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Mao Zedong: A Life

(Penguin Lives)

3.42  ·  Rating details ·  753 ratings  ·  89 reviews
“Spence draws upon his extensive knowledge of Chinese politics and culture to create an illuminating picture of Mao. . . . Superb.” (Chicago Tribune)

From humble origins in the provinces, Mao Zedong rose to absolute power, unifying with an iron fist a vast country torn apart by years of weak leadership, colonialism, and war. This sharply drawn and insightful account brings
Paperback, 188 pages
Published August 29th 2006 by Penguin Books (first published 1999)
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3.42  · 
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 ·  753 ratings  ·  89 reviews

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Oct 24, 2010 rated it really liked it
This was no deep look into the trivial doings of Mao, but rather a synopsis of his life. I found it to be absolutely perfect for what it was. The details all seemed to be on the same plane: no sudden dips down into minutia, unmatched elsewhere. Likewise, no skipping over the surface to cover great gulfs of time in only a few pages. No doubt the end lacked depth but the author certainly made a good case for they why: Mao's personal journey having been mostly completed and no events were happening ...more
Hock Tjoa
Feb 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
A brief and not at all sensational account of Chairman Mao. Meaning, it does not address any of the sensational aspects of Mao's personality (such as Mao's physician did) or dwell on the disasters of the Cultural Revolution of of the Great Leap Forward or get into the whys and wherefores of Mao's (manipulative) relationship with Lin Biao, Liu Shao Qi or Zhou Enlai. Instead, it is a "straight up" account of Mao's life and succeeds I think in communicating the essentials of these without getting i ...more
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History is not really my favorite subject but finally I finished read this one. The brief biography of Mao Ze Dong tells the overview of his life and what happening in the China at that period. The book provides detail about Mao’s earlier life. Mao had struggle so often against the autocratic nature of his father, hated and despised the shackles of bourgeois marriage and had found joy in a free-love relationship, detest schools and would rather go to the libraries to seek classical and historian ...more
Syed Fathi
Apr 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bought, history
This small book which tries to tell a story about one huge world leader, really helps readers in a sense that you can understand a huge subject with fewer pages. Of course, it needs simplification, and also selection, in order to achieve this goal. A layman about the subject, I find the book helpful in my journey as readers. As I get to understand the subject in a less painful way (you need to sip through a few thick tomes to understand it as a whole).

I find Mao life story, struggle, family lif
Nov 13, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The author doesn't wander himself into Mao’s ideological maze and his mysterious motives. He doesn’t condemn or praises Mao’s political journey. Amid authors whom demonize and over analyze psychologically, to the point of conspiracy theories, other world leaders, this author just gives headlines. Which sometimes were not certainly interesting and captivating for me. He almost makes it seem that, despite the huge state he lead, he was a simple human being, who lived in a cave once.

How many of us
May 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
I actually used an old audio tape while driving. Shows you the kind of stuff I listen to.

A fair, even-handed biography. Very thorough. What a catastrophic failure Maoism was. How does it happen? Part of it is losing touch with reality. Part of it is a fear of being overthrown. Part of it is believing so much in a philosophy that all discussion goes out the door. He was willing to destroy all of the historical buildings in Beijing and would rather have had all smokestacks. So he nixed a plan to
David Redman
May 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
For those looking for a short introduction into the life of Chairman Mao Zedong, this is a perfect book. Although it is true that others have gone more in depth, for a person who is just reading for a simple understanding of his life it gives the information that helps you understand the revolution leading to the current state of The People's Republic of China, changing from their empire to their Nationalist Government to the communist government today. Spence describes his life from his beginni ...more
Jun 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
An excellent short biography that does exactly what it sets out to do: provide an introduction to an important person, with lots of suggestions of where to find more detailed information.
Nov 25, 2016 rated it liked it
A concise and historically punctual overview of Mao Zedong and the development of his 'Thought' within (but beginning much outside) the global narrative of Communist insurgence, particularly where similarities with the Soviet Union could be drawn.

Although perhaps a little vague, especially where the later years of the boy born in the obscurity of the periphery within the sprawling realms of China - a country humiliated by foreign imperial bureaucracies, and the ineffectiveness of the late-decad
John Pistelli
I like the old Penguin Lives series of brief biographies; they were published between 1999 and 2002 and then abruptly discontinued. I used to read or peruse them back then—I remember reading the one on Woolf in full and maybe Austen too, as well as looking through the Joyce and Melville. So I decided to revisit the series with this volume on Chairman Mao by the distinguished historian Jonathan Spence. It has convinced me that the brief biography format works better for writers than for politicia ...more
Jun 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
For a small like this, I would say it is a comprehensive overview of Mao, how he started and ended, which helps me to understand why many things are like this in modern China. They all have its root.

As a Chinese born and reared in mainland China, I have a mixed feeling about Mao after reading this book.

