Jung Chang has created a great story in her latest book, say the critics. But now there's a brawl over the facts. Hamish McDonald reports.
A tiny widow aged 85 living in two rooms, an electric rice-cooker her only modern appliance, may be a crucial witness to a dispute involving Jung Chang, the wealthy Chinese author of the worldwide bestseller Wild Swans.
The dispute is one of many being picked up by some of the world's most eminent scholars of modern Chinese history, who say Chang's latest blockbuster, Mao: The Unknown Story, is a gross distortion of the records.
Few are disputing that the subject, the late Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, was a monster as a human being and a leader who put his country through hell. Or that the book, written by Chang and her British historian husband, Jon Halliday, who live in great comfort in London's plush Notting Hill on the proceeds of Wild Swans, is powerful and destined to be highly influential.
But many people agree with Thomas Bernstein, of Columbia University in New York, that "the book is a major disaster for the contemporary China field"
"Because of its stupendous research apparatus, its claims will be accepted widely," he said this week. "Yet their scholarship is put at the service of thoroughly destroying Mao's reputation. The result is an equally stupendous number of quotations out of context, distortion of facts and omission of much of what makes Mao a complex, contradictory, and multi-sided leader."
As well as factual errors and dubious use of sources - which even favourable reviewers such as Princeton's Perry Link (an editor of The Tiananmen Papers) have felt compelled to criticise, many scholars point out that much of what Chang and Halliday present as a previously "unknown story" had in fact been exposed long ago. But no credit is given to earlier writers.
These disclosures include Mao's endless supply of young female bed partners, his appalling personal hygiene, callousness towards wives and children, the vital support of Stalin, his party's trade in opium, its shirking of the war against the Japanese, and Mao's ruthless diversion of resources to building the atom bomb.
"I've looked through the book's treatment of the 1920s and there is nothing there that wasn't known," said the Australian National Universtiy's John Fitzgerald.
"A lot of stuff in their great untold story is pretty well known," agreed Sydney University's Fred Teiwes, who wrote a decade ago that support from Moscow had been critical in Mao's rise as party chief.
Li Guixiu was a 15-year-old girl when an event that may have been pivotal in the modern history of China and the wider world - and which is also pivotal in Chang and Halliday's demolition of Mao - took place on the ancient chain suspension bridge overlooked by the back window of her home then and now.
On the morning of May 29, 1935, the vanguard of Mao's Red Army arrived at this bridge across the raging Dadu River during its famous 6000-kilometre Long March.
According to the Chinese Communist Party, a Red Army squad of 22 soldiers stormed the Luding Bridge later that day in the face of withering gunfire, across timbers that had been set afire and then along bare chains where the Nationalist forces on the opposing riverbank had removed planks.
Had the crossing failed, the Red Army would have been cut off in a narrow valley high in the mountains of Sichuan. A pursuing army sent by Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party) leader Chiang Kai-shek would have wiped them out, maybe eliminating the chance of China going communist, as it did in 1949.
"Complete invention," said Chang and Halliday in their book, which has stayed for weeks on top of bestseller lists in Britain and Australia, and looks set to do so in the US, where it will be released this month.
The bridge was not defended at all by the KMT side, they say. "Chiang had left the passage open for the Reds," the authors state, in one of the most astonishing assertions of their book. Far from trying to intercept the Red Army, Chiang was shepherding it to its destination, even leaving a truck filled with maps and food in its path at one point. The reason: Chiang was desperate for the return of his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, kept a virtual hostage in Moscow since 1925 by Mao's main backer, Stalin.
The authors claim this is supported by archived Kuomintang cables. And they claim to have met a local woman - "a sprightly 93-year-old" in 1997, running a bean curd shop near the Luding Bridge - who remembered the Reds firing a few sporadic shots across the river but no gunfire coming back, and who said that very little of the planking had been removed.
This week in Luding the Herald could not find the authors' unnamed local source, or anyone who remembered someone of her description. But it did find Li, whom other locals said was the last surviving witness they knew of in Luding.
Li says there was indeed a battle. "The KMT warned us that the Reds would eat the young people and bury the old," she said. "Many fled up the mountainside. But when we saw them, they told us not to be afraid, they only opposed bad people. I remember they were wearing straw shoes, with cloth wound around their shins.
"The fighting started in the evening. There were many killed on the Red Army side. The KMT set fire to the bridge-house on the other side, to try to melt the chains, and one of the chains was cut. After it was taken, the Red Army took seven days and seven nights to cross. Later, I was told that someone we had seen was Mao Zedong."
Oxford University's Steve Tsang says the Chiang Kai-shek archives show the KMT chief did in fact order the senior warlord in the area to hold the crossing on pain of court martial.
Chiang Kai-shek did not on this occasion or, as far as his papers reveal, on any other occasion, let the Red Army escape during the Long March, Tsang said.
In this case, as generally in the book, the authors had been "appallingly dishonest" in the use of sources they claimed to have accessed.
"Mao was a monster," Tsang said. "[But] their distortion of history to make their case will in the end make it more difficult to reveal how horrible Mao and the Chinese Communist Party system were, and how much damage they really did to the Chinese people."
The list of historical errors and far-fetched theories builds up. Leeds University Emeritus Professor Delia Davin, writing in The Times Literary Supplement, said Chiang Kai-shek's son had gone to Moscow in 1925, with his father's permission, to study rather than being virtually kidnapped there as Chang and Halliday imply.
The execution of Wang Shiwei, which the authors say was used to terrify young intellectuals in the "rectification" campaign of 1942, did not actually take place until 1947.
While Mao was no ideal husband or father, Davin said, the authors must have noted the account of the Chinese commander in the Korean War, General Peng Dehuai, when he told Mao his son, Mao Anying, had been killed by a US bomb: Mao trembled so violently he couldn't light his cigarette and was silent for several minutes. Chang and Halliday quote Mao's secretary as saying Mao had not "shown any great pain".
While no one is minimising the cost of Mao's follies - notably the 30 million dead from famine caused by the Great Leap Forward - scholars point out that in the sane interludes between these campaigns China showed remarkable economic growth and dramatically improved indices of social welfare, with life expectancy doubling in the 1950s.
None of this gets a mention in Mao: The Unknown Story. Nor is the drive for the atom bomb so surprising in light of China's century of humiliation by foreign powers up until 1945, and the subsequent hostility shown to the new communist state by the US.
Driving the book is an unrelenting hatred of Mao, and a determination to pile up evidence to blacken him as totally selfish and sadistic.
Francesco Sisci, veteran China reporter with Italy's La Stampa newspaper, said: "You don't feel cold analysis in the book, you feel hatred, which helps to make it a wonderful read. But history should not work this way."
Sydney University's Teiwes recalled meeting Chang and Halliday in Sydney during their research.
"She just had her views so set, and was unwilling to entertain other opinions or inconvenient evidence," he said.
Meanwhile, the least likely among the Chinese to welcome the book's historical revision are the people along the route of the Long March, now starting to enjoy a business boom from a "Red Tourism" drive promoted by communist leaders.
At Luding, builders are finishing a huge new museum that includes a mural of Red Army troops grappling their way across the bridge, amid gunfire and flames.
The bridge itself is much as it would have looked in 1935. Swaying in the middle of the crossing, Chinese-American tourist Shu Zhou posed for photographs in Red Army tunic and cap with a fake rifle. "I rented all this for five yuan," he said.
While the critical battle over the Chang-Halliday book is only setting in, at least one incident was being played out in a way Marx predicted: history repeating itself as farce.