Mao Zedong’s long, wicked life has generated some lengthy biographies in English. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s is the longest, having overtaken Philip Short’s Mao (1999) and Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1995). It represents an extraordinary research effort. The authors have been working on the project since at least 1986, to judge by the date of the earliest interview cited, which – and this is typical of the access they gained to many highly-placed and interesting people – was with Milovan Djilas. They have visited remote battle sites of the Long March, Mao’s cave in Yan’an, ‘over two dozen’ of Mao’s secret private villas around the country, the Russian presidential and foreign ministry archives, and other archives in Albania, Bulgaria, London and Washington DC. They even tried – and failed – to get access to the Chinese war memorial in Pyongyang.
The book cites by name 363 interviewees in 38 countries, including two former US presidents; Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore; the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko; the Mao aide and later Chinese head of state Yang Shangkun; a former Japanese cabinet secretary who confided that Mao escorted his prime minister to the lavatory in Zhongnanhai; Mao’s daughter and grandsons; and the Red Guard leader Kuai Dafu. Chang and Halliday also cite dozens of interviews with anonymous sources, including a laundry worker who describes the fine cotton used for Mao’s underwear in Yan’an; a pharmacist who allegedly prescribed lysol for one of Mao’s political rivals in the 1940s; Mao’s daughter’s nanny in Yan’an; staff at Mao’s villas; and ‘multiple’ Mao girlfriends. They have used about a thousand non-archival written sources, including published and unpublished works in Chinese, English, Russian, French and Italian. These include many that are unfamiliar to me and perhaps to many other specialists on Chinese Communist history and politics.
As their subtitle proclaims, in virtually every chapter Chang and Halliday have turned up ‘unknown stories’ of Mao. Some, if true, will be big news for historians. Mao amassed a private fortune during the Jiangxi Soviet period; his troops fought only one real battle during the Long March; their break-out from Nationalist military encirclement was deliberately allowed by Chiang Kai-shek; the most famous battle of the Long March never took place; Mao attacked India in 1962 with the support of the Soviet Union.
Other scoops have important implications for Mao’s character. He poisoned a rival during the Yan’an period. He would send his own soldiers to be massacred if it would help him to move up the ranks of the Party. He took pleasure in the slow, agonising death of Liu Shaoqi. We already knew that Mao was selfish and ruthless. Chang and Halliday add that he was a brutal, sadistic power-monger lacking in vision or ideals, comfort-loving and often lazy, riding the revolution to power to satisfy a lust for torture and sex.
It is hard to imagine a more panoramic subject in terms of time, geography and historical forces. Yet Chang and Halliday focus tightly on Mao. Around him we glimpse a Communist Party leadership of cowards and fools, either manipulated by Mao, as Zhou Enlai was, or killed by him. In the deeper background, we perceive a political-movement-turned-regime that engaged in fifty years of mass torture, killing and destruction for no good purpose, leaving its people impoverished and exhausted. Lost in the distance are the larger forces of history that some might think explain the violence and longevity of Mao’s regime: sociological or institutional explanations, or explanations based on China’s geostrategic position between two contending superpowers in the Cold War. Such theories would presumably be too impersonal for this intensely moralising work. They might seem to exculpate Mao by suggesting that he did not always intend the disasters he presided over.
That Mao’s story might still be to some extent unknown need not surprise us, given the secrecy that surrounds the Chinese archives, the regime’s tight control over historiography and propaganda, and Deng Xiaoping’s decision in 1981 to preserve the regime’s continuity by committing the Party to an official view of its former ruler as ‘70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong’. Mao (or something resembling Mao) remains embalmed in the heart of Tiananmen Square, and his image remains branded on the official heart of the Party. Deng’s decision influences all officially sanctioned writing on the former dictator, and that means everything openly published on Mao in China. Few historians outside China in recent decades have clung to the older romantic image of Mao as a sage, visionary and humanist, but Chang and Halliday’s Mao is a revelation even for today’s demystified historiography.
