Mao Zedong (Wade-Giles: Mao Tse-tung, polite name: Rùnzhī 润芝, 26 December 1893 – 9 September 1976) was a Chinese soldier, politician and Marxist theorist who developed the doctrine known as Maoism. As Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao led the Communists to victory in the Chinese Civil War and on 1 October 1949 he established the People”s Republic of China, which he led sovereignly until his death.
Mao has been credited with unifying a previously fragmented China under a strong central government. He has also been credited with at least helping to expel Japanese invaders, and is regarded as a skilled guerrilla warfare leader and theorist. After the Communist takeover and the establishment of the People”s Republic, Mao”s legacy is more controversial, overshadowed by failed economic policies, persecution of dissidents and a personality cult of immense proportions.
Mao”s leadership style was characterised by the mobilisation of ordinary Chinese people for various reform programmes and mass movements. The most famous of these were the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The Great Leap Forward was intended to modernise and industrialise China rapidly, but unrealistic goals and poor planning led to an economic downturn and a nationwide famine that killed tens of millions of people. The aim of the Cultural Revolution was to reform Chinese political life and oust Mao”s rivals. The situation quickly spiralled out of control of the central government and the country descended into chaos. The last ten years of Mao”s rule were a volatile period marked by internal power struggles and political violence. Despite unrest and famine, China”s population grew from just over 500 million to nearly a billion during Mao”s rule. Education levels and life expectancy improved considerably, but the living standards of ordinary people remained poor, and by the time of Mao”s death a quarter of Chinese were still living in extreme poverty.
Opinions on Mao”s legacy are sharply divided. Officially, the People”s Republic of China honours Mao as the unifier and founder of the empire, but acknowledges his later mistakes. In remote areas, Mao is even worshipped as a god, although official China opposes this. In the West, Mao is often seen as a despot who relentlessly persecuted his opponents and advanced his political aims at great cost in human lives. Historians have put forward more subtle interpretations that take into account both Mao”s achievements and his failures. According to Lauri Paltemaa and Juha A. Vuori, important advances were made during Mao”s reign, but they would probably have been achieved even without the Communists.
Childhood and youth (1893-1911)
Mao was born in Shaoshan village in Hunan province. His father was a former small farmer who had become wealthy from grain trading and owned a relatively large amount of land. The family was not rich or famous, but it was nevertheless one of the wealthiest in Shaoshan. Mao grew up with his parents, two brothers and an adopted daughter. According to Mao, his father was harsh and often disciplined his children. Mao remembered his mother fondly. She was a devout Buddhist and a gentle character who wished her son to become a monk. However, Mao gave up religion as a teenager.
At the age of eight, Mao went to school in his village, where he was introduced to classical Chinese literature. He disliked his teacher, which instilled in him a lifelong contempt for intellectuals. The village community saw learning accounting as the only meaningful goal of education, and at 13 Mao quit school to work on his family”s farm. He continued to read widely and became interested in politics after reading Zheng Guanying”s pamphlet defending representative democracy and criticising China”s condescending state. The winter of 1906-1907 was cold, and famine and unrest broke out in Hunan. They spread to Shaoshan, where hungry peasants confiscated grain from Mao”s father. Mao did not approve of the crime, but was sympathetic to the plight of the poor.
In the winter of 1907-1908, Mao”s father arranged for his son to marry a local girl, Luo Yixiu, who was 18 years old and therefore four years older than her husband. The incident made Mao a fierce opponent of arranged marriages, and he ran away from home shortly after the wedding. The humiliated Luo stayed with Mao”s parents and was rumoured in Shaoshan to be Mao”s father”s concubine. Shunned by the village community, Luo died in 1910.
Immediately after his wife”s death, Mao continued his studies and moved to nearby Donghshan to attend the upper primary school. Despite his stinginess, Mao”s father wanted to see his son succeed and paid for his education. The other students were mostly the children of landowners and teased Mao for his vulgar appearance. The fact that Mao was four years older than the others, having dropped out of school occasionally, also caused adjustment problems. He studied in Dongshan for only a few months and in early 1911 he transferred to a secondary school in Changsha, the capital of Hunan.
Many biographers have tried to find clues in the young Mao”s activities that would explain his later reputation as a tyrant. However, these attempts have failed, and all the evidence suggests that Mao”s childhood was fairly ordinary for a Chinese man. According to historian Lee Feigon, Mao was ”a good-looking boy from a well-to-do country home”. Although Mao later claimed to have rebelled against his father, his education was carried out with the financial support of his family and the approval of his father. Despite occasional arguments, relations with the parents were apparently quite good and remained close even after Mao left home. Mao was different from many Chinese revolutionary leaders in that he was not an orphan.
Political activism (1911-1918)
Republican ideas were popular in Changsha, and it was there that Mao was first introduced to Western ideas. He was influenced by Chinese political reformers and revolutionaries such as Liang Qichao and Sun Yat-sen. He also admired warlords and heroes, ancient Chinese emperors, Napoleon Bonaparte and George Washington. Mao even prayed to the late emperor for protection for reformist Chinese politicians. As a symbolic gesture, he cut off the traditional hairpiece, which was seen as a sign of devotion to the Manchu rulers.
In October 1911, a rebellion broke out in the city of Wuchang against the Qing dynasty. Teaching was suspended in Changsha, and Mao, who admired the rebellion, enlisted in Sun Yat-sen”s revolutionary army. He was well paid, and some of his duties he had civilians do for him. Mao took no part in the war effort and spent his free time reading. After six months of service, he asked to be discharged from the army so that he could return to his studies. The Xinhai Revolution showed Mao the political influence of armed action. In the spring of 1912, the first Republic of China was established in place of the Empire.
Mao, who remained anonymous, studied at police school, law school, business school and history, among other subjects. The traditional civil service system had been abolished in 1905 and the reform of the education system to Western standards was still under way, making the future of young people aspiring to a civil service career uncertain. As a self-educated man, Mao was diligent. At the Changsha library, he read Chinese translations of Adam Smith”s Wealth of Nations, Montesquieu”s The Spirit of the Laws and other classics of liberalism, and studied the work of scientists and philosophers such as Charles Darwin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Young Mao”s thinking was individualistic, and in his old age he admitted that he considered himself an intellectual above physical drudgery and the working class. Mao”s father became frustrated with his son”s aimless life and stopped paying him alimony. The impoverished Mao was forced to move into a shelter for the destitute.
Mao dreamed of becoming a teacher and enrolled at Changsha Normal School, widely regarded as the best school in Hunan. He impressed his ethics teacher Yang Changji, who described his young protégé as exceptionally intelligent and handsome. Yang encouraged Mao to become acquainted with Chen Duxiu”s radical New Youth magazine. In April 1917, Mao published his first article in the magazine, urging intellectuals to prepare for the revolution through physical exercise. At school, Mao became politically active for the first time, organising a series of protests against strict school discipline and founding a student organisation called the People”s New Study Association. It was one of the most radical in China, and most members later joined the Chinese Communist Party. Formal studies focused on Chinese history, literature and philosophy, and Western thought. Mao was a good student and popular with his comrades. He read many books and newspapers and maintained an extensive correspondence. In the spring of 1917 he was elected head of the student ”volunteer army”. Its mission was to protect the school from marauding soldiers, but the unit never saw action.
Beijing, Shanghai and radicalism (1918-1920)
Mao graduated from school in the spring of 1918 and in October moved to Beijing, where his patron Yang Changji had got a job at the university. He did not get to be a student, but Yang arranged for his protégé to be a library assistant. The pay was poor and Mao had to share a room with seven other students. At the university, Mao was looked down upon by many because of his low class background and rustic manner of speaking. However, Mao praised the beauty and lively atmosphere of Beijing. Peking University was the centre of Chinese intellectuals, and it was there that Mao met future Communist Party founders Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao. The latter was his immediate superior as librarian.
A radical movement had begun to emerge among Chinese intellectuals since 1915, rejecting the ideals of Western liberalism and pinning its hopes on Marxism and Leninism. In the winter of 1918-1919, Mao became rapidly radicalised. He oscillated between different ideologies and became interested in Bolshevism, liberalism, utopian socialism and anarchism, which appealed to him for its individualism and anti-traditionalism. Mao was also influenced by traditional Chinese philosophy and nationalism. By 1919, his extensive writing and activism began to bring him a reputation among Chinese communists.
