Mao Zedong 1893-1976
Mao Zedong (previously Mao Tse-tung) is undisputedly the preeminent figure in modern Chinese history, and also a commanding presence in the history of the twentieth century. The Mao-led Communist revolution in 1949 ended China’s century of humiliation and laid the foundations of the rapidly developing nation of the early twenty-first century. But Mao also created much unnecessary social turmoil in the latter part of his political career; he did not know when to exit the historical stage gracefully. As a result, most Chinese today have a mixed view of Mao—a great leader who united and rejuvenated their massive country, but also one who left considerable human suffering in his wake. Mao is often compared to Qin Shihuangdi (259 bce–210 bce), the First Emperor of Qin, a brilliant but ruthless leader who created the first unified Chinese empire in 221 bce.
Mao was a complex personality who was torn between admiration for China’s past imperial glory and despair at its parlous condition in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, when he was born. As a young man, he struggled to reconcile the dichotomy in his mind (and in the minds of many others in his generation) between China’s traditional civilization and the increasing demands of a modern world dominated by the advanced nations of Europe and North America. In Marxist-Leninist theory, Mao discovered a penetrating Western critique of the West, which enabled him to adopt many of its revolutionary premises (and promises) without abandoning China’s own impressive cultural heritage. In direct intellectual descent from Mao, China’s succeeding leaders continue to claim they are building socialism with Chinese characteristics, a somewhat ambiguous concept that has yet to be fully articulated, which (at least in the narrower area of economics) is often referred to as market socialism.
Mao was born on December 26 into a moderately well-off peasant family in the village of Shaoshan in Xiangtan County, Hunan province, in south-central China, not far from the provincial capital of Changsha. He developed an early interest in political and international affairs, and his years at the First Provincial Normal School in Changsha, where he studied to be a teacher, brought him into contact with young men and women from all over the province. Seeking a wider stage after graduation, Mao set out for Beijing in 1918, where he studied and worked part-time in the library at Peking University, the nation’s premier institution of higher education, and, at the time, a hotbed of radical political thinking among many of the faculty and students.
Mao took an active interest in the student-inspired May Fourth movement, which sparked off a country-wide nationalist upsurge directed against unwanted European and Japanese influence in China. Soon after, Mao declared himself to be a Marxist-Leninist, without actually undertaking a thorough study of either the revolutionary doctrine or the Russian Revolution in 1917. After a short period as an elementary school principal and political activist back home in Hunan, he became a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party, which was formally established in Shanghai on July 23, 1921.
Consolidating Power Mao’s rural background gave him a special interest in the peasantry, and he was often at odds with his more urban-oriented colleagues. In early 1927, after an intensive study of rural conditions in his native province, Mao wrote his seminal “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” in which he predicted that the peasant masses would soon rise up and sweep away the old, feudal system of land ownership that exploited and oppressed them. The Communists, he argued, should lead the peasants or get out of the way. Chiang Kai-shek’s (1887–1975) bloody coup in the spring of 1927 effectively destroyed the Communist organizations in Shanghai and other major cities, forcing them to find refuge in Jiangxi province, in the mountainous hinterland in south-central China, adjacent to Hunan where Mao had been born and raised. Mao was elected chairman of the new Jiangxi Soviet (local Communist government) in this isolated base area, but soon lost power to the Returned Student group (a reference to their study in Moscow), which took over party leadership and pushed him aside.
Mao finally came into his own during the famous Long March in 1934 to 1936, when the Communists had to flee from Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s fifth and finally successful military encirclement campaign to surround their base area and destroy them. At the decisive Zunyi conference in January 1935, in the early part of this arduous 6,000-mile trek, Mao was recognized as the political and military leader of the Communist movement. At the Communists’ new base area in Yan’an, a small county seat in China’s arid northwest region, Mao built an elaborate system of ideology, organization, guerrilla warfare, and rural recruitment that led quickly to the emergence of a powerful political movement, backed up by its own military forces (the Red Army). Both the party and the army grew rapidly during the war against Japan, which had invaded China in July 1937, and the Communists emerged as a formidable competitor for state power with the Nationalists.
By the end of the war in 1945, Mao was hailed as the Party’s leading political and military strategist, and, coincidentally, its preeminent ideological thinker. What was now called Mao Zedong thought was said to represent the Sinification of Marxism, that is to say, the adaptation of Marxist theory to China’s actual historical conditions. Mao’s thought, reinforced through a powerful personality cult and an oppressive rectification campaign to tame his critics, was to become the ideological foundation of the Chinese Communist movement in subsequent years.
Despite unfavorable odds, the Red Army (renamed the People’s Liberation Army) employed superior strategic tactics to defeat the Nationalists in the civil war (1946–1949). Mao wasted no time in consolidating Communist rule; he proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and moved decisively to consolidate its borders and occupy and reintegrate Tibet. His intention was not merely to rebuild the shattered nation, but also transform it, which, with a staggering population of over 400 million, was the world’s largest. In late 1949 to early 1950, Mao traveled to Moscow (his first trip abroad) and signed an alliance with the Soviets; but Mao and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) neither liked nor trusted each other and their relationship was to prove unstable. The Korean War (1950–1953) could not have come at a worse time for the new regime, but at great cost Chinese troops succeeded in repulsing the U.S. advance into the north, near the Yalu River on the Chinese border.
Despite these international concerns, Mao launched a wide-ranging program of reconstruction and nationalization in major industrial and commercial cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton). In the countryside, land was confiscated from the landlord class, many of whom were summarily executed by makeshift tribunals, and land passed (if only briefly) into the hands of the ordinary peasants. A comprehensive range of social reforms was also launched, including marriage reform favoring the female; a crackdown on crime, drugs, and prostitution; and clean-up campaigns targeted at government and business corruption. Although U.S. intervention had placed Taiwan beyond their grasp, by the mid to late-1950s things had gone very well for the Communists, and for this much credit must go to Mao and his fellow party leaders.
But Mao had ever more ambitious plans. He wanted to speed up the pace of economic growth, based on industrial development and the collectivization of agriculture; and he wanted to emancipate China from the bonds of the Soviet alliance, which he found increasingly restrictive. Unfortunately it was at this juncture, in the late 1950s, that Mao’s hitherto deft political touch began to fail him and he launched two disastrous political campaigns that convulsed the country and ultimately damaged his reputation. The Great Leap Forward in 1958, calling for the establishment of small backyard factories in the towns and giant people’s communes (consolidated cooperative enterprises) in the countryside, resulted in an economic lurch backward. The consequent three bitter years (1959–1961) saw rural peasants perish in the millions due to harsh conditions for the very young, the very old, and the disadvantaged. Chastened, and under criticism from his more moderate colleagues, Mao agreed to step back from the forefront of leadership; he turned his attention to the growing ideological polemic marking the growing Sino-Soviet split and left it to others to repair the untold damage at home.
In his heart, Mao believed that the Great Leap Forward had failed largely because too many party officials (cadres) did not boldly implement his policies; disparagingly, he compared them to old women tottering about in bound feet. He decided to purge these revisionist (pro-Soviet) officials and others said to be taking the capitalist road (more open to Europe and North America generally) from positions of authority. Mao and his militant party faction (the Gang of Four) called upon the nation’s youth (primarily high school and university students) to rise up and call the errant officials to account. The result was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which witnessed the unusual spectacle of the top Communist leader declaring war on his own party organization. Millions of inflamed students and others donned Red Guard armbands, and, waving the Little Red Book (1966) of selected Mao quotations, they proceeded to carry out their assigned mission. The campaign tore the country apart from 1966 to 1969, forcing Mao to call for military intervention to restore order, and it dragged on destructively until his death in 1976. Still, from the perspective of foreign policy, the Cultural Revolution’s sharp anti-Soviet orientation succeeded in liberating China from its underlying dependency on the Soviet Union, and prepared the nation for a more independent role in international affairs in the years ahead.
