MAO'S EARLY LIFE
Mao in Wuhan in 1927 Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was one of the major figures of the 20th century. "If power is measured by impact on people's lives," Emily MacFarquhar wrote in U.S. News and World Report, "Mao Zedong was the most powerful man in history. The wars and revolution and political campaigns he led left no one untouched in a country of hundreds of millions. His quixotic crusades may have killed more people than the mass exterminations of Hitler and Stalin combined. In his lifetime, he was worshiped as a god and his books sold better than the Bible. After his death, he was demystified and dethroned. Today, he is the object of a pop culture cult."
Mao's biography, Mao: the Unknown Story , by Jung Chang and John Halliday begins in a similar vein: “Mao...who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other 20th century leader.” Henry Kissinger wrote that a "recent biography" of Mao (presumably Mao: The Unknown Story ) was interesting but "one-sided."
On the positive side, Mao was a brilliant political tactician, a clever, charismatic and persuasive leader, a survivor who time and again outmaneuvered his rivals, and a prolific writer who described himself as an “indefatigable teacher.” He showed his toughness and patience during the Long March and again in his resistance against the Japanese. On the negative side he was obsessed with power and eliminating his enemies and many of his ideas such as the Great Leap Forward were half baked.
Websites and Resources
Book: Mao: the Unknown Story (Knopf. 2005) by Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and her husband John Halliday, a British historian, portrays Mao as villain on the level of Hitler and Stalin. The book was read by U.S. President George Bush and embraced by the American right as a condemnation of Communism. It characterizes Mao as cruel, materialistic, self-centered and a leader who used terror with the aim of ruling the world. There is also a Mao biography by Jonathon Spence.
Websites on Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Mao.com chinesemao.com ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Spartacus Education spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com ; Mao Video biography.com ; Marxist.org marxists.org ; Propaganda Paintings of Mao artchina.free.fr ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com ; Oxford Reference oxfordreference.com
Early Communists Marxist.org marxists.org/history ; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party china.org.cn ; Books and Posters Landsberger Communist China Posters . Among the interesting books on early Chinese Communist history are Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow, Chinese Shadows by Simon Leys.
Links in this Website: SUN YAT-SEN AND ATTEMPTS AT CHINESE DEMOCRACY Factsanddetails.com/China ; WARLORDISM AND CHIANG KAI-SHEK Factsanddetails.com/China ; EARLY COMMUNISTS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO, HIS EARLY LIFE, TACTICS AND REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; LONG MARCH Factsanddetails.com/China ; JAPANESE OCCUPATION OF CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINA AND WORLD WAR II Factsanddetails.com/China ; COMMUNISTS TAKE OVER CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; EARLY COMMUNIST RULE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) Brooklyn College site academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge chinaknowledge.de ; 5) China History Forum chinahistoryforum.com ; 6) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; 7 ) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia 20th Century History China History Virtual Library
Mao's Early Life
Mao Zedong was born in December, 1893 on a canopy bed in his family’s tidy, 13-room farm house, set in a beautiful location outside Shaoshan, Hunan Province. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard chanted "The sun rises in Shaoshan" and some Chinese changed their name to Shaoshan in Mao's honor. In the 1960s, three million people a year visited Mao's house, with as many as 120,000 showing up on a single day. Some treated it as a of pilgrimage site, trekking their on foot from some far off place. Today only a handful of people visit Mao's house each day and the train to Shaoshan is often half empty.
Mao's family houseMao was the oldest surviving child in his family. He had two younger brothers. Mao was large for his age. He liked to eat fermented tofu and compose poetry, According to one story he read history books while he swam in the Xiang River. He reportedly developed his love for swimming in the fish pond in front of his childhood home.
Mao attended primary school in Shaoshan from ages 8 to 13. Shaoshan was a typical farming village where many people struggled with poverty and hunger. Mao left his hometown as a teenager and as far as anyone knows only returned twice. At the age of 16, he went to Changsa, near Shaoshan, to attend secondary school. He was trained in Confucian classics and worked as an accountant in his father's business while in school.