There are problems, however: many of their discoveries come from sources that cannot be checked, others are openly speculative or are based on circumstantial evidence, and some are untrue.
The inaccessible sources are of two kinds: anonymous interviews and unpublished documents or books. The former include ‘the wife of a Shanghai delegate’, ‘interview with a local Party historian’, ‘interview with an old underground worker’, ‘interviews with people who had been told’, ‘interview with a staff member who knew about Mao’s account’, ‘interviews with Mao’s girlfriends’, ‘interviews with Mao’s personal staff’, ‘interview with a Russian insider’ and ‘interview with a family member’. The book contains dozens of citations like these. The inaccessible documents include the partially unpublished manuscript memoirs of Mao’s second wife, Yang Kai-hui (one of these manuscripts is quoted at length in words ‘mostly recalled from memory after reading this document in an archive’); the ‘records of interrogations of executioners in the 1960s, unpublished’; ‘contemporary newspaper reports’; the ‘unpublished manuscript of a person present’; the ‘handwritten, unpublished’ diaries of Mao’s son Anying; ‘medical documents that established the poisoning’; and many more.*
Basing their argument on such sources, Chang and Halliday claim that the most famous battle of the Long March, at the Dadu Bridge in 1935, never took place. Their key piece of evidence is an interview with a ‘sprightly … local woman … who was 93 years old when we met her in 1997’, supplemented by an interview in 1983 with the then curator of the museum at the bridge. Their related claim that Chiang Kai-shek had deliberately ‘left the passage open for the Reds’ is unsourced.
Chang and Halliday state that Mao’s chief political rival in Yan’an, Wang Ming, was poisoned by a Dr Jin, acting at Mao’s behest. They say that this was established by an official inquiry, whose ‘findings, which we obtained, remain a well-kept secret’. They cite the document in the notes, but do not say where it can be seen. They assert that Mao blamed the Indonesian Communist Party for failing to seize power in Jakarta in 1965. Their evidence is a conversation Mao had with Japanese Communists in 1966, in particular some remarks which, according to the source note, ‘were withheld from the published version’ of the talks and ‘were made available to us by the Japanese Communist Party Central Committee’. How other scholars can consult these remarks isn’t stated.
Chang and Halliday report that near the beginning of the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution, Mao’s ally Lin Biao warned the other members of the Politburo that Mao had been preparing to face a coup for years and had intensified these preparations in the previous few months. Their source is a three-volume work called ‘Documents for Researching the Cultural Revolution’ compiled by the People’s Liberation Army Defence University, which they describe as unpublished. They do not say where they saw it.
They argue that Mao rejected a death sentence during the Cultural Revolution for the purged state president Liu Shaoqi because he preferred to have Liu suffer a slow, lingering death, that Mao was kept ‘fully informed’ of Liu’s sufferings, that photographs of the dying Liu were taken and, by implication, that Mao saw them. The sources for this string of assertions are interviews with Liu’s widow, Wang Guangmei, and with an unnamed member of Lin Biao’s family.
Of course, anonymous interviews and unpublished sources are often used in reputable China scholarship. They have to be, because of the secrecy imposed by the regime on its own history and workings. I have engaged in such research myself. What is troubling about Mao: The Untold Story is the authors’ failure to give readers any information to help them to evaluate their sources’ reliability. A lengthy research project that denigrates Mao, involving access to many individuals and many remote and secret locations all over China, over a period of many years, and drawing on a significant number of sensitive unpublished sources, in a country where the keys to history are tightly held, legitimately raises questions that the authors should have anticipated and addressed.
How was it possible to gain access? Who gave authorisation or protection, formal or informal, to this project, or if none was given, how was secrecy maintained as the research progressed? How were the interviewees found? In what settings were they interviewed? In what manner were they questioned? How were records of the interviews kept? What motivations did informants have for talking? What methods were used to confirm their identities and to corroborate their information? How were unpublished sources obtained? How were they authenticated? Where, if anywhere, may they be consulted by other scholars (and if they can’t, why not)?