In May 1919, large-scale protests broke out in China against the handover of German colonies in China to Japan, demanding their return to China. Chen Duxiu initiated student demonstrations in Beijing, which Mao joined. He left Beijing in the spring of 1919 to accompany his friends who were going to France to Shanghai. In the summer, he set up various anti-Japanese organisations, whose members included students, merchants and workers, and became active in writing. His texts often contained positive references to the Russian Revolution and the Communist revolutionary movements. Mao wrote his texts in a vernacular language that ordinary Chinese could understand. Instead of Marxism, the ideas were inspired by Pyotr Kropotkin”s mutual aid. In December 1919, Mao organised a strike in Changsha, but was forced to return to Beijing for fear of the local warlord.
In 1919, Mao”s mother fell ill and died in October. Mao apparently did not visit his mother before her death but helped with the funeral arrangements and gave an emotional speech. At the turn of the year Mao was in Beijing, where he met the terminally ill Professor Yang. Both Mao”s biological father and Yang, who was his father figure, died in January 1920. In Beijing, Mao received newly translated Marxist printed works in Chinese, most notably the first part of the Communist Manifesto and Karl Kautsky”s Karl Marx”s Economic Doctrines. Mao may also have comforted Yang”s daughter Kaihui. From Beijing he moved to Shanghai, where he worked as a laundress and met Chen Duxiu. Under Chen”s influence, he adopted Marxist ideas and later referred to his years in Shanghai as some of the most important in his life.
Founding of the Communist Party (1920-1923)
In September 1920, Mao was appointed principal of the primary school attached to Changshan Normal School. The following month, he organised the Socialist Youth Organisation in the city. His salary was now quite good, and in late 1920 he married Yang Kaihu. The couple had three sons during the 1920s.
Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Shanghai in 1921, having become Marxists after the October Revolution. It is unclear whether Mao ever formally joined the party. In any case, he founded the Changshan branches of the party and its youth organisation, as well as a literary society that distributed revolutionary literature in Hunan. Mao was also involved for a time in the Hunan autonomy movement, hoping that a provincial constitution would promote civil liberties and facilitate revolutionary activity. Some communists accused Mao of being too Hunanist, and in the summer of 1923 he denied that he had ever advocated provincial autonomy.
In July 1921, Mao attended the CCP”s first party congress. Mao, who had settled in Changsha, became Party Secretary of Hunan. He encouraged local people to study and found an ally in the US-funded YMCA. The movement”s aim was to teach illiterate adults the most common 1,000 characters, but Mao modified the textbooks to include the Russian Revolution and the main tenets of communism. He also continued to participate in the labour movement and to organise strikes. In addition to the working class, Mao organised support from intellectuals, landowners, officers, merchants, leaders of criminal organisations and Christian priests. The movement was led by intellectuals and its success was based on the sympathy of the local elite. Mao proved to be a skilled politician, setting up schools, organising disciplined strikes, forging alliances with local power brokers and luring the secret societies to his side. But all this was done under the direction of the CCP and in accordance with its nationwide methods.
The Comintern recommended the CCP to form a provisional alliance with the “bourgeois democrats” so that the Chinese could fight together against the imperialists (Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom). The CCP was initially opposed to the idea, but in July 1922 it took a more positive stance. In his own words, Mao did not attend the party congress because he lost his address. In any case, he was in favour of cooperation with the nationalists. When the Communist Party formed an alliance with Sun Yat-Sen”s Kuomintang Party in 1923, Mao was one of the first Communists to join the party.
Member of the Kuomintang (1924-1927)
In early 1924, Mao and his family moved to Shanghai, where he served as head of the Kuomintang Executive Bureau. At the turn of the year, he returned to his home village of Shaoshan to rest, where locals protested after Western police shot dozens of Chinese in Shanghai. Witnessing the events made Mao realise the importance of the rural poor to a successful revolution. He would go on to try to channel spontaneous demonstrations by the rural population into organised political action under the communists.
Unpopular with the Hunan military leadership, Mao fled to the Kuomintang strongholds in Canton, where he became head of the party”s propaganda department and editor of the Political Weekly. Although Mao lived and worked in the city, his political interests were focused on the rural population. For example, Mao gave political instruction to small farmers. The training also included military exercises to build a cadre of communists. For the Kuomintang, Mao”s educational activities were unlikely to be of significant benefit. Nevertheless, many CCP members accused Mao of being too sympathetic to the Kuomintang. As a result of the stress caused by the disputes, Mao began to suffer from insomnia and other psychosomatic symptoms. The anxiety was treated with sedatives, which Mao later became addicted to.
In the summer of 1926, Chiang launched the so-called Northern Expedition, with the aim of overthrowing the conservative government in Beijing and unifying a fragmented China ruled by warlords. Mao returned to Hunan in November and began to familiarise himself with the peasant political movement. In early 1927, he predicted that a large-scale revolt by the rural poor was just around the corner and would lead to a rapid change of power. But this did not happen. With the military campaign, Chiang became the leader of China and the Kuomintang”s collaboration with the Communists came to an end. In Shanghai, the Communist-led trade unions took over the city before Chiang”s armies arrived. Chiang began to persecute the Communists, and in April 1927 he assassinated them in large numbers. Chiang did not include any communists in the government he set up in Nanking. As a result of the purges, the CCP virtually disappeared from the cities and its power in the countryside also weakened.
The beginning of the civil war (1927-1930)
In August 1927, the party placed four regiments of small farmers, miners and former Kuomintang soldiers under Mao”s command. The army attacked Changsha on 9 September, but losses were heavy and one of the regiments defected back to the KMT. After six days of fighting, Mao declared the attempt hopeless and ordered a withdrawal. He was briefly taken prisoner of war but escaped by hiding in the tall grass. In October, Mao led some 1 000 surviving supporters into the Jinggangshan mountains, where he persuaded local bandits to join the Communist army.
The Soviet consulate in Changsha was involved in the planning and management of the campaign. The retreat was, in the consulate”s estimation, a sign of “the most despicable treachery and cowardice”. Mao was expelled from both the CCP Central Committee and the Hunan Regional Committee as punishment for ”military opportunism”. He was also considered to have focused too much on rural affairs and to have treated ”poor landowners” too leniently. Ironically, on the same day, the Central Committee formalised some of Mao”s long-held policies. These included the establishment of workers” councils, the confiscation of all farmland and the condemnation of the Kuomintang. Mao only heard about the criticism months later and continued as if nothing had happened.
Almost immediately after settling on Jinggang Mountain, Mao met He Zizhen, the sister of his friend and a beautiful young woman. At first, He acted as Mao”s assistant and interpreter of the local dialect. In the spring of 1928, He came to live with Mao. The couple also arranged an informal marriage ceremony, although Mao was still basically married to Yang Kaihu. During their decade-long marriage, Mao and He had a total of six children, all but one of whom died as infants or had to be placed in the care of local families due to dangerous circumstances.
Mao declared the five mountain villages he ruled an autonomous state, even though the population in the area was smaller than the Communist army and had a negative attitude towards newcomers. Soviet rule was based on Mao”s own ideas and on the practices of the Cantonese commune, which the new leadership had read about in the newspapers. Land belonging to the rich was confiscated, and landowners were forced to retrain or be executed. Against the orders of the Central Committee, Mao prevented massacres and avoided major confrontations with enemy troops, which angered the Party by subordinating the Jinggangvuor to its tighter command. The Central Committee ordered a series of daring raids into southern Hunan. These resulted in heavy losses, and Jinggangshan changed hands repeatedly before Communist rule was re-established. Wandering in the countryside, Mao”s army encountered a Communist regiment commanded by Zhu Den. The divisions were merged and Zhu was appointed political commissar of the 4th Red Army. The 5th Red Army under Peng Dehui and the KMT regiment that had defected to the Communists also settled in Soviet territory. At their peak, Mao and Zhu had about 10,000 men under their command. It was difficult to grow enough food in the mountains, and during the winter of 1928-1929 the Communists faced starvation.
In January 1929, 2 800 communist men retreated southwards. Discipline collapsed and troops began looting civilians, undermining Mao”s authority. Both Moscow and the CCP”s Shanghai Central Committee were suspicious of Mao”s peasant army: the real revolution was still believed to begin in the industrial centres of the cities. Conversely, Mao was suspicious of Moscow”s guidance and saw China as the place from which the world revolution would start. In the Soviet Union, Mao and his ilk were accused of being too China-centric. When Moscow replaced the CCP leadership with Soviet-trained Bolsheviks, Mao criticised them for their inability to understand the Chinese situation. He became one of the most influential opponents of the new CCP leadership.
