Mao Zedong

mao zedong

Mao Zedong, who ruled China till his death in 1976

History has cast Mao Zedong as the face of communism in China. Mao rose from humble origins, born to a family of peasant farmers in Hunan province. His father owned enough land to be able to provide the young Mao with a basic education. Though he fought briefly with revolutionary forces in 1911, most of Mao’s early life was spent as an academic, a librarian and a primary school principal. He was a voracious reader of texts and speeches, including traditional Chinese philosophy and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Mao began as a Marxist but in time his ideology was transformed by his sympathies with China’s peasantry. In 1921 Mao was one of a dozen delegates to attend the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) first congress. He was subsequently elected as the CCP’s general secretary in his home province of Hunan. In 1930 Mao’s first wife, Yang Kaihui, was tortured and killed in front of her eight-year-old son by Kuomintang agents. The following year Mao relocated to Jiangxi, where he was put in charge of the local soviet there.

mao zedong

Mao during his time as a young CCP leader in Hunan

At this point, control of the CCP rested with a group of 28 party members, most from cities like Shanghai. This group was strongly influenced, if not actually controlled by Stalin and the Communist International in Moscow. Mao was an important regional leader but he had little influence over the party’s decision-making. The Long March of 1934-36 led to a dramatic change in the party’s leadership – and particularly in Mao’s position within the CCP. According to legend – or, more precisely, to party propaganda – Mao’s inspirational leadership and strategic decision-making during the Long March proved pivotal to the survival of CCP forces. Several historians have queried whether this was truly the case. Whatever the reality, by the end of Long March, Mao Zedong had been catapulted to the helm of the CCP. From the late 1930s he was the party’s military leader, ideological mentor and figurehead. The ‘old Bolsheviks’ aligned with Moscow, the men who had previously led the party, were eventually discredited and marginalised.

Yan’an and rectification

“Mao Zedong’s only encounter with Stalin left him with a deepened distrust of the Soviet dictator. In public, Mao continued to hail Stalin as ‘the greatest genius of our age’… But privately Mao was critical of Stalin, sometimes to a petty and egotistical extent. For example, in 1958 Mao commented: ‘Buddhas are made several times life-size in order to frighten people… Stalin was that kind of person. When Chinese artists painted pictures of me together with Stalin, they always made me a little bit shorter, thus blindly knuckling under to [Soviet] pressure’.”
Maurice J. Meisner, historian
mao zedong

Mao (right) and his ally, Zhou Enlai, during the Yan’an years

From the late 1930s, the CCP was steered almost exclusively by Mao Zedong. ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, derived from collections of his political writing, became the party’s official ideology. Along with survivors of the Long March, Mao set about forging a new soviet in Yan’an, in the remote mountains of the northern province of Shaanxi. The Yan’an Soviet was to provide a ‘working model’ of Mao’s peasant-based socialism. Peasants benefited from land redistribution, education and a more egalitarian social order. Literacy in Yan’an increased from negligible levels to more than 50 per cent. The people of Yan’an were politically educated, both through formal lectures and cultural expressions of song, theatre and dance. The Red Army, the CCP’s military force, was expanded and trained.

The Yan’an Soviet certainly produced some notable successes and many Chinese still recall the famous ‘Yan’an Spirit’. But beneath this optimism lurked a darker reality about Mao Zedong’s leadership. In 1942, once Yan’an was consolidated and relatively secure, Mao initiated a program of ‘rectification’, to define and re-emphasise the CCP’s core ideology . In reality, ‘rectification’ was a mechanism to eliminate diversity, purge the party of its old leadership and increase Mao’s grip over the CCP. Thousands of party members were denounced, expelled and banished from Yan’an; as many as 10,000 were put to death. The last phase of ‘rectification’ was a re-writing of the CCP’s history that exaggerated Mao’s role in the formation and growth of the party. By the time it ended in 1945, Mao Zedong’s position at the helm of the party was unchallenged.

The split with Russia

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Propaganda portrayed Mao as the ‘great helmsman’ of his people

Since Mao was a communist leader, he had long been monitored by the United States. The Americans did not take him too seriously during the 1930s, thinking him to be nothing more than a regional figure, lacking the support or strength to impact on China generally. This proved a gross underestimation of Mao’s political skill and his ability to inspire, intimidate and manipulate. For three decades after the CCP victory in October 1949, Washington refused to recognise Mao or his party as the official government of China. For Mao, who viewed America as a nation of aggressive imperialists, “the most murderous of hangmen”, this was not a concern. Mao’s relationship with communist Russia was more important – though it was also more problematic. In late 1949, Mao traveled to Moscow to meet Joseph Stalin. As a communist leader of a major Asian nation, Mao expected Stalin to welcome him as an equal – but the Russian dictator was dismissive of Chinese communism and did not afford Mao the respect he believed he deserved. Though Mao would adopt economic policies similar to those in Soviet Russia, he believed China to be a much different place that required a “different road”. The two communist powers began to grow apart. By the late 1950s they were openly quarrelling; within a decade they had effectively split and were on the brink of war.

mao zedong

Starving Chinese peasants during Mao’s Great Leap Forward

Mao remains a controversial figure among historians. Mao’s failed economic plan, the Great Leap Forward – an attempt to catapult China into the modern industrial world – was an abysmal failure that caused the deaths of countless Chinese, perhaps as many as 20 million. Millions more endured violence, persecution, relocation, forced labour and ‘re-education’ under the rule of Mao. During the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, Mao became the centre of a cult of personality. Despite his political failures and disastrous economic policies, Mao was venerated as the saviour of China. His collected wisdom was gathered into a ‘little red book’; not carrying it was grounds for arrest or a beating. Ordinary Chinese were encouraged to denounce colleagues, friends, even family members they suspected were disloyal to Mao or communism. When Mao died in 1976, China had transitioned from a backward feudal empire to a technological superpower – but as in Stalin’s Russia, this transition was paid for with enormous human cost and suffering.



1. Mao Zedong was born in Hunan of peasant stock before becoming a regional leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
2. Mao grew in significance during the Long March of the mid-1930s, after which he became the party’s figurehead.
3. He led the CCP through World War II and the revolution which in 1949 gave the communists control of China.
4. Mao sought a close alliance with the USSR but his personal relationship with Stalin soon proved difficult.
5. In a similar fashion to Stalinist Russia, China under Mao made rapid industrial, technical and military advances, but at enormous human cost and suffering.

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