Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kissinger Encloses Many Sides of Mao – A Review of On China

On China by Henry Kissinger, Penguin Press, hardcover, 586 pages, $36

Reviewed by Bob Eberlein

“God has sent me an invitation, yet he [Kissinger] says, don’t go.”

So Mao Zedong reflects on the passing of his soul in a conversation with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger in 1975. There is a chance that I have seen this quote before. If so, it passed me by. With limited knowledge of China and Mao at the time, I would not have understood the overwhelming irony embodied in the conversation.

Reading it afresh in Henry Kissinger’s new book On China - released today - I laughed and laughed. The conversation follows the riveting story of the opening of diplomatic relations between the US and China that was spearheaded by Kissinger. Though I knew how the story would end, I still found myself reading with great anticipation, for in this part of the book Kissinger has really managed to bring us into the moment, to show us things as he saw them then. And he certainly did not know what was going to happen next.

An earlier review of this book by Michiko Kakutani is critical of Kissinger for, among other things, failing to convey (my read) how evil Mao was. I am not sure how many times Kakutani sat down to chat with Mao but, as Kissinger so clearly depicts, the man could be charming and that is exactly the way he behaved in the meetings described in the book. Had Kissinger failed to chronicle this, it would have been a true shortcoming. Was Mao always charming? Certainly not, but it is beyond reason to expect a book to both present history from the eyes of a person experiencing it, and make it clear that the correct interpretation of events and personages exactly matches that of the reader.

It is true that, in keeping with his realpolitik tendencies, Kissinger, at times, is so matter of fact in his descriptions of events that he seems removed from them. I think his intent is simply not to be judgmental. He describes what happened at the time, and while he makes it clear that he felt, and still does, that his actions were the right ones, he is not heavy handed in trying to convince us of that. For the actions of others, he tries to give them context, but rarely passes judgment.

Throughout Kissinger demonstrates his character as an academic, a diplomat and a gentleman. The lack of derisive remarks about any individual is noticeable. On the one hand I have to admire Kissinger for doing that, but on the other there are times when I was hoping for a little more personal color. That said, he does use quotes from people (Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon, Deng Xioaping, Gerald Ford, Jiang Ziming and more) extensively and effectively to convey character.

Kakutani also claims that the book does not really contain anything new. On the surface that is true; the material is already fairly well known. The narrative, however, is new. Kissinger tells the story of his foray into China as a person who was there, and places events and activities in a broad geopolitical context as the story unfolds. His interactions with the Chinese leaders constantly presented in terms of strategy and indirect meanings. An example is Kissinger’s reflection on Mao’s statement: “Do you have any way to assist me in curing my present inability to speak clearly?” Winston Lord, then Kissinger’s aide, felt Mao was asking for help being heard on the world stage and strengthening his own position. About this Kissinger says: “At the time, I though Lord’s comment probably farfetched. Having since learned more about Chinese maneuvering, I now consider that Mao meant it in the larger sense.”  His admission that he disagrees with his former self is interesting, and is also very American of him.

On this particular issue, I think the Kissinger of the time was probably more to the point. The conversation, as reported in the Kissinger Transcripts, continued with Mao saying “This part (pointing to his brain) is working well, and I can eat and sleep. (Patting his knees) These parts are not good. They do not ache, but they are not firm when I walk. I also have some trouble with my lungs. And in one word, I’m not well, and majorlly (sic) unwell.” I would conclude, as Kissinger did, that Mao (who would die a year later) was most concerned with his health. He was getting on in age and might not have quite as sharp as he once was.

On China is a lot more than just Mao talking with Kissinger. It presents a broad reflection on China and its place in the world from ancient times up till today (or at least January of 2011). For me the book has three parts: the history, the story and the aftermath.

The history goes back to the Yellow Emperor, has a substantial discussion of Confucius and makes frequent references to The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a favorite of mine and my wife's. Kissinger tries to give events context from both a Chinese and Western perspective and does an admirable job while keeping the text quite readable. Even if you know the history it is interesting to get Kissinger’s take on it.

Approaching more modern times, there is extensive discussion of the Korean war and the events leading up to it. While still researched history, the events occurred when Kissinger himself was actively surveying the world situation, especially with respect to the Soviet Union. This helps him set the atmosphere of the time as he, and many others in America, perceived it, and this serves as a wonderful lead-in to his personal involvement, first through Viet Nam and then directly with China.

Once the dance starts with China, I found the narrative quite riveting. The story is both personal and public and the characters, though known, get revealed more completely through their interactions with Kissinger. In addition to being simply fun to read, Kissinger’s reflections on meaning and context are fascinating. It is not always clear what he knew then relative to what he knows now, but sometimes he does bring this out and his ability to look back at his own past with such a critical eye really impresses me.

After relations with China have been normalized, the story becomes less personal. There is some irony in this because Kissinger’s involvement is actually more personal. He no longer had any official position after Ford left office, so he meetings and talked with China’s leaders as a private person. To me, the writing seems more removed, more like that of an armchair academic, and perhaps this is out of deference to the people who took over where Kissinger left off. In any case, the material is still interesting.

While the book is mostly about the past, it is very relevant to today, and the future. Kissinger is an astute observer of the political dynamics in both the US and China and he lays out some very interesting scenarios on what might happen in Sino-US relations going forward. From his perspective there are many ways things can go wrong, and only a few ways that things can go right. Perhaps my impression on that is more pessimistic than Kissinger intended, but I hope that leaders from both countries will take the time to read On China and make the latter the more likely.

On China is a valuable historical document, and a fun read. Hard to ask for much more.

This review is part of a TLC "Virtual Book Tour."

Henry’s Tour Stops

Wednesday, May 11th: Man of La Book
Thursday, May 12th: Mark’s China Blog
Tuesday, May 17th: Inside-Out China
Wednesday, May 18th: Lisa Graas
Sunday, May 22nd: Rhapsody In Books
Monday, May 23rd: Divided We Stand United We Fall
Tuesday, May 24th: Bookworm’s Dinner
Wednesday, May 25th: Pacific Rim Shots
Thursday, May 26th: Asia Unbound
Monday, May 30th: Hidden Harmonies China Blog
Tuesday, May 31st: Wordsmithonia
Wednesday, June 1st: Lit and Life
Thursday, June 2nd: ChinaGeeks
Tuesday, June 7th: booker rising
Wednesday, June 8th: Power and Control
Thursday, June 9th: Marathon Pundit
Friday, June 10th: Rundpinne

1 comment:

heathertlc said...

It sounds like this book gives a fascinating overview of a huge part of Chinese history. I'm glad to see that it DID contain something new for you. Kissinger is a very interesting political figure and I'm certainly looking forward to reading this one myself.

Thanks for being a part of the book tour.