Despite his miscalculations with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Mao wisely decided to play the American card in order to counterbalance growing Soviet military power on the conflict-prone Chinese border. With the surprise invitation to a U.S. table tennis team then in Japan to visit China, Mao set in motion the ping-pong diplomacy that led to U.S. president Richard Nixon’s state visit to China in February 1972, which culminated in the landmark Shanghai communiqué calling for a more constructive relationship between the countries. Mao and Nixon toasted each other cordially in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, laying to rest a generation of bitter enmity and setting the stage for the remarkable flowering of Sino-American relations that has continued into the early twenty-first century. It was to be Mao’s final hurrah; already in declining health (possibly suffering from Parkinson’s disease), he gradually faded from the scene and passed away peacefully at age eighty-two on September 9, 1976.
In an official assessment of his lengthy career, the Communist Party hailed Mao as an illustrious national hero who laid the foundations of the new China, but at the same time a tragic figure with all too human frailties. Mao is buried in a grand mausoleum in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and he enjoys considerable popular approbation despite his rather clouded historical record. But while many people revere Mao, many others revile him, as they do the First Emperor of Qin, who lived some two thousand years earlier. For most Chinese though, many of whom were born well after Mao’s death, he remains the human embodiment of China’s national regeneration and its reemergence as a great world power.
English historian Lord Acton (1834–1902), in his famous observation on power, concluded that “great men are almost always bad men,” and, in the case of Mao, there is considerable truth to this. Mao was a romantic visionary who set himself seemingly impossible goals, but he had the necessary qualities of leadership, persistence, and ruthlessness to reach them, at least to a degree. In addition to his political and military prowess, he is also considered a talented calligrapher and poet in the classical style, and he left behind a small corpus of work that is generally well regarded. But he was also something of an uncouth peasant who lacked personal polish, could be vulgar in his choice of words, and (even in his declining years) overly enjoyed the company of young women. As he aged, he became increasingly out of touch with political reality, vainly attempting to force the entire nation onto the Procrustean bed of his own ideological convictions (ideological fantasies, some would say).
Will history remember Mao Zedong? Undoubtedly, for Mao occupies a historical position comparable to individuals such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Qin Shihuangdi—these individuals were a frustrating mix of good and bad, but they all left a distinctive imprint on their own historical ages. Like playwright William Shakespeare’s Caesar, they “bestrode the narrow world like a Colossus,” and to this day their achievements and failures are enshrined in countless volumes for future generations to read and ponder. The same will quite likely be true of Mao Zedong.
SEE ALSO Chinese Revolution; Communism; Little Red Book; Maoism; Nixon, Richard M.
Li, Zhisui. 1994. The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician. Trans. Tai Hung-chao. New York: Random House.
Schram, Stuart R. 1969. The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
Short, Phillip. 2001. Mao: A Life. New York: Holt.
Snow, Edgar P. 1968. Red Star over China. Rev. ed. New York: Grove. (Orig. pub. 1937.)
Spence, Jonathan D. 1999. Mao Zedong. New York: Viking.
Wylie, Raymond F. 1980. The Emergence of Maoism: Mao Tsetung, Ch’en Po-ta, and the Search for Chinese Theory, 1935–1945. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Raymond F. Wylie
Born December 26, 1893
Died September 9, 1976
Chinese revolutionary and political leader
Few twentieth-century leaders have left such a profound imprint on modern times as did the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong. Born among China's peasants, Mao grew up in a country weakened by overpopulation and by a failing government. He spent decades fighting against all odds to empower the peasants and to restore the strength of China, and he succeeded in his purpose. He was one of the central forces to reshape the social and political structures of the ancient and populous country of China. Highly literate and sensitive, he dedicated himself to a relentless struggle against inequality and injustice. Placing ideals above all else, he could be utterly ruthless in his efforts to achieve them. His revolutionary idealism would take a heavy toll on China in the years to come.
The good student in rocky times
Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) was born on December 26, 1893, in the small village of Shaoshan in Hunan, a province in central China that had remained isolated from the modern world. Although his parents, Mao Jenshen and Wen Qimei, were peasants, his family never lacked food or clothing. Mao began working in the fields around his home when he was five and did not begin school until he was seven. The part of China that was his childhood home was beautiful, with rolling hills and abundant rice paddies. But Mao's early years were shadowed by the angry temperament of his father, who was quite cruel to the whole family. Mao and his mother became very close because of this.
In 1910, Mao was sent to a modern school in a nearby town. There, he studied traditional works of Chinese history and literature, but also modern works. He was an excellent student and did so well that the next year he went to a teacher's training college in Changsha, the capital of Hunan.
At this time, China was collapsing. For thousands of years, the country had been controlled by emperors (kings) in a series of dynasties, periods in which one particular family rules, sometimes for centuries. Under the Manchus or the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty in the nineteenth century, foreigners had invaded China, sparking civil wars. The Chinese peasants had suffered gravely. In 1912, a revolution led by Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) overthrew the Manchus and a new government was formed. However, Sun could not unify the country and by 1916 power had fallen into the hands of military generals, or warlords, who controlled the numerous provinces in the country.
Learns from the Russian Revolution
While chaos reigned over China, Mao completed his education in Changsha. Hoping to find a solution to China's crisis, he and other young intellectuals began to look to the communist government recently formed in Russia by Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). (The Soviet Union was the first communist country and was made up of fifteen republics, including Russia, which it is often simply called. It existed as a unified country from 1922 to 1991.) The Russian Revolution of 1917 had shown that workers could carry out a revolution and gain control of the government. Mao believed Chinese peasants could do the same. He became very active in the world of political discussion, forming student groups, editing magazines, and leading in student protest demonstrations. Along with other intellectuals around him, he became interested in the works of Karl Marx (1818–1883), a German political philosopher who developed a theory of socialism, a system in which there is no private property, and business and industry are owned by the workers. (Communism is a political ideology based on socialism.) In 1921, he met with others who shared his interest, and helped found the Chinese Communist Party, which grew rapidly over the next few years.
From 1924 until 1927, Mao and the communists put their forces behind Sun Yat-sen, who had gotten the support of the Soviets for his mission to unite China under one ruler. Mao spent most of this period working among peasants in the countryside. At this time he came to the conclusion that socialism in China would take a different form than in Russia: in China, the poor farmers from the country would carry out the revolution rather than the workers in the cities of Russia.
By 1927, when Sun died, there was a great deal of conflict among the communist groups in China, and the country came under the control of the Nationalist government party (the Kuomintang; pronounced KWOE-min-TANG) led by the anticommunist Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975; see entry). The Nationalists wanted to keep control of China in the hands of landowners and businessmen, but the communists wanted the country turned over to the peasantry. Although at first the Kuomintang worked with the communists in order to establish bases of power, in April 1927, Chiang turned his army against the communists, slaughtering thousands.
The Long March
During the next seven years, Mao and other communists hid in remote mountainous regions in southern China. There they built a strong rebel government, attracting more and more people to their cause. After repeated attacks by Nationalist forces, the communists were forced to flee their base, and began a six-thousand-mile journey called the Long March in 1934. During the Long March, the communists fought constant battles and suffered incredible hardships. By the time they reached their destination the following year, more than half of the original marchers had died. For his courage and leadership during this journey, Mao was elected chairman of the Chinese Communist Party.
Creates a communist nation
A truce between the communists and the Nationalist government was declared when Japan invaded China in 1937. During World War II (1939–45), the two sides fought against this common enemy. But right after the war they resumed their battle against each other. By 1949, the Nationalist government had lost popular support because of corrupt practices that had impoverished parts of China. Although the communists had less money and were poorly armed, they had received the support of China's large peasant class. With the
people's support they were able to drive the Nationalists out of mainland China and onto the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa). On October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China, saying "Today the Chinese people stood up!"
There was much to be done as the new republic took shape. China's economy was in shambles. Mao immediately ordered the peasants to seize property from the landlords who controlled almost all the farmland. Over the next few years, life improved for the peasants as they grew more than enough food to eat. Mao also faced the rebuilding of China to the status of a world power, to which he felt it was entitled. But because of the years of war and extreme need, China had become backward in terms of technology and education. The Chinese were isolated in relation to other world powers. The Chinese Communist Party had conflicts with the Soviets, and the United States had supported Chiang Kai-shek against them. The United Nations (UN) would not recognize the People's Republic of China, and in fact still recognized Chiang's fallen Nationalist government as the legitimate government of China. (The UN was founded right after World War II to maintain worldwide peace and to develop friendly relations among countries.)
