Mao Fever and the Story of a Mao Book

By Ross Terrill

Terrill Mao cover 1When Mao died I wrote: “China does not have, and does not need, a real successor to the bold and complex Mao. Now the revolution is made, another Mao would be as unsuitable as a sculptor on an assembly line”  (Asian Wall Street Journal, 9/10/76). I ended the first edition of my biography of Mao in 1980 with the expectation: “‘Raise High the Banner of Mao Zedong’s Thought,’ cry official voices now that Mao is safely in his crystal box. Up it goes higher and higher, until no one can read what is written on its receding crimson threads” (Mao, Harper & Row, 1980, p. 433). For eight years after its American publication and editions in six foreign languages, Mao was never mentioned by the Chinese press. In 1981, when a delegation of Chinese publishers came to New York and my publishers showed them the book, the Chinese fingered it gingerly like a teetotaler shown a bottle of whiskey. The book was well received and I thought that was the end of my attention to Mao; I turned to a study of his widow (Madame Mao, Morrow, 1984). But I was wrong about Mao’s life after death.

In 1981, after five years of deafening silence about Mao, the CCP reassessed him in its “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party.” Each major nation that experienced dictatorship in the 20th century emerged in its own way from the trauma. Japan, Germany, Italy, even Russia departed sharply from systems that brought war and/or repression. By contrast, China was ambiguous about Mao. Although Mao’s portrait and tomb still dominate Tiananmen Square, Mao himself has floated fairly smoothly into an a-political zone. One must give some credit to the 1981 Resolution for this delicate, if incomplete, evolution.

I said of the Resolution that if the Chinese leadership “delivers on its promises to modernize, and if the growing aspirations of the one billion Chinese people for a higher standard of living begin to be significantly met, the current Delphic dissection of Mao [in the Resolution] may well solidify into history’s verdict on him” (Newsday, 7/22/81). This seems to be happening so far.

But, surprisingly, there occurred a revival in China of Mao studies. Its intellectual kernel was fresh research on Mao undertaken during the 1980s. As a result of a loosened ideological straitjacket, some formerly “banned” aspects of Mao could be investigated. It turned out that the 1981 Resolution gave a green light to work on Mao’s life. As former Mao assistant Li Rui remarked, the Resolution “was not the end but the beginning of research on Mao Zedong” (Li Rui in Xiao Yanzhong, ed, Wannian Mao Zedong, p. 2). Memoirs by military figures and Mao staff members, biographical studies of senior figures, and selective issue of Party documents added to the knowledge of Mao’s actions and words.

To one bodyguard, Li Yinqiao, Mao had made a remark which perhaps explained why readers came to possess memoirs by Mao’s personal staff. “Yinqiao,” Mao said, “the affairs of myself and my family may deceive heaven and earth, but they cannot deceive you.” He added: “You must not write anything about me while I am alive. After I die, you may do so — but you must write the truth” (Li Yinqiao, Quan Yanchi compiler, Zou xia shen tan de Mao Zedong, p. 1; Mao said this after Li had witnessed a quarrel between Mao and his son Anying).

Readers of the new literature of the 1980s learned the human side of Mao: his farmer’s taste in food, his insomnia, his tears at the failure of the Great Leap Forward, his habit of falling asleep with books all over the bed, his desire for young women in lonely later years, his request for songs of the Song Dynasty to be played during an operation to remove cataracts from his eyes in 1975; and so forth (Zou xia shen tan de Mao Zedong, p. 217).

All this did not alter the overall picture of Mao I drew in the first edition of Mao in 1980, but it subtly changed Mao’s image within China. By 1988, some candid reappraisal of Mao’s faults appeared in the press. The Communist Party marked the 95th anniversary of his birth in December of that year with an article in People’s Daily that for the first time in official print contained admissions by Mao himself of his serious errors. Guangming Ribao ran an article detailing Mao’s grave health problems — including a respiratory ailment due to his smoking — from the spring of 1971 until his death. The fresh attention to Mao was low-key and factual. It stressed his human side, both charms and foibles.


In Chinese society, departures from Maoism and adoption of Deng-style modernization multiplied. In the later 1980s, a spirit of individualism arose among urban youth. Mao as a young man wrote passionate articles about the individual’s “freedom to love” that old China had denied and new China would guarantee. But for the later Mao, securing the wealth and power of the Chinese nation took preference over the individual. By the late 1980s a cosmopolitan urban generation’s individualistic thinking culminated in the pro-democracy movement of 1989. Unfortunately, a revival of faux Maoism occurred after June 4, complete with a barrage of Mao quotations and a revival of the Lei Feng myth. However, this was aborted by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Deng Xiaoping’s ensuing decision to promote stock exchanges, make his nan xun (“southern tour,” 1992), and cancel the leftist surge.