One of Mao's greatest heros when he was young was Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China. Not yet a radical he wrote that: "I considered the emperor as well as most officials to be honest, good and clever men." As he got older Mao became more radical. His favorite novel reportedly was The Water Margin, an epic story about a group of insurgents who lived during the Song dynasty.
When Mao was a young boy a severe famine hit the Hunan province and the Manchu governor was killed in a food riot. Mao wrote he "felt that there with the rebels were ordinary people like my own family and I deeply resented the injustice in the treatment given to them." Around the same time Mao wrote he was impressed by the tactics used by some rebels in the hills around Shaoshan to fight rich landowners and was also taken with a radical school teacher who argued that Buddhist temples should be converted into schools.
Mao and His Mother and Father
Mao's father was a "relatively rich peasant" who as a young man had his land taken away and was forced to serve in the army to pay off some large debts. After being released from the army he worked and saved enough money to buy back his land. He became a "rich peasant" by selling surplus rice and buying up rice from poor farmers and selling it a higher price to rice merchants. When Mao was a teenager, his father made a killing by village standards by buying up mortgages from poor peasants and making a profit on the interest the peasants paid him.
Mao was close to his mother. She studied Buddhism and had bound feet. He regarded his father as a disciplinarian whom he once said, "I learned to hate.” According to one fable, Mao was accused of being lazy and fat and slugged by his father in front of guests at a house party. Mao reportedly told his father to go to hell but then allowed him to save face by saying, "Confucius says elders must be kind and affectionate to the young. However I will kowtow on one knee if you promise not beat me."
Mao Works as a Teacher and Librarian
Mao's 1st wife Yao Ka in 1924 After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Mao joined the Chinese army but quit six months later. Between 1913 and 1918, Mao attended the Hunan No. 1 Teacher's Training School in Changsa and returned there in 1920 to work for a year as a teacher. In Changsa, Mao was exposed to the revolutionary ideas preached by Sun Yat-sen, heard about the Canton and Wuhan uprisings and read about socialism in Russia in the newspapers.
Mao started a night school for farmers in 1917. Describing his early years in Changsa, Mao wrote, "At this time my mind was a curious mixture of ideas of liberalism, democratic reformism and utopia socialism...and I was definitely antimilitarist and anti-imperialist."
In 1918 Mao worked as an assistant to the chief librarian of the University of Beijing, where he first began to study Marxism seriously and where he met with many of the founders of the Communist Party. When Mao returned to Changsa, he wrote, "I became more and more convinced that only mass political power, secured through mass action, could guarantee the realization of dynamic reforms."
In the 1920s Mao founded the Cultural Book Society and its affiliated bookstore. With the aim of reforming academic studies and introducing new Chinese and foreign publications.
Mao never mastered China’s dominant language Mandarin but he was respected for his calligraphy
Mao Becomes a Communist
In Changsa, Mao became editor of a radical student newspaper called the Xiang River Review. In 1920 he began organizing workers and calling himself a Marxist. He recruited new members for the Communist Party with an ad in the local Changsa newspaper "inviting young men interested in patriotic work to make contact with me." This is how Mao met Liu Shaoqi, later an important general in the Long March and a president of China, and Xiao Chen, a founding member of the Communist Party.
In 1921, Mao attended the founding meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai. In 1922 he organized the Hunan provincial branch of the Communist Party and set up labor and student unions. His revolutionary activities among peasant angered landlords in Hunan and Mao was forced to flee to Canton, where the Kuomintang and Communists held power as allies. With the 1927 split between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the CCP began to engage in armed struggle against the Chiang regime. The Red Army was established in 1927, and after a series of uprisings and internal political struggles, the CCP announced the establishment in 1931 of the Chinese Soviet Republic under the chairmanship of Mao in Jiangxi Province in south-central China.
