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The Real Story

About The Book

This “comprehensive, judicious, and finely detailed” (Roderick MacFarquhar, The New York Review of Books) biography of Mao Zedong traces how he created a totalitarian government even more destructive and extreme than Stalin’s, while transforming China from an impoverished nation to a leading world power.

Mao Zedong was one of the most important figures of the twentieth century, the most important in the history of modern China. A complex figure, he was both a champion of the poor and a brutal tyrant, a poet and a despot. In this major new biography, the authors draw upon extensive Russian documents previously unavailable to reveal surprising details about Mao’s rise to power, his leadership in China, and the true nature of his relationship with Stalin.

Mao brought his country from poverty and economic backwardness into the modern age and onto the world stage. But he was also responsible for an unprecedented loss of life during the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the bloody Cultural Revolution. He lived and behaved as China’s last emperor.

Mao is the full story of Mao’s life and rule told as never before.


Historical figures merit objective biographies. Yet the challenge of writing such biographies is daunting even under the best of circumstances. The biographer must pursue a seemingly endless trail of published and unpublished sources, often in a variety of languages, exhaust the contents of numerous archives, winnow truth and fact from rumor and falsehood, strike the right balance between the public persona and the private person, and judge the wisdom and folly of the subject over the span of a lifetime. Such difficulties are multiplied when the subject of the biography is the leader of a closed society that jealously guards its secrets. This is certainly the case with Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China. But now, more than thirty-five years after his death in 1976, with the release of important new documents from China and exclusive access to major archives in the former Soviet Union, a clearer, more nuanced, more complete portrait of the most important Chinese leader in modern times can be drawn. That is the aim of this biography.

To be sure, Mao has been the subject of numerous biographies in Western languages since the American journalist Edgar Snow first wrote down Mao’s life story just past its midpoint, in July 1936. A year later Snow published that story as the centerpiece of Red Star Over China, an influential book that helped shape history and remains in print to this day. For what it tells about the lineage of Western-language Mao biographies—a lineage from which our own biography significantly departs—it is worth relating why that encounter between the guerrilla commander cum leader of the Chinese Communist Party and the young American reporter took place.

Already a well-known journalist by the mid-1930s, Snow was extremely sympathetic to the Chinese communist movement, although he was not a Marxist. Among the mainstream media for which he wrote, including the New York Herald Tribune, Foreign Affairs, and the Saturday Evening Post, he enjoyed a reputation for being independent-minded, unlike many other leftist reporters in China, who openly paraded their pro-communist views.

It was precisely this reputation that attracted the attention of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, including Mao Zedong. They intended to make use of the thirty-one-year-old American to improve their public image and expand their political influence. Snow had his own reasons for seeking out Mao. An ambitious journalist with an instinct for the big story, he jumped at the opportunity for a sensational scoop. Each man intended to use the other for his own purposes. Snow arrived in Baoan, in northern Shaanxi province, on July 13, 1936, just two days after Mao Zedong himself set up camp in that remote and desolate town. Mao was fleeing from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, head of the National Government and the leader of the Nationalist Party (the Guomindang, or GMD), whose forces had inflicted a serious defeat on the Chinese Red Army.

Mao granted Snow’s request for a series of interviews, in which he first spoke at length about his childhood and youth before outlining his career as a communist revolutionary. The communists had made a shrewd choice picking Snow. The impressionable American came to view Mao as a wise philosopher-king, Lincolnesque in appearance, perspicacious, easygoing, and self-confident. “He certainly believed in his own star and destiny to rule,” Snow recalled.1 Transcribing Mao’s monologue into his notebook during long nights in the candlelit cave where they met, Snow was sooner Mao’s amanuensis than a critical journalist. Once his mission was accomplished, Snow returned to Beijing with his precious notes and began working on the manuscript that became Red Star Over China.