A fundamental reduction of political tension over Mao achieved by the 1981 Resolution seemed proved when a powerful “Mao re” (Mao fever) of the early 1990s produced a cultural, good-humored remembrance of the former leader. Sometimes the use of Mao was commercial, as if money had replaced memory. Sometimes it was superstitious, satiric, or nostalgic. Seldom was it politically earnest. This Mao re, in fact, signified that Mao’s strictly political leftism was no longer on the table.

Karaoke clubs saw young people enjoying songs in praise of Mao. One pop music cassette called “The Red Sun,” whose lyrics made use of Mao’s slogans, sold six million copies during 1991-92. For many people the music suited their mood of detachment from public life; they could let Maoist lyrics flow over them while simply enjoying the beat of the music.

To sing Mao’s words to pop music, or do business under a portrait of Mao, was a way of regaining one’s spirit after years of amnesia. The Mao fever was like a long-delayed funeral ceremony, remembering one whose enormous connection with daily life had gone, but whose image could never leave the consciousness of anyone who had lived in the Mao era.


To my surprise, in early 1989, a publishing house, Hebei renmin chubanshe (Hebei People’s Press) found the tide of interest in Mao sufficient to bring out a virtually complete Chinese translation of my biography.

During the turbulent spring of 1989, I was visited in my Beijing hotel room by its translator Liu Luxin. He brought a copy of Mao Zedong Zhuan (Mao’s title in Chinese) and news that the book, released only a month before, had sold 50,000 copies. Articles appeared all over China, reviewing the book and commenting on its place in a growing “fever for Mao” (E.g. “Mao Zedong re” in Xin xi ribao, 7/11/89). Readers of Mao had told Liu Luxin at the Tianjin Book Fair, just held, of their excited discovery in the book of aspects of Mao’s personality and his relationships with people high and low previously unknown to them.

A cadre in the Yangtze Valley wrote to the publisher: “If this book were to be done by a Chinese, the outcome would inevitably be either too much passion for Mao, or an excessive attack on Mao. But I am astonished by the author’s penetrating analysis and original ideas, particularly his conclusions about Mao.” A former factory manager in Tianjin wrote: “After reading your Mao, I decided to give up my high, admired post, and do something ‘useful.’ I have become an entrepreneur.”

A common chord in the stream of comment was that it took a foreigner to bring objectivity and a human dimension lacking in Chinese writing about Mao. “This foreign writing of biographies of our leaders is a good thing and a stimulus,” said a reviewer in Liberation Daily of Shanghai. “What I hope is that now a Chinese writer will tackle Mao” (Jiefang ribao, Shanghai, 1/23/91). In fact, of course, this was already being done.

The articles, reviews, and letters were not without criticisms, but the remarkable thing was the relatively open comment, praise, and colossal sales of the book. (Commentary on the book included Xin xi ribao, Wuhan, 7/11/89; Wenhui dushu zhoubao, Shanghai, 9/1/90 and 9/22/90; Dachao xinqi: Deng Xiaoping nanxun qianqian houhou, p. 106; article by Situ Weizhi in Xinhua wenzhai, 1990/1; and Hebei ribao, 6/22/89). Eventually, by early 1997, about 1.2 million copies had been sold up and down China, a higher total than for any other book from the same publisher for years.

For one act I owe enormous gratitude to Hebei People’s Press, at least to the bold editor of my book, Wang Yaming (since departed from the firm). Permission from the party-state to publish Mao had been achieved on the understanding that the book would be faxing nei bu (for restricted sale). But at the last moment Wang went to the printer and had those four characters removed from the plates. The book went out to Xinhua and other stores as a regular book. This could never have happened in Beijing and, without the editor’s bold step, the book’s future would have been modest.

Unfortunately, despite Wang’s initiative and the publisher’s fluke success in the marketplace,  Hebei People’s Press was an old-line state firm with no use of contracts and limited editorial professionalism. Many readers complained about the translation. My own frustrations with the house mounted.

