Friday, December 7, 2007
Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
Here are some interesting statistics on Amazon.com about this book:
3,156 of 3,265 people found "the most helpful critical review" (which rated the book 1-star) to be helpful;
441 of 452 people found "the most helpful favorable review" (which rated the book 4-star) to be helpful.
A number of Amazon reviewers, such as the most helpful critical one, have argued more eloquently than I could that this book's patronizing writing and judgmental presentation makes it read like totalitarian propaganda. I wanted to point out another bit of irony that no one else seems to have brought up.
In her previous book, Wild Swans, which has writing I admire but content that could benefit from more honesty, author Jung Chang notes in front that "in order to describe their functions accurately" she has changed the translation of "xuan-chuan-bu" ("the Department of Propaganda") to "the Department of Public Affairs." The author's father, a heroic character in the memoir, had been a co-director in such a department (in my home province - Sichuan).
Guess how she translates the same "xuan-chuan-bu" in Mao: The Unknown Story? Well, you guessed it. It is changed back to "the Department of Propaganda." Mao once headed such a department. This time Chang does not provide a note on how much she cares about the translation accuracy.
So why the need to deploy hypocrisy?
Because: though Jung Chang was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, and her parents were active and loyal members of the Communist Party, they did nothing bad. They were all good. Objects that were once associated with them must be translated in commendatory terms accordingly. "Love the house, love the crows stopping on its roof."
And: Mao was evil from birth to death. He was all bad. Thus the same objects, when associated with him, must be translated in derogatory terms.
In China we call this "Red Guard language." Jung Chang was a Red Guard at the critical age of learning – and she apparently picked up the language well, even decades of living in the West have not made her drop it.