Such a methodological essay might have included some reflection by Chang and Halliday on the history of their project and their motives for taking it on. Chang is the author of the justly acclaimed Wild Swans (1991), which told the stories of her grandmother, her mother and herself, over the span of seven turbulent decades from 1909 to 1978. Chang was one of the millions of people damaged by Mao. Her anger, deeply justified, shapes this new book.
Halliday’s name appears in smaller type on the spine and dust jacket, suggesting that his role in the project was secondary. He seems to have been responsible for the use of Russian, Bulgarian and Albanian archives and sources, and for interviews with Russian diplomats and Comintern officials. Not a China specialist, he is among other things the author of A Political History of Japanese Colonialism, the co-author of a revisionist history of the Korean War and the editor of the English-language edition of the memoirs of Enver Hoxha. In short, he appears to be a man of the left, whose disappointment with Mao may be political as well as personal.
It is clear that many of Chang and Halliday’s claims are based on distorted, misleading or far-fetched use of evidence. They state, for example, that the Chinese Communist Party ‘was founded in 1920’, and not, as is usually said, in 1921 – a point they think important because Mao wasn’t in Shanghai in 1920. The two sources they cite, however, merely confirm that early Communist cells were founded a year before the First Party Congress met in Shanghai in 1921, something not contested by historians. They claim that the Kuomintang politician Wang Jingwei was the hidden ‘patron’ of Mao’s early Party career, which appears to be a misreading of the fact that Wang, who served briefly as head of the Nationalists, appointed Mao as well as other Communists to KMT posts during the time of the KMT-Communist united front.
Chang and Halliday cite four sources to support their statement that Mao amassed ‘a private fortune’ during the Jiangxi Soviet period of the early 1930s. One is an anonymous interview which cannot be checked. The second source is a book in Chinese by a writer called Shu Long, which says that Mao ordered his brother, Zemin, who was president of the Communists’ state bank, to disperse money from a ‘secret treasury’ to the various Communist military units when a gathering enemy offensive threatened the money’s security. The third is The Long March by Harrison Salisbury (1985), which says similarly that Zemin took part in hiding the Red Army’s money and treasure in a mountain cave for two years until it was removed shortly before the Long March and divided among the Communist armies that were about to set off on the March. The fourth source is a file in the Harrison Salisbury papers at Columbia University. However, the citation is garbled, so the file Chang and Halliday used cannot be located in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library (nor can the correct citation be reconstructed from the information given).
In the chapter subtitled ‘Chiang Lets the Reds Go’, Chang and Halliday say they have ‘no doubt’ that Chiang Kai-shek allowed Mao’s army to escape from encirclement in 1934 so that it could threaten the warlords of Sichuan and Yunnan, who would then have to capitulate to Chiang to save themselves. It’s true that the Red Army escaped, but most scholars attribute this to Chiang’s incompetence. Chang and Halliday’s clinching evidence is a published reminiscence that Chiang told his secretary: ‘Now when the Communist army go into Guizhou, we can follow in. It is better than us starting a war to conquer Guizhou. Sichuan and Yunnan will have to welcome us, to save themselves.’ Although the quote is accurate, it does not prove the existence of a strategy. The source – who is not the person to whom the remark was allegedly made, Chen Bulei, but a lower-ranking staff member, Yan Daogang – himself explains Chiang’s remark by saying that he first made every effort to prevent the Red Army from entering Guizhou, and only after this failed decided to pursue the Reds there despite the opposition of the local warlord. In any case, one would expect a complex, long-term strategy of this kind to leave more than one fugitive piece of evidence.
They argue that the battle of Tucheng during the Long March was a huge defeat, not a victory as officially claimed, and that Mao engineered this disaster on purpose. This conclusion is reached by distorting what the sources say. The sources describe a protracted battle during which Mao refused to withdraw his troops and during which they suffered heavy casualties, but that nonetheless ended in a Red Army victory. Although the sources may be tendentious, Chang and Halliday do not explain why it is reasonable to use them in support of an opposite argument.
