the steady growth of the cult of Mao. This is to say that it shows Mao grow from a lowly intellectual and organizer to a man who was a force to be reckoned with. Consequently, after the death of Stalin, he served as the most prominent global beacon of Marxism/Communism the world over. It was his way, or well… you’ll be put under the highway. On the personal level, the book gives you much insight into his personal relationships, although brief, and the tragedy of his family life.

The book itself is accessible to a point. It is not overly academic in the sense that it is well-written. Where it will be a challenge to the reader is that if the reader, like me, is rather unfamiliar with Chinese history and geography, they will have to have to call on google quite frequently to keep up, as Spence gives very little background information nor does he include any maps of the China of this period. This is to be expected for the length of the book, and it overall does not ruin the experience. Overall, this is a great little book to give a first impression of a not-so-great man. Would recommend.


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