Like many people who have commented, this book doesn't reveal anything about Mao's personality. All statements are very objective, which is good for a brief biography. However, I would like to kn
Derek Ide
May 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Worth reading, especially for the early/formative years of Mao's life. Spence traces his intellectual and political trajectory well, that is right up until Mao assumes power. After that Spence's writing becomes sloppy, heavy-handed, and often opaque. It's not entirely clear why Mao did anything he did, other than the tacit suggestion that Mao was simply a power-hungry megalomaniac. Good primer, worth pursuing other writers (especially more sympathetic accounts) alongside it.
Ryan Fohl
Nov 11, 2018 rated it liked it
A good bio for someone new to the subject or a reader well versed in Chinese history. It wasn’t the most exciting read but it was quick. This focuses close on Mao himself. It shows how a good revolutionary, makes a bad emperor. How decades of war will change a man’s thinking and values. I liked this line from when Mao was living in caves in Yan’an “From living the simple life because he had to, Mao had moved to choosing to live the simple life, thence to boasting about living the simple life, an ...more
Aug 03, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A nice introduction to the full life of Mao, a name that's hard not to recognize but one I knew very little about. If you've got an inkling of curiosity about the foundation of the communist party in China and want to learn some about Mao's life, this is a good sampler. It's a brief little book and should give you an idea for whether you want to pursue the more in-depth tomes out there.
Aug 27, 2019 rated it liked it
A very condensed biography. I felt it covers the beginnings of Mao's political career quite well, but it's rather concise on the Small Leap, the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution. It also has no time to shed more light on Mao's accompanying characters. Overall, very useful brief intro to Mao and substantial part of China's 20th century history.
Zach Goldsmith
Jun 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
A rather bland introduction to one of the most pivotal figures in the twentieth century. I need to get a copy of Zhisui’s book. Still, for anyone who wants an A-to-B story of Mao’s life with no frills, this is a solid choice.
Brianna Osborne
Jan 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting look at the life of the communist dictator of China. His policies are not analyzed in detail, which is fine for the length of this book. I'd like to learn more about the Cultural Revolution that is only briefly described at the end of the book.
Justin Evans
Jan 16, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history-etc
This took me a surprisingly long time to get through; perhaps I was just in the wrong mood. But at least now I have a general outline of Mao's life. Frankly, it doesn't seem much more effort than this little book--the general histories are probably more worthwhile.
Douglas S
May 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Excellent, brief summary of Mao. I was surprised at how important Russian involvement was, and although I knew Mao was a poor ruler and responsible for 10's of millions of deaths, I didn't realise how little he did well.
Rajiv Agarwal
Aug 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Along with Hilter and Stalin, Mao had profound affect on 21'st Century. This book describes his rise and character. Well written.
Oct 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
a brief life story of mao. from early simple life to a powerful man in china. i like the way the author narrate the story, feels like i'm reading a historical fiction. ☺ ...more
Petra Hermans
May 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A dictator rules, a student checks, while, at the very same time,
a master is beyond his way of controlling the ways of the world.
May 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: china
Jonathan Spence's biography of Mao is concise yet revealing and detailed at the same time. Spence uses social, political, intellectual, and cultural history to provide good background information to Mao's life and also to explain the impacts of his policies. Spence is a fine historian. He admits when we simply lack enough documented evidence to support a claim or not. When we don't know enough about why Mao made a certain decision or not, Spence mentions this lack of evidence, fair and square. A ...more
Jonathan Spence's Mao Zedong is an effective biography that covers much content in few pages. That's quite an accomplishment. The text covers all of Mao's life from birth to death, and for the most part treats each stage of his life as worthy of equal attention. Spence takes special care to keep Mao's personal life, his friends and family, always close at hand. Mao Zedong seems well-researched and is thoughtfully written.

The book is hamstrung by its format though. For example, although the autho
Apr 26, 2010 rated it it was ok
While the book provided an adequate overview of Mao's life, I was ultimately a little disappointed. As someone who knew some but not a lot of the historical backdrop against which Mao lived, I found the book somewhat unsatisfying. The early chapters were the most insightful and included a useful look into Mao's upbringing and early associations with the communist movement in China. Once Mao rose to dominance in the Communist Party, the book seemed to falter a bit and gave only a rough sketch of ...more
Elliot Ratzman
It’s Chairman Mao’s birthday (12/26) so I read this small biography since I know nothing about Chinese history. From humble rural origins, Mao advanced through education instigated by Japanese or Western-trained teachers who promoted cultural and political reforms. Mao works in a university library in Beijing, runs his own book lending business back in Hunan province before he is recruited to the newly formed Chinese Communist Party. After a series of assignments, he ends up living in a cave, a ...more
Alex Lee
Apr 14, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bio, 2016, history
Perhaps because I read the other Mao biography Mao: The Real Story in close timing, this book which is 1/4 the size, seems pretty much the same in content. Spencer keeps some of the character judgement of Mao at bay though, which is nice. He still paints a picture of a man who appears to care more about himself than those around him. Spencer frames the story as a kind carnivalisque in the manner of the Cultural Revolution, which is interesting although that does nothing more than provide a narra ...more
Apr 28, 2014 rated it liked it
The first half of this book contained few details I found interesting or useful. Second half was much better, but it leaves out a discussion of even some of the most basic questions one would have in reading about his life, like how it was possible for such a cult of personality to develop around him. The way Spence tells this part of the story, one day Mao is critical of the cult of personality around Stalin; the next, Chinese Communism is identified entirely with Mao's thought. And there are a ...more
Jul 26, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This short biography of Mao reaches for his intellectual formation and life, though does not find much there. It provides a solid overview of his accomplishments, but there is so much to wonder about Mao's rise to power and his maintenance of that power. The book also cannot provide a complete background to understand China in the early 20th century. Spence begins critically - "He was one of the toughest and strangest in China's long tradition of formidable rulers who wielded extraordinary powe ...more
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Mao : An Intellectual Restlessness? 2 10 Mar 05, 2011 09:58PM  

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Jonathan D. Spence is a historian specializing in Chinese history. His self-selected Chinese name is Shǐ Jǐngqiān (simplified Chinese: 史景迁; traditional Chinese: 史景遷), which roughly translates to "A historian who admires Sima Qian."

He has been Sterling Professor of History at Yale University since 1993. His most famous book is The Search for Modern China, which has become one of the standard texts

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