They believe that Chiang Kai-shek acceded to the Communists’ demands for a united front against Japan during the Xi’an Incident of 1936 because Stalin made this a condition for releasing Chiang’s son, Ching-kuo, from Moscow. Chang and Halliday call this a ‘Reds-for-son deal that Chiang had been working on for years’ and that ‘marked the end of the civil war between the CCP and the Nationalists’. Their sources for this argument, developed through several chapters, are all circumstantial; the key piece of evidence is that when Zhou Enlai met Chiang in Xi’an, he told Chiang that Moscow would send his son home. Their source for this information is Han Suyin’s biography of Zhou, in which it is claimed that a senior Communist official overheard this remark while he was standing outside Chiang’s door. Han – in any case an unreliable author – does report that Wang Bingnan overheard part of the conversation between Zhou and Chiang and that Zhou ‘assured Chiang that his son would return, that he was patriotic and undoubtedly wished his father to resist the invaders’. But she does not frame this as part of a deal: rather, as evidence of Zhou Enlai’s human touch. There is no direct evidence of a Stalin-Chiang deal and no good reason to think that Chiang would have altered his strategy for a personal reason.
The chapter entitled ‘Red Mole Triggers China-Japan War’ argues that the KMT general who in 1937 resisted Japanese encroachments in Shanghai against Chiang Kai-shek’s orders, thus triggering an intense battle, was a Communist agent acting on commands that ‘almost certainly’ came from Stalin. To support that interpretation, Chang and Halliday cite the general’s memoirs, published years later, in which he states that as a military cadet at the Whampoa Academy more than a decade before the battle of Shanghai he had been sympathetic to the Communists, who were then in their first united front with the KMT and formed part of the leadership of Whampoa. General Zhang says that Zhou Enlai told him at that time – 1925 – to ‘wait for a while for the appropriate time’ to join the Party. ‘But the CCP guarantees that from now on we will covertly support you and make your work go easily.’ This becomes in Chang and Halliday’s telling an instruction ‘to stay in the Nationalists and collaborate “covertly” with the CCP’ and – along with the fact that Russians in contact with Zhang were subsequently executed – shaky proof for the proposition that Zhang acted 12 years later on orders from Stalin.
Chang and Halliday say that Mao got Zhou Enlai to draw up a list of notable people to be exempted from persecution during the Cultural Revolution, and that Zhou does not deserve the credit that he later got for saving people. Neither of their sources backs this up. One is a compendium of Mao’s memos and other documents, which includes a one-sentence directive from Mao to Zhou to protect one individual. The compilers’ note says that Zhou did this and then also drew up a short list of other people who should be protected; it doesn’t say that Mao told him to do this. The other source, an article by Michael Schoenhals, says that rather than intervening in persecutions managed by others, Zhou himself managed the main high-level persecutions of the Cultural Revolution. While this supports Chang and Halliday’s point that Zhou was not blameless, it does nothing to clarify the issue of who drew up the lists of notables to be protected.
Some of Chang and Halliday’s arguments go beyond the misuse of sources to make claims that are simply unsourced. Perhaps they think these are conclusions that flow self-evidently from the pattern of events. They include claims that Stalin deliberately kept his ambassador away from the Security Council meeting in June 1950 which authorised a UN response to North Korea’s invasion of the South, because he wanted to draw US troops into Korea; that Mao helped cause Stalin’s fatal stroke; that Mao’s remarks to the East German leader Walter Ulbricht about the Great Wall had something to do with Ulbricht’s decision some years later to erect the Berlin Wall; and that Mao started both the Taiwan Strait crises, in 1954 and 1958, in order to provoke an American nuclear threat to China that would in turn put pressure on the Soviet Union to give more help to China’s own atomic bomb programme.