Mao's Earliest Writings
Mao's earliest surviving essay, written when he was 19, championed the pragmatic but ruthless policies of Shang Yang, a 4th century B.C. administrator who established a set of laws designed "to punish the wicked and rebellious, in order to preserve the rights of the people." Mao concluded, "At the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the mass of the people always dislike it."
Journalist Ross Terrill wrote that As a young man Mao wrote passionate articles about the individual’s freedom to love that old China had denied and new China would guarantee. But when Mao took over China, securing the wealth and power of the Chinese nation took preference over the individual. [Source: Ross Terrill, The China Beat, February 26, 2010]
In 1927 and 1930, Mao produced studies on rural conditions in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces that were key to the development of his theories on peasant mobilization and class struggle. The studies examined things like the practice of selling children to pay off debts, money made by local temples and disparities between rich and poor.
In his 1927 treatise On Going Too Far Mao wrote: "To right a wrong it is necessary to exceed proper limits, and the wrong cannot be righted without proper limits being exceeded...To put it bluntly it is necessary to bring about a brief reign of terror." It is a Chinese tradition that senior mandarins make their views known by praise or condemnation of a piece of literature; it was a favorite tactic of Mao's.
Maoism and Maoist Ideas About Revolution
Maoism is a variant of Marxism, derived from the literature of Mao Zedong and is widely applied as the political and military guiding ideology in the Communist Party of China (CPC). Maoism is basically Marxism--which mostly addressed urban revolution--adapted to agrarian societies, with peasant farmers being the discriminated underclass rather than factory workers. Unlike the Russian Communists, who initially ignored rural peasants and believed that revolution was spread through the cities by workers in short dramatic bursts of activity, Mao believed that engaging Chinese peasants in a long war was the key to the success of his revolution.
Mao liked to turn things around so the sacred became profane and low became the high. He won the support of peasants with his radical proposal to seize land from the landowners and redistribute it among the peasants. He believed the most effective military strategy would be to patiently infiltrate the countryside with guerrillas and fight a protracted war of attrition that would eventually frustrate and ultimately exhaust the Communist's more powerful enemy—the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek.
In a 1929 memorandum Mao wrote: "The tactics we have derived from the struggle of the past three years are indeed different from any other tactics, ancient or modern, Chinese of foreign. With our tactics, the masses can be aroused for struggle on an ever-broadening scale, and no enemy, however powerful, can cope with us.”
Based on Karl Marx's view that the "the proletariat cannot liberate itself without liberating the whole of humankind", Mao's internationalism holds that Chinese people must support anti-oppression movements worldwide. Mao used to organize massive demonstrations at Tiananmen Square and issued statements to show Chinese people's support for "revolutionary" movements across the world.
Mao promoted world revolution. He urged oppressed people everywhere to “dare to fight, defy difficulties and advance wave upon wave.” The Khmer Rouge and the Shining Path in Peru were Maoist movements. The Viet Cong effectively utilized Maoist ideas in their fight against the American forces in the Vietnam War. There are still Maoist rebels active in Nepal and India.
Mao and Guerilla Tactics
Mao was a great spokesman for guerilla tactics. “The guerilla,” he wrote, “must move among people as a fish swims in the sea.” He said guerilla tactics are what “a nation inferior in arms and military equipment may employ against a more powerful transgressor.” On guerilla tactics themselves, he wrote:. “They consist mainly of the following points: Divide our forces to arouse the masses, concentrate our forces to deal with the enemy...Arouse the largest number of the masses in the shortest possible time."
The Red Army had a great deal of success by following tactics outlined in the following slogans: "When the enemy advances, we retreat. When the enemy halts and encamps, we harass him. When the enemy seeks to avoid battle, we attack. Whenever the enemy retreats, we pursue." The highly mobile Red Army attacked quickly with a sudden concentration of force and then quickly dispersed after the attack was over.