For several years they would periodically invite me to Shijiazhuang for banquets and TV interviews and at the final dinner press into my hand an envelope with maybe 20,000 RMB, maybe 30,000 RMB. One year, they sought to reward me and themselves with a suggestion. The publishing house needed a new car but prices, due to tax, were terrible for a foreign car. Would I buy one in Boston, export it to Hebei, and take a commission on the money they would save by avoiding (they hoped) the Chinese tax? I explained I was a writer, not a car dealer, and the matter was dropped (I wrote of this experience in the New York Times Book Review, 5/26/96).

After China signed the Berne International Copyright Convention in 1993, this decrepit approach came under severe pressure. A simple contract was finally signed between Hebei and myself and the book continued to sell. But the corruption of an old-line firm used to doing business by winks and nods was deeply entrenched. They sent no royalty statements and paid no money. Eventually one of my former students, then doing business in Shenzhen, negotiated a settlement with them. In the course of the talks, Hebei People’s Press claimed the number of copies printed — always, of course, included at the end of a Chinese book — was a misprint and the actual number was 450,000 lower than stated. My former student threw up his hands at the duplicitous behavior.

Writing about Mao remained a sensitive matter in Beijing. “False Biographies are Now Forbidden” was the title of a Xinhua release in 1993. Only “accurate, serious, and healthy” works would henceforth be permitted. During 1992, the State Press and Publications Office complained that thirty-seven unworthy books had been published without authorization (Geremie Barmé, Shades of Mao, p. 30). Unsettled ambiguity about Mao remained and it increased under Jiang Zemin’s influence.

Foreign China specialists, including me, overestimated the crisis China would face with Deng’s death (Terrill, Oped, New York Times, 2/20/97). In fact, the event was not at all like Mao’s death. China’s political system had matured in the two decades between 1976 and Deng’s death in 1997. “Mao-as-an-institution” had given way to a quite different kind of CCP leadership. There was not in February 1997 the stunned uncertainty that had existed in September 1976.


Terrill Mao cover CRUPChina Renmin University Press approached me in 2003 to seek a contract for re-publishing my Mao in Beijing. Recent years had seen a poor performance by Hebei People’s Press with its 1989 edition (they had meanwhile brought out a translation of my Madame Mao in a restricted edition) and I was contractually free to sign with China Renmin University Press. But I had low expectations. Surely the Chinese had read enough about Mao already? Official biographies of Mao had come out, and Philip Short’s biography had also appeared in Chinese. Moreover, China Renmin University Press was an academic outfit, and I did not expect substantial sales. I was wrong.

One reason I was happy to see the book in Chinese in Beijing was that the Stanford University Press edition, which had supplanted the Harper and Row and other editions from 2000, was forty percent new. Much fresh material had become available. This made the China Renmin University Press edition far superior to the Hebei People’s Press edition. However, China Renmin University Press declined, with my eventual approval, to include the new Introduction that began the Stanford revision; it was an account of Western sinology’s handling of Mao over the years.

Renmin brought Mao Zedong zhuan out in the spring of 2006, together with six other foreign works relating in one way or another to Mao. It was a handsome volume, in red with 200 photos. The head of the house, Professor He Yaomin, was disdainful of the cover of the Hebei edition. “All black, with a statue of Mao’s head in Stalin style,” he sniffed, holding it up at our meeting. China Renmin University Press printed 8000 copies of my volume.

Xin Shiji zhoukan (New World Weekly) soon wrote: “With this biography new Mao fever has come upon China.” At a single store, Xidan tushu dasha (Beijing Book Palace), the title sold 1500 copies in two months. Renmin quickly reprinted it four times. The book was a best seller in the category of biography and memoir in shops in many cities. Said Sui Guoli, the sales manager at Beijing tushu dasha: “It’s unusual for such an academic biography to sell so well, especially as most buyers are individuals, not government units” (Xin Shiji zhoukan, p. 19). This popularity continued in 2007.

The series editor at Renmin, Pan Yu, told Xin Shiji zhoukan, “We just didn’t expect this success. We are a higher education publisher, doing high quality material and high quality writing. We weren’t quite prepared for this boom.” The editors had to scurry to organize successive re-printings. A Ms. Zhang at the Zhongguancun book store was cited in several media with a shrewd remark: “The young are buying Ross Terrill’s book in order to understand, and the old in order to remember.”