Jiangxi Soviet Republic (1930-1934)
In February 1930, Mao established a provincial Soviet government in the areas under his control in southwestern Jiangxi. In the summer of 1930, the Central Committee ordered the Red Army to seize several major cities in central and southern China, thus launching a nationwide, working-class revolution. The attempt resulted in heavy losses, and Mao, against orders, ordered the operation to be aborted and withdrew back to his strongholds in southern Jiangxi. The local warlord avenged the rebellion by beheading Yang Kaihu. Yang was given the opportunity to denounce his men”s actions, but he refused. Mao mourned his wife”s death for the rest of his life and wrote several poems in her memory. Zhu Den”s wife and Mao”s adopted sister Zejian was also murdered at the turn of the decade.
The Communists” difficulties led to internal conflicts and made Mao suspicious of the opposition. In addition, many Jiangxi residents and elite members had joined the party to further their own careers. Mao was accused of both dictatorial tactics and excessive moderation. Locals also disliked Mao”s guerrilla warfare tactics of luring the enemy into their territory and destroying them in a surprise attack, which caused suffering among the people of the council. In November 1930, Mao accused nearly 4 000 soldiers and officers of conspiracy. Attempts at mediation failed and about half of those arrested were executed. In December, an attempt was made to overthrow Mao, Zhu and Peng. In retaliation, troops loyal to Mao tortured and executed an estimated 2 000 to 3 000 opposition members. The purge escalated and became increasingly paranoid, and for a time the situation spiralled out of control of the CCP leadership. In any case, the majority of the Central Committee sided with Mao and Zhu.
The CCP Central Committee moved to Jiangxi, which it considered safe, and in November 1931 the Communists declared the areas under their control a Soviet Republic of China, with Mao appointed Chairman of the Council of People”s Commissars. The revolutionary movement began to rely more and more on the rural population and gradually sought to expand its rural base. In the cities, however, support for the Communists remained limited. The armed forces of the Jiangxi Soviet Republic numbered at best 200,000 men, and millions of people lived in the area under its control. For the time being, Chiang Kai-shek”s attacks were successfully repelled by conventional warfare, which meant a loss of prestige for Mao, who favoured guerrilla tactics. Military matters were decided mainly by Red Army officers, and in October 1932 Zhou Enlai was appointed commander-in-chief. Mao was relieved of his military duties, and in the final years of the Soviet Republic he remained largely a formal figurehead. In his role as Premier, he focused particularly on the economy, education and the empowerment of women.
Between 1931 and 1934 Mao suffered from severe malaria, and in the winter of 1932-1933 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In 1933, Mao was unable to work for some time because of his illness, suffered from depression and drank heavily, although he normally avoided alcohol.
The Long March (1934-1935)
Chiang Kai-shek launched a military campaign against the Soviet Republic, first to blockade and later to destroy the communist forces. In the first battles, the Red Army easily defeated the numerically superior but poorly motivated and trained enemy armies. In 1934, however, Chiang put his own troops in charge, forcing the Communists to abandon their stronghold in Jiangxi.
The Red Army decided to evacuate its troops to the north-west of China. The retreat, which lasted about a year and covered a distance of 5 000 to 10 000 kilometres, became known as the Long March. In October 1934, some 85 000 soldiers and 15 000 party cadres and officials left Jiangxi. They were met by some 700 000 soldiers loyal to Chiang. Mao wanted the troops to head north to fight the Japanese. The anti-Japanese struggle appealed to him for both patriotic and propaganda reasons. At the start of the march, Mao”s power was still limited, with Zhu De as military commander, Zhou Enlai as political commissar and Otto Braun as war expert. Braun wanted the Communists to fight their way through the KMT lines so that the army could unite with other Communist forces. Mao, on the other hand, favoured a long detour through difficult and sparsely populated areas. The latter strategy proved more successful. In addition, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin backed Mao, whose political views were closest to those of the Chinese Communist leaders. In January 1935 Mao was appointed a member of the Standing Committee and in March he was appointed Political Commissar of the Red Army.
During the march, the communists fought numerous battles against the Kuomintang, Muslim cavalry and local warlords. Hunger, disease and desertion also reduced the number of communists. In Sichuan, Mao”s army was briefly united with Zhang Guotao”s 50 000-strong force. However, Mao and Zhang disagreed on the route of retreat, and Mao continued north without Zhang. He arrived in Shaanxi Province in October 1935, by which time his forces had dwindled to between 7,000 and 8,000 men. By the end of 1936, the armies of Zhu and other Communist leaders also arrived in Shaanxi, bringing the Red Army”s strength to 30,000 men.
From the point of view of conventional warfare, the long march was a disaster for the Chinese Red Army. But despite heavy losses, it became a symbol of the Communists” determination and will to fight. The heroic story inspired many young Chinese to join the CCP. The Long March gave Mao command of the Chinese Red Army, which he used to gain political influence. By the summer of 1935 he was the de facto leader of the CCP, although he did not yet hold the formal post of Chairman.
Mao”s wife He, who was pregnant for much of the march and one of the few women to survive the long march, was on the march. During the second half of the march, He was wounded in the head by shrapnel, and at the end of the march she travelled to Moscow for treatment.
In December 1936, Mao settled in Yan”an, which became the centre of the Chinese Communists for the next few years. The Yan”an period is considered to have ended either in 1945 and the end of World War II, or in 1947, when the CCP and the Kuomintang fought a decisive battle for Chinese supremacy. After the CCP”s victory, the era was romanticised as a symbol of brotherhood, equality and determination among communists. Mao himself looked back on the period with nostalgia, and the desire to return to Yan”an”s modest but communal way of life was a major influence on his later political decisions.
The Common Front against Japan (1935-1945)
In August 1935, the Comintern decreed that communists should strive to form popular fronts against fascism. From May 1936, the Chinese Communist Party also sought to approach Chiang. In December 1936, Chiang was kidnapped by a group of nationalist officers and pressured to end the civil war. The officers who carried out the incident came from Japanese-occupied northeast China and wanted to concentrate all forces against an external enemy. The CCP and the Kuomintang began to negotiate a united anti-Japanese front and reached agreement on the main points relatively quickly. Japan invaded China in the summer of 1937, and in September the Kuomintang and CCP agreed on a formal alliance. In his propaganda, Mao insulted Chiang as a traitor, but realised that the Red Army alone would be no match for Japan.
Around the same time, Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley and other Western journalists arrived in the communist-controlled region. Their writings brought Mao and his movement international visibility. According to Snow, Mao”s character was a meeting of profound intelligence and rustic intrigue. Although the cult of Mao had not yet developed, Snow noted Mao”s “deep-rooted sense of self-respect” and his capacity for “ruthless decision-making”. Smedley initially had a negative view of Mao, describing him as an ”aesthete”. Later, however, he found a human warmth and earthiness beneath the reserved exterior. Kuomintang allowed foreign journalists into Communist territory more easily than Chinese ones. That is why many Chinese heard of Mao”s ideas through the grapevine when Western literature was translated into Chinese.
Between 1936 and 1940, Mao concentrated for the first time since the 1920s on political theory. He studied Soviet philosophy and developed his own interpretation of Marxism. He also wrote on guerrilla and revolutionary war theory. Mao welcomed cooperation between the CCP and the Kuomintang and believed that the common front should not be broken up by premature demands for a transition to socialism. This led to accusations of Kuomintang blandishments from more purist Communists, and the internal power struggle continued between Wang Ming, who represented the Moscow line, and Zhang Guotao, who opposed Mao”s leadership.
In October 1938, Mao presented for the first time the idea of a Chinese interpretation of Marxism, based on the social and cultural characteristics of China. Between 1942 and 1943, he launched a political campaign to teach the basics of Marxism and Leninism to new members who had joined the CCP during the war. The campaign also included a political purge aimed at freeing the Chinese Communist Party from Soviet control. In March 1943, Mao was appointed General Secretary and Politburo chief, making him the formal head of the CCP for the first time.
Mao”s life in Yan”an was quite spartan. In his spare time, he grew tomatoes and tried his hand at tobacco processing. In 1939, Mao divorced He Zizhen and married Jiang Qing, a popular actress and communist activist. The rejection of the veteran revolutionary caused much resentment.
During the years of the Sino-Japanese war, the CCP changed its rhetoric in a nationalist and anti-Japanese direction and began to build a grassroots base. By the end of the war in 1945, the Chinese Red Army had grown to between 500,000 and 1,000,000 men, with up to 90 million people living under its control.
Communist victory (1945-1949)
With Japan”s surrender, the united front collapsed and the Chinese civil war continued. War weariness and incompetent administration ate into the Kuomintang”s popularity, while the Communists were stronger than ever. Stalin was torn between the CCP and the Kuomintang. He had supported the idea of a Kuomintang-backed revolution as early as the 1920s. Stalin was sceptical about the CCP”s chances of winning the civil war and regarded Mao as an unreliable subject who was more of a Chinese nationalist than a true communist. In turn, Mao was also suspicious of Soviet influence.