Chang and Halliday’s false claims include the assertion that Mao had planned for some time what became in 1962 the Sino-Indian border war, and, as part of this, a ‘hefty horse-trade’ occurred in which Khrushchev told the outgoing Chinese ambassador that Moscow would take China’s side if war broke out with India in return for Mao’s support for the Russian position on missiles in Cuba. But according to their own source, Mao’s ambassador reported these Russian protestations to Beijing as a hypocritical attempt to mask a growing alignment with India. Chang and Halliday further imply that Khrushchev’s promise of support helped Mao decide to give ‘the go-ahead for crack troops to storm Indian positions’; they fail to provide the important background information that, to quote an authoritative study by John Garver, Nehru had previously ‘ordered Indian forces to advance into disputed areas and clear Chinese forces, though without firing first. India ignored Chinese warnings to halt this “forward policy”,’ and only then did the Red Army strike ‘suddenly with overwhelming force’.
Chang and Halliday state that on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Peng Zhen, the mayor of Beijing, flew to Sichuan for secret talks with the purged general Peng Dehuai. Their source confirms that this meeting took place. But they misreport what the source says, claiming that the meeting was conducted ‘in secret’ (their italics), whereas it was arranged by the local Party secretary, Li Jingquan, as indeed it would have had to have been under the bureaucratic system operating in China at that time, although Li and Peng Zhen agreed not to report the meeting to Beijing. ‘What the two Pengs talked about has never been revealed,’ Chang and Halliday write, although the book they cite contains four pages of reconstructed dialogue. ‘Judging from the timing and the colossal risk Mayor Peng took in visiting’ Peng Dehuai, they say, ‘it is highly likely that they discussed the feasibility of using the army to stop Mao.’ Nothing of that sort is indicated in their source, which says that the two discussed an ideological campaign then unfolding in Beijing. It is unlikely that the two discussed military options, because neither of them – a civilian official and a purged general – had any access at all to troops.
Chang and Halliday report the case of a brigadier general called Cai Tiegen, who thought of organising a guerrilla force to resist Mao during the Cultural Revolution and was shot for that crime. Their source, however, states that Cai was the victim of a frame-up by a political activist, who distorted some discussions between Cai and his friends about guerrilla warfare to create the false impression that Cai wanted to form guerrilla bands to oppose the regime.
These three kinds of flaw do not rule out the possibility that in some cases Chang and Halliday’s findings may be true and represent a significant contribution to scholarship. The book makes the most thorough use to date of the many memoirs that have emerged since Mao’s death, written by his colleagues, cadres, staff and victims, and shows special insight into the suffering of Mao’s wives and children. It contains much information from Russian, Albanian and Bulgarian archives and publications, which so far as I know other scholars have not used. Among the new findings from these sources are that it was the Russians who first ordered the CCP to pay attention to the peasants; that Sun Yat-sen’s widow, Soong Ching-ling, was a Soviet agent; that the Russians had dealings with a warlord rival of Chiang Kai-shek’s in the 1930s, leading him to think they might sponsor him to replace Chiang as China’s ruler; that Mao initiated a long-term collaboration with Japanese intelligence in 1939; that Mao had his own ‘powerful intelligence network’ within the American Communist Party, unavailable to the Russians; that, before the Korean War, Mao promised Kim Il-song that China would send in Chinese troops; that at some unspecified date Mao plotted to depose Kim Il-song; and that in the early 1950s Mao undertook unspecified ‘conspiratorial operations’ in the USSR. Such assertions must be examined in the future, but cannot yet be accepted as established conclusions.
Chang and Halliday are magpies: every bright piece of evidence goes in, no matter where it comes from or how reliable it is. Jade and plastic together, the pieces are arranged in a stark mosaic, which portrays a possible but not a plausible Mao. This Mao is lazy, uncommitted, driven by lust for power and comfort, lacking in original ideas, tactically smart but strategically stupid, disliked by everyone he works with, selfish and mindlessly cruel. ‘Absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao’s outlook.’ Mao was a ‘lukewarm believer’ in Marxism. ‘Mao discovered in himself a love for bloodthirsty thuggery.’ He ‘demonstrated a penchant for slow killing’. He ‘out-bandited the bandits’. He ‘was addicted to comfort’. His ‘most formidable weapon was pitilessness’. This was a man with many enemies, generated and regenerated by his persecutions and oppressions. ‘Mao evinced no particular sympathy for peasants’; ‘Mao was extremely unpopular’; ‘Mao was disliked by the locals.’
