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A Book Review by Jonathan Mirsky

November 26, 2012

Mao: the Real Story
Alexander V. Pantsov
with Steven I. Levine
Walker & Company
Hardcover: October 2, 2012, 784 pages

Pekingologists, those busy-bees who scan every word and gesture of China’s leaders to uncover what is really going on in China’s capital, should compare the jacket of this new biography of Mao Zedong with the one wrapping Jung Chang and Jon Haliday’s Mao: the Unknown Story. There is no doubt about what Mr. Pantsov and Mr. Levine want us to know straightaway. Their cover says it all, especially the word “Real.” On the jacket of each book is a portrait of Mao. On Mao: the Real Story, Mao is dignified, perhaps slightly smiling. On the Chang and Haliday cover, Mao looks enigmatic. While there are many biographies of the Chairman, and some are cited in the book, in the copious footnotes of Mao: the Real Story, Chang and Haliday alone are dismissed as factually unreliable.

If you have read little or nothing about Mao, the authors say they have you in mind. Pantsov, a History professor at Capital University in Ohio, and Levine, a Research Associate at the University of Montana, will tell you a great deal; their biography is comprehensive. It is also an oddity. On the back of the title page are the words “Originally published in a different version in 2007 in Russian … as Mao Tszdun.”

Mr. Pantsov owns the copyrights of that book and of the new Introduction. Mr. Levine translated the new biography and owns its copyright.

The authors say this translation includes “many new and startling facts.”1 Mr. Pantsov emphasizes that his original Mao biography “significantly departs”2 from those in “Western” languages, a puzzling distinction, perhaps, for Russian. He notes that Edgar Snow’s hagiography of Mao in 1936, Red Star Over China, established the belief that Mao was a wise, even Lincoln-esque figure. (The authors don’t say that a second edition of Red Star incorporated Soviet interpretations transmitted to Snow through the American Communist Party). Later biographers adhered to Snow’s version, Mr Patsov writes, that Mao was an independent thinker who had “distanced himself from Moscow.” [3] This is “wrong,” Mr. Pantsov writes.4  Actually, he contends, and this is a main theme of his book, that “newly available Soviet and Chinese archives reveal … Mao was a faithful follower of Stalin … who dared to deviate from the Soviet model only after Stalin’s death,” in 1953.5 (In the October 25, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books, Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar argues that this ignores some of Mao’s original ideas and policies.) Mr. Pantsov says the Soviet archive on Mao is huge and that “very few specialists, including one of us, Alexander V. Pantsov, have been permitted access to these materials [3,328 personal dossiers] …on the basis of personal ties with the archivists.”6 Here are the records of the huge sums of money Stalin funneled to the Chinese Communists very early in the formation to the Communist Party of China (and to Sun Yatsen). The Mao archive alone, Mr. Pantsov says, comprises fifteen volumes, and includes the Chairman’s “political reports; private correspondence; stenographic reports of meetings between Mao and Stalin, Stalin and Zhou Enlai, and Mao and Khrushchev; Mao’s medical records … ; secret accounts by KGB and Comintern agents; personal materials regarding Mao’s wives and children, including the birth certificate of his previously unknown ninth child ... We are the first biographers of Mao to make use of all these materials—materials that proved invaluable in reassessing Mao’s private and political life.”7

What we see here, explains Mr. Pantsov, is Mao the revolutionary, tyrant, poet, despot, philosopher, husband, and philanderer. The recently released Chinese archives, he adds, include memoirs of the Chairman’s “paramours” 8; he is riveted by Mao’s sexual life and never misses a chance to describe the charms of Mao’s women.

The big question about this big biography is this: even with the Russian sources (which I can’t read), used for the first time, is there a new story here? I am no Mao scholar, but since 1955 I have read many biographies and histories in which Mao is the main figure, and attended Mao conferences and seminars. In Mao: the Real Story, once again I read of Mao’s childhood wrangling with his father and how he adored his mother; the young student and patriot; the young revolutionary helping to found the CPC—Chang and Haliday get dismissed here for claiming Mao was not a founder—Mao falling out with his Party comrades, as he did throughout his long life.

I had always thought of Mao as an early peasant leader. But Pantsov and Levine show convincingly that he was actually anti-peasant, relying in his revolutionary army on déclassé rural riff-raff and vagrants as well as Hakkas. Indeed, the authors make clear that poor peasants had more in common with middle-class and rich peasants than with the landless and rootless rural population Mao was convinced were the true revolutionaries.

On Mao in the wilderness and then on the Long March, Pantsov and Levine over-rely on one source for the March—Otto Braun, an agent of the Soviet General Staff who survived the ordeal—and make no mention of Harrison Salisbury’s descriptions of the Party leaders being carried much of the way and using opium. Then there is more squashing of Chang and Haliday, who contend that Chiang Kaishek allowed Mao to survive the March. The authors also describe Mao fighting Chiang Kaishek and the Japanese, allying briefly with Chiang, then fighting him again, and finally, in 1949, coming to total power—revered, feared, obeyed, and ever-intriguing with and against his colleagues—as well as the determined stupidity of the Americans at Yan’an, who reported back to Washington that Mao wasn’t really a Communist.

