China featured very prominently in Nehru's 'Glimpses of World History'. The so called 'Opium Wars' had vexed me then.
When the same wars were portrayed brilliantly in Amitav Ghosh's 'Sea of Poppies', I was further enthused to learn about them and the fate of China over the past few centuries.
Then came Pankaj Mishra's 'From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West'. That has coherent historical threads about the time when the old dynastic rule collapsed in China to give rise to a modern--albeit shaky--republican system.
Months back, I was reading Frank Dikotter's 'Mao's Great Famine'. Though I lost the book when I was midway through it, I'd got the message of the book well.
Mao was not normal human being. Most agree on this: for his supporters and admirers, he was THE GOD and for his detractors and critics, THE MONSTER, with the blood of highest number of human beings in history on his hand.
He had a zeal for power. Communists seem to believe that he ruled for the best of 'proletariat' and still rue the fact that power was taken by 'revisionists' after his death.
Now I'm reading 'Mao: The Unknown Story' by Jung Chang and Jan Halliday. I am unsure if I'll complete it but plan to give my best.
That is not because the book is badly written. Rather the opposite. But the gory details of internecine killings instigated mostly for Mao's rise to power--detailed in the first part of the book--is just too much for any sensitive human being.
Of course, you can reassure yourself that Mao is long dead by now and the wounds left by his killings have changed into scars, that the China under his successors is much much better place now, and go on reading. That is what I am doing right now. But the more pages I turn, the gorier the details get and the more revulsion I feel.
Like many such, this book is also far from controversy-free and critics have alleged that it has gone too far on demonizing Mao. Many doubt the figure of total death under Mao given on the book--nearly 70 million--and claim that it was much lower.
It is possible that some of the information used in the book has been exaggerated and some selective interpretation of facts have been done as claimed by the critics.
But that does nothing to belittle the comprehensive and painstaking research that has been done for the book. Dikotter's 'Mao's Great Famine' focuses on The Great Leap Forward and has equally gory details. The fact that most of Dikotter's sources are the documents from Mao era that were declassified by his successors gives the added credibility to his work. And, as the findings on both books largely corroborate, the credibility of both grows together.
Every night, before going to bed after reading pages of 'Mao: The Unknown Story': I ask this question to myself: if even reading the details of his carnage, separated by more than half a century of time and a large chunk of land geographically, is so painful, how miserable must have been life under him?