Just as Mao and Snow had hoped, Red Star Over China created a sensation, particularly among liberal intellectuals and leftists in the West. Its intimate portrayal of Mao as a romantic revolutionary struck a sympathetic chord with Western readers disillusioned with the austere figure of an increasingly authoritarian Chiang Kai-shek. Snow’s pioneering work set the tone for many subsequent books by authors who were equally or even more sympathetic in their depictions of Mao. There was only one major point on which these later works differed from Snow’s. While Snow viewed Mao as a faithful follower of Soviet Marxism, other writers asserted that as early as the late 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao’s leadership had become autonomous and self-reliant. According to this view, Mao, an independent thinker and actor, had basically distanced himself from Moscow, unlike the dogmatic Chinese Stalinists whom he had bested in intraparty struggles. Mao stood tall; he was his own man, an authentic Chinese revolutionary, not Stalin’s stooge. This was Mao’s main attraction for authors trying to explain the Chinese revolution to American readers.

As early as the late 1940s and early 1950s, leading American China scholars including John King Fairbank, Benjamin I. Schwartz, Conrad Brandt, and Robert North propounded what became the classical formulation about Mao’s “independence,” both with respect to his relations with Stalin and his views of China.2 They wrote that Stalin mistrusted Mao and considered him a “peasant nationalist” rather than a communist. Furthermore, the upsurge of the Chinese revolution in the countryside under the leadership of Mao seemed to disprove the orthodox Marxist view regarding the “historic role” of the working class. China’s “peasant revolution” was the opening act in what promised to be a dramatic era of peasant revolutions throughout the postcolonial world. After the split between the Soviet and Chinese communist parties in the early 1960s, Russian and Chinese authors followed a similar line.

Meanwhile, Mao underwent a permutation from down-to-earth revolutionary commander into what one biographer in the early 1960s called the “emperor of the blue ants,” in reference to the blue clothing all Chinese wore.3 After proclaiming the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, Mao moved into the Forbidden City in Beijing, the former imperial quarters. As the cult of his personality developed in the following years, he became inaccessible except to his close colleagues and members of his entourage. His public appearances were carefully stage-managed and his interviews and pronouncements assumed an increasingly Delphic character. The Western-language biographies of Mao published during his lifetime, including the best one, by the prominent China scholar Stuart R. Schram in 1967,4 were constructed largely on the basis of published Communist Party documents; Mao’s published writings, speeches, and statements; impressions of foreigners who had been granted audiences with Mao; a few memoirs by political acquaintances and adversaries; and a variety of other scattered sources. The thesis of Mao’s independence and creative adaptation of Marxism to Chinese circumstances continued to occupy center stage.

At first glance, this thesis seems well-founded. Until the end of 1949, Mao never visited Moscow even once, and Stalin did not know him personally. At the same time, negative reports calling Mao “anti-Leninist” and accusing him of the cardinal sin of “Trotskyism” regularly reached the Kremlin from various sources of information inside and outside the Chinese Communist Party. Thus Khrushchev’s assertion that Stalin considered Mao a “cave Marxist” appears logical.5 In the late 1950s, after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party condemned Stalinism, Mao himself often recalled that he sensed Stalin’s mistrust of him.6

On closer inspection, however, the received wisdom regarding Mao’s relationship to Stalin and the Soviet Union turns out to be wrong. In reality, as newly available Soviet and Chinese archives reveal, Mao was a faithful follower of Stalin who took pains to reassure the Boss of his loyalty and who dared to deviate from the Soviet model only after Stalin’s death.

This revelation is one of many reasons why a thorough reassessment of Mao is warranted. The truth has long reposed in the secret archives of the CCP, the Soviet Communist Party, and the Communist International (Comintern). Only recently have these archives become available, in whole or in part. The most interesting of innumerable revelations regarding Mao’s policies, outlook, and personal life are contained in unpublished documents regarding Mao, his enemies, and his friends, preserved in the former Central Party Archive of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow. The Bolsheviks began to organize the archive shortly after the October Revolution of 1917. From the very beginning its main task was to collect documents not only on the history of the Bolshevik party, but also on the history of the international labor and communist movements. After the liquidation of the Comintern in 1943, all of its documentary collections were transferred to the Central Party Archive. In the 1950s the archives of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) were also deposited there. Finally, in June 1999, the former Communist Youth League Archives were merged into the collection. Today these consolidated archives are known as the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History. A brief survey of the contents of these archives highlights their importance as a source of new information that we have thoroughly mined for this biography of Mao Zedong.