Here is Mao, the destroyer of landlords and rich peasants; Mao, badgered by Stalin, allowing the entry of his soldiers into the Korean War (to pick just one other biography, Philip Short’s account of the role of Stalin is essentially the same.); Mao, entrapping his critics during the Hundred Flowers campaign and then purging hundreds of thousands of them after he realized their true feelings; and Mao initiating the Great Leap Forward and the devastating famine that followed. (The authors confine to a footnote the path-breaking books by Frank Dikötter and Yang Jisheng—the latter mistakenly termed a “dissident” when he is a distinguished journalist). Then the equally devastating Cultural Revolution; the final scenes with Nixon and Kissinger; Mao’s deepening physical deterioration and his life-long betrayal of his wives and children; and his countless women. (I met one of them who told me, safely away in Hong Kong, that in his old age Mao was “great” in bed.) There is indeed information new to me in the biography—such as Mao’s relations with the peasantry—and new readers will find the story fascinating if oft told.

But what troubles me deeply about Mao: the Real Story is this: it seems as if there are two authors here, one exposing Mao’s life-long villainies, the other stressing his great contributions. Mao’s taste for killing is plain. His domestic policies, they say, “produced national tragedies that cost the lives of tens of millions of Chinese,”9 In 1931 during the Futian Anti-Bolshevik “incident,” when Mao was pursuing agrarian revolution “with fire and sword,”10 he ordered that his adversaries be tortured before they were killed—the tortures were too horrible for me to detail here—and many died. And we read of Zhou Enlai—it’s time to stop thinking of him as Mr. Nice Guy—overseeing these horrible deeds. In the chapter on the Red Guards we read that in August and September, 1966 alone, “the crazed youngsters killed 1,773 persons . . .  In Shanghai during the same period 1,238 people perished, of whom 704 took their own lives . . .  teachers were humiliated, beaten, and tortured to the point of death.”11 Mao was “overjoyed to hear of these ‘revolutionary initiatives,’”12 and boasted: “‘the five months of the Great Cultural Revolution, the fire . . . I kindled.’”13 In two pages alone, the authors provide the details of how many of Mao’s party comrades and allies died in ghastly circumstances, including some from the earliest days of the party, “Li Da … one of the founders of the CCP, died, unable to endure the torture.”14

“Did Mao know about all this?”15 the authors ask, rhetorically. “There can be no doubt about this. It was he who made the ultimate decisions regarding the fate of individual party leaders.”16 Unlike Stalin, they note, Mao didn’t sign their death warrants. This seems a mere detail. “An irrepressible lust for violence . . . was never extinguished in Mao . . . All his life Mao believed in the false formula that ‘without destruction there can be no creation.’”17 During the blood-soaked months in 1966 he lounged in and around his pool “in the company of pretty seventeen- and eighteen-year old girls …”18 In their Epilogue the authors say, one would have thought unarguably, “Mao’s crimes against humanity are no less terrible than the evil deeds of Stalin and other twentieth-century dictators. The scale of his crimes was even greater.”19

But then Pantsov and Levine assert this: “No less suspicious or perfidious than Stalin, still he was not as merciless . . . Moreover, Mao did not take revenge on his former enemies.”, but “sincerely attempted to refashion the way of life and consciousness of millions of people … The scale of his life was too grand to be reduced to a single meaning.”20 “The achievements of Mao Zedong are indisputable. So are his errors and crimes.”21 For me, however, the most troubling words are these, at the conclusion of Alexander Pantsov’s Introduction, in which he includes Stephen Levine: “In conclusion, our task as historians was neither to blame nor to praise Mao. It is far too late to settle any scores with Mao. He is dead and answerable only, as he himself said, to Karl Marx.”22 (Would they say the same of Hitler and Stalin?)

I am reminded of the Party’s final judgment on Mao in 1981: “Comrade Mao Zedong was a great Marxist and a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist. It is true that he made gross mistakes during the “cultural revolution", but, if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary.”23 Hence, even today, Mao’s huge portrait still looms over Tiananmen Square, where, in 1989, Deng Xiaoping, one of the Chairman’s closest allies, ordered the People’s Liberation Army to mow down hundreds of demonstrators. Knowing the facts of Mao’s life, so voluminously laid out in this well-documented and rewarding biography, I find a more convincing verdict in Andrew Nathan’s blurb on the cover: “Here finally, is Mao in the round: vigorous, idealistic, deluded, and ultimately evil . . . .”

Jonathan Mirsky (梅兆赞) is a historian and journalist specializing in Chinese affairs. In 1990, he was named British International Reporter of the Year for his coverage of the 1989 Democracy Movement in China. Until 1998, he was the East Asia editor of The Times of London.


1. Alexander V. Pantsov with Steven I. Levine, Mao: the Real Story (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 6.^

2. Ibid., 1.^

3. Ibid., 2.^

4. Ibid., 3.^

5. Ibid., 4.^

6. Ibid., 5.^

7. Ibid., 5.^

8. Ibid., 5.^

9. Ibid., 6.^

10. Ibid., 240.^

11. Ibid., 511.^

12. Ibid., 511.^

13. Ibid., 514.^

14. Ibid., 519.^

15. Ibid., 520.^

16. Ibid., 520.^

17. Ibid., 520.^

18. Ibid., 520.^

19. Ibid., 575.^

20. Ibid., 575.^

21. Ibid., 576.^

22. Ibid., 8.^

23. Article 27, The Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of our Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, adopted by the Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on June 27, 1981. English translation available at:; the Chinese original is available at:

Initiated by Deng Xiaoping, then China’s paramount leader, in order to address the roaring criticism of Mao from both within and outside the CPC in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, the Resolution re-affirmed Mao Zedong’s historical stature in the CPC. ^