On the 30th anniversary of Mao’s death in 2006, the well-known writer Zhang Xiaobo looked back at September 9, 1976, when he was a boy of 12. “I was so shocked at the news. We had been educated to believe Mao was a god, someone no one can profane, who would never die. Adults may have been prepared, because of his old age. But we kids weren’t. We just collapsed” (South China Morning Post, Magazine, 9/9/2006). Thirty years later, Zhang, the co-author of China Can Say No, compared the Mao era with the post-Deng China of 2006. “With Mao, we trod the road of faith. After Mao, we tread the road of doubt. The road of doubt is better than the road of faith, but doubting has twisted human relations. We don’t believe each other.” Mao was still a measuring rod to assess where China had gone since 1976.

The other six foreign academic works on Mao and CCP history in the China Renmin University Press series were all good books, but they did not sell like Mao Zedong zhuan. One reason may lie in aspects of the nature of biographical art. My book is just Mao’s story. A biography has to make its subject believable in order to grip people. Yes, the subject of the biography may have made grievous mistakes. But even in that case the reader must feel the subject as a human being. He must be led to understand why that person did what they did. He has to be shown the context. Mao made history; at the same time history also made Mao, both Chinese history and world history. Mao was not a disembodied spirit, who came down upon China from the clouds.

I tried to make these points clear. I tried to explain the stages of Mao’s life, the relation of his career to his personal life, his efforts to align idealism with realism, his battle with his own mortality, his understanding of a changing international scene, and so on. The Chinese reviews appreciated these points. The volume was welcomed for giving the human side of Mao and for psychological analysis less common in biographies written by Chinese authors.

Was Mao a thoroughly bad man as a recent biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, asserts? (See my review in Claremont Review of Books, Summer, 2006.) No, but he had many wrong ideas, which I tried in my book to hold in balance with his achievements. He was correct to see the war against Japan as a crucible for social change within China. He was wrong to view Chinese farmers as poor and blank, which brought arrogant misjudgments in 1958-59. He was correct to see a good society as more than gadgets and cars. He was wrong to label anyone who opposed him as a class enemy, as he did from the late 1950s. And so on.

Professor Xiao Yanzhong correctly pointed out in Nanfang zhou mo that differences exist between Chinese and foreign writing on Mao. For the foreign world, Mao is the first Chinese to have been taken seriously in two respects: He influenced our times globally, and his thought also percolated globally. These points were not both true of Sun Yat-sen, Confucius, Qin Shihuang, or other Chinese names fairly well known to foreigners. The foreign biographer of Mao works within this global consciousness and the impact of Mao and his actions and thinking. Sometimes, too, the foreign author can be bolder on sensitive political issues.

Professor Hu Weixiong of the Party School said that among Western China specialists, Mao has become a “history topic,” whereas in China he has contemporary political bite. This has advantages in each case. Within China, writing about Mao is more responsible in that Chinese lives are involved in the story. In the West, the receding of Mao back into a history topic can bring more balance to the result.

I felt there were partial exceptions to Hu Weixiong’s observation about Mao’s passing into history for Westerners. One is the Chinese art world, now rather international, moving back and forth between China and foreign cities including New York, Sydney, Paris, and London. Much contemporary bite remains on the topic of Mao among these artists. But their “Maoism” has little in common with Maoism as actually experienced in the Cultural Revolution.

The “Long Live Chairman Mao Series 29,” by the New York-based painter Zhang Hongtu, took a well-known American cereal box, and turned the famous “Quaker Oats man” into an image resembling Mao. As art critic Jed Perl observed in The New Republic, it was “an American supermarket-meets Cultural-Revolution moment, suggesting that all marketing is equal” (Jed Perl, “Mao Crazy,” The New Republic, 7/9/08). The catalogue from the Saatchi Gallery in London that included this “Series 29” gushed that contemporary Chinese art “can be understand as an extension of Mao’s legacy of rebellion.” It had pages where photos of the Cultural Revolution were juxtaposed with paintings by contemporary artists, as if history can be forgotten by playing around with images. Perl aptly concluded: “This is radical chic with blood on its hands.”

Professor He Yaomin, head of China Renmin University Press, visiting Harvard in the summer of 2007, said he expected his edition of my book (not cheap at 55 RMB) would eventually sell 150,000 copies. I visited stores in Beijing and Shanghai in October of that year and again in May 2008 and chatted with folks browsing in the biography section. Some customers didn’t believe me when I said I was the author of the book they were holding in their hands. One lady did believe me when I wrote down my Chinese name. She gave a cry of delight and called over her husband and their small son. They asked me to sign the book and hold their son in my arms. The lady went to the cash register and paid for two copies of the book.

