Biography: Mao Zedong

The biography of Mao Zedong, revolutionary and dictator of Communist China. Learn more about his life by reading this article.

"At the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the mass of people always dislike it."

Mao Zedong, 1912

Born in 1893, Mao Zedong has been hailed as a hero by some and excoriated by others as a dictator and mass-murderer of vast proportions. The truth of the matter is, that during his long life he was both of these things. The son of a rich peasant family which didn't place much value on education, the 13 year old Mao showed the sheer will that would manifest itself throughout his life when he left these relatively comfortable surroundings to continue his studies on his own. By 1911 he was studying at a secondary school in the capital of his native Hunan province, Ch'ang-Sha.

At this time a revolution broke out to oust the Manchu dynasty in the hope of creating a new China based on the Western model.(1) Mao served six months in the Revolutionary army where he began to develop some of the skills that would make him such an effective military leader in the years to come. Although this revolution succeeded in its stated aim it left the country in a state of flux with a government run by warlords as corrupt as the Dynasty that had preceded it.

One thing Mao must have learned, long before he ever discovered Marx, was how powerful a weapon nationalism could be. Although Mao had declared himself for Marxism-Leninism in 1921 when he officially joined the Socialist Party, he was even more enthusiastic about the Party's prospects when it became a junior partner to the Kuomintang (nationalist) party of Sun Yet Sen, two years later.(2)

It was while he was in the Kuomintang Party, working with the Chinese peasantry that he'd left behind him so many years before, that he came to the by no means unique idea of radicalising them(3); the peasant were a class who, in conventional Marxism, were ignored in favour of the industrial "proletariet", practically non-existent in China at that time. Many members of the Socialist Party were placed in mid to low level government positions where they could also concentrate on building a base for their ideas and distributing propaganda. It was an alliance which served them well but it came to an abrupt end when Sun Yat Sen died in 1925. The man who took over the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-Sheck, brutally purged the Party's left and entered into a more traditional alliance with the propertied classes, though he continued to cultivate contacts with the Kremlin. (4) It was during this time that the Kuomintang launched "The Great Northern Expedition" which removed the "official" warlords in Beijing and united the country under one government.

Mao, who'd already had troubles with the mainstream Kuomintang leadership fled to his base in the Ching-Kang mountains. From here he often ignored the orders of his own party in his battles with the nationalist forces and chose to avoid outright confrontations, developing, with his Army commander Zhu De, some of the guerilla techniques which would prove invaluable to insurgent movements from Korea to Peru well up to the present day. With the help and shelter offered by their peasant base, Mao and his comrades were able to hold out against Chiang's forces, even going so far as to create a variety of provisional governments in the area.

In November of 1934 the Chinese Soviet Republic was declared within the Kiangsi province with Mao as its chairman. Unable to hold out against superior Kuomintang forces, by October of the following year what remained of the Red Army and other organs of the Chinese Soviet Republic (about 100,000 people(5)) embarked on the Long March. After trekking 12,500 kilometres to Shanxi provinces the 8000 (including Mao and his second wife) survivors met up with a few thousand others from other parts of the country.(6) It must have seemed to Chiang Kai-Shek and his allies that the Chinese Communist Party was almost dead.

Like many so-called "great men" Mao Zedong had luck on his side. While going after the Communists Chiang had ignored an even greater immediate threat in the form of Japanese imperialism. In December of 1936 Chiang was kidnapped by junior officers of his own military and forced to see the logic of a "United Front" with Mao's CCP against the Japanese.(7) The war and the United Front gave Mao a reprieve and the ability to rebuild. Through these efforts by the time the war had ended the Communists were powerful enough to turn their guns on their former allies and Chiang Kai-Shek and the core of his followers were forced to flee to the island of Taiwan.

If we can argue that the more positive aspects of Mao's personality were on display during his student years and those of the revolutionary struggle, they contrast sharply with what he became upon achieving power. From the 1930's onward he'd concentrated as much on shaping his theories regarding Marxism in writing as he had on military strategy and was set to put these theories into practice. Although modest social and economic gains were made during the early years of Communist Party rule these seem to be as much the result of Russian advice and economic assistance as through the efforts of Mao and his party.(8) One particular homegrown success which did not bode well for the future was the "Anti-Rightest Campaign", directed at eliminating the last vestiges of the "capitalist classes" in the country through public denunciations, forced labour and executions.

