Mao: A Life

By Philip Short

I’ve been wanting to read Philip Short’s biography of Mao Zedong for a while. I am, secretly, a sucker for historical biography, and I have a particular taste for humanity’s anti-heroes. I’ll brush right by biographies of inventors, statesmen, visionaries; my shelves are clogged with insane monarchs, conquerers, murderers and war-mongers.

Mao Zedong, the Communist revolutionary who would rule China for nearly 30 years, is a subject of intense fascination to those of us who like to peer into darkness. He is considered the greatest mass murderer of all time – it is possible that he is responsible for more deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined (high estimates place his death toll at around 80 million people). So Short’s biography was on my list.

It’s a great, whopping book: some 630 pages of dense biographical information. It’s beautifully presented: clear, thorough, persuasive. I learned a lot, but, having finished it, I find that I have been arrested by a single moment, and my emotional reaction to that moment has entirely dominated my impression of the book.

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong was a nobody from Hunan province. He moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He (Mao) wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read.  I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.” (p. 83)

This passage, Mao’s recollections of being ignored by the intellectuals he so admired, is excerpted very early in Short’s biography. However, having finished it, I find that this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

That clerk would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that killed tens of millions of people.  He is, more than any other figure, the architect of China’s current global position. But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten.  

How many people do you interact with every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pump your gas, see you to your table, drive your Uber?

And those people, those are just the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

What if one of them will become Mao?

I’ve been disturbing myself with this concept for days now, rolling it around in my head.

Of course, it’s always unnerving to imagine that you might have been brushed by enormity. It’s disconcerting to imagine that history’s next great killer might be taking your order. But what’s even spookier, to me, is the fact that, later, when he was the Great Man, those men never even realized that they had met Mao. They would not have recollected his face, because we don’t remember people that don’t matter. They would never know that their lives had intersected with his, that they had slighted the man who would become Mao.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, Mao did not know he would become Mao. Maybe, if he had known, he would not have wanted to become Mao. We think of the great villains of history as born, but it is, of course, possible that they are made. The clerk in the Beijing University library would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but, in 1918, he had not yet.  And maybe he need not have.

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, Mao Zedong was inevitable. He would become the man we all know, would find his way to his role, would make space in history for himself.

But it is equally possible that he only might have become Mao. Perhaps Mao, as we know him, was the result of thousands of small accidents, the end product of innumerable coincidences. What if those moments hadn’t happened to him? What if they had happened to someone else? Perhaps many men might have become Mao – perhaps, under the right circumstances, most men.  Maybe history could make murderers of us all, if she chose.

Philip Short

This isn’t a movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters, like other freaks of nature, just happen: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues or nightmares?

I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me so badly. That there is no outcome in which I order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one. But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the future monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, even if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?