The good soldier

Compte rendu de Jeremy Brown professeur d’histoire, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. dans The Times Literary Supplement.

Alexander V. Pantsov with Steven I. Levine DENG XIAOPINGA revolutionary life640pp. Oxford University Press. £22.99 (US $34.95).978 0 19 939203 2

Michael Dillon DENG XIAOPINGThe man who made modern China352pp. I. B. Tauris. £25 (US $35).978 1 78076 895 3

Biographers of any of the four most recent Chinese Communist leaders – Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and current President Xi Jinping – face a considerable challenge: the dullness of their subjects. The problem is that Mao Zedong was far more interesting and colourful than his successors. Mao’s personal doctor testified that the dictator’s sexual appetites were “enormous”. When the doctor suggested that Mao take a bath for once in his life, Mao dismissed the idea, saying “I wash myself inside the bodies of my women”. Less stomach-churning – but more directly related to China’s modernization – was the way Mao talked about politics, peppered with vulgarities and obscure references to classical Chinese history. Mao consistently forced his confused colleagues to guess what he wanted; he was never boring.

Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw China’s “reform and opening” after Mao’s death, was different. Unlike his predecessor, Deng worked mostly during the day and slept at night. Presumably he also took baths. He was terse and spoke simply. Part of the difference between images of dull Deng and colourful Mao is a matter of personality and disposition, but it also has to do with historians’ access to sources. Only after the Mao Zedong era ended was it possible for eyewitnesses to reveal what they knew about Mao’s dance parties and groin massages by male attendants, and to speak out about devastating famine and widespread persecution.

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Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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