Some reviewers said the success of the book extended a Mao fever that began in 2003. This was the year of the 110th anniversary of Mao’s birth, the publication of a solid official party history biography of Mao, of many films, performances and other events marking the anniversary. On this occasion, Hu Jintao said Mao still offered China “precious spiritual wealth.” In forty-eight days, the special website devoted to the 110th Mao anniversary received half a million hits. That certainly indicated popular response to the government’s observance of the date. Meanwhile, new leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao stressed the interests of the hinterland as well as those of the coast, which seemed a gesture to Mao’s priorities.

The years since 2007 have brought twists and turns in my dealings with China Renmin University Press, all removed from the rather poor experience with Hebei. Some aspects cannot yet be written about as they still unfold. The Beijing firm are excellent book-keepers as well as editorially professional. They pay royalties electronically (yet to be done by my New York publishers, or my New York literary agent).  As I write, sales of the China Renmin University Press edition have just passed 400,000, far exceeding Professor He’s forecast in 2007. When a Taiwan publisher expressed interest in a complex characters edition, it seemed natural both to Renmin and to me to license it through Beijing. The only negative on that deal has been double taxation as the royalties make their way from Taipei (after 20% tax) to Beijing (further 16% tax) and then to me in Boston (yet a third tax).


The Olympic Games of 2008 were a set-back for Mao’s life-after-death. Many foreigners and maybe many Chinese wondered at the mention of Confucius but not Mao in the opening and closing ceremonies. Mao was present in the art galleries and the book stores, but absent in public life during August 2008. Was it because Mao was a bone-deep Chinese nationalist, while the Olympic Games were about globalization as well as about China?

Of course, the meaning of national pride changes over time. For Mao it meant having nuclear weapons, fighting wars on five flanks in the first decades of the founding of his new “dynasty,” and tossing an insult at Moscow or Washington when he felt like it. By 2008, the sources of national pride included economic success, the Olympic Games, the space program, the new look of China’s leading cities, and archeological finds that enhance the glitter and longevity of Chinese civilization.

Deng told his family he hoped before he died to witness the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule, and to attend an Olympic Games in Beijing. But he missed both. Deng, like Mao, was not featured in the opening or closing ceremonies. Politics was not in rhetorical command for these evenings. But Mao, and not Deng, still appealed to the imaginations of the artists busy exhibiting their fantastic paintings during the Olympic Games year. Deng is fondly recalled by countless Chinese, but he does not have Mao’s role in Chinese popular culture and folk mythology.

Trivial uses will go on being made of Mao, even if they become less and less plausible. If smokers become a small and despised minority in 20-30 years, they may rally around the memory of Mao as a patron saint to validate their liking for cigarettes. Already, tourists to Jinggangshan toss unlit cigarettes onto Mao’s old wooden bed in remembrance of one who loved to smoke. This impulse has little to do with the issue of smoking and health, of course, but expresses a nostalgic affinity, attractive to people half-anxious at their smoking, across the boundary between today’s world and an ethereal world.

Chinese responses to my Mao suggest that people now weigh Mao from their individual situation. What does Mao mean TO ME?  This is very different from questions I used to ask and hear asked and answered, such as: What does Mao mean for our Red Star commune (1964)? What does Mao Thought mean for Beijing University (1971)? What do Mao’s achievements mean for China’s future (1976)? What would Mao think about industrial relations in Dongbei six years after his death (2002)? There is indeed a “hidden culture” in today’s China, as the magazine Xin Shiji zhoukan observed. It is increasingly a culture of the individual, and it will create its Mao. As the party-state may use Mao to maximize political power, grass-roots folk will toy with Mao in unexpected ways.

Since 2009, China Renmin University Press has experienced a push from the party-state to “be more international” in its publishing. This is easier said than done, for the house, despite its half-century of experience within China, has little global experience. However, it says it is currently preparing a contract to obtain from me future world-wide rights to Mao, including English-language rights currently held by Stanford University Press. They have also commissioned a memoir of my involvement with China, Wo yu Zhongguo [China and Myself], to appear in 2010. A condition of the contract is that the book appear first in Chinese. Publishing in China — like China itself — has come a long way since Hebei began the Chinese career of Mao in January 1989.

Ross Terrill’s last book, The New Chinese Empire (Basic Books) won the 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His earlier works include Madame Mao (Stanford), The Australians (Simon & Schuster), and R.H. Tawney and His Times (Harvard).

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