rightAccording to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was an arch-critic of traditional Chinese culture, but in applying the thoughts of Marx and Lenin (which are Western) to China he still cautioned that the Chinese Communists must not forget their own history, and that Communist ideology must have Chinese characteristics... Mao Zedong's writings from the 1930s, before the Communists took power, highlight the theme of "borrowing but preserving" from a different perspective. [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Two important themes in Mao Zedong's thinking and in the goals of the communist revolution are voluntarism and selflessness.The notion of "voluntarism" in Mao's thought. He believed that any task could be accomplished through sheer will. (See "The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains"). He also had great confidence in the power of the "harnessed" will of the people — especially the peasants. (See "Report on the Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan"). The idea of selflessness. This is brought out quite clearly in the speeches "In Memory of Norman Bethune," and "Serve the People." The notion of sacrificing one's own interest to the interests of the greater good is universal, and greatly influenced Mao's thinking.”

The seminal work “How Did The Red Sun Rise?” by historian Gao Hua, who died in 2011, analyzes the ideological campaigns launched in the party by Mao Zedong during the cave-dwelling Yan'an period at the end of the Long March (1934-1935). In 2010, the Guangdong People's Press published a collection of essays by Gao titled Revolutionary Times, which was well received in China. Xin Lin wrote in RFA, “Nine of the essays look at how Mao was able to call the shots and imprint his own "revolutionary" agenda on the party, once the survivors of the Long March fetched up in Yan'an. Gao traces now-familiar party practices, including self-criticism and self-examination, as well as ideological investigations, back to this period known as the "rectification" movement. Mao also stamped his personal political writing and speaking style indelibly onto the political life of the nation at this time, laying the foundations for the power struggles, "anti-rightist" campaigns and political violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that came later.” [Source: Xin Lin RFA, January 21, 2016]

Websites: Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party ; Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mao Internet Library ; Paul Noll Mao site ; Mao Quotations; ; New York Times; Early 20th Century China : John Fairbank Memorial Chinese History Virtual Library offers links to sites related to modern Chinese history (Qing, Republic, PRC) and has good pictures;

Mao's Earliest Writings

Shang Yang

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

Mao from his book of quotations

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 Zedong and Revolutionary Peasantry

Chinese peasants in the early 20th century

Dr. Eno wrote: “Mao Zedong, who had been among the founders of the CCP, was one of the few Party members willing to address a central fact about China’s prospects for revolution: in a land of a half-billion people, the proletarian class probably numbered no more than a million and was concentrated in only one or two eastern cities. There was no realistic prospect that such a class could gain control over China — Leninism was simply inadequate for China. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Mao proposed an alternative model of a distinctively Chinese form of communist revolution. Mao’s idea was that the peasant class in China had for so many centuries endured the oppression of a parasitic landlord class, and possessed such a rich store of hatred and anger towards the wealthy landowners of China, that it was a potentially revolutionary class. (Mao was himself from a wealthy peasant family.) Mao’s analysis of China’s class structure did not conform to Marx’s model of history, which was based on European precedents. For Mao, the two contending classes whose conflict would give birth to the next stage of history were not the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, they were the peasant and landlord classes. Mao believed the Party should be serving as the vanguard of a revolutionary peasantry, and should be instilling revolutionary consciousness not in the minds of city factory workers, but in the minds of rural peasants. /+/

“Prior to 1927, the CCP had viewed Mao as an eccentric among its founders. Marx and Lenin had said that the peasants, who worked individually rather than collectively in factories, were invariably a reactionary class which could never be politically mobilized prior to a revolution. Mao’s arguments that the Chinese peasant was a uniquely “blank slate” upon which the outline of revolutionary consciousness could be inscribed with relative ease seemed idealistic and naive to the other founders of the Party. However, Mao had been allowed to experiment with his theories and was dispatched by the Party to the remote hinterlands of Jiangxi to see whether he could mobilize the peasantry.

