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  • E.G. Maladroit

J. Spence's Biography of Mao - is it too short to be worthwhile?


Spence’s biography of Mao is short, only reaching around 200 pages, and is therefore limited from the outset on what it can achieve. With this in mind, it makes a worthwhile read for someone interested in the individual of Mao and provides an easy entry point into the topic.


Spence provides a well-considered amount of context to the periods he addresses, avoiding making insurmountable what is to some westerners (due to the extreme short-sightedness of many education systems) a daunting unknown. The book is also well portioned, in a way that allows the building of a slightly rigid understanding – which, whilst taking away from the flowing sense of life some biographies have, is perfect for someone new to the topic and not wanting to be overwhelmed with structureless information.


The biography, from a slightly superficial standpoint, achieves everything it should. It mentions everything of note and conveys a solid understanding of Mao’s development through life, and character. It fails, however, to bring him to life – a criticism that seems to be prevalent among reviews of the book. This is in some ways unfair – considering the aforementioned shortness of the it, and as an entry point into Mao’s history it works perfectly well. This would only be a toll felt by someone desiring a deep understanding of Mao as a person, in which case a 200-page biography seems the wrong choice.



A final criticism is of the choice in content. It does not necessarily omit anything of grave importance, but one feels, reading it, the over-emphasis of Mao’s pre-power years and a slight lack of substance about his actual rule. It also gives a sense of skimming over the Long March. This may just be due to Spence’s intentions for the novel, as he described in the introduction wanting to ‘show how Mao was able to rise so high’, but he also mentions his ‘goal’ of explaining how Mao was able to ‘sustain his eccentric flight’, which I feel was less successfully achieved.


This was one of the first books I read on Mao – predating my reading of Wild Swans. I found it perfectly readable, and Spence aptly explains the chaos of Mao’s rise and rule. It is brief, but effective, and even re-reading it I found it still complex and interesting.

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