China enters the Korean War
Initially Mao and his party threw China's huge military forces to the regaining of Taiwan from Chiang's Nationalists and to reestablishing their footing in Tibet, which had recently been resisting the "special relationship" China claimed with it. But Mao watched the situation in Korea carefully. In August 1945, when the Japanese, who were occupying Korea, were defeated to end World War II, the general order for the Japanese surrender included an arrangement for Korea in which the Americans were to accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel (the dividing line between northern and southern Korea) and the Soviets, who were already on the Korean border, would receive the surrender north of it. Soon the UN was sponsoring elections in Korea, with the idea that Korea would become independent after a leader was elected. The Soviet Union and the northern Koreans did not believe that the UN had authority to decide the future of Korea, so they refused to take part in the elections. The vote was held in southern Korea, nonetheless, and a new government was formed to rule a united Republic of Korea. Not accepting that government, the Koreans in the north held their own elections and established the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).
In the summer of 1950, as North Korea invaded South Korea, the United States entered the war. (The governments of both communist North Korea and nationalist South Korea hoped to reunify Korea under their leadership.) Mao prepared for the emergency in Korea by sending large forces of troops to towns along the Chinese-North Korean border. Then, only one year after he proclaimed a Chinese republic, Mao felt it necessary to stop the American and UN troops that were advancing up to China's borders as they overwhelmed the North Koreans. After repeated warnings and attempts to negotiate through the United Nations, Mao sent his long-time comrade, General Peng Dehaui (P'eng Teh-huai;1898–1974; see entry), to command the Chinese forces being sent into Korea to assist the shattered North Koreans.
China was already weakened by its prolonged civil war and many of Mao's top generals argued strongly against getting involved. But Mao believed that if the United States succeeded in toppling the North Korean nation on China's border, there could never be peace in Asia. He sent in massive numbers of well-trained, though poorly equipped, troops. None of the Western powers (the United States and Western Europe) had taken China very seriously as a nation up to that point. But China's powerful offensives in November and December 1950 threw the UN troops into a retreat, and after two more years of battle, all the forces of the United Nations were unable to overcome the Chinese. China lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the Korean War, but it made the world stand up and pay attention to its power as a new nation.
Putting ideals to practice at home
In 1953, with the Korean War over, Mao turned his attention back to reforms at home. He directed that all farms be pooled into cooperatives, where numerous peasant families would work together on a large tract of land. Within two years, almost two-thirds of all peasants had joined cooperatives. Farm output increased dramatically. Peasants sold the extra food they grew and many of them became prosperous.
Mao had a vision of an industrial China. To raise the money needed to build industries, Mao turned to the peasants. In 1956, he decreed that all farms, animals, and tools be placed under government control. Peasants were forced to work on what were called "collective" farms. The government dictated what would be grown, how much of it, and what the peasants would be paid for their work. Within months, all of China's six million peasants were working in collectives. They lost what little wealth they had.
That same year Mao encouraged people to offer helpful criticism of the Communist Party, a policy he called Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom. Party leaders, quickly attacked for being corrupt, convinced Mao to reject this policy. In 1957, Mao called those people who spoke out enemies or rightists (reform-seeking individuals, often communist, are referred to as leftists). Nearly one million people were condemned as rightists and sent to jail or prison camps during the next year.
The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution
To make China equal with industrial nations, Mao launched his Great Leap Forward program in 1958. With the promise of a better future, the government encouraged people to work day and night to increase production. In a drive to make steel, people melted all the tools they had, but their primitive methods produced useless steel. To win the favor of high government leaders, local party officials inflated farm output figures. The government took grain from the peasants based on these high, false amounts. As a result, the peasants were left with nothing. A time of horrifying famine followed: the farmers were forced to eat tree bark, grass roots, and earth in their attempts to survive. Between 1959 and 1961, about twenty-five million peasants starved to death.
In the early 1960s, Mao stepped down as leader of the government, but still controlled the Chinese Communist Party. The new leaders, more moderate, worked to rebuild the country. They relaxed government controls and China prospered over the next few years. In 1966, however, Mao attacked these leaders, saying they were betraying the radical ideas of the original revolution. He then called on young Chinese to rebel against party officials, starting the Cultural Revolution. Bands of young Chinese, called Red Guards, ransacked museums, libraries, temples, and people's homes. They captured and publicly beat millions of officials, intellectuals, and former landowners. At least four hundred thousand of these people were beaten to death.
Establishes contact with United States
In 1967, the Red Guards began to fight among themselves. By summer, with millions of workers and soldiers joining the battle, China was in turmoil. The following year Mao ordered the Red Guards to disband and peace was restored. Mao then regained authority in the government and worked to improve relations with other countries. A visit by United States President Richard Nixon in 1972 eventually led to diplomatic contact with the United States after decades of hostile relations. Mao's health declined in the next few years, and moderates and radicals in the government fought for control. When Mao died in Beijing (Peking) on September 9, 1976, the new leaders began to steer China away from his strict policies.
Where to Learn More
Chou, Eric. Mao Tse-Tung: The Man and the Myth. New York: Cassell, 1982.
Garza, Hedda. Mao Zedong. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Hoyt, Edwin P. The Day the Chinese Attacked Korea, 1950: The Story of the Failure of America's China Policy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.
Kolpas, Norman. Mao. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Marrin, Albert. Mao Tse-Tung and His China. New York: Puffin, 1993.
Stefoff, Rebecca. Mao Zedong: Founder of the People's Republic of China. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996.
Roe, Patrick C. The Dragon Strikes, China and the Korean War: June-December, 1950. Novato, CA: Presidio, 2000.
Terrill, Ross. Mao: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Whiting, Allen S. China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960.
Words to Know
collective farm: a farm under government control, in which the government dictates what will be grown, how much of it, and what the farmworkers will be paid for their work.
Communism: a system of government in which one party (usually the Communist Party) controls all property and goods and the means to produce and distribute them.
cooperative farm: a farm owned and run by the farmworkers who use its goods or sell them for profit.
dynasties: periods in China's history in which one particular family ruled, sometimes for centuries.
guerrilla warfare: an irregular form of combat; in Korea it usually involved small groups of warriors who hid in mountains, enlisted the help of the local population, and used ambushes and surprise attacks to harass or even destroy much larger armies.
Marxism: the belief, originating with German political philosopher Karl Marx, that a revolution by the working class would eventually lead to a classless society.
Nationalists (Chinese): the ruling party led by Chiang Kai-shek in China from the 1920s until 1949, when the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War and forced to withdraw to the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa).
rightist: a person who advocates maintaining tradition and the status quo and generally supports a strong and authoritarian government by the elite.
socialism: a system in which there is no private property, and business and industry are owned by the workers.
warlord: a leader with his own military whose powers are usually limited to a small area that, in most cases, he took by force.
Mao and the Soviets
In 1917 and 1918, Chinese revolutionaries watched as the masses took power and overthrew the government in the Russian Revolution. The Russian revolutionaries were equally interested in China. It was obvious to them that China was on the verge of a major upheaval which, with proper assistance, might become a second communist revolution. The Russians sent political advisors to the radical (extremist) Chinese groups.
But as the Russians looked about China, they found their interests drawn not to the newly emerging Chinese Communist Party, but to a far larger and better organized group, the Nationalist party (Kuomintang), begun by revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925). A frustrated Chinese Nationalist seeking money from abroad, Sun Yat-sen had welcomed help from the Soviets. With their assistance, he had built the Kuomintang military organization and modern party along Soviet lines.
