Mao: The Unknown Story - Jung Chang, Jon Halliday Mao: The Unknown Story has generated a lot of controversy. Though Chang and Halliday spent over a decade researching this book, there are questions by other scholars about the accuracy of sources, statements taken out of context and the conclusions drawn by ambiguous evidence.

Not being a Chinese historian, I am unable to verify or dispute such claims. However, having lived in China for two years, I can appreciate the obstacles Chang and Halliday’s faced to expose the myth behind “the Great Helmsman.” History is always written by the victors and few victors have made more of an effort to fashion history as the Chinese Communist Party. Just get Chinese positions on any of the three taboo T’s (Tibet, Tiananmen and Taiwan) to get a sense of reworked history. Merely getting people to discuss issues such as the Cultural Revolution is daunting and it is naïve to think that any “primary sources” generated during that period that may be relied upon by Western scholars is somehow reliable. Truth is not valued as much as face, and when you add the terror imposed by Mao, I can’t imagine how any accurate information escaped the era other than by speaking to eyewitnesses and piecing together communications between Party members. Through such means, Chang and Halliday explore numerous “revisionist” theories: how Chiang Kai-Shek may have let the fledgling communist party escape during the Long March, how Mao provoked the Korean War to consume American lives and earn the atomic bomb from Stalin, that the Gang of Four were scapegoats for Mao’s behind the scenes maneuverings and many others.

That said, Mao: The Unknown Story sends up warning signs for a historical work. The authors clearly demonstrate their bias in their writing. The reference endnotes refer to pages but are not noted to specific passages. And literary clichés pepper the historical narrative (though that seems to not be an uncommon trait among Chinese who learn English as a second language given the much more florid Chinese prose style).

Regardless, though there is much to be suspect about in Chang and Halliday’s work, there is also much to be suspect about any of the more accepted interpretations of documentation coming out of Mao’s China. Some things may be lost to history, but Chang and Halliday have pieced together a version of potential history that at least preserves a more critical view.

And any book that is banned in China must be saying something right.