There’s nothing like having the right book to hand in a moment of need, but I’d not have imagined that a biography of Mao would be perfect for a weekend wrapped in blankets, sneezing and wheezing with the head cold that kindly waited to blossom till I got home from London.

Whille Mao’s face is as familiar to me as it is to most people interested in China, and while I’d read about him in many articles and books, Jonathan Spence’s short biography, in the Penguin Lives series, is the first account of his life I’ve read. I had read reviews of the recent biographies that focused on his sex life, and just recently, before interviewing James MacGregor Burns for the January issue of Guanxi: The China Letter, I was fascinated by Burns’s account of Mao as a leader who never did things the way other great leaders of history had–creating something of a challenge for those trying to build grand theories of leadership.

A few years ago, I bought photos from the Cultural Revolution at a market stall and heard about the Cultural Revolution restaurants that had become trendy. China coming to terms with its past, I thought, minimizing the Mao decades. But in Shanghai last month, visiting CELAP, I learned something about how Mao matters today. In fact, the central government has chosen to build two leadership schools at places where Mao lived before coming to power in 1949. Spence’s biography is an ideal introduction, concise and balanced.

Libraries were terribly important in Mao’s early life: he studied daily at a public library in Hunam, the province where he was born and educated, and he worked at the Beijing University library (Spence calls it Beijing University, but all the Chinese people I know say Peking–it is their one use of the Wade-Giles transliteration of ‘northern city’). He also ran a substantial book business in Hunan in the 1920s. I had always heard about his reverence for the peasantry and abhorrence of intellectuals, but he was obviously a far more complex person than that suggests, operating (and surviving) in circumstances of grave risk and difficulty. Some of the challenges he and his colleagues faced, in early days as well as later, echo the challenges faced by China today: a huge rural population, industralized Western countries seeking economic advantage, and provincial officials resistant to change.

After finishing the biography, I spent the rest of the day sleeping and listening to Pride and Prejudice on tape: something of a cultural contrast!