In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai, and Mao Zedong was one of its founding members. The Soviets immediately requested that the new Chinese Communist Party cooperate with the Kuomintang. The young communists threw their energies into helping prepare the Nationalist army for the march north, in the hope of unifying China and freeing it from the warlords and foreign interests that had long fragmented it. Mao worked willingly for the Kuomintang for several years. But in 1925, as the combined forces of the Kuomintang and Communists drove north, Mao was sent back to Hunan, shunned by the Soviet-influenced Chinese Communist because he did not have first-hand Soviet training or a top-notch education.
In Hunan, Mao worked with peasants and developed his theory that in China it was the peasant farmers—not the proletariat, or workers in the cities—who would drive the revolution. After the Kuomintang army turned on the Communists in 1927, killing them in huge numbers, Mao made his way into the countryside, where he was able to rally the peasants to join him. The leaders of the Communist Chinese Party as well as the Soviets ordered him to move into the cities to organize the workers there. But Mao knew that the Communist Party's real support was to come from the peasants.
By the early 1930s, the new Communist leaders, called the 28 Bolsheviks for their schooling in the Soviet Union and adherence to Russian-style principles of revolution, rejected Mao's theories on building a peasant base for revolt and initiating guerrilla warfare. Although Mao was made leader of the communist government in name, he was not allowed to act as a policymaker. He did not regain any real control of the Chinese Communist Party until 1935. Once in power, he worked to break with the Russian model of communism and called for a "Sinification" of Marxism, that is, making it apply to Chinese life and culture. By the late 1930s, Mao was trying to eliminate the Soviet orientation held by a faction of his party. He initiated a campaign that prohibited imitation of Soviet communism or obedience to the Soviet's directives. In the early 1940s, the Soviets accused Mao of waging a purge: getting rid of the Soviet-influenced leaders of the Communist Chinese Party, sometimes through violence or murder.
Later, as the war between the Chinese Communists and the Nationalists came to a head, it is said that Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) was not eager for the Chinese Communists to win, fearing that Mao and his brand of communism would mean trouble for the Soviets.
As the Communists came into power in China in 1949, the new government faced an unfriendly world. Mao understood that China would need support from the Soviet Union and also that China could benefit from the lessons already learned by the Russians. Mao's dealings with Stalin were strained, but in December 1949, he traveled to Moscow. It took Mao two months to convince Stalin to join in a treaty of mutual assistance accompanied by economic aid, but the treaty was signed. There was a bond between two communist nations through the Korean War, but the ties were fragile and the suspicions were ever-present.
During the Korean War, many U.S. policy-makers believed that China was a satellite of—or indirectly ruled by—the Soviet Union. They did not understand Mao Zedong.
Born December 26, 1893
Shaoshan, Hunan Province of China
Died September 9, 1976
Chairman of the People's Republic of China
M ao Zedong imposed an ideology upon an entire society and created a regime that eliminated opposition. He led the long struggle that made China a communist nation in 1949. Communism is a system of government in which a single party, the Communist Party, controls all aspects of people's lives. In economic theory, it prohibits private ownership of property and business, so that goods produced and wealth accumulated are shared relatively equally by all. Communism was adapted from the theories of German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Russian revolutionary Vladimir I. Lenin (1870–1924). Mao's interpretation of Marxism for colonial and peasant-based economies became known as Maoism.
Maoism was a model and an inspiration for many Third World national liberation movements. Third World refers to poor, underdeveloped or economically developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many were seeking independence from political control of Western European nations. Mao developed his theory around the revolutionary potential of the rural peasantry, rather than the city-based, industrial workers of Marxist/Leninist ideology. Third World communist leaders used modifications of the three devices prescribed by Maoist doctrines in conducting a revolution. These included the party (whose role is to provide leadership for the revolution), the army (a tool to seize state power), and the united front (a means to win the support of the people).
Mao was an ardent opponent of international capitalism but turned to the United States when looking for allies against a possible Soviet attack. Capitalism is an economic system where property and businesses are privately owned. Prices, production, and distribution of goods are determined by competition in a market relatively free of government intervention. Mao invited U.S. president Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74; see entry) to visit China in 1972. This meeting in Beijing exemplified Mao's standing as a world statesman and his achievement in securing America's recognition of communist China as a world power. Mao was chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from October 1949 until 1976. It was not until 1971 that the United Nations recognized the Communist Party as the sole legitimate government of China. Known popularly as "Chairman Mao," Mao Zedong ruled Mainland China until his death in 1976.
Mao Zedong, also spelled Mao Tse-tung, was born on December 26, 1893, into a Chinese homeland that appeared to be falling apart. The fading Qin dynasty was both hated and feared, but it could not contain the spiraling social and economic unrest. Foreign powers consumed most of China's natural resources in their centralized state, and the country seemed ripe for change.
Mao was the son of a peasant who had become a wealthy farmer in Hunan Province. He received a traditional education in the classics at a primary school in the village of Shaoshan. Forced by his father to work in the fields, Mao ran away from the family farm at the age of thirteen to continue his education in the city of Changsha. There, he was introduced to Western ideas and became involved in the revolution against the Manchu Dynasty. He was still a student when the revolution of 1911–12 overthrew the Manchu government and made China a republic. At the age of eighteen, Mao joined the revolutionary army as a common soldier.
After resuming his education in Changsha, Mao became involved in student politics and founded the New People's Study Society. The society encouraged students to participate in public affairs. Many of its early members later became prominent members of the Chinese Communist Party. After graduating from the Changsha teachers' training college in 1918, Mao went to Peking (Beijing) University and in 1919 took a leading part in the May Fourth Movement, which involved student protests against the Paris Peace Conference's decision to hand over German gains in Shandong Province, formerly Chinese, to Japan. Mao's involvement in this movement pushed him away from Western liberalism to Marxism. He became attracted to the ideas of communism,
became a Marxist, and in 1921 was a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai.
During his Changsha studies, Mao was greatly influenced by one of his professors, Xu Teli, and in 1920 married Xu's daughter, Yang Kaihui. Together, Mao Zedong and Yang Kaihui had three children.
The communists joined forces with Sun Yat-sen's Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) in 1923 in an effort to unite China. Mao concentrated on political work among the peasants of his native province and advocated a rural revolution. Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975; see entry) succeeded Sun when Sun died in 1925. Chiang conducted a bloody purge of the Chinese communists, and they were driven from the cities. Mao escaped the 1927 uprising and established a base in the southern province of Kiangsi. His wife, Yang Kaihui, was executed by the Kuomintang in Changsha in 1930.
While in Kiangsi, Mao put into practice his theory of a peasant-based revolution. With the help of General Zhu De, he joined military doctrine to his political thinking to create the guerrilla tactics of the "people's war" and build the Red Army. His activities were so successful that in 1931 he was able to declare the founding of the new Chinese Soviet Republic in Kiangsi, with himself as the first chairman. Chiang's Nationalist forces gradually encircled the communist forces and were about to take control in 1934. In order to escape, Mao led his Red Army on a year-long, 6,000-mile (9,654-kilometer) march to reach Shaanxi in northwest China and set up a new base. The Long March, as it was called, began with about 90,000 people but ended with only about 8,000 survivors on the dangerous trek. The survivors emerged as a tightly knit band under the leadership of Mao.
For a brief time in 1936, the Nationalists renewed their alliance with the communists in order to ward off the increasing threat of Japanese invaders. The ensuing war sapped the Nationalist government's strength, while the Communist Party's political and military power was restored. By 1945, the communists controlled areas populated by nearly one hundred million Chinese. On October 1, 1949, Mao was proclaimed president of the newly established People's Republic of China.
Mao took his first trip abroad in December 1949. He traveled to the Soviet Union to negotiate the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. (Sino means Chinese.) The treaty pledged the two countries to come to each other's defense in case of attack. It also included extensive Soviet financial and military aid.
In 1949, the Cold War (1945–91) in Europe had become a war of position. The Cold War was fought over ideologies—communism versus democracy. It was a war of mutual fear and distrust primarily between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The European continent
was clearly divided in two. In Asia, the situation was much more fluid and dynamic. It was a war of maneuver. The Soviet Union was aware that communist success in China would be a strategic shift of major proportions. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) was eager to secure a firm alliance for the Soviet Union and to ensure China did not ally with the United States. China could then be counted on to tie down British and French forces and slow the buildup of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Europe. The Sino-Soviet alliance was a victory for socialism in the world.