How could a man like this win power? Chang and Halliday’s answer is that he was more vicious than his rivals. Thanks to his possession of shameful secrets, his manipulation of slander, character assassination and actual murder, his withholding and falsifying of information, and his sheer skill at browbeating, he defeated the hardened revolutionaries who were his former comrades-in-arms, turning Zhou Enlai into ‘a self-abasing slave’, ‘hyper-intimidating’ Liu Shaoqi, forming a purely instrumental alliance with Lin Biao and then discarding him – and doing some matchmaking for Lo Fu, for Mao was ‘shrewd about the ways of the heart, particularly in sexually inhibited men’. Mao ran rings around Chiang Kai-shek because ‘Chiang … let personal feelings dictate his political and military actions.’ Mao ‘had none of his weak spots’.
Chang and Halliday position themselves as near omniscient narrators, permitting themselves to say constantly what Mao and others really thought or really intended, when we seldom have any way of knowing. A cautious historian would avoid taking poems or speeches from Mao as a clear expression of what he felt or intended, understanding that poetry may express a state of feeling, and that a political speech or dialogue may contain rhetorical flourishes, humour or irony, or may be intended to mislead. Chang and Halliday take what Mao says literally, even his well-known outrageous statements that famine and nuclear warfare were no big deal. And they repeatedly impute feelings and intentions to him when they lack even a poem or a speech on which to base their interpretation.
Of course Mao deserves harsh moral judgment. Too many previous accounts of his life, awed by his achievements, have overlooked their human cost. But this portrayal impedes serious moral judgment. A caricature Mao is too easy a solution to the puzzle of modern China’s history. What we learn from this history is that there are some very bad people: it would have been more useful, as well as closer to the truth, had we been shown that there are some very bad institutions and some very bad situations, both of which can make bad people even worse, and give them the incentive and the opportunity to do terrible things.
Chang and Halliday’s white-hot fury no doubt represents the unpublished and anonymous Chinese sources that they have used. More authentically than the officially licensed propaganda, these as yet subterranean opinions reflect the current evaluation of Mao within the Party as well as outside. This book can thus be read as a report on the crumbling of the Mao myth, as well as a bombshell aimed at destroying that myth. That the Chinese are getting rid of their Mao myth is welcome. But more needs to take its place than a simple personalisation of blame.
[*] The structure of the book makes checking the sources more difficult than is usual for a work of serious scholarship. To identify a source, you have first to flip to a section of notes at the back, where source citations are arranged by the page numbers of the main text. Under each page number are several bold-face tag lines keyed to sentences on that page. After each tag line is a list of sources, often as many as five or six. These citations provide only the author’s name and page numbers. You have to flip back and forth in the bibliography to identify the sources. The bibliography in turn is divided into two sections, one for Chinese sources and one for non-Chinese sources. Moreover, many of the source titles are abbreviated, so you have to check the two lists of abbreviations before going to the two bibliographies. When multiple sources are cited for a single assertion, it is often unclear which source is intended to support the controversial part of a passage in the text. If four sources fail to do so and the fifth is inaccessible, then the controversial assertion is impossible to check.
Mao: The Unknown Story, a 900-page biography she published in 2005 with her husband, further established her academic credentials.
But Chang, when she sits down, only wants a glass of tap water, and her manner is more nervous than imperious. She talks as if she expects me not to know who she is. (“Wild Swans, my book in which…”)
Her manicured nails are as shiny as oyster-shells, but she fidgets a lot, folding the skirt of the dress over and over, and smoothing the buttons. She has just got back, she tells me, from a friend’s birthday party.
I mishear the location and when we establish that the celebration took place on the Greek island of Hydra, she blames herself for my misunderstanding, shaking her head and repeating, “Sorry, sorry… Yes… My mistake, the pronunciation.” She has a small habit of speech, too, a noise she uses to punctuate her thoughts, half smack of the lips, half hum.
