The Unknown Story

by Jung Chang
and Jon Halliday
832 pp.; $35

This book is long, but it feels even longer as you're reading it. The style is pedestrian, heavy on clichés, and the pages are thick with unfamiliar names. Much of the action consists of plotting—whether among obscure factions or among the leaders of world Communism—that is often brutal in outcome but tedious to follow. Nevertheless, this biography of the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong is one of the most important books of the past year, an indispensable addition to our understanding of 20th-century totalitarianism.

There have been other accounts of Mao's life and the terrible suffering over which he presided, but nothing to match this portrait in range, depth, or moral intensity. The authors don't pretend to be neutral scholars, and parts of the indictment they assemble are no doubt flawed, but most readers—whatever their presuppositions—will finish the book with the sense that the overall judgment of Mao and his policies has been well supported.

At a time when Christianity in China is growing at an astonishing pace, even as China's global role becomes more prominent, this book is an essential primer to grasp the context of current events.

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