After signing the treaty, Mao retired to a largely ceremonial role in China as chairman of both the Communist Party and the People's Republic. Day-to-day administration was left to party bureaucrats, who eventually fell under the influence of technical and military advisors from the Soviet Union.
In 1957, Mao initiated the Great Leap Forward Movement. It was an attempt to break with the Russian model of communism. Mao proposed to decentralize the economy by establishing independent local communes, while at the same time hoping to renew revolutionary vigor. It was a monumental failure with disastrous results. By 1959, over twenty million people had died, mostly of starvation, and Mao was forced to retire as chief of state. He was, however, able to retain his title of chairman of the Communist Party and his control of the country.
By the 1960s, disputes between China and the Soviet Union had grown into a struggle for leadership of the communist world. Mao considered himself to be the true interpreter of the principles of communism. The Sino-Soviet split widened when Mao ordered nuclear research that led to Chinese nuclear weapons testing. The final break came after the failure of the Great Leap Forward. The Soviet Union cut off all aid.
In a weakened position, Mao fought back by instituting the Cultural Revolution. It was a mass mobilization of urban Chinese youth that took place from 1966 through 1976. Mao initiated the movement in order to prevent further development of a Soviet-style communism. Schools were closed, and students were presented with copies of the "Quotations of Chairman Mao." Organized into battalions of "Red Guards," the students were sent throughout the countryside in order to create local rebellions. Many people died in the ensuing purges, including scores of senior leaders who had been colleagues of Mao for more than three decades.
The cult of Mao was one of the results of the Cultural Revolution in China. Mao's ideas were popularized in The Little Red Book, or Mao Zedong on People's War. His book of quotations was given almost scriptural authority by the masses.
Young and old learned his slogans and studied his writings. Mao also wrote poetry. Giant portraits of Mao were displayed on billboards all around China. His face became familiar throughout the world. Mao would later argue that the creation of the personality cult had been necessary to counter entrenched party interests. He wanted to keep a radical edge to the Chinese communist movement and not let it get too conservative and bureaucratic. Mao thought too many communist leaders in China were getting too comfortable in their long-held positions and letting the communist movement drift away from his hard-core philosophy. He did not want Chinese communists to become too friendly with noncommunists elsewhere.
By the early 1970s, illness plagued Mao, and the running of the country was left largely to his third wife. In 1939, Mao had married actress Jiang Qing (two years after divorcing his second wife). They had two daughters together. During the Cultural Revolution, she was appointed deputy director and became leader of the "Gang of Four." They restricted the arts and enforced ideology, with many people dying in purges. Her radical domestic policies ensured that many of the basic precepts of the Cultural Revolution continued in force until Mao died in 1976. Following Mao's death, Jiang Qing made an unsuccessful attempt to seize power and was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for her part in the Cultural Revolution. She committed suicide in 1991.
During his lifetime, Mao Zedong controlled artistic, intellectual, military, industrial, and agricultural planning and policies in the most populated nation on earth. After his death, Chinese leaders reversed many of his policies and ended the emphasis on his personality. They looked to Japan, the United States, and European countries for help in modernizing China's industry, agriculture, science, and armed forces. These goals were called the Four Modernizations.
For More Information
Chou, Eric. Mao Tse-tung, the Man and the Myth. New York: Stein and Day, 1982.
Schram, Stewart R. Mao Tse-tung. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.
Short, Philip. Mao: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.
Spence, Jonathan D. Mao Zedong. New York: Viking, 1999.
For seven weeks in the late spring of 1989, Chinese citizens occupied a public square in the heart of Beijing. It was called Tiananmen Square. More than a million people assembled there in mass, prodemocracy demonstrations. A democratic system of government allows multiple political parties. Their members are elected to various government offices by popular vote of the people. Over three thousand hunger strikers gathered at the central Monument to the People's Heroes in the square. They gathered in the shadows of Mao's mausoleum, which occupies a southern section of the square. On June 4, the government struck back, sending tanks from all directions into the square, killing hundreds of workers and students and imposing a martial law that would last for fourteen months.
A stunning moment occurred when a young man stood before the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square that June day, halting their progress with his mere presence. The youth, or "tank man" as he was called, received worldwide attention in the media. He stood in defiance on what was called, ironically, the Avenue of Eternal Peace. Although he risked his life by standing in front of the tanks, it has been noted that the first tank driver also rose to the challenge by allowing the moment of rebellion.
Tiananmen Square is the place where Mao had proclaimed a "People's Republic" in 1949 on behalf of the Chinese people who had "stood up." In an earlier time, Mao would have embraced "tank man" as a vital part of his people's war, because he stood up against the government. In 1989, Mao's domination of China was complete and all-inclusive. Mao's legacy was a regime that did not allow for individual thinking or action. Opposition was not tolerated—it was erased.
Mao Zedong was an avid swimmer. When he was in his early sixties, and at the height of his political power as leader of the Chinese People's Republic, swimming was a central part of his life. He swam with top party leaders in a large pool that was constructed for them at their compound in Beijing. Party business was conducted in the pool much the same way it had been in his youth, swimming in local streams with close friends and debating the challenges their nation faced.
Mao advocated swimming as a way of strengthening the bodies of Chinese citizens. He swam in the heavily polluted rivers of south China as well as the stormy ocean off the north China coast, where the Communist Party leadership gathered for its annual conferences. One of Mao's earliest poems celebrated the joys of being in the water.
Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was a Chinese statesman whose status as a revolutionary in world history is probably next only to that of Lenin.
More than anyone else in recent times, Mao Zedong, with his supple mind and astute judgment, helped to reshape the social and political structures of his ancient and populous country. In doing so, Mao is likely to influence the destiny of the "third world" as well. Highly literate and sensitive, he was dedicated to a relentless struggle against inequality and injustice; thus at times he was capable of utter ruthlessness. He lived through reform and revolution in the early years of China's awakening nationalism, accepting at first the philosophies behind both movements. With the onset of the warlords' reaction after the revolution of 1911, disillusionment drove him to radicalism. This occurred at a time when Wilsonian self-determination was being ignored at the Paris Peace Conference and the messianic messages of the Russian October Revolution had attracted the attention of Chinese intellectuals, as China itself was passing through a period of traumatic cultural changes. Skeptical of Western sincerity and iconoclastic toward Confucianism, Mao sought inspiration from Marx's class struggle and Lenin's anti-imperialism to become a Communist.
Born in Hunan on Dec. 26, 1893, Mao Zedong did not venture outside his home province until he was 25. Up to then, his formal education was limited to 6 years at a junior normal school where he acquired a meager knowledge of science, learned almost no foreign language, but developed a lucid written style and a considerable understanding of social problems, Chinese history, and current affairs. He was, however, still parochial in the sense that he had inherited the pragmatic and utilitarian tradition of Hunan scholarship with the hope that somehow it would help him in his groping for ways and means to strengthen and enrich his country.
Mao's visit to Peking in 1918 broadened his view. Although his life there was miserable, he was working under the chief librarian of Peking University, who was one of the pioneer Marxists of China. On his return to Hunan in the following year, Mao was already committed to communism. While making a living as a primary schoolteacher, he edited radical magazines, organized trade unions, and set up politically oriented schools of his own in the orthodox manner of Communist agitation among city workers and students. With the inauguration of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) in 1921, of which Mao was one of the 50 founder-members, these activities were pursued with added energy and to a greater depth.
Meanwhile, the major political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), was reorganized, and a coalition was formed between the KMT and CCP on antiwarlord and anti-imperialist principles. Mao's principal task was to coordinate the policies of both parties, an ill-suited role on account of his lack of academic and social standing. In 1925, when the coalition ran into heavy weather, Mao was sent back to Hunan to "convalesce."