The Soviet Union withdrew from the territories it had conquered from Japan in 1946, setting off a race between the Communists and the Kuomintang. Northern Manchuria fell to the Communists, who nevertheless suffered military defeats at the beginning of the war. Attempts to broker a negotiated peace failed, and both the United States and the Soviet Union withdrew from China during 1947. The Communists then rapidly consolidated their position and by the summer of 1948 their advantage was undisputed. The party leadership was divided over whether the Kuomintang should be completely destroyed or whether the powerful CCP should ally with the left wing of the KMT. Stalin took the latter position. In addition, some communists feared US intervention and even a nuclear attack if the Kuomintang were completely destroyed. However, Mao was defiant of both the Soviet and US threats and ordered General Lin Biao to defeat the Kuomintang forces in Manchuria. In 1949, the Communists conquered the rest of mainland China. The Chiang government fled to the island of Taiwan and, backed by the US, still considered itself to represent all of China.
Already in the spring of 1949, Mao announced that the Chinese revolution had exceptionally come from the countryside to the cities, but that from now on the most important role would be played by the cities and industry. In September, he made a famous speech in which he declared that “the Chinese people have risen to their feet”. Mao declared the People”s Republic of China established on 1 October 1949. A crowd of some 300,000 people had gathered at the Tiananmen Gate. Mao became President of the Central People”s Government, a post equivalent to that of President.
The first years of the People”s Republic (1949-1952)
The first objective of the People”s Republic was to extend its power throughout the country and stabilise conditions. However, the last Kuomintang troops did not surrender until 1954. The Chinese Communist Party had no experience of running an entire state, so the economic and political life of the People”s Republic was organised along the lines of the Soviet centralised model.
In December 1949, Mao travelled to the Soviet Union to try to reach an agreement with Stalin. The visit began with the celebration of Stalin”s 70th birthday, and Mao took pride of place next to his host. In private, Stalin treated Mao with excessive courtesy, and there was even speculation in the West that he was under house arrest – in his own words, Mao mostly ate, slept and went to the toilet at the beginning of the visit. With the rumours, Stalin finally began to negotiate seriously. At the end of the two-month visit, China and the Soviet Union signed a cooperation agreement, and Stalin agreed to give China economic aid. The Soviet Union also began boycotting the United Nations Security Council in protest at the fact that China”s membership of the UN was still held by the Chiang government. The treaty was formally an equitable one, but behind the scenes Mao had to make a number of concessions to Stalin.
The most important of the reforms implemented by the communists at the turn of the decade was the largest land reform in world history, in which the farmland of large landowners and monasteries was distributed to small farmers and the landless population. From the point of view of the individual farmer, the increase was not very large, but it was enough to lift millions of Chinese out of poverty. In many places the redistribution was carried out by the threat of violence, and by 1952 the land reform had claimed an estimated 2-5 million lives. Mao was personally involved in planning the ”campaign to suppress the counter-revolutionaries”. As part of the campaign, quotas were set for the number of people to be executed. Mao defended the destruction of political enemies as an inevitable and necessary by-product of mass campaigns.
Alongside land reform, a key objective was to stabilise economic conditions and end hyperinflation. The communists also tackled rampant prostitution and drug use. Power was initially decentralised to several parties, and economic policy resembled a mixed economy. Pragmatic economics and the control of rampant corruption during the Kuomintang period made the CCP”s rule quite popular. However, the methods were brutal. According to Mao, those guilty of minor offences were to be criticised, which in practice meant public humiliation; they were to change their behaviour or be sent to labour camps. Serious offenders were to be shot. In the summer of 1952 Mao announced that the bourgeoisie was no longer an ally of the proletariat but the main enemy of the class struggle. In principle, he forbade the killing of cadres, but in practice he allowed them to be pressured to commit suicide.
Korean War (1950-1953)
The Soviet-backed Democratic People”s Republic of Korea (“North Korea”) invaded the Republic of Korea, which controlled the southern part of the Korean peninsula, in June 1950. The United Nations condemned the invasion, and the United States in particular sent large numbers of troops to Korea. As UN troops approached the Sino-Korean border, Kim Il-sung requested military assistance from Mao. Mao was initially of two minds and asked the Soviet Union for equipment and help in protecting Chinese airspace, to which Stalin agreed. From October 1950 onwards, Chinese troops were actively engaged in the war in Korea. Inspired by the initial success, Mao began to call for the conquest of all of Korea and the expulsion of US forces from the peninsula.
From the summer of 1951 onwards, the war became a stalemate and both sides ceased to pursue the conquest of the entire peninsula. However, the conflict continued for another two years. In total, millions of Chinese soldiers served in Korea, with casualties reaching up to a million men. Mao lost his son Anying in the war, who was buried in Pyongyang. Despite its inconclusiveness, the war raised Mao”s prestige and Stalin”s doubts about his Chinese nationalist tendencies were allayed. The war united the Chinese against an external enemy and made Mao a hero in the fight against colonialism, especially in the former colonies.
Five-year plan and the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1953-1957)
Mao and Liu Shaoqi decided in 1950 that the transition to socialism would start in the cities. Agriculture would be collectivised only when domestic industry could produce the machinery needed. The first five-year plan was drawn up with the help of Soviet experts and its implementation began in 1953. Between 1953 and 1954, political power was centralised in the Communist Party and economic policy became centralised. Despite the problems of the planned economy, the first Five-Year Plan was completed a year ahead of schedule: economic growth averaged 8.9% a year, industry modernised rapidly and, for the first time in Chinese history, more than half of all children went to primary school. Food production, on the other hand, grew much more slowly than expected.
In February 1956, the new leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, condemned the crimes of the Stalin era. In China, too, the openness movement had already begun, and in April Mao declared that he would “give hundreds of flowers”. The aim was to prevent a Stalinist-style political development where dissent was discouraged and dissidents were persecuted. Some Communist Party leaders were suspicious of the idea, since in Poland and Hungary the dismantling of Stalinism had led to anti-Soviet riots. Mao believed that Chinese opinion would be mainly favourable to the Communist Party, but in practice China was plunged into internal unrest and the CCP”s exclusivity was questioned. Mao felt betrayed and began to persecute intellectuals. Critics were dismissed from their jobs and imprisoned or sent to remote areas to work in the countryside.
According to more critical assessments, the Hundred Flowers Campaign was from the start a cynical ploy by Mao to draw out dissidents and opponents of his regime. A third interpretation is that it was a personal project of Mao”s, which was never accepted by the bulk of the Communist Party leadership, and that the subsequent anti-right-wing campaign was a concession by Mao to them.
In 1955, Mao changed his earlier position and announced that social reform should precede technological reform. Instead of Soviet-style centralised plans, he began to mobilise the population in various campaigns, and it was decided to nationalise agriculture at a rapid pace. The collective decision-making of the party leadership began to be replaced by Mao”s arbitrary leadership, and sceptics were denounced as ”old hags with their feet tied behind their backs”. Agriculture was organised as cooperatives between 1955 and 1956, and as state-owned collectives between 1956 and 1957. In the winter of 1957-1958, Mao planned a major reform campaign that became known as the Great Leap Forward.
The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962)
After the failure of the Hundred Flowers campaign, Mao”s projects relied above all on ordinary Chinese people. In May 1958, the official implementation of the Great Leap Forward began. The aim was the rapid industrialisation of China by exploiting the country”s vast demographic resources. Instead of investing in machinery and capital, the emphasis was on mobilising large numbers of people, so that China would not have to spend time gradually accumulating capital and buying industrial equipment. The rural population was organised into large communes, and ideological purity was put before expertise.
The targets were unrealistic from the start. Commune leaders lacked both the resources and the skills to manage large collective farms, and the workers were starved by the excessive workload. The peasantry was transferred to unproductive small-scale industry, so that part of the harvest rotted in the fields. The economy collapsed and millions of Chinese starved to death. Officially, natural disasters were blamed for what happened, but they did have some effect. In addition, China had to repay large loans to the Soviet Union. They had until 1976, but Mao wanted to pay off the debts by 1962.
The ultimate goal of the Great Leap Forward was a “technological revolution”. Mao personally, on the other hand, feared that technology would corrupt people and longed for a return to the supposed equality and purity of the Yan”an era. In the winter of 1958-1959, Mao agreed to backtrack on some of the goals of the Great Leap Forward: huge communes were decentralised and unrealistic industrial production quotas were lowered. However, Mao did not abandon the Great Leap Forward ideal, nor did he tolerate criticism of his policies. The disaster was kept secret from the outside world and few international offers of aid were rejected.