The Empress Dowager Cixi with her daughters, circa 1904. (Sackler Gallery Archives)
Her third book, which she is here to discuss, is a biography of Empress Dowager Cixi (currently being broadcast as BBC Radio 4 book of the week). Cixi was a semi-literate concubine who, through her own determination and wiles, ruled China behind the scenes from 1861 to 1908.
READ AN EXTRACT FROM JUNG CHANG'S NEW BOOK
It is a serious work, based on eight years of research, but as well as being a political portrait it is as full of fascinating detail about eunuchs, Pekinese “sleeve dogs” (so small emperors would carry them in their robes’ sleeves) and Chinese habits of mind (the tendency to appease a deadly force by exalting it – so smallpox was known as “heavenly flowers”).
Cixi, Chang argues, was not the brutal despot of conventional opinion, but a free thinker who opened the doors to the West, revolutionised the education system, abolished such cruel practices as foot-binding and “death by a thousand cuts” (in which the victim was sliced up alive), and embarked upon a system of modernisation, including industry, railways, the freedom of the press, women’s liberation and plans for parliamentary elections.
Cixi’s last act was to poison her own stepson, to prevent his rule. “Isn’t it unbelievable?” Chang says, with glee. “He was no good… He was obsessed with clocks… He was content never to travel from the Forbidden City, or to meet outsiders. He would have been a catastrophe. She has been universally maligned for 100 years, mainly because she was a woman. But how can you not feel..?”
Chang emits a small hum. “He is the one regarded as the hero, but it’s the Empress Dowager who deserves our sympathy!”
Would she agree, I venture, that she had fallen in love with her subject? She smiles broadly. “Yes. Yes. I did. I’m afraid I did. I felt, I very felt… um. I try to keep a detached tone, but I never wanted to erase the passion in my writing. This is my interpretation of her, my take on the facts.” She throws back her head and laughs. “Fall in love with her? Yes. I did.”
Both Chang’s previous books are banned in China, and she is only allowed to return there, to visit her sister and mother (her three brothers live in Canada, France and Britain), on condition she visits no other friends and avoids all travel and political activities. Much of the research for this biography took place in the Chinese archives.
“Cixi is OK because she is history, and actually the Ching period is a big period to study in China because it was the height of the Chinese empire.” She gives a wry smile. “I think the authorities might have been rather relieved that I was going into a history rather than a Communist leader.”
Does she think this might be her first book to be published there? She picks her words carefully. “I think if someone else had written it, it would be fine. But they won’t want to raise my profile.”
You can tell she is careful what she says – she doesn’t want to bring attention to her friends and family. But her scholarship is, of course, itself a criticism.
In conversation, Chang repeatedly contrasts the policies of the Empress Dowager with those of the Communist regime. The speed of modernisation, she says, did untold damage to the Chinese landscape and culture – both of which Cixi was careful to safeguard. “In the mad rush of high-speed growth people did the most devastating thing – they destroyed nature.”
Jung Chang, aged six
The economic development, meanwhile, has created extraordinary wealth and yet the gap between rich and poor has widened. “The party is determined to hang on to the monopoly of power, zapping any calls for a constitutional law, which is very much what the Empress Dowager advocated. Xi Jinping’s regime has started this anti-corruption blitz. They are getting teams to dig it out – corrupt people fighting corrupt people; whereas the real method to deal with corruption is to have an open media. That’s the real solution, as the Empress Dowager could see. You stop officials from wrongdoing when they feel the people are watching.”
I ask if she finds the West’s collusion with China, for economic reasons, troublesome. She answers indirectly. “A loud voice in China today is condemning Western democracy and promoting Mao’s style of rule as an alternative. Westerners could ask Beijing why it wants to follow the road of the man of was responsible for the deaths of well over 70 million Chinese in peacetime.”
Does the apparent apathy of the middle classes in China frustrate her? “Of course it frustrates me – I can see the dangers in it – but I sort of understand. Young people, for example, aren’t told about Tiananmen Square massacre. It is extraordinary.”
