Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.13 - Jung Chang, Biographer of Mao Zedong

Jung Chang and Peter Florence

Jung Chang settled in UK after going there to study as one of the first Chinese students who attend a university in the West. She wrote a personal memoir about Mao's legacy in China (Wild Swans), and then a biography of Mao with her husband after 12 years of research, getting the most valuable documents from Russian archives of what went on in that period.

The most shocking news was that the great famine of 1958-1961 was deliberate starvation of the people by sending grain to the Soviet Union and its satellites because Mao wanted arms; it was paid in grain to the extent of 7% of China's GDP at the time.



Bringing along her mother's tiny shoes, Ms Chang demonstrated how half the population of China for more than 1000 years had been subject to the torture of foot-binding, all for a theoretical standard of looking dainty and sexy.

Stalin backed Mao from the early 1920s, after gauging he was utterly ruthless, and therefore capable of bringing Communism to China. No one joined the Party because of Mao's charisma, of which he had little.

Peter Florence takes questions from the audience

Chang said she never met as many Mao enthusiasts anywhere in the world as in India. In the 50s, 60s, 70s, being pro-Mao was a condonable weakness; but being pro-Mao now is inexcusable ignorance.


Jung Chang is a Chinese woman who settled in UK after going there to study as one of the first Chinese students who attend a university in the West. Her family experienced the rigors of China under Mao Zedong. She wrote a family memoir about Mao's legacy in China (Wild Swans), and then a biography of Mao with her husband after 12 years of research, getting the most valuable documents from Russian archives of what went on in that period. The most shocking news was that the great famine of 1958-1961 was deliberate starvation of the people by sending grain to the Soviet Union and its satellites because Mao wanted arms; it was paid in grain to the extent of 7% of China's GDP at the time. Mao's ambition was to build China into a military super-power that could dominate the world. It was to pay for these astronomical purchases of Soviet arms and get know-how for nuclear weapons, and tanks, planes, etc. that Mao exported food. The 1964 Chinese nuclear blast came on the backs of the Chinese people who paid with 38 million lives on that score alone, she estimated. The Great Leap Forward for Mao equated to lots of atom bombs, and vastly expanded military power. One of the horrid quotes she provided was of Mao talking to his top colleagues in the Party: "Deaths have benefits; they [the corpses] can fertilise the ground." (9 December 1958). This counts as the most horrific thing I have ever heard.


Bringing along her mother's tiny shoes, Ms Chang demonstrated how half the population of China for more than 1000 years had been subject to the torture of foot-binding, all for a theoretical standard of looking dainty and sexy. Their bones were broken in the foot and the binding was to prevent the regeneration of the bones. The most barbaric thing was that the mother of the girl had to crack the bones of the arch of the feet of her daughter with a rock.


You can read about Chang's coming to study in Britain from the introduction to the 1993 edition of the Wild Swans available here:



Mao died in 1976. Chang came out of China in 1978 to study in Britain. She brought her mother for a visit in 1988. The propaganda in China at the time had it that children in capitalist countries were starving. Some of the experiences she recounted was drinking Coca Cola for the first time, and saying 'Hello'. She was the first person from Communist China (CC) to get a doctorate abroad. When her mother came in 1988 Chang made 60 hours of recordings when she stayed 6 months in London before returning.


Q. What did you think of Mao?

A. I was beginning to question. We were told CC was a paradise on earth, but when the Red Guards came to raid my father’s house I had to flush her poems.


A. My father became a Communist part member in 1928 It promised equality and an end to poverty. But he gradually became disillusioned. Nearly 40m people died of starvation and hard work. In the 1950s I was living in a privileged status in a gated compound, and chauffeured. Britain seemed classless by contrast although I have changed my views about that also.


A. My father put principles before personal interest. He was the first Governor of the region. He insisted his wife had to be treated like anyone else.


A. My father was arrested, tortured, and died prematurely for protesting to Mao about injustices. He was made to attend 100 denunciation meetings in Chengdu. And my mother had to kneel in broken glass.


Q. When did you become a writer?

A. After my first poem was flushed down the toilet, I never stopped writing with an invisible pen in my mind. In Britain I was at first intent of fun, and sucked experiences up like a sponge. We were 14 of us in Britain, wearing blue Mao suits. We were quite a sight on London streets. We not allowed to visit an English pub because it had a bad connotation in China.. I was busy enjoying life. It took two years to write my first book, Wild Swans. My happiest moments were to sit at a desk writing.


Q. Did you go back to China to take a look when you decided to write about Mao?

A. I wrote the biography to learn about Mao. My husband, Jon Halliday, helped as he knew many languages. Incidentally, Zhou-en-lai when he visited India said Mrs Paranjpye was the best foreign speaker of Chinese he ever heard. I interviewed 200 people who had known Mao. It was more open at that time than now. We worked 12 years on the biography. (Chang gave an asides on Mobutu, the tyrant of Zaire, now the Congo.)


Mao was a womaniser. Mao was nearly blind but he took Imelda's hands and kissed them.


Point 1. Stalin backed Mao from the early 1920s, after gauging he was utterly ruthless, and therefore capable of bringing Communism to China. No one joined the Party because of Mao's charisma, of which he had little.


Point 2. During the Long march Chiang-kai-Shek allowed Mao's forces to escape. The great battle so heavily cited in propaganda never happened.

Point 3. The love of Mao's life was his second wife, yet he discarded her and never went to her help when she was captured.


Point 4. The Great famine of 1958-61 was most shocking. It was caused by CC sending grain to the Soviet Union to pay for arms to build up CC as a military power. That ambition to build CC into a military super-power that could dominate the world was paid for in grain. Astronomical purchases of tanks, planes, and military materiel were paid in grain shipments. The 1964 nuclear blast and weapons acquisition was based on food export. That bomb is estimated to have cost 38m lives!! The Great Leap Forward = Lots of Atom Bombs. CC gave 7% of its GDP to sustain E. Germany.


Q. Since so many ideas about Mao have been overturned in the last 40 years, why does his myth persist?

A. The Party top brass are worried about losing power, because the Party would be blamed for the excesses in Mao’s time.


Q. Is there any positive effect of Mao? Have local officials misrepresented the extent of the catastrophe in Mao's time?

A. Chang quoted Mao as saying that death has benefits, for the corpses of the people can be used to fertilise the land. Mao did no good whatever for China.


The people too do not want chaos now as they have gained prosperity.


Chang said she never met as many Mao enthusiast anywhere in the world as in India. In the 50s, 60s, 70s, you could be excused for being pro-Mao, but being pro-Mao now is inexcusable ignorance.


Chang reiterated about the propaganda that invented the Great Battle during the Long March. Zbigniew Brzezinski (Zbig), the Polish American political scientist and statesman served as United States National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. Zbig told Chang that Deng Xiaoping, who served as the paramount leader of the People's Republic of China from 1978 to 1992, assured him that the Great Battle never took place; it was ploy to bolster Red Army morale.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I missed this session, Joe. As I was in another hall attending yet another session. How beautifully you put together Jung Chang session!Thank you.

Culture Holidays said...

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