According to Mao”s personal physician Li Zhisu, Mao was hardly aware of the scale of the disaster. Failures were punished and the Chinese were reluctant to criticise the dictator, which led to the falsification of production figures and the concealment of problems. Mao was aware that the reports he received did not reflect reality, but refused to believe the extent of the food shortages and claimed that the peasants were hiding grain. In the autumn of 1958, Mao toured the backyard fields of a commune in Hebei and declared, “This is why we fought for decades to feed the people.” By 1961, the assessment had changed: “Who would have known that there were so many counter-revolutionaries in the countryside?” After hearing about the famine, Mao announced that he would stop eating meat, and his subordinates followed suit.
In April 1959, Mao resigned as President of China, but retained his position as CCP Chairman. At the same time, Mao moved from day-to-day politics to big-picture planning. Liu Shaoqi, a more moderate leader, became the new head of state, and power also passed to Deng Xiaoping. In the summer of 1959, at a meeting of the CCP Central Committee, Defence Minister Peng Dehuai condemned the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the economic destruction it had caused. Peng was dismissed from all party and state posts and placed under house arrest. Privately, however, many party leaders shared Peng”s views, leading to a split in the party. farmland was returned to private ownership and experts were again consulted in decision-making. In January 1961, Mao acknowledged some of the mistakes of his economic policies and stated that the transition to socialism would take at least 50 years.
In January 1962, the CCP held a major meeting in Beijing, where Liu Shaoqi identified the cause of the famine as the Great Leap Forward. An overwhelming majority of delegates agreed, but Defence Minister Lin Biao sided with Mao. Mao was not criticised by name, but he was aware of public opinion and made a self-criticism in front of 7 000 party cadres – the first time since the founding of the People”s Republic. A more liberal period followed, with increased food production and the rehabilitation of millions of Chinese.
Foreign policy and UN membership (1949-1976)
In the early years of Mao”s rule, China”s foreign policy followed the Soviet Union. After the end of the Korean War, however, the Chinese began to recognise the uncertainty of Soviet military aid and the dangers of US military power. Foreign policy became more peaceful, and in 1954 China adopted a conciliatory position at the Geneva Conference. In the same year, Zhou Enlai became premier and his foreign policy became one of peaceful coexistence. From 1957, China”s foreign policy was again militant and defiant. Mao”s motives were thought to have been the US policy of détente and support for anti-communist governments, and unsuccessful attempts to win allies in the Third World. On the other hand, the Soviet Union”s leadership of the space race and its extensive assistance to China”s nuclear weapons programme helped to convince Mao of communism”s ability to challenge capitalism on a global scale.
Mao”s China was also involved in wars in its neighbourhood outside Korea. Tibet was “liberated” in 1950-1951 and annexed to the People”s Republic as an autonomous region. In the Vietnam War, Mao supported the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and sent arms and personnel to support it.
Relations between China and the Soviet Union deteriorated between 1955 and 1957, when Nikita Khrushchev initiated destalinisation. Mao saw this trend as dangerous because he believed it would lead to a decline in Soviet prestige. Mao was irritated by Khrushchev”s criticism of absolute autocracy and did not share the Soviet leadership”s belief in peaceful coexistence. Khrushchev, for his part, was shocked by Mao”s dismissive attitude to the risks of nuclear war. This distrust was reinforced by Khrushchev”s derision of the Great Leap Forward and its failures. In 1960, the Soviet Union cut off economic aid to China, exacerbating the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward. Khrushchev also put pressure on China in foreign policy. By 1963, the Sino-Soviet standoff was public: famously, Mao denounced the Soviet leadership as a ”revisionist renegade”. The standoff was a serious blow to China, whose industrial and technological development had benefited greatly from Soviet assistance. In 1969, the conflict between the People”s Republic and the Soviet Union escalated into an undeclared border war.
Under Zhou”s leadership, China made its first attempts at rapprochement with the United States as early as the mid-1950s. With the Sino-Soviet border conflict, the United States began diplomatic explorations, and in 1971 Mao invited an American table tennis team to visit. Despite its small scale, ”ping pong diplomacy” was a major turning point in China”s foreign relations. In April 1972, US President Richard Nixon made a highly publicised state visit to China, after which relations between China and the United States gradually began to normalise.
China”s membership of the UN was transferred from the Chiang government to the People”s Republic in 1971. At the same time, Mao”s China gained a permanent seat on the Security Council. The Soviet Union had advocated the transfer of China”s UN membership to the People”s Republic as early as the 1950s and remained so, although it no longer actively pursued the issue. Despite the warming of relations, the United States voted against the change.
On the sidelines (1962-1965)
After a great leap forward, the opposition to the party was an unbearable experience for Mao. He began to increasingly support the People”s Liberation Army, which he saw as committed to his way of thinking, and found a political ally in Lin Biao. Mao also condemned the emergence of a new ”bourgeoisie”: in both the Soviet Union and China, he believed, a new elite of bureaucrats, experts and artists had taken power. To destroy it would require a violent class struggle that would continue even in a socialist society. In September 1962, Mao reminded the Central Committee of the importance of class struggle.
Although Mao withdrew from the day-to-day decision-making of the party, the change was not directly reflected in the daily lives of ordinary Chinese people. On the contrary, Mao”s personality cult reached unprecedented heights in the early 1960s. At the same time, his character became increasingly suspicious. Between 1962 and 1965, Mao rallied support from the military and the countryside. In 1964, Mao offered to resign from the presidency in favour of Liu, but Liu shunned the offer. This may have been a tactic rather than a genuine desire to retire. The men fell out at the end of the year when Liu objected to Mao”s plans to purge the ”capitalists” who had infiltrated the party leadership.
The Great Cultural Revolution of the Poor (1966-1969)
The great pro-poor cultural revolution was launched in the artistic and cultural circles in late 1965. It expanded into a nationwide campaign the following spring. In June 1966, Mao swam in the powerful current of the Yangtze River, which was spectacularly reported in China and abroad. For Mao”s supporters, the incident sent a message that he was fit and ready for battle.
As the Cultural Revolution progressed, the Red Guards began to quarrel among themselves and became involved in armed confrontations. Political power passed to the most radical Maoists, such as Mao”s wife Jiang Qing. With Lin Biao”s support, Mao”s personality cult spread everywhere and elevated the Chairman to godlike status. Political rhetoric was the main criterion for decision-making, and foreign influences were condemned as counter-revolutionary. Much of China”s cultural heritage was destroyed in various purges. At least hundreds of thousands of Chinese died in the violence, and in 1967 the country came close to civil war. The Cultural Revolution marked Mao”s final departure from the example of Stalin and the Soviet Union. According to Lee Feigon, this also had positive consequences, as the Party”s stiflingly heavy bureaucracy was greatly reduced and lightened, and a new emphasis on the initiative of the common people contributed to China”s subsequent reform and opening up.
The Cultural Revolution also had an impact in the West, where far-left student movements took inspiration from it. In 1968, Mao received several telegrams from European student radicals.
By 1968, Mao had become disillusioned with the Red Guards” cronyism and ordered the army to calm the situation. Mao was also alarmed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Millions of urban youths were sent to live in the countryside, which went some way to calming the cities. The Cultural Revolution was declared over in 1969. According to the official definition adopted by the Chinese Communist Party in 1981, it ended only with Mao”s death and the arrest of the so-called Four Cops in 1976.
Armed Forces Purge and the Four Huts (1969-1976)
The Cultural Revolution elevated Mao as the undisputed leader of China, and from 1969 onwards he focused on stabilising a society purged of rivals. The terror continued, but became centralised. At the turn of the decade, China was ruled by a triumvirate of Mao, Premier Zhou Enlai and Defence Minister Lin Biao. In April 1969, Lin was formally appointed Mao”s successor. However, Mao soon began to distrust Lin and the army, which was emerging as the new centre of political power. Part of the party leadership sided with Lin, and as a result the Chinese leadership was divided into conflicting factions. Fearing a new purge, Lin, together with other senior officers, began to plan a coup. In September 1971, he died in unclear circumstances. In the weeks that followed, most of China”s top officers were ousted or executed.
With Lin”s death and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the cult of Mao lost its credibility. Between 1971 and 1973, Zhou tried to calm the situation and pursue a more pragmatic policy that would still preserve the ideals of the Cultural Revolution. The education system was normalised and leaders ousted in purges were returned to decision-making positions. Mao accepted the reforms in principle but was suspicious of criticism of the Cultural Revolution. As he grew older, his character became more uncompromising and self-centred, and he no longer tolerated criticism of his actions.
