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Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century WorldMao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World

A Concise History

Rebecca E. Karl

Narrated by Bobby Brill

Available from Audible

Book published by Duke University Press

Throughout this lively and concise historical account of Mao Zedong’s life and thought, Rebecca E. Karl places the revolutionary leader’s personal experiences, social visions and theory, military strategies, and developmental and foreign policies in a dynamic narrative of the Chinese revolution. She situates Mao and the revolution in a global setting informed by imperialism, decolonization, and third worldism, and discusses worldwide trends in politics, the economy, military power, and territorial sovereignty. Karl begins with Mao’s early life in a small village in Hunan province, documenting his relationships with his parents, passion for education, and political awakening during the fall of the Qing dynasty in late 1911. She traces his transition from liberal to Communist over the course of the next decade, his early critiques of the subjugation of women, and the gathering force of the May 4th movement for reform and radical change. Describing Mao’s rise to power, she delves into the dynamics of Communist organizing in an overwhelmingly agrarian society, and Mao’s confrontations with Chiang Kaishek and other nationalist conservatives. She also considers his marriages and romantic liaisons and their relation to Mao as the revolutionary founder of Communism in China. After analyzing Mao’s stormy tenure as chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Karl concludes by examining his legacy in China from his death in 1976 through the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Rebecca E. Karl is Associate Professor of History at New York University. She is the author of Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.


“A radical but balanced life of Mao and its skilful contextualizing of him, which raises it above works that dwell excessively on his temperament and faults. Lively and provocative, it is an ideal resource for classroom use and independent study and, in the present ascendancy of revisionist thinking about the great revolutions, a welcome antidote to the postmodern celebration of the death of utopia.”

—Gregor Benton, The China Quarterly

“Mao made himself one of the most improbable, influential, infuriating, inspirational, and intriguing characters of the century. Karl fits all of this into a slim and affordable paperback, accessible to undergraduates and general interest readers, without sacrificing complexity or analytical edge. It is impressive.”

—Alexander C. Cook, Journal of Historical Biography

“Both Mao’s inspiring ideas and his vile actions are part of this history, and easy explanations do violence to that history. This book does justice to the complicated, painful, but often inspiring history of Mao’s revolution and opens the door to non-specialists and students to continue the long struggle to sift the social dreams we need from the political nightmares we should strive to avoid.”

—Timothy Cheek, History Teacher

“Karl cogently outlines Mao’s journey toward making a new Communist China.... Karl considers post-Mao China since 1976 an irreparable reversal of Mao’s revolutionary experiment.... This is good supplementary material. Recommended. ”


“Rebecca E. Karl has written a rich, deeply analytical, yet highly accessible account of Mao Zedong... Its intended audience will learn a sufficient amount of Chinese history that characterizes the Mao era. Karl strikes a good balance between presenting an overall picture of Mao, Maoism, and Mao’s policies and more specific key moments of Mao’s revolution and the havoc it created.”

China Review International

“Rebecca Karl has written an admirable volume, has achieved her aims, and her book should become the standard introduction to Mao and China in the 20th century.”

IIAS Newsletter

“Rebecca Karl presents a vivid and easy-to-understand account of China in the 20th century that is focused on Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. ... Her book is a clearly knit and well thought through depiction of China and Mao which will help students to gain at least one picture of China in the 20th century.”

The China Review

“The commercial ‘success’ of the demonizing narrative lies in its implicit affirmation of the superiority of Western liberal values. However, students and politicians, opinion formers and observers interested in exploring the sources of the Communist Party’s continuing success deserve something better. In treating China’s revolutionary past with critical and historical scrutiny rather than sensationalist distortions, Rebecca Karl’s lucid and measured account does just this. Her starting point is a rejection of the polarized revisions of China’s recent past; she dissociates herself from them by refusing the alternatives of defensiveness or condemnation.”

Radical Philosophy

“Karl’s history offers readers a chance to see China as Mao might have seen it. She implicitly begs the reader to ask, what might Mao, whose portrait still looks out over Tiananmen Square, have thought of China as it rises today? And perhaps more importantly, does it matter? Given the proliferation of interest and intrigue surrounding Mao Zedong’s life, Karl’s history included, the CCP has done wonders to maintain the authority he created while forsaking the China he imagined.”

Zócalo Public Square

“Rebecca Karl provokes both China scholars and the general public to reassess the Chairman once again. Karl’s book departs from the tendencies to either depoliticize Mao or sensationalize his private life for popular consumption by recentering contemporary discussions around his public role in making revolution.”

Twentieth-Century China

“Rebecca Karl’s important new biography seeks to contextualize Mao within the history of his time, aiming to restore a degree of sanity in discussing his life and role, warts and all, as the father of modern China; and simultaneously to rescue the history of the Chinese Revolution from its detractors in the West and at home.”

New Left Review

“Unlike many other works, [Karl’s] book blends historical facts with cultural analysis, creating a work that is informative despite its brevity.... After bringing Mao’s life-story to a close, the author provides a succinct yet meaningful analysis of his legacies.... This is a very useful introduction to the most important leader in modern Chinese history.”


“A reasonably balanced, clear-headed survey of the Great Helmsman’s career and influence.... [I]f I had a class of young students approaching the period for the first time, I’d consider this book a not inappropriate textbook to hand them. And by the same measure it can also be recommended to the educated general reader.”

Taipei Times

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University Press Audiobooks