First, they are the biggest depository of documents in the world on the international communist movement and the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). They house about two million written documents, 12,105 photographic materials, and 195 documentary films, which are organized in 669 thematic collections. A core component of the archives is an extensive collection of papers related to the Chinese communist movement. These include voluminous files of the CCP delegation to the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI); the CCP Central Committee’s various accounts and financial receipts; the Comintern and the Bolshevik party’s directives to China; the papers of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik leaders; secret reports of Chinese communist and Chinese nationalist representatives to the Comintern; and personal dossiers on many leading Chinese revolutionaries.

The collection of private documents relating to the Chinese communists is of particular interest. Unlike many other archival materials, these were not opened to most scholars even during the brief period of the Yeltsin ideological “thaw” in the early 1990s. This collection has always been secured in a top-secret section of the archives. Even today public access to the files is highly restricted. Only a very few specialists, including one of us, Alexander V. Pantsov, have been permitted access to these materials and continue to enjoy such access on the basis of personal ties with archivists and scholars in contemporary Russia. This restricted collection comprises 3,328 personal dossiers, including those of Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping, Wang Ming, and many other top members of the CCP leadership.

The dossier on Mao Zedong is the most impressive. It contains fifteen volumes of unique papers, including his political reports; private correspondence; stenographic records of meetings between Mao and Stalin, Stalin and Zhou Enlai, and Mao and Khrushchev; Mao’s medical records, compiled by his Soviet physicians; 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, born in Moscow; accusations against Mao written by his political enemies within the CCP leadership; and a variety of Soviet embassy and KGB secret messages related to the political situation in the PRC from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. 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.

Supplementing the Russian and Chinese archival sources is a large volume of biographical material, reminiscences, and handbooks published in recent years in the PRC. Among them are memoirs and diaries of Mao’s secretaries, paramours, relatives, and acquaintances that are also helpful in our reinterpretation of Mao’s life.

No less important are documents from the still highly restricted collections of the Central Committee of the CCP in Beijing, recently made known through the efforts of Chinese historians. These archival materials include a thirteen-volume set of Mao Zedong’s manuscripts, starting from the founding of the PRC; a seven-volume chronicle of the Mao clan based in Shaoshan; records of Mao’s private talks; and various collections of Mao’s previously unknown draft papers, speeches, comments, critiques, notes, and poetry.

Our biography of Mao Zedong is based upon all of these unique archives and newly available documents as well as many interviews with people who knew Mao. As such it is up-to-date. A recent biography of Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, was criticized in the academic community on the grounds of unreliability and distorted judgments.7 We tried to avoid these shortcomings by making careful and discriminating use of a wider array of sources than any other biographer, weighing evidence carefully, and presenting sound and forceful judgments unmarred by political considerations. This attitude allows us to present the Great Helmsman as the multifaceted figure that he was—a revolutionary and a tyrant, a poet and a despot, a philosopher and a politician, a husband and a philanderer, a successful creator and ultimately an evil destroyer. We show that Mao was neither a saint nor a demon, but rather a complicated figure who indeed tried his best to bring about prosperity and gain international respect for his country. Yet he made numerous errors, having trapped himself in a cul-de-sac of a political and ideological utopia, and basking in his cult of personality while surrounding himself with sycophantic courtiers. Without a doubt he was one of the greatest utopians of the twentieth century, but unlike Lenin and Stalin, he was not only a political adventurer but also a national revolutionary. Not only did he promote radical economic and social reforms, but he also brought about a national revolution in former semicolonial China and he united mainland China, which had been engulfed in a civil war. Thus it was Mao who renewed the world’s respect for China and the Chinese people, who had long been despised by the developed Western world and Japan. Yet his domestic policies produced national tragedies that cost the lives of tens of millions of Chinese.

We also tried to write a lively and interesting human story that devotes a lot of attention to Mao’s character and his personal and family life as well as to his political and military leadership. It is filled with fascinating stories from memoirs and interviews that present Mao as son, husband, father, friend, and lover, as well as strategist, theorist, statesman, and political infighter. From many angles we show Mao as a man of complex moods, subject to bouts of deep depression as well as flights of manic exaltation, a man of great force of will and ambition who achieved virtually unlimited power during his leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and of the People’s Republic of China. Our goal was to draw a living portrait that we hope will engage even readers who know little about Mao and China. We also tried to describe the kaleidoscopic array of people Mao encountered and the places in China where he lived, studied, worked, and relaxed, from his native village of Shaoshanchong to the Forbidden City in Beijing, where he lived as a virtual emperor. Our book, which tells the history of modern China through the life of its most important leader, tries to convey the feel, smell, and texture of China.

