The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer

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The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A strange mix of politics, and the story of a horrendous tragedy, but one with the authority to show how they should always be considered together.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 9780571243990

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Welcome to China, where the populous are busy leaving a rural country full of prosperous mineral resources and coal mines, and shoddily-built hydro-electric dams in environmentally dubious locations, for the burgeoning, mechanised cities. But this isn't the birth of 2012, it's the dawn of 1976. Chairman Mao is dying, Premier Zhou Enlai has just died, and the cauldron of power is being stirred as never before. Among the momentous events of the year however will be a huge earthquake directly centred on the city of Tangshan, which will kill something like two thirds of a million people.

The compelling side of this book is to tie everything into one narrative, and make it so intelligently entwined it feels surely an approach all other writers would choose, even if none seem to have done so. Palmer's structure is certainly a tight, novelistic one. He starts by introducing us to a girl we'll meet several times, going to the city to buy a goldfish to use as an earthquake detector. Through her eyes we flash back through the politics of the Cultural Revolution and up to Zhou's funeral. The background shows Deng Xiaoping's return to mainstream politics being knocked back, just as we learn more of Tangshan.

Once the quake hits, we understandably see the horrific effects, which slowly become more politicised. Even the science of earthquake warnings was a hot potato in the Party, and what apparently is called 'chickenshit', political shenanigans of a trivial kind, was occurring in that circle. The fact that the official press said Tangshan was rebuilt within months (and not over the decades it took in real life) allows Palmer to show just how 1976 was a tipping point in Chinese history, and speed to the China of today and what all the elements of his tale have resulted in.

As such it's a pertinent book, and is great for background to the modern China, PLC (Party-Limited Country, perhaps). However some background is still needed here. I'd posit that this is of an A-level text standard, as some prior knowledge is best had. The ghost of Lin Biao is featured often, but we're never told what he and Mao got involved in. Control of the Politburo is pertinent, but without the knowledge of how big and unwieldy that was we can't tell what power that control would have needed.

So I certainly can't critique this as a Sinophile, or in any way as a reader of Asian history. I can also only refer to a proof copy, without bibliography, so I can't discern accurately how much is standard text and common knowledge, and how much down to Palmer's own (extensive-seeming) interviews. What I can vouch for is the humanity of the details regarding the earthquake, however much they might at times jar with the minutiae of the politics. And beyond the gaps in my knowledge I can quantify the readability of this study as of a very high quality.

You can go right back to the core of the politics involved here with The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown.

Buy The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China by James Palmer at Amazon.com.

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