The Early Years
Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was both a product and a part of the revolutionary change
in 20th-century China. He was born December 26, 1893, in the small village
of Shaoshan in Hunan province. Although he described his father as a "rich
peasant," the family clearly had to work hard for a living.
From an early age, Mao was a voracious reader. He particularly liked
popular historical novels concerning rebellions and unconventional military
heroes. At age thirteen, after five years of education in the local primary
school, he was forced by his father to leave school and return to the
farm. Mao continued to study on his own and at age sixteen left home
to complete his elementary school training in the Hunanese capital of
It was here that Mao began to experience the powerful revolutionary
waves engulfing Chinese society. He read the works of nationalist reformers
such as Kang Yuwei (Kang You-wei). He developed an admiration for the
strong emperors in earlier periods of Chinese history and for certain
Western statesmen including George Washington. Mao watched as China's
last dynasty crumbled.
Mao's career in the army was brief and uneventful. From 1913 until 1918
he was in the First Hunan Normal School. His reminiscences indicate that
he took himself and his convictions seriously.
In 1918 Mao graduated from Normal School and traveled to Beijing.
There he became caught up in the intellectual and political activity
of the May Fourth Movement.** He received a minor post at the Beijing
University Library where he was exposed to Dean Chen Duxiu (Ch'en
Tu-hsiu) and Librarian Li Dazhao (Li Ta-chao), who later became
founders of the Chinese Communist Party.
Moving between Changsha and Shanghai in 1919-1920, Mao picked up
odd jobs but devoted his energies to reading, writing, and talking
about revolution. By 1920 he described himself as "a Marxist in theory
and to some extent in action," and in July 1921 he was one of the
small group that founded the Chinese Communist Party.
Mao became a major participant in the United Front. Of great importance
to his later career was his appointment as head of the KMT (Kuomintang,
or Nationalist Party) Peasant Movement Training Institute. His work at
the Institute, which included ideological and organizational instruction
for peasant leaders, opened his eyes to the revolutionary potential of
the Chinese peasantry.
In 1921 Mao married Yang Kaihui (Yang K'ai-hui), the daughter of one
of his mentors at Beijing University. She was later executed by the Kuomintang
in 1930. However, in 1928 Mao had begun to live with a young girl of
eighteen, He Zizhen (Ho Tsu-chen). Over the next nine years they had
five children. In 1937 he divorced He and married Jiang Qing (Chiang
Nineteen twenty-seven was a cataclysmic year for everyone involved in
the Chinese Revolution. After the April Shanghai coup, Mao and his Communist
cohorts were involved in the futile uprisings in southern China. This
experience led to a lifelong distrust of Soviet advice and intentions,
a deep animosity toward Chiang Kaishek and the Nationalists, and a search
for new approaches to a mass-based revolution.
Mao retreated with a small band of followers to Jinggangshan (Chingkangshan),
a mountainous, forested region in the southeastern province of Jiangxi
(Kiangsi). It was here he faced the reality of rural revolution.
** The May Fourth Movement was a cultural and intellectual awakening
that started as a student movement and spread to a larger group of Chinese,
bringing significant social change in urban China.
From Focus on Asian Studies, vol. IV, no. 1, Fall 1984 (New York:
The Asia Society). © 1984 The Asia Society.
Reprinted with permission.