Champion of the Peasants
An unfortunate result of this rebuff was that he was completely left out of the nationwide strikes against Japan and Britain in the summer of that year, during which many of his comrades made their mark as leaders of the trade union movement or party politics. A by-product of his "convalescence" was that he discovered the revolutionary potential of the peasants, who had in such great numbers been displaced and pauperized by the misrule of the warlords. From then on Mao switched his attention to this vast underprivileged class of people. He studied them, tried to understand their grievances, and agitated among them.
Mao's newly acquired knowledge and experience enabled him to play a leading role in the peasant movement led by both the KMT and CCP. By 1927 he was in a position to advocate a class substitution in the Chinese Revolution. Instead of the traditional proletarian hegemony, Mao proposed that the poor peasants fill the role of revolutionary vanguard. Shortly after the publication of his Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan, the KMT-CCP coalition broke up and the Communists were persecuted everywhere in the country.
Establishment of Soviets
Some survivors of the party went underground in the cities, to continue their struggle as a working-class party; the rest took up arms to defy the government and eventually to set up rural soviets in central and northern China. One of these soviets was Mao's Ching-kang Mountain base area between Kiangsi and Hunan, where he had to rely chiefly on the support of the poor peasants.
Under conditions of siege, the autonomy of these soviets threatened to disrupt the unity of the revolutionary movement, breaking it up into small pockets of resistance like premodern peasant wars. Doctrinally, this development was anything but orthodox Marxism. The center of the CCP, located underground in Shanghai, therefore assigned to itself the task of strengthening its leadership and party discipline. A successful revolution, in its view, had to take the course of a series of urban uprisings under proletarian leadership.
In its effort to achieve this, the center had to curb the growing powers of the soviet leaders like Mao, and it had the authority of the Comintern behind it. Its effort gradually produced results: Mao first lost his control over the army he had organized and trained, then his position in the soviet party, and finally even much of his power in the soviet government.
The Long March
The years of this intraparty struggle coincided with Chiang Kai-shek's successes in his anti-Communist campaigns. Eventually Chiang was able to drive the Communists out of their base areas on the Long March. The loss of nearly all the soviets in central China and crippling casualties and desertions suffered by the Communists in the first stages of the march were sufficient evidence of the ineptitude of the central party leadership. At the historic Tsunyi Conference of the party's Politburo in January 1935, Mao turned the tables against the pro-Russian leaders. On that occasion Mao was elected, thanks mainly to his support from the military, to the chairmanship of the Politburo.
During the low ebb of the revolutionary tide and the hardships of the Long March, those who might have challenged Mao fell by the wayside, largely through their own fault. By the time the Communists arrived at Yenan, the party had attained a measure of unity, to be further consolidated after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. This was the first truly nationalist war China had ever fought, in which the nation as a whole united to face the common foe. However, from 1939 onward, as the war entered a long period of stalemate, clashes began to occur between KMT and Communist troops.
By early 1941 the united front between the KMT and CCP had come to exist in name only. This new situation called for the emergence of a Communist leader who could rival Chiang in his claim to national leadership in the event of a resumption of the civil war. But this could not be done so long as the CCP remained under the Russian wing.
Events in the early 1940s helped the CCP, in its search for independence, to become nationalistic. Russia, preoccupied with its war against Hitler, was unable to influence the CCP effectively, and soon the Comintern was dissolved. Mao seized this opportunity to sinicize the Chinese Communist movement in the famous rectification campaign of 1942-1944.
Leader of the Chinese Communists
The personality cult of Mao grew until his thought was written into the party's constitution of 1945 as a guiding principle of the party, side by side with Marxism-Leninism. Under Mao's brilliant leadership the party fought from one victory to another, till it took power in 1949.
Mao's thought now guided the Communists in their way of thinking, their organization, and their action. In giving their faith to Mao's thought, they found unity and strength, an understanding of the nature, strategy, and tactics of the revolution, a set of values and attitudes which made them welcome to the peasant masses, and a style of work and life which differentiated them from the bureaucrats and the romantic, culturally alienated intellectuals.
But Mao's thought had very little to say on the modernization and industrialization of China, on its socialist construction. Therefore, after 1949 the CCP was left to follow the example of Russia, with Russian aid in the years of the cold war. The importance, and relevance, of Mao therefore declined steadily while China introduced its first Five-Year Plan and socialist constitution. Once more the pro-Russian wing of the CCP was on the ascendancy, though still unable to challenge Mao's ideological authority. This authority enabled Mao to fight back by launching the Socialist Upsurge in the Countryside of 1955 and the Great Leap Forward in 1958. The essential feature of these movements was to rely upon the voluntary zeal of the people motivated by a new moral discipline, rather than upon monetary incentives, price mechanism, professionalism, and the legalism of gradual progress. The failure of the Great Leap Forward impaired Mao's power and prestige even further. His critics within the CCP attributed the failure to the impracticability of his mass line of socialist construction; in his own view, the failure was due to inadequate ideological preparation and, perhaps, abortive implementation by the pro-Russian wing of the CCP.
At this juncture, the worsening Sino-Soviet dispute made its fatal impact. The condemnation of Russian "revisionism" cut the pro-Russian wing from its ideological source, and the withdrawal of Russian material aid practically sounded the death knell of China's attempt to emulate the Russian model. In the midst of this, Mao began his comeback.
The groundwork had been laid through the socialist education movement early in the 1960s, which started with the remolding of the People's Liberation Army under the command of Lin Piao. When this had been accomplished, Mao, with the help of the army and young students organized into the Red Guards, waged a fierce struggle against what he called the revisionists in power in his own party. This was the famous cultural revolution of 1966-1969. In this struggle it was revealed how elitist, bureaucratic, and brittle the CCP had become since 1949.
With Mao's victory in the cultural revolution, China became the most politicized nation of the world. No Chinese thought beyond the premises of Mao's thought—a state of affairs reminiscent of the Christianization of Europe in the Middle Ages. By this Mao hoped to whip up the unbound enthusiasm and altruistic spirit of the Chinese masses to work harder while enduring a frugal life. This may be the only way for a poor and populous country like China to accumulate enough capital for its rapid industrialization.
By the time Mao was in his late 70s, his lifework was essentially done, although he retained power until the end. Physically debilitated, suffering from a lifetime of effort and Parkinson's Disease, Mao's ability to rule in new and innovative ways to meet the demands of China's modernization grew increasingly enfeebled. To what degree his radical actions in his later years were due to his illness and age is a matter of debate among historians. His final years were marked by bitter maneuvering among his clique to succeed him upon his death. One of his final major acts was to reopen contact with the United States. In September of 1976, Mao died. Mao was undoubtedly the key figure in China in the 20th century and one of the century's most important movers and reformers. He had devoted his life to the advancement of a peasant class terrorized for centuries by those in power. However, in pursuit of his own goals, Mao himself could be violent and dictatorial. To Mao must go the credit for developing a revolutionary strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside, a mass line of political thought and application to bridge the chasm between the leaders and the led, and, finally, a strategy of permanent violent and nonviolent revolution to guard against the recurrence of that kind of bureaucratism which so far in history has always emerged once a revolution is over and revolutionaries have turned into reformers.
Mao's own writings, Selected Works (4 vols., 1961-1965), Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tse-tung (1967), and Quotations from Chairman Mao (1966; 2d ed. 1967), have all been published in English in Peking. For Mao's own writings also consult Anne Freemantle, Mao Tse-tung: An Anthology of His Writings (1954), and Jerome Ch'en, Mao Papers: Anthology and Bibliography (1970).
An understanding of the historical background of Mao's revolutionary activities is provided by Jerome Ch'en, Mao and the Chinese Revolution (1965). Another biography is Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-tung (1966; rev. ed. 1969). Edgar Snow's books Red Star over China (rev. ed. 1968), which contains Mao's autobiography, and The Other Side of the River (1962) are both excellent works on Mao and the Chinese Communist movement. A brief guide to Mao, his views, and other people's views of him is provided in Jerome Ch'en, Mao (1969). See also Harrison Salisbury's The Long March (1987); Dic, Wilson's Mao Tse-tung in the Scales of History; and Brantly Womack's The Foundations of Mao Zedong's Political Thought 1917-1935 (1982).