Large battles against forces that outnumbered them were avoided at all costs. Communists in unfriendly territory operated underground and in cells and through united front operations. When a military operation was taken it aimed to follow classic Maoist insurgency theory: overrun police outpost and remote military bases; let the state overreact with human rights abuses; capitalize on the resulting public anger over the abuses to gain support and win new recruits.
Mao was not a great military tactician but he was able to surround himself with talented military minds. He also realized that one of the greatest underutilized military assets was women. Jiang Jee was young female revolutionary who was killed in fighting the Nationalists and made into a martyr.
Mao’s Rise in the Early Years of the Chinese Communist Party
Mao Zedong, who had become a Marxist at the time of the emergence of the May Fourth Movement (he was working as a librarian at Beijing University), had boundless faith in the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. He advocated that revolution in China focus on them rather than on the urban proletariat, as prescribed by orthodox Marxist-Leninist theoreticians. Despite the failure of the Autumn Harvest Uprising of 1927, Mao continued to work among the peasants of Hunan Province. Without waiting for the sanction of the CCP center, then in Shanghai, he began establishing peasant-based soviets (Communist-run local governments) along the border between Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. In collaboration with military commander Zhu De (1886-1976), Mao turned the local peasants into a politicized guerrilla force. By the winter of 1927-28, the combined "peasants' and workers'" army had some 10,000 troops. [Source: The Library of Congress]
Mao's prestige rose steadily after the failure of the Comintern-directed urban insurrections. In late 1931 he was able to proclaim the establishment of the Chinese Soviet Republic under his chairmanship in Ruijin, Jiangxi Province. The Soviet-oriented CCP Political Bureau came to Ruijin at Mao's invitation with the intent of dismantling his apparatus. But, although he had yet to gain membership in the Political Bureau, Mao dominated the proceedings. [Ibid]
“In the early 1930s, amid continued Political Bureau opposition to his military and agrarian policies and the deadly annihilation campaigns being waged against the Red Army by Chiang Kai-shek's forces, Mao's control of the Chinese Communist movement increased. [Ibid]
Mao Organizes a Communist State and Guerilla Army
Mao in the 1930s In 1927, Mao led a group of Hunan peasants in the mountains of Jiangxi Province, where they created a Soviet-style government and started building a guerilla force. By 1930 the Jiangxi Soviet controlled several million people and the Red Army numbered 200,000. In the meantime the Kuomintang began a campaign to exterminate the Communists.
In the 1930s Mao traveled to villages, where peasants grew rice for wealthy landlords and ate nothing but potatoes themselves, and called on them to take up arms and take the land for themselves.
At that time Mao was described as tall, rangy and good looking. He chain smoked and looked people directly in the eye, exuded coincidence and persuaded peasants with his logic and charisma.
Mao received trunks full of Mexican silver dollars and instructions from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, without which many historians have argued the Long March would not have been possible. Stalin is said to have played a major role in Mao’s rise. Betrayal and intra party rivalry led to frequent purges. Blunders by Mao led to the unnecessary loss of thousands in hopeless battles.
Mao Takes Over the Communist Party
Against the advise of Mao and his followers, Li Lisan, leader of the Communist Party at that time, committed 180,000 men to a series of great battles in the early 1930s against the Kuomintang, who was being advised by Prussian officers who taught the Kuomintang how to build forts and fortify supply lines to entrap their enemy. The Communists lost the battles and their movement almost collapsed.
Mao took control of the Communist Party after he refused Li's orders to lead a major offensive against Changsa. During the Long March Mao consolidated his hold over the CCP. Shortly after the march began, Mao was elected chairman of the Communist Party at a politburo conference in Kweichow in 1935. With Mao at the helm, the Communists stuck to guerilla warfare and avoided large battles.
Image Sources: Mao's House; BBC; Other images Nolls website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Ohio State University
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated August 2012