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More on historical evidence

I commented a few weeks ago on Andy Nathan’s review of a recent biography of Mao. Beyond the inherent interest of the subject matter, Nathan’s review was interesting to me because it explored questions of the reliability of historical evidence.

Those of you who are interested in this sort of thing might be interested in the following exchange of letters in a recent issue of the London Review of Books. It’s an entertaining shootout between Jung Chang and Jon Halliday on one side, and Andy Nathan on the other.

It begins with Chung and Halliday saying,

Andrew Nathan’s general criticisms of our book, Mao: The Unknown Story, rest largely on misrepresentations and distortion, especially of our use of sources.

and ends with Nathan saying,

As to how we read Mao’s quotations, the dictator said many beautiful and idealistic things which the authors do not take as ‘vital evidence from the horse’s mouth’. I agree that his policies count, and that they were disastrous. But a main argument of Chang and Halliday’s book is that his intentions also count. In assessing these, for Mao as for other historical subjects, we have to contend with the fact that actors in history avail themselves of the same opportunities that we do for irony, humour and indirection.

with lots of details in between.

3 Comments

  1. Aleks says:

    This reminds me of the controversial idea of new chronology. Fomenko compared the life expectancies of Biblical and Roman rulers, and found that they are very similar. Based on such observations, he's suggesting that there are merely two versions of the same historical events.

    There is quite some pro et contra on Wikipedia's talk page, and there is an interesting refutation based on coinage. Even if it's all false, it's still interesting to challenge these ideas. I find the use of statistics and mathematics to examine history quite fascinating: such as using correlations between events and people to find overlaps in history, or identifying absolute dates through references to astronomic events.

  2. Andrew says:

    My closest experience to this was when a curator at the Metropolitan Museum asked me to evaluate two competing claims of the date of a purported Guarnieri violin. The estimated ages were based on matching the wood patterns on the violin with known tree-ring series from Europe. I referred the curator to a tree-ring expert at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. I never found out what happened with the violin.

  3. Henry Wood says:

    Chang and Halliday’s Mao, Unknown Story is good, but it is not good as The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Zhisui Li

    Chang and Halliday’s Mao, Unknown Story provided a brand new version and perspective of Chairman Mao. It is the first time to portray Chairman Mao as a bloody mass-murderer. In their book, Chairman Mao was a large-scale murderer during a Chinese peace era. Nearly 80 million people were dead by his Utopian idealism: that was an unbelievable number. It is four times the number of deaths of the Soviets in the war between the Soviet Union and Germany. He used drastic violence to suppress people who he believed stood in his way for industrializing China. He ignored the death of 30 million people during the starvation period of the Great Famine, which was caused by his foolish “Great Leap Forward” for overtaking the British and catching up to the Americans. After the Great Famine, his lunatic behavior reached new heights. He launched the culture revolution, which was completely insane. He became a maniac. Under his direction, the violence was propelled to its bloodiest high tide. The horror broke historic records. Elementary school students unbelievably beat their teachers to death. The death toll was continuing to pile up until the day he died. From Mao, Unknown Story, the figure of Chairman Mao was drawn as a vicious monster and mass-murderer.

    No wonder, horrible bloody killings described in Mao, Unknown Story truly happened in China from 1949, when Chairman Mao took over China, to 1976 when Chairman Mao died. Chairman Mao did everything so lunatic, and insane. From the catastrophe which he brought to China, he deserves to be considered a bloodthirsty monster and a bloody mass murderer. Overall, the book is good and correct.

    Even though the book is good and correct, it cannot compare with Dr. Zhisui Li’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao in deeply and lively describing of Chairman Mao. No less than Dr. Andrew Nathan pointed out, all of biographic writers have a limitation in deeply and lively describing their objects. Because they have never served their objects, they have no chance to observe them closely. Also they have done a lot of research, but the inherent defect is that they don’t really know their objects’ personality and psychology. They don’t know their objects’ courtyard operations; their objects’ retainers, and the relationship between their objects, their objects’ retainers and the government officials.

    Dr. Zhisui Li’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao did not portray Chairman Mao as a bloodthirsty monster and a bloody mass murderer; instead of that, it focused on details of Chairman Mao’s personality, psychology and his courtyard operation. Owing to Dr. Zhisui Li’s position, it made him as so called: inside man. He could know a lot of Chairman Mao’s important information that an outsider could not know. Even Chairman Mao’s former public health minister told Dr. Li to come see him anytime if Dr. Li wanted to tell him about any of Chairman Mao’s activities. In the same way, Chairman Mao’s former chief commanding officer of guards also was available to Dr. Li with no appointment.

    The deepest impression for me about Dr. Li’s book is the Chairman Mao’s courtyard and his retainers. Chairman Mao’s medical doctor, chief commanding officer of guards and secretaries comprised his retainers. They were called “Group One”. Chairman Mao’s retainers formed a powerful and vicious retainer circle. Their power was even above party officials. The party officials were not servants of people. Instead they were servants of Chairman Mao. They cared for Chairman Mao’s retainers a lot of more than they cared for people. The gossip of those retainers could cause party officials a serious trouble. People were powerless and ignored. The party officials entertained Chairman Mao’s retainers with the best Chinese whiskey and the best Chinese cuisine while the Chinese commoners had a little of meat to eat. During the starvation period of the Great Famine, Chairman Mao even stopped eating meat. But his retainers flaunted the banner of celebrating Chairman Mao’s birthday, and required the local party officials to hold a grand dinner party for them. The dinner fulfilled the best Chinese cuisine, seafood, and the best Chinese whiskey, wine, beer. The party was in the name of celebrating Chairman Mao’s birthday, but Chairman Mao didn’t even attend. Dr. Li found it very hard to swallow that tasty food. However his colleague exhorted Dr. Li, saying that unless he wanted to leave “Group One”, he had better wallow in the mire with them. Some party officials even colluded with some of Mao’s retainers making a fraud deal in secret. The fraud deal deceived party treasurers by saying that Chairman Mao ate more than one thousand chickens in three, four days. Actually, the party officials took chickens for their own meals. Chairman Mao even had never known it until he was dead.

    The factions in Chairman Mao’s retainers circle were stricken by each other fiercely. Opponents attempted to topple their counter part desperately. A vicious atmosphere permeated daily life. Nobody felt safe. Chairman Mao’s wife was frequently involved in the factions’ conflicts. In this vicious atmosphere, even Chairman Mao himself suspected somebody of crawling on his bedroom roof at midnight. He did not trust any of his retainers. He even suspected that the swimming pool in his palace was poisoned.

    Dr. Li’s dream to be a great neural surgeon became a surviving nightmare. Although Dr. Li wanted to avoid touching this vicious politics, he could not stay out from it. For survival he was forced to stay with one faction. Later, the factions’ grappling escalated to a cross line battle between the retainer circle and party officials, and eventually led to a palace coup after Chairman Mao was dead. Chairman Mao’s wife and her three colleagues were arrested. However, Dr. Li survived successfully.

    I feel that Dr. Li portrayed the figure of Chairman Mao and his courtyard operation more close to the true Chinese history, what was really happened in China from 1949 to 1976. Compared to Dr. Li’s book, Chang and Halliday’s Mao, Unknown Story seems pale.