The Unknown Story before “The Unknown Story”: Reading Ross Terrill’s “The White-Boned Demon”

Ross Terrill, The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong. New York : William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984.

Writing on the topic of Chinese history is both exciting and daunting. On the one hand, excitement is warranted when one views huge, yawning gaps that need to filled – like Sino-French relations in the early Cold War, or how the world looked from the Korean-Northeastern Chinese region of Yanbian from 1945-1950. Likewise, excitement is generated when one sees a vast treasurehouse of archives demanding to be (figuratively!) plundered, say, in the service of writing about Sino-North Korean relations during the Korean War or Japanese war criminals in the 1950s. In all of these areas, it seems that writing about the Republican era (1911-1949) or the Mao years in the PRC (1949-1976) is hardly quite as crowded as, say, German history in the same period. A distinct contribution is possible, and there is much good work to be done still.

But what about the big personalities? Who has the guts to write a Zhou Enlai biography? Or reassess the career of Chairman Mao? Or counterattack against the post-Cold War faux-victorious triumph of the West trope that dismisses the Mao years as pure tragedy? To put it simply: Big books take big plans and big minds grappling with big themes in the service of big goals and breakthroughs of understanding. For scholars of a certain young age, we have to look to our elders in such matters. The Minnesotan Stuart Schram. Yale’s archduke of Sinology, Jonathan Spence. The Australian hog-hair-brush-capitalist-turned-China-hand-with-flair C. P. Fitzgerald.

What allows a book to count as a classic, as part of the canon? Some texts, flawed though they may be, and canonical though they are decidedly not, still demand our attention.

Today the text at hand is Ross Terrill’s 1984 effort, The White-Boned Demon: A Biography of Madame Mao Zedong ( New York : William Morrow and Company, Inc.).

The literature on Jiang Qing in English appears to remain awfully slim; and neither of Mao’s other wives (the gruff but fertile revolutionary He Zizhen and the slain first love, Yang Kaihui) seems to have received a full-length English language biography, even though they are frequently written about in the PRC. Thus Terrill’s biography continues to fill an important gap in the line of literature surrounding the PRC and its historical leaders.

As I read through The White Boned Demon, I couldn’t help but be impressed repeatedly at how much this text presages (and often resembles) the controversial Jung Chang/Jon Halliday 2005 smash hit Mao: The Unknown Story. Both books are so dependent on yeshi (“wild histories”, unconfirmed accounts often published in Hong Kong or Taiwan), they seem to be written on a template which privileges repetitive and unhelpful value judgments about the subject, both have a rather sketchy and difficult-to-trace citation style. While Terrill uses more Hong Kong periodicals (while Chang likes unattributed interviews), Terrill rarely gets into discussion of actual sources or extended quotes therefrom. It is as if Jiang Qing rarely gave a speech or wrote anything worth discussing.

If Mao: The Unknown Story was a brazen and hefty work of character assassination of a political assassin/father of the nation, The White Boned Demon is a rapidly-flowing stream through the rumor mill about Jiang Qing. It is, however, an early effort, and written with passion and flavor. So we can’t complain.

Jiang Qing was born as the daughter of a young second wife/concubine of a man who was 60 when Jiang was born. She had bound feet early, but undid her bandages (p. 23). Like many members of her generation, she saw and heard executions and decapitations in Shandong at early age (p. 25); more traumatic, however, was her mother’s precarious situation in her household.

In 1928 she went to Jinan (on the subject of trauman, Terrill totally neglects mention of the Northern Expedition or the Japanese bombing of Jinan in that year) and found a job rolling cigarettes, then is denied. Terrill writes: “Yunhe [the future Jiang Qing], in her fourteenth year, was virtually an orphan in a strange city and a disordered epoch, a girl of fantasies with no clear plan nor prospects for fitting into the world she found herself in.” (p. 29) She meets a guy, breaks up, and moves to a new city .

Terrill reflects on her comparative history with her most important partner, Mao Zedong, and does so effectively: “Later in life, Yunhe would have cause to reflect wistfully on how much more stable the childhood of her fourth husband, Mao Zedong, was than her own. Mao never left his native village in Hunan Province until the age of sixteen. By that age, Yunhe had resided in three towns and numerous houses, lived away from her family, and had had boyfriends and one husband. Mao’s father was strict, but not violent and uncaring like Yunhe’s. His mother, a devout Buddhist, was a simpler and calmer woman than Yunhe’s mother. Nor did Hunan in the 1900s experience the social upheaval and imperialist intrusion that Shandong did in the 1920s” (p. 39).

Although Jiang was active in the arts circles in Qingdao and Shanghai at the time, Terrill rarely delves into the social function of that work, but then again, sometimes he does: “Given the mood of the time, when the arts were left-wing virtually by definition, an ardent young person did not have to choose – yet – between the self-expression of the stage and the self-abnegation of the Communist Party” (p. 44). However, after introducing the fact that Jiang sang, played erhu, and taught singing to workers in Shanghai , I, having been conditioned by Stanford and the University of California Press to think about these things as, you know, effective and important methods of political mobilization, was expecting some discussion of Jiang Qing’s impact within that world. But Jiang gets little credit from the author for her work among factory workers in Shanghai ; Terrill swings back to the energies that helped him get the book done: a kind of vengeance: “were not the lights of the stage beckoning her?” (p. 54)

There is plenty more that one could say about this text, but I’m glad it fell into my hands when it did. Somehow this thing made it with me to the heights (wintry Emeishan, where a monk stared at it behind an alms box) and into the darkness of the wee hours at a Chengdu hospital. A stalwart partner indeed. I feel a little guilty leaving it on the shelf.

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