Mao”s traditionally good general health deteriorated in the last years of his life. These problems were exacerbated by heavy smoking and Mao”s distrust of doctors. Between 1970 and 1971 he was hospitalised for heart problems and respiratory infections, and in 1972 he was diagnosed with a terminal tumour. Mao and Zhou rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, who began to be groomed as Mao”s successor. The return to power of the moderate Deng alarmed the more radical factions. Between 1973 and 1976, Chinese political life was marked by a power struggle between the left-wing led by Jiang Qing and Zhou and Deng of the right-wing wing of the CCP. Jiang demanded ideological purity, constant class struggle and a policy of isolationism. Zhou and Deng, on the other hand, sought more stability, economic growth and foreign policy realism.
In July 1974, Mao took a more moderate line and declared that eight years of cultural revolution was enough. The aim was to leave the economy and administration to the right wing of the party and education and culture to the left wing. He called the most prominent supporters of the left wing the ”four gangs”. For a time Mao considered Wang Hong-wen as his successor, but he fell out of favour after he too clearly aligned himself with Jiang Qing. Chiang Kai-shek died in April 1975. Mao held a private, day-long mourning period in memory of his late arch-enemy.
In the autumn of 1975, the Four Cops convinced Mao that Deng”s victory would mean the end of the Cultural Revolution and the denunciation of Maoist policies. Zhou, who had been ill for a long time, died in January 1976, and Deng was sidelined with Mao”s support in April that year. Mao also launched a propaganda campaign critical of the moderate tendency. Although the Four Cops were later accused of excesses in the 1970s, Mao remained the true leader of China.
In 1974, Mao was diagnosed with ALS, which caused muscle weakness and made it difficult to speak. Doctors kept the diagnosis secret from both Mao and ordinary Chinese people. From the end of June 1976, Mao spent most of the time semi-conscious and occasionally in a coma. He was no longer able to lead his country and only heard about important decisions afterwards. Despite widespread speculation, however, Mao did not suffer from Alzheimer”s disease or senile dementia, but remained sharp-witted to the end.
Mao died of a heart attack in September 1976. He was deaf, speechless, paralysed, almost blind and unable to swallow. The revolutionary leaders had agreed in their youth that their graves would not be made into pilgrimage sites. However, with the Cultural Revolution, Mao”s reputation had grown to such an extent that it was politically impossible to honour the agreement. His body was embalmed and taken to a mausoleum in Beijing, now a popular tourist attraction. A televised rally was held in Beijing, where around one million Chinese people expressed their grief.
On his deathbed, Mao cited winning the civil war and the Cultural Revolution as his greatest achievements. By then, the majority of both ordinary Chinese and party activists had lost faith in the revolution and were content to feign enthusiasm when necessary. The death of the President was met with mostly indifference, and the expressions of grief were neither particularly spontaneous nor genuine. The summer of 1976 saw not only social unrest in China but also a devastating earthquake and other natural phenomena which were interpreted by superstitious Chinese as signs of the end of the Mandate of Heaven and Mao”s ”dynasty”.
After his illness, Mao appointed Hua Guofeng as his successor, who in the last months of his life exercised real power. Without Mao”s authority, the leadership of the Communist Party fell into infighting and factionalism. Soon after Mao”s death, more moderate leaders ousted the four cabals, marking the end of the Cultural Revolution and a gradual calming of conditions. Hua avoided criticism of his predecessor and radical reforms but did not succeed in the power struggle within the party. Deng Xiaoping was rehabilitated in the spring of 1977, and over time he emerged as the undisputed leader of China. Maoist doctrines were abandoned and structures were dismantled.
The trend of Marxism and Leninism developed by Mao is called Maoism. Instead of a direct imitation of the Soviet Union, it seeks a “Chineseised Marxism”. The Maoist ideal society is built on cellular, largely self-sufficient and autonomous communes. Under Leninism, party and state are inextricably intertwined, and power remains with the party in all situations. However, the party cadres must be in close and equal relationship with the masses. Another basic idea of Maoism is armed revolution, which relies on the small farmers and other rural poor instead of the urban population. Other key theses are anti-intellectualism, anti-bureaucracy, equality and the mobilisation of large crowds for an anti-elitist class struggle that will continue even after the Communist Party comes to power. The class struggle will also require violence to force the oppressive class to give way to the collective decision-making of the common people.
Mao”s distinctive political thinking developed in stages, and its emergence must be seen in the context of early 20th century China. The country was internally divided and occupied by colonial powers. Society was unequal and the position of the rural poor was poor. Violent unrest and rebellions were common, and public humiliation and execution of criminals were common practices. As many as a tenth of Chinese were unemployed, living in poverty and hostile to the landowning class, to which Mao”s family belonged. Even in times of peace and good harvests, millions of people died of starvation every year.
Despite the hostilities, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomingtang had many similarities. Both sought internal unity and modernisation, as well as international reverence. Their ideologies included political and economic centralism, party-state and democratic centralism, as well as Leninism. However, the Communists had a much more brutal toolbox than the Kuomintang. Whereas the Kuomintang advocated democracy, nationalism and socialism, the CCP”s ultimate goal was a communist society and political control of cultural life and science.
Mao”s thoughts were immortalised in a collection of quotations known as the “Little Red Book” (Extracts from the works of Chairman Mao Zedong). It was published in May 1964 and was originally written for the ideological education of military personnel. It was translated into dozens of languages and is estimated to have been printed in some 800 million copies, making it the most widely circulated book in history after the Bible and the Koran.
Mao”s leadership style was characterised by bypassing the middle ground and directing messages directly to the grassroots.source more details? He also spent a lot of time in the field getting to know the daily lives of ordinary Chinese people. Between 1949 and 1976, Mao spent nearly nine years on such trips. Often, however, Mao was told only what he thought he wanted to hear. In private, Mao could express harsh and violent views or dream of unrealistic achievements. He did not necessarily mean them to be taken literally, but in practice, lower-level decision-makers still tried to implement them.
Another special sphere of Mao”s reign was mass campaigns, which sought to promote the economy as well as political goals. The aim of the campaigns was to create a new revolutionary man and to unleash the potential of the masses, which had previously been shackled by capitalism. The Maoist mass movements emphasised equality and elevated the rural poor to the virtue of being commoners. Instead of hierarchical rule and technocratic expertise, Mao sought to reform China through the collective will and enthusiasm of the people. At the same time, he rejected the traditional doctrines of economics and management.
Mao could change the direction of his policies abruptly: things could be done ”slowly and badly or quickly and well”. In the face of opposition, he often made a tactical retreat from his positions and objectives. He later resumed a similar policy, but in a more radical form. Mao generally did not take responsibility for failures, but played down the problems and blamed them on the minority that was pushing against him.
Mao famously considered that “political power comes from the barrel of a rifle”. As a military leader, he was a proponent of guerrilla warfare and was influenced by Sun Tzu. Mao developed many of his war doctrines with the help of Zhu Den. In 1928, he instructed his troops fighting the Kuomintang: “When the enemy advances, we retreat. When the enemy rests, we distract him. When the enemy avoids fighting, we attack. When the enemy retreats, we advance.”
In foreign policy, Mao favoured bilateral relations. Foreign policy was isolationist but pragmatic. The rhetoric opposed imperialism and supported colonial independence. In speech, Mao supported Maoist revolutionary movements abroad, but in practice he was prepared to reject them if the leadership agreed to recognise the People”s Republic of China and support its membership of the United Nations.
“There are two kinds of personality cults. The first is a healthy cult of personality, directed at men like Marx, Engels, Lenin or Stalin, who had the truth. The second is false personality worship, which is not deliberate and is blind worship.” (Mao at a CCP meeting in 1958.)
The big story of the Chinese Communist Party was the liberation of the Chinese people from the tyranny of the Kuomintang. After the establishment of the People”s Republic, the heroic story became personified by the party leader Mao, whose opinions came to be identified with the truth. Praising Mao also proved to be an effective way of promoting one”s own political career. Lin Biao, the Minister of Defence, excelled in this activity. Mao”s own attitude to the phenomenon was ambivalent, both praising the usefulness of personality cults and warning of the dangers of blind personality worship. Ultimately, however, the Mao cult was the creation of Mao himself and no one else.
Mao appeared frequently in Chinese propaganda posters from the 1940s onwards. The cult of personality became a powerful tool that Mao used to defeat his enemies and consolidate his own power. After the disastrous outcome of the Great Leap Forward, Mao was forced to share power in the early 1960s and his utopian visions were met with more intense criticism than before. Mao began to seek to regain power by exploiting the military, which under Lin Biao was transformed into the ”Great School of Mao Zedong Thought”. The cult of personality was built with Mao”s approval and for his political ends. It reached its peak during the early stages of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when worship reached religious proportions. The image of Mao was ubiquitous, with godlike characteristics: the dictator was presented as a benevolent, paternal figure who shone a light among ordinary Chinese people.
