Interview with longlisted author Julia Lovell
Julia Lovell highlights the strength and global impact of Mao's ideas in her longlisted book Maoism: A Global History.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
A great honour – and very surprising: the other books on the longlist are spectacularly good.
What inspired you to write this book?
First, perhaps, a sense of surprise that a history of the global impact of Mao hadn’t yet been written. This contrasts starkly with the quantities of books written about the global importance of Hitler and Stalin. This absence got me thinking about why many Western analysts might have neglected the impact of Mao’s ideas, and about the insights that a global history of Maoism could provide into the Cold War and contemporary China’s role in the world.
How did you research?
I began by immersing myself in existing histories, to see where were there were gaps, inconsistencies, or points of contention in what has been written before. I also needed to work out which parts of the world had the most significant histories to tell; although the book aims to recount a global history of Maoism, it’s impossible to tell every story. At the same time, I worked out who I needed to talk to: who knows about the subject, who can tell me more about the most interesting questions to ask, the best archives, the most valuable oral histories? And when an opportunity came along – to travel, to meet someone, to visit an archive, to make a connection – I had to seize it and squirrel away the information I gleaned, even if I didn’t have time to write it up for the moment.
Do you find people have misconceptions about Mao’s ideas? What can we learn from studying this ideology in the 21st century?
As I wrote the book, I gained the impression that many non-specialist Western analysts underestimate the spread and resilience of Mao’s ideas – not only in terms of their impact on China, but also on the world more generally. If Maoism is thought of at all, it’s seen as a Chinese force, and as a force long spent. My book tries to tell it as both a Chinese and a global phenomenon, of the past and present. It was a crucial motor of the Cold War (for example, of the Vietnam War, the Cambodian Khmers Rouges, the victory of ZANU in Zimbabwe). It’s also inspired wars and insurgencies that are still with us today – in India and Nepal; Peru’s Shining Path. And Mao and his ideas - despite their huge human cost - remain fundamental to the legitimacy of China’s communist government today, as it becomes increasingly powerful on a world stage.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
I was enormously impressed by Chris Bayly’s and Tim Harper’s two-volume history of Asia during and just after World War II: Forgotten Armies and Forgotten Wars, both powerful reminders of the wreckage left by British colonialism in Asia.
What are you working on next?
I’m completing a new abridged translation of The Journey to the West (c. 1580), one of the masterworks of classical Chinese fiction. It recounts a Tang-dynasty monk’s quest for Buddhist scriptures in the 7th century AD, accompanied by an omni-talented kung-fu monkey called Sun Wukong (one of the most memorable reprobates of world literature); a rice-loving pig spirit able to fly with its ears; and a depressive man-eating monster from a river-swamp. There’s a link with Mao, also, in that it was one of his favourite books – he reread it on the eve of launching his Cultural Revolution in 1966. Despite the apparent fondness of Mao (a notorious autocrat) for the novel, there’s a huge amount about it that’s in fact profoundly subversive of authority and autocracy – it’s full of irreverent insights into Chinese views of government, gods and the afterlife.