She shakes her head. “The thing is, the regime makes it very hard for people to be interested. If you are dedicated to finding out the truth, you can. There are ways to climb the firewall. You can buy banned books in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is more… It is the risk associated with it that puts people off wanting to think about it.
At the same time the government makes it very easy for you to live if you don’t get involved in politics. The middle classes, for example, are travelling abroad in tourist groups… I think they are not consciously thinking, 'I’m going to do this, or think about that.’ It is just easy to avoid, to steer away.” She sighs.
“The Chinese have had a very hard life and now they are having better lives, they are starting to do things that Westerners have taken for granted. Who has the heart to deprive them of that?”
Jung Chang with her husband, the historian Jon Halliday, 2006
Her own life is, she says, extremely agreeable. It is not that she doesn’t think about the past, but “I have put it behind me”.
The money she earned from Wild Swans, which was “absolutely wonderful”, allowed her not only to give her mother a comfortable old age, but to write her subsequent two books at her own scholarly pace. “I love getting to the bottom of things. I love finding out what really happened. I love detective work.”
She lives with her husband, the historian Jon Halliday, in a gracious house in Notting Hill. They have no children, but “deeply love” their nephews and nieces.
She has a garden that she adores, and a balcony on which she exercises daily, “Chinese style, a bit like kung fu”. She likes to rise in the morning in her own time, enjoys a small siesta “to rest her brain” in the afternoon, and eats well.
“I think I am a good cook. Chinese food, yes. When I cook I constantly think of my grandmother, who taught my sister and me. She would say, 'It will benefit your future.’ My husband loves my cooking. I don’t cook as a burden, only when it gives me pleasure.”
Beauty, she continues, is important to her. “I think the love of beauty is innate, part of being a woman. There are people who like it less. My mother, a radical in her time, thinks about these things far less than my grandmother, and probably me. But I love going to a party and seeing women dressed beautifully, young girls looking glorious. It gives me pleasure. The Empress Dowager was the same.”
When I ask whether, as the biographer of a powerful woman who had to rule behind the façade of men, she finds sexism still a problem in Britain today, she looks momentarily confused. “I am not the right person to ask. As a writer, I live such a solitary life. My observations with people are on a social basis. I am not working in an office where you see these things. But I guess that is always the case. Women have to work extra hard to get what they rightly deserve.”
Jung Chang (in hair ribbons) in her grandmother’s arms, with her siblings and mother
She worries about her mother, Dehong, who is almost 83 and has health problems: “She is a survivor. She is a fighter.” She lives in Chengdu. Could she be persuaded to live here? Chang shakes her head.
“She speaks no English and China is her soil. I am very, very lucky that most of my family remains close. I think, going through the Cultural Revolution together, that drew bonds. Even when we were separated, my mother was amazing – my father also. They gave us a lot of love. They brought us up the right way.”
I ask which of her parents she thinks she resembles more (her father died, mentally broken by life in a labour camp, in 1970). “I think I am like my father… Unpleasant pressures were put on Jon and me to modify the Mao book – I won’t go into details – and I refused.
I won’t change this or that to make life easier. My father, in the Cultural Revolution, he absolutely refused to make any sort of compromise. People say, 'What harm would it do, if you just say a certain thing against what you believe?’ He absolutely refused. Even then, when I was 14, I just really felt…” She brings out a tissue and blows her nose. She makes that humming noise. I give her a moment to recover. But when she raises her head, her eyes are clear again. Her chin is up.
“I am bound to attract unpleasant attacks with the Empress Dowager because she is so unpopular. I don’t relish a fight. But I am not going to change a word. And if people don’t like it, well…” Is it not a win-win situation? A good review’s a good review.
But a bad review could be celebrated as an example of the free press. “Oh really?” she says, putting her hand over her mouth. “Oh yes.” She laughs, and adds: “Oh God.”
“Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China” (Jonathan Cape) is available from Telegraph Books