Benjamin Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (1951), and Stuart Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tsetung (1963; rev. ed. 1969), are also outstanding works as is Siao-Yu, Mao Tse-tung and I Were Beggars (1961). Biographies of 500 leaders of the Communist movement in China, including Mao, are in Donald W. Klein and Anne B. Clark, Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Communism, 1921-1965 (2 vols., 1971). □
Mao Zedong was a Chinese statesman whose status as a revolutionary in world history is probably next only to that of Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). More than anyone else in recent history, Mao Zedong helped to reshape the social and political structures of his ancient and heavily populated country.
Mao Zedong was born in Shaoshan, Hunan, China, on December 26, 1893. Mao had two younger brothers and one younger sister. His father, Mao Jensheng, had started out as a poor peasant but eventually paid off his debts, became a landowner, and started a business trading rice. A devoted follower of the religion of Buddhism, his mother, Wen Ch'i-mei, wanted her son to have a religious career. Mao did not venture outside his home province (state) until he was twenty-five. Up to then, his formal education was limited to six years at a junior normal school where he acquired a limited knowledge of science, learned almost no foreign language, but developed a clear written style and a considerable understanding of social problems, Chinese history, and current affairs. However, Mao inherited the practical traditions of Hunan education with the hope that somehow it would help him find ways to strengthen and improve his country.
Mao's brief time in Peking, China, in 1918 broadened his view. Although his life there was miserable, he was working under the chief librarian of Peking University, who was one of the pioneer Marxists of China. (Marxists are those that believe in a social system created by Karl Marx [1818–1883] that gives the control to the working class. This system ultimately leads to communism, where goods and services are owned and distributed by the government.) On his return to Hunan in the following year, Mao was already committed to communism. While making a living as a primary schoolteacher, he edited radical (extreme) magazines, organized trade unions, and set up politically oriented schools of his own. With the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921, of which Mao was one of fifty founding members, these activities were pursued with added energy and to a greater depth.
Meanwhile, the major political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), was reorganized, and a coalition (partnership) was formed between the KMT and CCP. Mao's main task was to coordinate the policies of both parties; however, he was unable to prove himself in this position due to his lack of academic and social standing. In 1925 when the coalition ran into problems, Mao was sent back to Hunan to "convalesce," or recover.
Champion of the peasants
An unfortunate result of this setback was that Mao was completely left out of the nationwide protests against Japan and Britain in the summer of that year, during which many of his comrades made their mark as leaders of the trade union movement or party politics. Out of his "convalescence," Mao discovered the revolutionary potential of the peasants, the poor farm workers whose great numbers had been treated poorly by the warlords. From then on Mao switched his attention to this vast underprivileged class of people.
Mao's newly acquired knowledge and experience enabled him to play a leading role in the peasant movement led by both the KMT and CCP. By 1927 he was in a position to support a class substitution in the Chinese revolution. Mao proposed that the poor peasants fill the role of revolutionary vanguard (the most important positions). Shortly after the publication of his Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan, the KMT-CCP coalition broke up and the Communists were forced underground.
Establishment of soviets
Some survivors of the party went underground in the cities, to continue their struggle as a working-class party; the rest took up arms against the government and eventually established rural soviets (small governments) in central and northern China. One of these soviets was Mao's Ching-kang mountain base area between Kiangsi and Hunan, where he had to rely chiefly on the support of the poor peasants.
The soviets threatened to disrupt the unity of the revolutionary movement, because it was thought that it would break it up into small pockets. The center of the CCP, located underground in Shanghai, China, therefore took on the task of strengthening its leadership and party loyalty. A successful revolution, in its view, had to take the course of a series of urban uprisings under proletarian (working-class) leadership. In its effort to achieve this, the center had to ease the growing powers of the soviet leaders like Mao. Its effort gradually produced results: Mao first lost his control over the army he had organized and trained, then his position in the soviet party, and finally even much of his power in the soviet government.
The Long March
The years of this struggle within the party coincided with Chiang Kai-shek's (1897–1975) successes in his anti-Communist campaigns. Eventually Chiang was able to drive the Communists out of their base areas on the Long March (a year-long, six-thousand-mile journey through the hills of Shensi). The loss of nearly all the soviets in central China suffered by the Communists proved the weaknesses of central party leadership.
When the revolutionary movement slowed and the hardships of the Long March were felt, those who might have challenged Mao for leadership fell by the wayside. By the time the Communists arrived at Yenan, China, the party had gained a measure of unity, to be further consolidated (brought together) after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, where China and Japan fought over land in China. This was the first truly nationalist war China had ever fought, in which the nation as a whole united to face the common foe of Japan.
By early 1941 the unity between the KMT and CCP had come to exist in name only. This new situation called for the emergence of a Communist leader who could rival Chiang in case a civil war broke out. Mao was such the person, and soon his popularity began to grow.
Leader of the Chinese Communists
The personality cult (a community of worship) of Mao grew until his concepts were written into the party's constitution of 1945 (the constitution would outline the party's rules and principles). Under Mao's brilliant leadership the party fought from one victory to another, until it took power in 1949. Mao's concepts now guided the Communists in their way of thinking, their organization, and their action. In giving their faith to Mao's belief, they found unity and strength, and an understanding of the nature, strategy, and tactics of the revolution.
But Mao's concept had very little to say about the modernization and industrialization of China. Therefore, after 1949 the CCP was left to follow the example of the Soviet Union, with Soviet aid in the years of the cold war, the four-decade period of sour relations between Communist and free-world powers.
Mao launched the Socialist Upsurge in the Countryside of 1955 and the Great Leap Forward in 1958. The essential feature of these movements was a reliance upon the voluntary spirit of the people motivated by a new moral discipline, rather than upon money. The failure of the Great Leap Forward hurt Mao's power and reputation even further.
At this time, the worsening relations with the Soviet Union made its fatal impact. Withdrawal of Soviet material aid practically all but ended China's attempt to copy the Soviet model. In the midst of this, Mao began his comeback.
During the famous Cultural Revolution of 1966 through 1969, Mao organized the army and young students into the Red Guards. With their help, Mao began to reorganize the CCP. Soon there was no Chinese thought beyond the extent of Mao's thought. By this Mao hoped to create enthusiasm of the Chinese masses to work harder while enduring a quiet and uncomplicated life. This may be the only way for a poor and heavily populated country like China to afford rapid transition into an industrialized country.
By the time Mao was in his late seventies, his life's work was essentially done, although he retained power until the end. Physically weakened, suffering from a lifetime of effort and Parkinson's Disease (a brain disorder), Mao's ability to rule in new and innovative ways to meet the demands of China's modernization grew increasingly weak. One of his final major acts was to reopen contact with the United States.
On September 9, 1976, Mao died in Beijing, China. Mao was undoubtedly the key figure in China in the twentieth century and one of the century's most important movers and reformers. He had devoted his life to the advancement of a peasant class terrorized for centuries by those in power. However, in pursuit of his own goals, Mao himself could be a violent and overpowering ruler.
For More Information
Feigon, Lee. Mao: A Reinterpretation. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.
Garza, Hedda. Mao Zedong. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
[DECEMBER 26, 1893–SEPTEMBER 9, 1976]
Communist leader of People's Republic of China
Born in Shaoshan (Hunan), Mao Zedong was the son of a moderately wealthy peasant. After a checkered classical primary education and training at the Hunan Teacher's College, the young Mao gathered like-minded anarchists in his bookstore in Changsha. In 1921 he cofounded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After the collapse of the united front with the Nationalist Party in 1927, the two former allies fought a civil war until 1949. At its beginning the CCP found itself in rural areas trying to stem rapid decline. Forced from its largest base in Jiangxi in 1934, the party commenced its famous, yearlong Long March to Yan'an (Shaanxi), during which Mao rose to a preeminent leadership position. Only after continued internal struggle did Mao emerge in 1945 as the "chairman" of the CCP—a position he retained until his death in 1976 in Beijing. In 1949, after victory in the civil war, the CCP founded the People's Republic of China, with Mao serving as the chairman (or president) of the new country until 1959.
