Book Review: ‘The Death of Mao’ by James Palmer

May 4, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Recently I’ve been really getting into Chinese politics because of my work, and so it was quite exciting for me to receive a review copy of The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by Beijing-based British writer James Palmer.

As the title suggests, the book focuses on the devastating Tangshan earthquake of 1976, and the death of former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong less than two months later. While it is a non-fiction book, The Death of Mao doesn’t read like a textbook. Full credit must got to Palmer, who has applied his research and writing skills in creating a surprisingly intimate account of two of the most pivotal events in Chinese history.

While Palmer tries to tie the two events together, he doesn’t quite succeed, and the book reads more like two separate stories — one which describes the last days of Mao’s death as those around him vie to be his successor, and another which vividly and comprehensively describes what happened before, during and after the worst earthquake of the 20th century by death toll.

The part which focuses on Mao plays out like a political thriller and is a riveting read for anyone interested in Chinese politics, communist politics or just politics in general. Palmer skilfully recreates the tension and paranoia sweeping through China at the time as Mao’s enemies and allies prepare for the Chairman’s inevitable death (due to ill health). Palmer pulls no punches in dissecting the reign of terror created by Mao and his frightening personality cult, recalling the millions of people who perished during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. He also does a fantastic job in navigating through the complex web of political characters, their motivations and interpersonal relationships. While Palmer sticks to reported facts most of the time, he doesn’t follow it slavishly, using extensive research and common sense to deduce which facts are likely true and which ones are probably part of the Communist Party’s well-oiled propaganda machine. It’s an absolutely fascinating read.

As interesting as the politics are, the part of the book that deals with the earthquake was, personally, even more compelling. The Tangshan earthquake of 28 July 1976 flattened an entire city and killed, by Palmer’s estimation, around 500,000 people (statistics have ranged from 240,000-655,000). Lasting just 23 seconds, the energy released from the quake is said to have been 400 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Yikes.

Palmer builds up the suspense leading up to the event itself, describing previous earthquakes and how seismologists believed that a major earthquake might strike but didn’t dare make predictions because they were terrified of the consequences if they were wrong. And when the earthquake finally hits, Palmer uses the hundreds of interviews he conducted with survivors to masterfully shape vivid first hand accounts that rival any work of fiction.

As scary as the earthquake was, the aftermath was even more horrific. Once again criticizing the politics of the time, Palmer notes how the Chinese government refused foreign aid despite desperately needing it, instead putting their efforts into making up reports of how citizens patriotically went to save pictures of Chairman Mao rather than their own family.

There were so many images from this section of the book that will stay with me for a long time. There’s the doctor tossing amputated limbs into a growing pit full of arms and legs that had to be sawn off (often without anaesthetic) to save lives. There’s also the wasteland of rubble, rotting corpses and shit from busted sewerage pipes summering in the summer heat.

But for all the horror, there were some stories of hope and inspiration. Despite there being reports of looting and other opportunist crimes, as well as militia drunk on their own power making things worse, Palmer was keen to emphasize the overwhelming courage, selflessness and solidarity of the victims, who did everything they could to help each other and find survivors. It’s definitely one of the better and more complete accounts of any natural disaster I’ve ever read.

Palmer’s writing style is simple and straightforward. The Mao half of the book is more journalistic, while the Tangshan earthquake half is more personal. Occasionally, Palmer would break through and insert himself into the narrative to demonstrate a point. At first I found it a little jarring, but later on I felt it added to the intimacy of the narrative as a whole.

Ultimately, I found The Death of Mao to be a wonderful and incredibly insightful read. It doesn’t quite work as a single piece of work because the Mao and earthquake parts felt so different, but if you look at it as two separate but intertwining pieces then both worked extremely well.

4.25 out of 5

PS: I found it particularly interesting to compare the political situations detailed in the book to recent events in China. Palmer was particularly critical of the Communist Party of the time for its suppression, hypocrisy, corruption and propaganda, and tried to imply that the Chinese people had grown up after seeing how the government handled the earthquake and were no longer being duped. But as we have seen from both the Bo Xilai scandal and the Chen Guangcheng affair over the last couple of months, it is arguable that little has changed. The Chinese people may have become smarter and more savvy when it comes to the bullshit that the government spills, but it certainly hasn’t stopped the government from trying (and silencing anyone who gets in its way).

PS: Also interesting that Palmer was so negative about the Communist Party, considering that the acknowledgments section of the book seems to suggest that he either works or used to work for the Global Times, an English paper whose parent company is owned by, you guess it, the Communist Party.