Salted history, Mary Roberts

A Boy of China: In Search of Mao’s Lost Son
Richard Loseby
HarperCollins, $37.00,
ISBN 9781775540885

This is a book that seems at odds with itself. The title tells us that it is about the author’s search for “Mao’s lost son”. By the end, the author tells us that it is about He Zizhen, the mother of that boy. Elsewhere, he tells us that he is just as interested in “how people felt about Mao An Hong and his infamous dad”. These three themes are the proclaimed themes of the book and its ostensible raison d’être. However, there are another two themes that are less clearly stated. Firstly, this is clearly a travel book: it tells the story of the author’s journey, apparently in 2006 although this is never specified, around China from Shanghai to Tibet and back again in a great loop. Its second set of unstated themes is suggested by the mention of Mao An Hong’s “infamous dad”: these focus on various negative aspects of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.

As a record of Loseby’s travels in China in the mid-2000s, this is an engaging book. Loseby has travelled widely, in China and elsewhere, speaks a little Mandarin and is clearly a fairly intrepid traveller. He strikes up interesting acquaintances, is prepared to walk and to take more unconventional routes, and does not stick to the prescribed tourist paths. He has a good eye, writes an easy descriptive prose and is good at noting the detail that will bring a clear image to the reader’s mind. As a travel book, this is a good read.

As a search for Mao’s lost son, it is a curious project. Mao An Hong was the son of Mao Zedong and his second wife He Zizhen. It is generally accepted that when, in 1934, it was decided to undertake the Long March, the toddler Mao An Hong was left behind in the safekeeping of Mao Zedong’s younger brother who was eventually killed by the Guomindang. It is not known what became of the boy. Loseby presents this story as something he came upon by chance – quite likely – and that he had to work to uncover – not really very likely; a few hours work consulting various reference sources would have given him the facts recounted above. And that is also the problem with the trip around China as a “search for Mao’s lost son”. By 2006, most of the work that Loseby needed to do could have been done online and, as it transpires, was done online by two people he meets in his travels: an American graduate student researching at a Chinese university and a Chinese secondary school student. There is really only one piece of the puzzle (as framed by Loseby) that requires him to be in China – his meeting with a dying journalist (found through an online search) who points him towards a potential “lost son” candidate.

Loseby stops short of saying that this candidate is Mao An Hong, but he would obviously like us to believe that he could be. There must have been at least several possible Mao An Hongs over the years: men born in roughly the right place at the right time, brought up by foster-parents and looking a bit like Mao. A rumour grows up – the young man is Mao An Hong. In this particular case, the now elderly candidate is not prepared to confirm or deny. His official position is that he has no idea who his birth parents were. The level of fighting and population displacement in China in the 1930s and 1940s was such that split families and lost children were very common – and it was very hard to trace the lost family members after 1949.

Loseby has an axe to grind with Mao Zedong: he portrays him as selfish and totally self-centred. The occupation of Tibet and the confiscation of Chinese landlords’ land are presented as occurring for purely personal reasons of revenge. Loseby also suggests that Mao could not have looked very hard for Mao An Hong (once such a search became possible) and that this is another symptom of his selfish, unpleasant character.  However, Loseby is not a reliable narrator in this area. He is happy to play fast and loose with generally accepted accounts if it furthers his purpose of presenting both Mao and the Chinese Communist Party as untrustworthy at best, cruel and megalomaniac at worst.

Perhaps the most striking example is his account of the battle for the Dadu River bridge. The Dadu River battle is well-established in Communist Party myth, history and propaganda as an epic battle for a strongly defended bridge at Luding on the Dadu River. Loseby gives us a purportedly word for word account delivered by an attendant at the Luding Bridge information desk. He then tells us that “the most interesting thing about the story was the way the Communists had fabricated such a gargantuan lie around the capture of this insignificant bridge”. He goes on to quote an elderly local as saying that, according to his father, there was no fighting, there were no casualties and, in fact, there was no defence of the bridge. This elderly local is later shown to have a considerable animus against the Communist Party and also to be a rather unreliable narrator himself – so it is unclear why we are asked to accept his version as the final word on the matter. Most reasonably neutral scholarship suggests that there was in fact a battle at the bridge (the battle was mentioned in contemporary sources, both Communist and Nationalist, at the time), but that, for propaganda purposes, the Communists subsequently exaggerated the ferocity of the defence and their own casualties. Even in the “gargantuan lie” that Loseby recounts, the attendant talks about a “handful” of casualties, and many western scholars agree with that assessment.

This book offers a striking portrait of China in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century and, as such, is of considerable interest. As history, it needs to be taken with large handfuls of salt.

Mary Roberts works in the Communication Department at the University of Macau.

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Posted in Non-fiction and Review
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