Special Supplement, Heroes of History

Around the world with Mao Zedong

Published : 19 Sep 2019 08:05 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 10:16 PM

Ian Johnson

In recent years, China has spent a small fortune trying to influence the world through “soft power” — relying on language, cuisine and culture, rather than the conventional hard tools of aircraft carriers, spies and satellites. It has done this mainly through hundreds of Confucius Institutes that extol the wonders of traditional Chinese civilization, in the process setting off controversies about China’s growing influence around the world.

What’s often forgotten is that the People’s Republic has been down this road before — and to much greater effect. Its export, though, wasn’t calligraphy or Confucius but the violently revolutionary ideas of the country’s founding father, Mao Zedong.

Today, Maoism is often remembered in the West as something kitschy — Andy Warhol silk screens, or Shirley MacLaine’s bizarre fandom — but at its height Maoism was one of the most important chapters in the Cold War. Especially in the global South, Maoism contributed to a series of remarkable events, including the greatest debacle of American military history (the Vietnam War), one of the most infamous cases of genocide (committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) and an epic guerrilla campaign (conducted by the Shining Path in Peru).

This history has not been adequately told in one sweeping, accessible book — until now, with Julia Lovell’s “Maoism: A Global History.” A professor of modern Chinese history and literature at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, Lovell has previously translated some of China’s most famous novelists, including Lu Xun and Yan Lianke, and written several books about important historical events or objects, like the Opium War and the Great Wall.

But her tale starts with an American, the journalist Edgar Snow, and his hagiographic account of Mao’s years in exile, “Red Star Over China.” In light of how Mao ended up running China, readers today can see how Snow was taken in by him, portraying his followers as “an astonishing crusade of youth” and fueling the fatal misperception among Americans that Mao’s Communists were patriots first and Communists second.

Perhaps more important, Lovell describes the surprising afterlife of Snow’s book. Its impact in the West was seminal, but it played an equally important domestic role. It was quickly translated into Chinese and helped persuade patriots on China’s prosperous coast to make the trek to the Communist base in Yanan and commit to the cause. Other enthusiastic readers were the Malayan Communist Party leader Chin Peng and Nelson Mandela. Indian and Nepalese Maoists were reading it well into the 1990s.

Mao appealed to such differing people for several reasons, but the key was his rejection of the orthodox Marxist and Stalinist idea that revolutions would originate with the industrial proletariat. Instead, he advocated insurrection in the villages, where most people of the world lived. Throw in his support for women’s equality, a penchant for quotable aphorisms (“revolution is not a dinner party”; “imperialism is a paper tiger”) as well as a huge output of theoretical writings, and it becomes clear why Maoism was so important to 20th-century revolutionaries.

Equally inspiring were Mao’s perceived successes in governing China. While today we often look back on Mao’s rule from 1949 to 1976 as a period of famines and political upheaval, others saw it as an astounding success.

For the century before the Communists’ takeover, China had been bullied by foreign powers, laid low by invasion and humiliated. Under Mao, China’s borders became secure for the first time in generations, it had a formidable military that fought American forces to a standstill in Korea, it developed (with Soviet aid) nuclear weapons and it helped defeat the United States in Vietnam. As Lovell puts it, “Mao assembled a practical and theoretical tool kit for turning a fractious, failing empire into a defiant global power.”

This appeal wasn’t confined to the global South. In the West, alienated minority groups, like the Black Panthers, gravitated to Mao as a person of color who had stood up to white hegemony, while youthful leftists saw him as an authentic, third world leader.

With such influence, it is a paradox that Maoism today is often trivialized, especially in the West, as a jokey relic of the past. Although most people would shudder at the idea of displaying in their living room a diorama of a Jewish shop destroyed on Kristallnacht, tourists and expats in China still bring back clay models of landlords being led to their death or intellectuals beaten by Red Guards. One can also question why artists like Andy Warhol made Mao a Pop Art icon — no other 20th-century dictators are treated as camp.

Lovell helps us think through these paradoxes by showing how Westerners often see Maoism as largely irrelevant, consigned to a past overwhelmed by the tidal wave of capitalism that has swept through China over the past few decades. Even in China itself, global Maoism has generally been forgotten. Today, China solemnly lectures Western countries not to “interfere in the internal affairs” of other countries, even though a few decades ago it sent military advisers to Africa to foment Maoist-style rebellions. “It is an irony that memory of the period during which China enjoyed arguably its greatest global soft power in its entire recorded history has to be ‘disappeared’ for political reasons,” Lovell writes.

The book’s greatest strength is its scope. Lovell traveled widely, used archives and conducted interviews in many countries and synthesized the work of scholars in the growing field of global Cold War studies. She demonstrates how Maoism was more than an amorphous idea, but a strategy pushed by China. It trained revolutionary leaders inside China, sent advisers abroad and delivered material support, from weapons to the black pajama-type uniforms of the Khmer Rouge — even portraits of Pol Pot. These are big, hefty chapters, making the book an indispensable guide to this vast movement.

But after almost 500 pages of such widely varying stories, the seven-page conclusion feels thin. One would like more about how the different episodes in the book are linked, and perhaps more of a narrative to hold them together.

Still, this is an impressive, readable and often startling account of an era that seems so far from our own. The decades after World War II were a period of revolution, when dozens of new countries came into existence and radical solutions seemed not hopeless or romantic, but the only realistic way to throw off the yoke of colonialism or achieve social justice.

It’s this yearning that gave rise to Maoism, elevating the fragmentary and sprawling ideas of an autodidactic dictator into an international movement. It’s the same longing for justice — and strongman rule — that will perhaps fuel Maoism’s appeal in the future.

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in The Times’s Beijing bureau. His most recent book is 

“The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.”

Read more Bangladesh Post news.