Book Review: Out of Mao’s Shadow

February 2016 books

Of the three books I’ve read so far in 2016, one is a definite classic and the other might as well be: To Live (1993) and Out of Mao’s Shadow (2008), respectively.

As a result, given the many substantial reviews out there already, I won’t provide “traditional” reviews. Rather, for Shadow, I’ve compiled excerpts from some key reviews, and for To Live, I would just tell you to read it 😛

So another title I would suggest for Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: Shit We Should All Know.

That’s how essential this book is for anyone interested in China. Despite being labelled as modern China’s untold stories, at this point, I believe these stories are now well-known, and given that this book is 8 years old, I felt myself wanting to read more about what’s been going on in the past several years. China changes quickly, as we all know.

February 2016 books
February 2016 books

Nicholas MacDonald, Amazon:
While there are many books on China hitting the shelves right now, there’s only one like this. Pan combines incisive political commentary with personal profiles in a style that smacks of Peter Hessler (River Town, Oracle Bones) meets Fareed Zakaria (The Future of Freedom, The Post-American World). In between optimistic “business hype” titles and political paranoia tracts, Pan’s “Shadow” is something completely different- a “boots on the ground” look at the untold stories of modern China. While there are a few places where I disagree with Pan’s tone; while the CCP is undoubtably very corrupt, I would not characterize them as evil incarnate; there are many elements to their rule that are quite benevolently paternal, and, as Pan points out in several places, the country is progressively liberalizing under their administration, if at a fairly slow pace. Despite this minor critique, I give this book five stars for great writing and unique material you won’t find anywhere else.

OnChina@Tumblr, Amazon:
A graduate of Harvard College and fluent in Mandarin, Pan served as the foreign correspondent for the Post from 2000 to 2007, winning several awards for his reporting. In his book “Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China”, Pan vividly delves into the details of those struggling against an authoritarian state following the trauma of rule under Mao, who once justified the killings by Red Guards by saying, “After all, bad people are bad, so if they’re beaten to death, it’s no big deal”. In the aftermath of the chaos emerge those who choose to heroically challenge what many are now fearing as the “most successful experiment in authoritarianism in the world”. The efforts of the heroes Pan portrays are contrasted with the efforts of the vast majority of Chinese, whose focus (according to one protester interviewed) is “on work instead of politics, on money instead of justice”.

Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
From Lin’s story, the book progresses to the brutal Cultural Revolution, on through the introduction of market reforms, the Tiananmen Massacre, and the SARS cover-up. Pan also interviews people who have experienced horrific labor conditions, land seizures, and forced abortions under the one-child policy. Each story is either narrated through interviews with people who participated directly in the actual events, or with those doing covert research on these forbidden topics in Chinese history.

With the government adept at suppressing any reference to painful events in recent Chinese history, most people are reluctant to discuss events like the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen. Writes Pan, “The party has succeeded in part because people in China have been willing accomplices in the act of forgetting. So many of them were taken in by the Cultural Revolution’s frenzied rhetoric, so many of them participated in the violence or stood by in silence, that it has never been very difficult for the party to persuade society to leave that past behind.”

Jason Koivu, Goodreads:
This book dashed my misconception that today’s China was burgeoning utopia for capitalism, free speech and democracy, the facade their government has cultivated for the last few decades. Some Chinese want these things, the others will hold on to power at all costs. China leadership likes prosperity, but they also covet ultimate and total control. New ideologies blend with old tactics and human rights become the doormat on the way to profit.

Story after heartbreaking story, Pan details the constant clash between the people and the people who rule them. It’s a war made more complex by China’s tumultuous past and the back and forth clashes of the Cultural Revolution that sometimes pitted friend vs friend, even parent vs child. Aging generations, jerked around and left confused, are pensively mixing with youth, if they’re not too afraid to get burnt once more, and so the country is filled with an amoebic populous unsure of itself, its place and its future. I can only hope for the best.

Richard, Peking Duck:
Pan writes in his epilogue, “What progress has been made in recent years – what freedom the Chinese people now enjoy – has come only because individuals have demanded and fought for it, and because the party has retreated in the face of such pressure.”

I hope we never forget that. That’s the answer to the question we hear a lot, “if you like China so much why do you criticize it so harshly?” Harsh, consistent criticism based on fact and made with conviction has proven to be the only winning formula in pushing reform ahead.

George Mocharko, Tumblr:
Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow, addresses the topics that modern-day China’s leadership wishes weren’t mentioned publicly. The book details the acts of extraordinary citizens who take a stand against their government, and immovable autocratic Communist regime. The sordid, and oftentimes bloody, results of their efforts are saddening and these noble individuals ultimately pay the price for expressing their beliefs.

Out of Mao’s Shadow is not an easy read, emotionally speaking. There are moments when one must put down the text, aghast at what has been read, to let the details settle into the brain. Recollections of murders, suicides, arrests, corporate malfeasance and the Chinese government’s propaganda are exposed and a less than rosy picture of China’ economic success emerges. Pan’s book is effective at building a case against the state of China’s leadership and its effort to squash individual human rights. The China represented here is a totalitarian regime at its worst: It covers up its wrongs, censors its critics, and abuses its poor and working class. Each chapter of the book contains a profile of an individual involved with making a difference towards a more democratic China; and each story ends almost always tragically.


Anyway, I’m so happy I finally got around to reading this highly distinguished and well-researched book. My next book: Wealth and Power by Orville Schell and John Delury.

Stay tuned.