Given the merciless nature of political conflict in Republican China (1911–1949) and the extraordinary brutality of the Japanese occupation (1931–1945), it is no surprise that Mao concluded that a "revolution is not a dinner party" (Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, 1927). His astonishing disregard for individual human lives in later years, however, cannot be explained solely by the brutalizing experiences of his early career. Starting in the mid-1950s, Mao repeatedly affirmed his willingness to sacrifice up to a third of the Chinese population in a nuclear war so long as this would help bring about the downfall of world capitalism.
Mao's desire at Yan'an to cement his leadership of the CCP met opposition from two directions. First, pro-Soviet communists returned from Moscow to work for the Bolshevization of the party. Second, urban intellectuals who had been attracted by the utopia Yan'an seemed to promise in an otherwise corrupt China demanded greater freedoms once they recognized the repressive nature of the CCP regime. Benefiting from his disputed but, as it eventually turned out, correct decisions with regard to conduct of the civil war, Mao in the early 1940s pushed for a party purge, with the goal of installing his version of communism. A small number of dissidents were driven to commit suicide or killed. Although Mao in 1945 apologized publicly for the brutality of the campaign, it nevertheless set a precedent for future campaigns against dissidents, real or imagined.
The Korean War (1950–1953) against the "imperialist" United States provided the backdrop for class warfare against so-called capitalist elements, designed to rectify abuses tenant farmers and workers had endured in the past. Incomplete evidence from China's countryside suggests that it often served as a pretext for the continuation of local clan conflict by other means. According to Mao ("On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People," February 27, 1957), 800,000 counterrevolutionaries were killed (in 1952 China's population was 575 million).
In the wake of Nikita Khruschev's Secret Speech (February 1956), in which the Soviet leader charged his predecessor Joseph Stalin with criminal and arbitrary rule, and the resulting Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation (October 1956), Mao tried to preempt the outburst of pent-up dissatisfaction by allowing criticism under highly controlled conditions (the Hundred Flowers Campaign that occurred during the spring of 1957). Despite all the precautions taken to avoid this, party members and intellectuals called for greater freedoms. In the resulting antirightist campaigns in subsequent years, critics, including leaders of national minorities (particularly in Xinjiang and after 1959 also in Tibet), were persecuted, lost their positions, and were sent to reeducation camps. An unspecified, but probably large, number of victims died or suffered permanent damage to their health from forced labor, abuse, and malnutrition in the camps.
By far the greatest loss of life during Mao's regime stemmed from the deadly spring famines (1959–1961) of the Great Leap Forward. Unlike the Ukrainian famines in the early 1930s, which Stalin had planned to crush as anti-Russian nationalism, the famine of 1959 resulted from the misguided economic policies of the Great Leap Forward. However, once it became clear that the Great Leap Forward had not only failed to produce the promised economic miracles but also led to serious economic disruptions, Chairman Mao refused to change course because he feared a loss of face, if not his preeminent position. The acrimonious debates about economic reform in 1959 convinced Mao that alleged rightists in the party wanted to replace him. After crushing his supposed enemies, Mao relaunched the Great Leap Forward in late 1959; it collapsed on its own a year later. Due to lack of direct evidence, the number of famine victims can only be calculated on the basis of incomplete demographic data. Most historians agree that excess deaths (the difference between projected and actual demographic data) total at least 20 million (with more than two-thirds of these deaths occurring in 1960 alone); high estimates stand at 65 million (in 1957 China's population was 646 million).
Although still poorly understood, the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was, in many respects, Mao's most far-reaching attempt to rid China of his supposed opponents. Unlike Stalin, who remained in firm control of the Soviet party from the 1920s, Mao never had complete command over the CCP. Many of the campaigns from 1957 onward were attempts to increase his political control over the party. However, once Mao realized by the mid-1960s that his quest for undisputed leadership had been stymied, he turned to forces outside the CCP to attack what he considered a reticent party unwilling to implement his erratic policies. The Cultural Revolution was a mixture of party purge and class warfare, during which radicalized students persecuted, humiliated, tortured, and even murdered alleged rightists or counterrevolutionaries. The exact number of those who were killed, committed suicide, or died in camps is not known; nonetheless, it is clear that most of the victims came from the educated strata, had party backgrounds, or were from minorities.
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Lorenz M. Lüthi
Mao Zedong was born on December 26, 1893, in Shaoshan, Hunan Province, China, and died on September 9, 1976. Mao was the most influential leader and theorist of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and of the People's Republic of China (PRC).
In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Mao, while staying in Beijing, started to study Russian Bolshevik theories and methods in a search for better ways to save a weak and divided China. The unsatisfactory settlement after World War I in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles concerning the transfer of German possessions in China to Japan triggered the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement in China. This movement brought Mao closer to Marxism and Leninism.
Mao was one of the founders of the CCP, formed in July 1921. From 1924 to 1927, under the auspices of the United Front of the CCP and the Nationalist Party (Guomindang, GMD), Mao organized labor unions and peasant associations and participated in the Nationalist Revolution against warlords and foreign imperialists. Mao stressed the central role of peasants in rural class struggles. It remained the core of his belief that the semicolonial status of China—foreign meddling and mauling inside China, the resulting lack of industrial development and a strong urban proletariat class, the warlord government—meant that the Chinese revolution would have to take the form of poor peasants versus rich landlords in rural areas.
From 1927, when a breach between the CCP and GMD occurred, to 1934, Mao established rural bases in Jiangxi and Fujian provinces in southeast China, and engaged in guerrilla warfare to resist the superior GMD forces. From 1934 to 1935, the CCP Red Army was driven out of its rural soviets (CCP's armed territories/authorities in adoption of the name of the Soviet government) and forced to relocate to Yan'an, Shaanxi Province, in northwest China. The nearly 9,700-kilometer (6,000-mile) move became known as the "Long March."
In Yan'an, Mao consolidated his power and developed political, social, and economic models for the future China. After the eight-year war against Japan ended in 1945, civil war broke out between the CCP and the GMD, despite American attempts at mediation. The defeated GMD retreated to Taiwan, and the CCP's victory in the civil war led to the founding of the PRC in 1949, with Mao as its chairman.
In spite of constant friction in its relationship with the Soviet Union (USSR), which eventually resulted in an open split in the early 1960s, Mao chose to follow Russia's Stalinist system to implement socialism in the PRC—party supremacy in the government and the army, a state-planned economy with an emphasis on heavy industry, and agricultural collectivism. To achieve his goals, Mao initiated mass campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960, a disastrous social and economic movement that was intended to increase agricultural and industrial production through eradication of private land ownership, moral incentives, and mass labor) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976, a violent mass movement against the establishment, which brought about turmoil and enormous suffering to Chinese people).
Against the backdrop of the Cold War rivalry between the USSR and the United States, Mao's China, sympathetic to North Korea's pro-Moscow Pyongyang regime, went into the Korean War (1950–1953) in direct confrontation with the United States. In support of the GMD in Taiwan, the United States had adopted a non-recognition policy toward the PRC until the visit of American president Richard Nixon (1913–1994) to China in 1972 and the final normalization of Sino-American diplomatic relations in 1979.
From the early 1940s on, Mao's revolutionary ideology and methodology were labeled "Mao Zedong Thought." Central to Mao Zedong Thought is his application of Marxist and Leninist theories of world proletarian revolutions to the actual conditions of China. Mao's "Three Worlds" idea (1974) played an important role in forming alliances in world affairs among the third world countries of Africa, most of Asia, and Latin America.
As for Mao's legacy, some view him as an evil Chinese "Lord of Misrule," who was responsible for initiating tumultuous political, social, and economic changes that caused widespread suffering among millions of people. Some argue that Mao's contributions to the Chinese nation—the restoration of China's independence and sovereignty, the unification of China, and the construction of socialism—far exceed his errors. For ordinary Chinese, Mao remains an iconic figure, which attests that the Chinese have their own memories of their own past and their own leaders.
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