Our research has also uncovered many new and startling facts about Mao’s life that require us to revise commonly accepted views of the history of the Chinese communist movement, of the history of the PRC, and particularly of Mao himself. On the basis of extensive research, we document the continuing financial dependence upon Moscow of the CCP from its founding in 1921 through the early 1950s. Careful attention to the life of Mao suggests that the history of the CCP at the time can be understood only if one takes into account its continuing dependence on Moscow for authoritative policy guidance and direction. Archival materials on major figures such as Zhang Guotao, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Cai Hesen, Qu Qiubai, Deng Zhongxia, Wang Ruofei, Chen Yu, Li Lisan, Gao Gang, Yu Xuxiong, and others also suggest that the CCP remained subordinate to Stalin and his lieutenants, who controlled the Comintern and held the fate of CCP leaders in their hands. This is demonstrated, for example, by reference to the countless humiliating interrogations and self-criticism that leading Chinese communists were forced to undergo because of alleged mistakes or “Trotskyist activity.” There is even evidence suggesting that in 1938 Stalin was planning a major show trial of Comintern officials, including Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Kang Sheng, Chen Yun, Li Lisan, and some others. Had he not backed away from this plan, many top leaders of the CCP might have become his victims. Some documents, however, suggest that he murdered most of the CCP delegates to the Seventh Comintern Congress, held in July–August 1935.

Stalin did not include Mao Zedong on his “blacklist.” Indeed, it was Stalin himself and the Comintern that assisted Mao’s rise to power in the Chinese Communist Party. To be sure, Mao was not like East Germany’s Walter Ulbricht, Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov, or other dependent leaders of Central and East European communist parties, but there can no longer be any doubt that he was loyal to Stalin, whom he looked to for guidance as well as support. (Our treatment of the Mao-Stalin meetings in December 1949–January 1950 is revealing in this respect. Equally germane is our account of Mao’s uneasy relations with Stalin during the Korean War. Stalin did not try to unite Korea but rather attempted to weaken the United States by involving it in a conflict not only with North Korea, but also with China. By doing so Stalin tried to provoke revolutions across the globe.) It was only after Stalin’s death in March 1953 that Mao began to distance himself from the Soviet leadership. He came to view Khrushchev as an untrustworthy buffoon and deliberately treated him with contempt. We show that personal enmity between Mao and Khrushchev was one of the main reasons for the Sino-Soviet rift. By the late 1960s this rift had escalated to a degree that has often been underestimated. Drawing upon the former Soviet secret archives we demonstrate that in the late 1960s Sino-Soviet relations became so tense that the Soviet leadership had even begun to consider armed intervention in the affairs of the PRC, such as undertaking an atomic attack against the PRC’s industrial centers or blowing up Chinese atomic sites.

We also tried to present a vivid and objective portrait of the aging Mao from the late 1950s to his death in September 1976, a period marked by Mao’s audacious attempts to remold Chinese society along the lines of a uniquely Maoist socialism during the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), efforts that caused tragedy on a vast scale. All these events are examined on the basis of the new archival materials and with the aim of identifying the overarching objectives and personal rivalries among top leaders whom Mao, increasingly paranoid as he aged, skillfully manipulated to advance his aims.

In contrast to conventional views, we show that the Cultural Revolution was not merely Mao’s final struggle for power, but rather a serious if tragically flawed effort to achieve his utopian vision of creating a new, ideal citizen in a new, ideal society. By the mid-1960s Mao had come to believe that the socialist reconstruction of sociopolitical relations was insufficient. Even after the construction of socialism people would remain inert and egotistical. Each person would harbor a greedy ego dreaming of returning to capitalism. Thus, if things were just allowed to slide, even the Communist Party itself could degenerate. That is why he arrived at the conviction that it would be impossible to build communism without first destroying the old, traditional values of Chinese culture. However, he obviously underestimated human nature. That misjudgment caused the failure not only of the Cultural Revolution, but also of the entire Maoist project. The system of barracks communism, a stark and regimented society, that Mao envisioned died with Mao himself.