“Once in Jiangxi, Mao’s method for this was to recruit village peasants into the Party and its military corps until he had sufficient manpower to coerce local landlords — generally wealthy families who owned vast tracts of land that they leased to peasants for generations on cruel terms — into giving up ownership of their lands to the peasants who actually farmed the fields. This process of seizing the lands of the idle landlords and giving it to the peasants was called land reform. It was through his program of land reform — from which peasants benefited directly — that Mao wished to recruit peasant support and build a revolutionary peasant army that would ultimately overthrow the oppressive national “landlord” governments of the Nationalists and the local warlords. /+/

“Mao’s efforts in Jiangxi had not been particularly successful. It was not until later that he mastered the art of conducting land reform campaigns that would yield solid peasant support for the Party. But when the other leaders of the CCP were forced to flee to Mao’s base territory in 1927, Mao’s tactics and his charismatic personality were far more forcefully impressed upon the Party membership than had been the case before. /+/

“This reading will not trace the events that ultimately led to the triumph of Mao’s vision and his ascent to CCP leadership — we will read about that later. But in the end, Mao Zedong did prevail, Soviet Leninist advisors returned to Russia, and the communist revolution that proceeded under Mao’s guidance came to possess the distinctive character of a “communist peasant revolution,” which for Marx would have been a contradiction in terms. It is this aspect of Chinese communist ideology and practice that distinguishes it from Marxist-Leninism, and this is why Chinese communist ideology is called “Maoist.”

Farmers and the Chinese Revolution

Mao Zedong in a rice field

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “While treaty ports along China's coast were feeling the direct impact of foreign demands during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most people in China were — and still are — rural people, living in towns and villages. Although most farmers in China owned some land and often had sources of income apart from farm work, such as handicrafts, life was generally harsh. Farm plots were very small, averaging less than two acres per family, and peasants had little access to new technology, capital, or cheap transport. We have read about the nineteenth century internal crises which had terrible repercussions for country folk — wars and rebellions, droughts and floods. From late Qing times on, new taxes and charges were levied against individual village residents and/or the village as a unit to pay for government administration, state services like police and education, and most importantly, military expenses. More insidious were the less visible effects of the new international economy into which China had inexorably been drawn. Tea, silk, sugar, and tobacco were all products with increasing competition in this period, and thus international market forces began to affect rural people in China's interior. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“There is much debate about whether China's farmers were "immiserated" in this period, that is, if they faced worse conditions than in previous times. But, as the first reading on raising silkworms demonstrates, without greater technological inputs, just working harder was not always enough to stave off privation. Addressing the problems of the farmers was a major challenge for Chinese leaders. The short story, by Mao Dun (Shen Yanbing, 1896-1981), entitled "Spring Silkworms," also demonstrates a greater awareness, on the part of a new breed of politically engaged and socially conscious urban writers in the 1920s and 1930s, of the plight of people in the countryside.

“Traditional Marxist thinking relegated peasants to a class which Marx believed represented "barbarism within civilization" — people who were unable to develop revolutionary consciousness and only wanted land and bread (food). During the Russian Revolution, Lenin revised Marx's view, assigning peasants a more supporting revolutionary role, although he still believed that it was the urban working class which initiated revolution. In the 1920s, Chinese leftists began to change their view of the revolutionary potential of the rural population. Some, like the Kuomintang organizer in South China, Peng Pai, had great success from 1921-23 in convincing disaffected farmers to form peasant associations and challenge oppressive landlords. Likewise, Mao Zedong's own work in the rural areas in 1925 and 1926 led him to see the farmers differently. When Nationalists forces after 1927 drove him and other Communists to rural hideouts from their urban bases, they intensified their work among the rural population. Their belief in rural revolution thus became a hallmark of Chinese Communist thinking.”

Mao Zedong’s "Reform Our Study" Speech

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ In the speech excerpted below, Mao is scolding those in the Party who are blindly following the ideas of Marx and Lenin without adapting it to the Chinese situation, which Mao thought would be made "better" by a revolution to wipe out the old ways and establish new ones. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Mao Zedong said: “... [T]ake the study of history. Although a few Party members and sympathizers have undertaken this work, it has not been done in an organized way. Many Party members are still in a fog about Chinese history, whether of the last hundred years or of ancient times. There are many Marxist-Leninist scholars who cannot open their mouths without citing ancient Greece; but as for their own ancestors — sorry, they have been forgotten. There is no climate of serious study either of current conditions or of past history.

Mao in 1938

“Third, take the study of international revolutionary experience, the study of the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism. Many comrades seem to study Marxism-Leninism not to meet the needs of revolutionary practice, but purely for the sake of study. Consequently, though they read, they cannot digest. They can only cite odd quotations from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in a one-sided manner, but are unable to apply the stand, viewpoint and method of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin to the concrete study of China's present conditions and her history or to the concrete analysis and solution of the problems of the Chinese revolution. Such an attitude towards Marxism-Leninism does a great deal of harm, particularly among cadres of the middle and higher ranks.

