Storm rages over bestselling book on monster Mao

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It was a summer publishing sensation, an 814-page biography of a man the authors depict as the worst mass murderer of the 20th century, with 111 pages of notes and bibliography. Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang, celebrated author of the world bestseller, Wild Swans, and her husband, historian Jon Halliday, was hailed by reviewers, most of whom were not specialists on China. The book was described as 'a triumph', 'stupendous' and 'awesome' when it was published in Britain. UK sales have reached 60,000.

But now the authors find themselves in a bitter battle with some of the world's leading China experts, who have united to unleash a barrage of criticism of the book in general, and, in particular, of its sourcing - the subject of a ten-point reply from the authors in the forthcoming edition of the London Review of Books.

The central thrust of the book is that Mao was a sadistic monster, worse than Hitler or Stalin, and responsible for 70 million deaths. His Marxism was a shallow mask for selfishness.

His reputation as a military leader and champion of the peasants was a sham, argue the book's authors. Portraying Mao as a creature of Stalin, the authors say that, far from moving China forward, he did nothing good, ruthlessly eliminating rivals, starving millions, provoking wars and treating his wives abominably.

By concentrating on the man and his misdeeds, critics say, the book does not explain the context of Mao's rise, his ability to hold power for 26 years and his international impact. 'More needs to be taken into account than a simple personalisation of blame,' one leading historian, Jonathan Spence of Yale, wrote in the New York Review of Books

Yesterday Jung Chang and Jon Halliday told The Observer: 'The academics' views on Mao and Chinese history cited represent received wisdom of which we were well aware while writing our biography of Mao. We came to our own conclusions and interpretations of events through a decade's research.' ...

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