Finally, our task as historians was neither to blame nor to praise Mao, but to portray in all essential details one of the most powerful and influential political leaders of the twentieth century. The task we set ourselves was to present as complete and objective an account as possible so that our readers, whose intelligence we trust, can draw their own conclusions. It is our hope that this book will help readers to achieve a deeper and more accurate understanding of Mao, of the times and country that produced him, and of the China he created.

About The Authors

Photo courtesy of Capital University

Alexander V. Pantsov is a professor of history and holds the Edward and Mary Catherine Gerhold Chair in the Humanities at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Born in Moscow, Pantsov graduated from Moscow State University Institute of Asian and African Studies in 1978. He has published more than ten books, among them The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution 1919-1927 and Mao Zedong.

Photograph by Spotlight Photographers

Steven I. Levine is research faculty associate in the department of history at the University of Montana. Levine has published extensively in the fields of modern Chinese politics and foreign policy as well as American-East Asian relations.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 29, 2013)
  • Length: 784 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451654486

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Raves and Reviews

“Mao’s will for power, his vision as a revolutionary, and his prodigious capacity for cruelty marked mankind. Yet it is impossible to understand the transformation of modern China without absorbing the enormity of one man’s impact. Pantsov and Levine have opened what are perhaps the final vaults of archival treasures to buttress their new and engrossing portrait of the Chinese revolutionary titan. With clear narrative and sparkling anecdote, they have chiseled a more complete Mao, in the full dimension of life as a man, as an eager collaborator with Stalin in the Communist bloc and as the tiger on the mountain who both built and ravaged a nation.”

– Patrick Tyler, former Beijing Bureau Chief of The New York Times and author of A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China

“This fine book is based on extraordinary access to Soviet archives and documents recently published in China and the West, shedding new light on some aspects of the Chinese leader’s life and career. . . . Pantsov and Levine succeed in conveying a balanced image of Mao’s complex persona and revealing the contradictions in his beliefs and actions.”

– Thomas P. Bernstein, Foreign Affairs

“Here finally is Mao in the round: vigorous, idealistic, deluded, and ultimately evil—the full human being in rich personal and political detail. The widest possible use of Chinese sources provides deep insight into Mao’s family, colleagues, and rivals and illuminates the dilemmas he faced and the strategies he chose. New materials from the Soviet archives enrich our understanding of Mao’s formative relationship with Stalin.”

– Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University

“A new, important history. . . . The authors’ most serious contribution is probably their insight into Mao’s Stalinist creed and his movement’s complete financial and ideological reliance on the Soviets.”

– John Pomfret, Washington Post

“Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine's vividly written and highly authoritative biography, steeped in previously inaccessible Soviet archival sources, forever banishes the myth that Mao’s revolution succeeded as if the Russians had never come.”

– Alice Miller, research fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

“A comprehensive, authoritative new study that challenges the received wisdom regarding Mao’s relationship with Stalin and the Soviet Union. . . . The Great Helmsman fully fleshed, still complicated and ever provocative.”

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Definitive. . . . Thick with detail, this book sets a high bar for future Mao biographers."

– Booklist (starred review)

“China scholars now will have to reassess every element of Mao’s career. . . . More important than Pantsov and Levine’s scholarly chops, however, is that they spin a balanced and utterly compelling story larded with telling and often newly uncovered anecdotes about Mao’s family, wives, comrades, rivals, and victims. The common sense of the authors’ judgments on Mao’s crimes and achievements builds on their insights into Mao’s complex personality (and, yes, sex life). One of the most important China books of recent years and a page-turner, too.”

– Library Journal (starred review)

"Comprehensive, judicious, and finely detailed. . . . [A] major study."

– Roderick MacFarquhar, New York Review of Books

"A substantial and hair-raising contribution to our knowledge of the Great Helmsman."

– Jim Landers, Dallas News

“Mao: The Real Story is stuffed with important information . . . The authors have opened up the Russian archives and unearthed material on Mao that has hitherto been kept secret in Moscow.”

– Andrew Roberts, The Wall Street Journal

"Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine draw on recently declassified Soviet material to reveal surprising details about the founder of the PRC. . . . [Including] a hitherto unseen 15-volume dossier on Mao, the basis of a vivid and heterogeneous portrait of the chairman that exposed his personal life, particularly regarding his health and his serial affairs."

– Time Out Shanghai

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