Mao

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Karl Mao coverBy Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Some time back, I did a Q-and-A with Rebecca Karl about her forthcoming trade book on Mao. Now that its publication date is drawing near, I decided to do a short follow-up and she was good enough to oblige once again by answering a few questions:

JW: I see from Amazon.com that the cover for your book is up there and that some sample pages are also available for browsing. When exactly will the book be available?

RK: Duke University Press is sending me advance copies at the end of July; that means the book should be available for purchase by mid-August, at the latest.

JW: Is there anything you can tell us about how the cover fits in with or reflects the arguments in the book or differs from the kinds of representations of Mao on other recent books?

RK: I asked the designer specifically not to have a red cover, and not to have a picture of Mao that everyone associates with the apogee of his rule (the Mao kitsch version). Those are features of most covers for books on Mao. I wanted a picture of Mao in transition to becoming Mao. That is because one major argument of the book is that Mao, rather than just being born Mao, became who and what he was in history — in interaction with his local and global environment and with the challenges he and his comrades faced. To convey this historical process, I originally bought in the Shanghai Cultural Revolution museum a woodcut print of a contemplative Mao from 1938, holding a calligraphy brush and gazing out a window towards some mountains. It depicts a peaceful and calm Mao, although to my eye, it also conveyed a sense of Mao’s contemplation in tension with the mountains beyond. I submitted that to the Press as my desired cover art. It turns out that I have absolutely no sense of graphic design: the image was awful for a book cover. It felt dead and lifeless. Heather Hensley, my cover designer, tried her level and gifted best with it, but there was nothing she could do to make it work. Instead, she found a picture of a youngish-looking Mao running a meeting in Yan’an (the 1930s Communist base area) during the War of Resistance against Japan (what in the US is called the Pacific War portion of WWII). This is a moment when Mao and China are transformed, so it is perfect to depict the active argument of the book. The subdued but powerful color scheme was Heather’s idea, and I like it immensely: it contrasts with and yet gives life to Mao’s gesticulations; it also evokes the sense of an old photograph (which it is!).

JW: And if you don’t mind a slightly off-the-wall question, any thoughts to share with our readers on the recent flurry of attention to the relevance of Mao’s thought for being a successful manager or entrepreneur a la this recent China Daily story?

RK: As I write in the preface to the book, when I first began to teach a course on Mao at NYU in 2005, I found my classes filled with undergraduate business majors, who wanted to learn about “guerrilla marketing”, which they’d been taught derived from Mao’s theories of guerilla warfare. I assured them they would learn nothing about marketing from me, although they’d learn a lot about Chinese history and Mao Zedong. The attempt to “apply” Mao to managerial tasks and capitalist marketing are hilarious to me — he was as anti-managerial and anti-capitalist as it comes! — but it is surely a symptom of our times. So the question is not off-the-wall, but rather precisely a-propos!

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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.

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