Mark Your Calendars: Mao at #AAS2017

I’m pleased to announce that the kind folks on the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) conference committee selected “Mao Unplugged: The Chairman between War and Revolution” for inclusion on the 2017 program.

The panel is being organized by my frequent collaborator and all-around-good-guy Sergey Radchenko (Cardiff University), and will feature Sergey, Julia Lovell (Birckbeck), and myself presenting papers. Chen Jian (Cornell/NYU Shanghai) will comment, Christian Ostermann (Wilson Center) to chair.

The panel is based around an important, still as-of-yet unpublished collection of documents. Here is the panel abstract:

Mao Unplugged: the Chairman Between War and Revolution

Mao Zedong continues to fascinate the world forty years after his death. The man who led China’s Communist Revolution and then presided over socialist construction complete with disasters of astounding proportions, who unleashed the violent radicalism of the Cultural Revolution, who embraced a short-lived alliance with the Soviet Union, pursued revolution in the “Third World,” and ultimately eased China’s way out of international isolation by turning to the United States, Mao has been the subject of numerous historical studies in China and in the West. But these studies have suffered from a well-known handicap: obstacles in the way of access to Chinese archives make it difficult to distinguish facts from myths, to cross-check sources, and to challenge prevailing narratives. To resolve the source gap and promote empirically-based research, the Cold War International History Project has assembled over 350 conversations held between Mao Zedong and foreign statesmen from 1949-1976. These conversations (intended for publication in 2018) recount – in Mao’s own words – the ups and downs of China’s revolution, the challenges of domestic and foreign policies, and China’s relationship with other great powers and its neighbors. This is Mao “unplugged”: the Chairman recounting China’s history as a first-hand narrative. The panel’s three presenters, Charles Kraus, Julia Lovell, and Sergey Radchenko, will assess Mao’s conversations, offering new insights into Mao’s way of thinking, including his hopes, fears, and delusions about his country’s and his own place in the world.

I have never written a paper explicitly about Mao (in fact a lot of my research has shown, implicitly, how much was out of Mao’s control), so when Sergey asked me to join him, I had to think for awhile about my approach.

I decided that I had read enough about Henry Kissinger’s views on the history/policy nexus, so maybe it was about time to think about historical thinking in the other side of the Sino-American equation. And after reading enough Mao memcons it became quite obvious to me that “history” is something the Chairman liked to talk about. So here is what I put together…

Lessons of the Past: Historical Thinking and the ‘Chinese Experience’ in Mao Zedong’s World View, 1949-1976

In the hundreds of meetings which Mao Zedong held after 1949 with guests from the socialist bloc, the Third World, and the West, the Chinese Communist Party Chairman frequently expounded on the “lessons” (jiaoxun) he had learned from the past. From the ‘Chinese experience’ of semi-colonialism, Japanese invasion, civil war, and conflict with the United States, to the feats of Napoleon, the terror unleashed by Adolf Hitler, and the crimes of Joseph Stain, Mao engaged in a long-running and comprehensive discussion about history and what the past suggested about the present and future of socialist and anti-colonial revolutions. Based on a critical mass of Mao’s conversations with foreign individuals, this paper introduces Mao’s views of history, time, and agency; identifies the specific historical episodes and analogies which Mao most frequently deployed; and reveals how the Chairman saw the interrelationship between the past, present, and future. Although Mao did not deploy history impartially and he remained sensitive to the limits of past experiences, history was nevertheless always an important interpretive lens which determined how Mao saw the world and shaped his domestic and foreign policy choices. By arguing as much, this paper not only helps to explain Mao’s world view, but also opens up comparisons between Mao’s historical thinking and that of other recent world leaders, Chinese and otherwise.

Time to get writing!

The conference is taking place in Toronto, Canada, March 16-19, 2017. Hope to see friends (new and old) there!


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