Staff worship was ritualised by the practice of “asking Mao for instructions in the morning, thanking him for his kindness at noon and telling him about the day in the evening”. The ritual included a triple bow, the singing of the national anthem and the reading of the Little Red Book in front of Mao”s image or statue, and the ceremony concluded with a wish of ”ten thousand years of life” to the ruler. After Lin”s death in 1971, personality worship lost its credibility and Mao”s public image was increasingly tarnished by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. The most religious aspects of the Mao cult were pruned away, and model citizens such as Lei Feng and Chen Yonggui began to replace Mao”s figure in propaganda posters. Lin Biao was blamed for the most grotesque aspects of the cult.
The ideological imagery of emphasis largely disappeared from Chinese propaganda in the 1980s, replaced by the glorification of economic prosperity and conventional product advertising. However, with the centenary of Mao”s birth (1993), the god-like figure of Mao made a comeback in Chinese popular culture and, to some extent, in official imagery. The cult of Mao is still strong, especially in rural areas, where some people are nostalgic for the days of communes and collective farms. Despite the opposition of the current Chinese leadership, Mao is even worshipped religiously alongside other national deities. He may be prayed to for good luck, prosperity or a baby boy, for example.
Mao was the founder of the post-World War II People”s Republic of China and the main creator of its social system. His person and the early decades of the People”s Republic of China are inextricably linked. For better or worse, Mao was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
In more negative interpretations, Mao has been described as a “Red Emperor” who ruled China as a vengeful autocrat, with no regard for human suffering and ruthlessly pursuing his personal interests. Mao”s self-centred nature, luxurious lifestyle and violent regime have all been criticised.
Researchers” interpretations of the issue vary widely. It is impossible to assess Mao”s legacy unequivocally, and the final conclusion depends on the researcher”s perspective and political opinions. This is complicated by the fact that there is no single yardstick by which to measure, for example, successful guerrilla warfare, human suffering, economic growth and China”s foreign policy reverence. It is also noteworthy that Mao, despite his great personal power, did not rule China alone, but that other leaders were also involved in important decisions. An exception to this was the Cultural Revolution, which was largely Mao”s own project.
Achievements and failures
According to Stuart Reynolds Schrami, author of the Encyclopædia Britannica article on Mao, Mao”s good points may have outnumbered his bad points, but if so, the margin of merit is very small. Schramm argues that Mao”s contribution to the communist takeover was indisputable and that the doctrine of rural-based guerrilla warfare was crucial to winning the civil war. Subsequently, the same strategy has been successfully applied by non-Chinese and communist factions. Under Mao”s leadership, the Communists united China and ended decades of internal division and foreign policy humiliation. Schram is more sceptical about Mao”s actions after the establishment of the People”s Republic. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, in particular, were by definition ill-conceived projects with disastrous consequences. On the other hand, Mao”s ideals of social equality and the distribution of land to small farmers were in themselves worthy of support.
The first years of the People”s Republic saw the achievement of many of Mao”s most important goals. The Communists carried out land reform and other social reforms that the Kuomintang had failed to achieve despite their promises. Land redistribution meant a small but relatively significant increase in the living standards of small farmers in absolute terms. Power was transferred from the military to civilians and the economy, ravaged by decades of war, recovered. The Kuomintang regime had been extremely inefficient and corrupt, especially in its final years, and when conditions finally stabilised at the beginning of Mao”s term, the communists could be seen as a ”more successful version of the old”. On the other hand, unrealistic goals and their promotion by means of political violence were part of the CCP regime from the very beginning. After the rise to power, political realities no longer shackled Mao”s decision-making, leading to escalating problems. The decisive change is usually dated to 1957, when Mao abandoned Soviet-style rule and replaced it with a distinctive ”revolutionary idealism”. The mistakes of the end of Mao”s reign often led to the loss of relevance of earlier achievements. Promises of respect for private property, democracy and self-determination for minority populations were betrayed.
According to Ross Terrill (1980), Mao”s crucial mistake was the planned economy, whose “disastrous inefficiency”, he says, is amply demonstrated both in China and elsewhere. Mao”s legacy would thus have been effectively ruined as early as 1949. For the majority of factory workers and farmers, collectivisation meant, rather, a radical decline in income and working conditions. In the countryside, living standards remained stagnant for a long time, and by the time of Mao”s death, 250 million peasants were still living in extreme poverty. Industrial output grew at an annual rate of around 4% from 1963 onwards, a poor performance for a developing country. Growth was faster than in India, for example, but far worse than in Kuomintang-ruled Taiwan, where annual growth was in the order of 10%. The mass campaigns put the willpower of the uneducated masses of people ahead of economic realities and expertise. The result was chaos, combining unrealistic goals, confused management, falsification of production figures and brutal political violence.
The numbers of premature deaths caused by the Mao regime vary widely. According to Jonathan Fenby (2008), estimates range between 30 and 70 million. The high mortality rate was driven by China”s large population, which resulted in a food supply crisis affecting a population of hundreds of millions. People also died as a result of slave labour and political persecution, although Mao did not usually directly order people to be murdered. Political purges were frequent, but did not usually condemn ousted leaders to death. Local purges, on the other hand, had a high mortality rate and the state could even set a quota in advance for the number of people to be executed. Mao is believed to have been indirectly responsible for more loss of life than any other ruler in the 20th century.
During Mao”s 26-year rule, China”s population grew from just over 500 million to almost a billion. Public health and hygiene improved, and life expectancy rose from 66 for men and 69 for women to around 25 for both sexes in the early 1930s. Infant mortality fell from 30% to a few percent. In the early 1970s, the first steps were taken to curb population growth. Mao, however, opposed birth rate rationing on ideological grounds. Nevertheless, with the spread of contraception and abortion, population growth slowed down. Education levels improved markedly and hundreds of thousands of new educational institutions were established in China, most of them primary schools. In times of political purges, however, higher education could be more of a burden. The previous semi-feudal system was abolished and poor peasants were given farmland. Gender equality was also improved, and Mao opposed practices such as foot-binding and arranged marriages. On the other hand, the new society, built on political hierarchies, was extremely unequal. The upper class was the party cadres and soldiers, the middle class the factory workers and the lower class the peasants, whose services and food rations were far inferior to those of the urban population. The worst off were the groups declared to be class enemies, such as former landlords and right-wingers. Officially defined class status depended on a person”s family history and constituted a hereditary caste system.
The industrialisation that began under Mao enabled China”s subsequent rise to economic power. Technological innovation also took place: China developed a working nuclear weapon by 1964 and successfully launched a satellite into orbit in 1970. In foreign policy, Mao avoided becoming a Soviet satellite state, but had to acknowledge the Soviet Union”s leading role in the socialist world. The end of Mao”s term laid the foundations for a gradual rapprochement between China and the United States. However, the process was a long one and relations were only normalised after Mao”s death. China also gained membership of the UN and a permanent seat on the Security Council, giving Mao significant international power. However, it took a long time before China began to play an active role in UN politics. According to Lauri Paltemaa and Juha A. Vuori, while significant progress was made during Mao”s time, it would probably have been achieved even without the Communist Party. China did not yet rise to the status of a great power during Mao”s era.
China”s official position
According to the official assessment of the People”s Republic of China, Mao”s actions were basically correct until the summer of 1957, but after that they were erratic or even completely wrong. Nevertheless, the People”s Republic considers Mao”s merits to have outweighed the ”mistakes of later years”. Mao is known in China as the ”Great Helmsman”, and the extent of his mistakes was long kept secret.
Official China has already moved far away from Mao”s teachings and into a market economy. At the same time, Chinese youth have begun to experience a renewed interest in Mao and his thinking. Through him, they are criticising the prevailing system, which, for example, bans independent trade unionism and class struggle. In the summer of 2021, The New York Times reported that the CCP was censoring internet discussion of Mao”s thinking.
Mao”s parents were Mao Yichang (1867-1919) and his wife Wen Qimei (1870-1920). The family was quite wealthy. There are varying accounts of Mao”s relationship with his parents. Mao himself told the biographer Edgar Snow that he got on badly with his father and rebelled against his ruthless behaviour. This was apparently due to his father”s negative attitude towards education. Mao also disliked his father”s stinginess. According to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao hated his father and ridiculed him in front of strangers, which was very rude behaviour in Chinese culture. According to Chang and Halliday, the reason for the conflict was his son”s laziness and disrespect for authority. Even in old age, Mao still fantasised about torturing his father. According to Lee Feigon, in adulthood Mao began to exaggerate the severity of the disputes to create a narrative that appealed to rebellious youth. In reality, according to Feigon, Mao and his father had a reasonably good relationship. Mao reportedly had a good relationship with his mother.