In what could be interpreted as either a simple-minded or cynically planned move, Mao reacted to the "thaw" that had occurred in the Soviet Union following the death of Stalin with a speech calling to "let a hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools of thought contend". The stated purpose of this speech was to draw more intellectuals and skilled people into the party, whose membership was still over-whelmingly rural and peasant based.(9)

An intellectual himself, like his idols Lenin and Stalin, Mao was just as intolerant as these two when harsh criticisms of the party reached his ears. A series of show trials, forced labour and executions followed on a much grander scale than the earlier "Anti-Rightest Campaign". If Mao had wanted to discover potential enemies he couldn't have done it more effectively.

Mao was unconvinced that the Russian political model was an exact fit for China and in order to accommodate the large peasantry which had fuelled his revolution he embarked on what is very likely the most disastrous experiment in social engineering in human history. To this project he gave the now ironical name, "The Great Leap Forward" (1958-1960).

Encouraged by successes being reported from some of the communes that had been established experimentally in the country Mao decided that the time for moderation in introducing the country to true Marxism-Leninism had passed. Full collectivisation was seen by him as a cure for the country's backwardness and, rather than proceeding with industrialisation in mostly urban areas as the Russians had, Mao believed that through sheer force of will the Chinese peasantry could industrialise themselves alongside their collectivisation. Targets, both agricultural and industrial were set ludicrously high during the three years of the Great Leap and resulted in famines during which some thirty million people perished.(10) Mao's apologists have tried to minimise the horror blaming the famines on droughts and natural disasters which did indeed, in some areas, contribute to them. It should be remembered, however, that many millions died in areas not effected by these conditions. The "Great Leap Forward" was a man-made disaster and the man most responsible for it was Mao Zedong.

When the full consequences of what Mao had done began to be realised it led to a show down at the highest level pitting him against Liu Shaoqi, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, a battle which Mao lost.(11) Stripped of most of his power Mao faded into the background of party life but remained a powerful symbol, an advantage he would exploit a few years later when he returned, more powerful than ever, to inflict the excesses of the Cultural Revolution on an increasingly terrified nation.

By all accounts the years of Mao's exile from real power had been successful ones notable for the restraint shown by the leadership of the party in the transition to "pure socialism" but the pace was too slow for Mao and his closest allies who came to be called "The Gang of Four". Together they launched a two-pronged attack on those who "act left but are in essence right"(12) trying on the largest scale yet to purge all remaining "bourgeois" elements left in the country.

Mao's ally Lin Pao was the head of the People's Liberation Army or PLA and Mao extolled the miilitary as the foremost exemplar of the Communist state against the Party itself which was under the control of his enemies. Through his de-facto control of the military much of his power was restored and he began to settle old scores but, by its very nature the military was a conservative institution and in order to unseat his enemies Mao needed to promote chaos, a kind of permanent Revolution. Toward this end the Red Guards, made up of high-school and university students were created. Armed with Mao's Red Book, the Red Guards purged the party and just about any other victim they could find including their own teachers who were beaten, humiliated and sentenced to hard labour by their pupils. When Lin Pao died after a possible plot to kill Mao in order to take his place, the PLA began to quietly restore order. Many of those who had been denounced during those years were quietly re-installed in their posts as Mao's health determined his exit from an active role in government to a kind of figurehead. Others, especially Lin Bao were denounced for fomenting the Cultural Revolution and that chapter in the country's history was closed until after Mao's death when the CCP led by Deng Xiopeng, who had certainly suffered during the Cultural Revolution, admitted that Mao had made some mistakes but tried to maintain his legend for the sake of the legitimacy of the party.(13)

Mao became a man obsessed with achieving his goal of a perfect state regardless of the cost in terms of human life. Familiar as he must have been with the Analects of Confucius from his student days, he might have done well to heed what could have been a warning written for him:

"XV.17: The Master said, "The superior man in everything considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety (li ). He brings it forth in humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed a superior man."

For all his accomplishments, Mao's hubris precipitated disasters that his country has yet to recover from and created the dehumanising political environment which was on display in Tiannaman Square years after his death.


1 Encyclopedia Britannica. "Mao Zedong.",, 1999-2000.

2 Ibid.

3 Various Authors. "The Rise of the Communists." CHINA: US ARMY AREA HANDBOOK. April, 1994.

4 Op. Cit. Encyclopedia Britannica.

5 Op. Cit. Encyclopedia Britannica.

6 Various Authors. "Republican China." CHINA: US ARMY AREA HANDBOOK. April, 1994.

7 Ibid.


9 Op. Cit. "The People's Republic of China." China: US Army Area Handbook.

10 Op. Cit. Caplan, Bryan.

11 Ibid.

12 Op. Cit. "The People's Republic of China." China: US Army Area Handbook.

13 Heilbrunn, Jacob. "MAO MORE THAN EVER". The New Republic. April 21, 1997.

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