Mao Zedong on War and Revolution

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “A revolution is commonly understood to be an event which seeks to overthrow one political order in society and replace it with another. In China, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) wanted to overthrow the rule of the Kuomintang (or KMT) and establish a new communist political order under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“As demonstrated by the following quotations, Mao believed that violence and support from the masses were necessary for the achievement of a peaceful communist order. One of the most critical challenges faced by Mao in this regard was establishing strong military support for the revolution while simultaneously preventing the armed forces from becoming too powerful. Mao's concerns are reflected in the last two quotations; while arguing that political power cannot be achieved without resorting to the use of force, ("Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" — the gun being a metaphor for the military), Mao also believed that the party must always remain in ultimate political control of the nation in order for peace and prosperity to be achieved ("...the gun must never be allowed to command the Party").”

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. [Source: From “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan”]

“The revolutionary war is a war of the masses; it can be waged only by mobilizing the masses and relying on them. [from “Be Concerned with the Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work”]

“War is the highest form of struggle for resolving contradictions, when they have developed to a certain stage, between classes, nations, states, or political groups, and it has existed ever since the emergence of private property and of classes. [Source: from “Problems of Strategy in China's Revolutionary War”]

“Every Communist must grasp the truth, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." [from “Problems of War and Strategy”]

“Our Principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. [from “Problems of War and Strategy”]

Mao Zedong’s Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan

Mao with a peasant family

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ As a part of the United Front (and as a card-carrying dual member of both the Communist and Nationalist parties), Mao Zedong headed up the Kuomintang’s Peasant Movement Training Institute. In that capacity, he went to visit rural areas in his home province of Hunan in order to investigate the peasant movement there. An excerpt from his report appears below.[Source: “Report on the Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (March 1927) by Mao Zedong from “The Selected Readings of Mao Zedong” (Beijing Foreign Language Press, 1971); Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

In “Report on the Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (March 1927), Mao Zedong wrote: “The Importance of The Peasant Problem During my recent visit to Hunan I made a first.hand investigation of conditions in the five counties of Hsiantan, Hsianghsiang, Henshan, Liling and Changsha. In the thirty-two days from January 4 to February 5, I called together fact.finding conferences in villages and county towns which were attended by experienced peasants and by comrades working in the peasant movement, and I listened attentively to their reports and collected a great deal of material.

“Many of the hows and whys of the peasant movement were the exact opposite of what the gentry in Hankow and Changsha are saying. I saw and heard of many strange things of which I had hitherto been unaware. I believe the same is true of any other places, too. All talk directed against the peasant movement must be speedily set right. All the wrong measures taken by the revolutionary authorities concerning the peasant movement must be speedily changed. Only thus can the future of the revolution be benefited. For the present upsurge of the peasant movement is a colossal event. In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them. To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing. Or to stand in their way and oppose them. Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly.”

“In Memory of Norman Bethune” by Mao Zedong

Mao with some foreigners in 1938

In “In Memory of Norman Bethune” (December 21, 1939), Mao Zedong wrote: “The distinguished surgeon Norman Bethune was a member of the Canadian Communist Party. In 1936 when the German and Italian fascist bandits invaded Spain, he went to the front and worked for the antifascist Spanish people. In order to help the Chinese people in their War of Resistance Against Japan, he came to China at the head of a medical team and arrived in Yenan in the spring of 1938. Soon after he went to the Shansi-Chahar-Hobei border area. Imbued with ardent internationalism and the great communist spirit, he served the army and the people of the Liberated Areas for nearly two years. He contracted blood poisoning while operating on wounded soldiers and died in Tanghsien, Hopei, on November 12, 1939. [Source: “Selected Readings of Mao Zedong” (Beijing Foreign Language Press, 1971); Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“"Comrade Norman Bethune, a member of the Communist Party of Canada, was around fifty when he was sent by the Communist Parties of Canada and the United States to China; he made light of travelling thousands of miles to help us in our War of Resistance Against Japan. He arrived in Yenan in the spring of last year, went to work in the Wutai Mountains, and to our great sorrow died a martyr at his post. What kind of spirit is this that makes a foreigner selflessly adopt the cause of the Chinese people's liberation as his own? It is the spirit of internationalism, the spirit of communism, from which every Chinese Communist must learn..

Image Sources:Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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