Mao was the third child in his family. However, his older brothers died as infants. His brothers Mao Zemin (1895-1943) and Mao Zeta (1905-1935) and adopted sister Mao Zejian (1905-1929) lived to adulthood. All three were active communists. Zetan was killed in the battle against the Kuomintang; Zemin and Zejian were executed by pro-Kuomintang warlords. The same zé (泽) appears in all the siblings” names. This is a typical Chinese naming convention, and the naming pattern of the generation was already decided in the family chronicle written in the 1700s. Zedong means “the enlightener of the east” (dōng, “east”), Zemin “the enlightener of the people” and Zetan tán refers to Xiangtan province. The surname Máo (毛) means hair.
Mao was married four times. His first marriage to Luo Yixiu (married 1908-1910) was arranged, and Mao never acknowledged it. Mao”s second wife Yang Kaihui (married 1921-1927) was the daughter of his former ethics teacher. Yang was murdered by Kuomintang in revenge for Mao”s revolutionary activities. He Zizhen (married 1928-1939) was the woman Mao began an affair with before Yang”s death. She was the sister of an old friend of Mao and an ardent Communist Party member. In 1939, Mao divorced He and married the actress Jiang Qing. This caused resentment among communists, as He was one of the few women to survive the Long March. The party leadership approved the marriage on condition that Jiang stay out of politics for the next 20 years. From 1963 onwards, Jiang became politically active and rose to become the most powerful woman in China. She wielded a great deal of power, especially in the fields of art and culture. After Mao”s death, Jiang became unpopular and the political excesses of Mao”s last years were blamed on her. In his old age, Mao met He Zizhen again. He was greatly shocked to see the once vibrant woman looking aged and mentally ill.
Mao had at least ten children: three with Yang, six with Hen and one with Jiang. Mao and Yang”s children grew up with their mother until her death. After being orphaned, they were sent to Shanghai, where they were raised by local communists. Many of Mao and Hen”s children were left in the care of relatives or peasant families because they could not be taken to the war zone. After the revolution, several attempts were made to find the children without success. Mao”s eldest son Anying was educated in the Soviet Union, where Stalin held him effectively hostage. Anying later pursued a career as a soldier and died in the Korean War. The closest relationship Mao had with Jiang Qing was with his daughter Li Nan. For a time, Mao even considered her as his successor. Li Na is still alive, as is Mao”s second daughter Li Min. The surname Li is derived from the pseudonym used by Mao in Yan”an. The last of Mao”s sons to die was Anqing in 2007. Anqing”s son Mao Xinyu is a major general in the Chinese army and a minor public figure. Li Min”s daughter Kong Dongmei is one of the richest people in China.
Around 1919, Mao had a romantic relationship with his talented fellow student Tao Yi. Tao had a great influence on the development of Mao”s political thought, even though he was opposed to communism. Due to ideological differences, the relationship was cut short, but the couple remained on friendly terms. In later life, Mao had a large number of mistresses, possibly including male partners. In his last years, he was looked after by former mistresses Zhang Yufeng and Meng Jinyu, and fearing assassination, Mao trusted no one else. It is not known whether he had children with his mistresses.
Even as a teenager, Mao was tall, strong and handsome. As a young man, he played a lot of sports and liked to perform without a shirt. He was naturally charismatic, but charisma was also systematically generated through propaganda. In the last years of Mao”s life, his declining health was concealed and public images of him were retouched. Mao”s secularism was reflected in his folksy and unrefined behaviour, which distinguished him from the typical Chinese intellectual. He was proud of his peasantry and could use coarse language. He spoke Mandarin Chinese with a strong Hunan accent. Mao was alienated from social norms and cared little for comfort or how things looked on the outside. He never got into the habit of using a toothbrush, but rinsed his mouth with tea. Instead of soap and water, Mao washed himself with a steaming towel, another custom inherited from the Chinese outback. As a native of Hunan food culture, Mao loved spicy food. He drank very little alcohol, but smoked heavily and in his old age became addicted to sedatives prescribed to treat insomnia. Despite his poor lifestyle, Mao had good general health.
According to historian Lee Feigon (2002), Mao”s earthiness helped him maintain a spiritual connection with the everyday lives of ordinary Chinese people even during his reign. The opposite view is taken by Ross Terrill (1980). According to him, Mao was modest and sincere in his youth, but became arrogant and treacherous with age. Many of Mao”s public statements were pragmatic pronouncements in which he did not really believe. On the other hand, many of Mao”s violent or intolerant statements made in private were exaggerated outbursts of emotion. According to Terrill, Mao”s ”breathtaking dishonesty” knocked other communist leaders, perhaps even all 20th century politicians, off their perch. Mao also enjoyed the deliberate shock of his subordinates, especially his personal physician Li Zhisu. On the other hand, Mao also knew how to be considerate when necessary, to hold down-to-earth discussions and to give up the honour if he felt it belonged to someone else. Historian Daniel Leese has described Mao”s character as a disturbing evolution: a down-to-earth, conciliatory and thoughtful ruler who became increasingly ruthless, unrestrained and self-righteous. Similarly, Mao”s capacity to absorb criticism steadily deteriorated.
According to Philip Short (2000), Mao spent the 1960s and 1970s surrounded by his court, isolated from the rest of China. His life was almost devoid of spontaneous and equal encounters with other people. The exception was his adventures with women, where Mao escaped his loneliness. Conversely, many young Chinese women were attracted to his power. In 1994, Li Zhisui published a memoir, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, in which he accused Mao of being a paranoid narcissist and described in detail his hedonistic lifestyle. Some scholars and people who knew Mao personally have accused Li”s claims of being politically motivated slander.
In the West, Mao is often compared to dictators such as Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. However, according to Lee Feigon (2002), this is a false comparison, as Mao”s relatively happy personal history was different from the above-mentioned dictators, who were embittered by violence and marginalisation. According to Feigon, Mao, when cornered, was ”draconian and authoritarian”, but not ”a thug like his mentor Stalin”. Philip Short (2000) has pointed out that, unlike Hitler and Stalin, Mao did not make the physical destruction of his enemies an end in itself. Hitler persecuted his victims for their qualities and Stalin for their actions, but Mao was primarily interested in the way people thought. Therefore, groups defined as enemies were, at least in principle, given the opportunity to reform their views and claim their freedom by working for the system. Not all scholars subscribe to this view. In a review of Feigon”s biography of Mao, Barrett L. McCormick (2003) found Mao a poor role model who was ”no more attractive than Stalin”.
In their controversial biography, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (2005) described Mao as a “sadistic monster” and a cynical opportunist who did not really believe in his teachings, but sought to maximise his personal gain at all costs. Chang and Halliday”s book sold well and received lavish praise in popular reviews. However, it was greeted negatively by academic historians. According to Jonathan Spence (2005), the mere ”personification of guilt” is not enough to explain Mao”s rise to power and the length and international stature of his 26-year reign. Alexander Pantsov and Steven I. Levine (2012) have characterised Mao as a complex character who tried his best to raise China into a prosperous and internationally respected state. From a young age, Mao dreamed of fame and power and wanted to become ”a strong, stubborn and determined hero, unconstrained by any rules”. According to Pantsov and Levine, Mao ”was not a saint, if not a devil”.
Mao wrote a large amount of literature on political philosophy and the theory of warfare. After the rise to power, they formed the literary canon of the People”s Republic of China. Three volumes of the selected works were published between 1951 and 1953, and Mao himself played an active role in their editing. The growing cult of personality increased demand, with Volume IV appearing in 1960 and Volume V in 1977. The Selected Works include dozens of texts from March 1926 (”A Treatise on the Social Classes of China”) to November 1957 (”All Reactionaries are Paper Tigers”). Parts VI to IX were subsequently published in India. The texts changed considerably during the editing process and do not give a true picture of the development of Mao”s thought.
Mao was a prolific poet. He was introduced to the classics of Chinese literature as a child. School emphasized memorization of the Confucian canon, but Mao preferred the Three Kingdoms story, The Waterfront Tales and other classics of Chinese prose. In his poetry, however, he still quotes from Confucius, Zen Zan and other classics. Mao was also influenced by Russian literature. Nature and history are recurring themes in the poems. Mao wrote most of his texts by hand. He was well versed in the history of Chinese calligraphy and experimented with many styles throughout his life before developing his own. In China, the “Mao style” (毛体) is highly regarded and considered both original and versatile.