Mao Zedong: Biographical and Political Profile

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 Changsha.

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 Ch'ing).

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.

Leader of the Chinese Revolution

Mao Zedong was one of the historic figures of the twentieth century. A founder of the CCP (Communist Party), he played a major role in the establishment of the Red Army and the development of a defensible base area in Jiangxi province during the late 1920s and early 1930s. He consolidated his rule over the Party in the years after the Long March and directed overall strategy during the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war. He formally assumed the post of Party Chairman in 1945. His reliance on the peasantry (a major departure from prevailing Soviet doctrine) and dependence on guerrilla warfare in the revolution were essential to the Communist triumph in China.

Following the establishment of the PRC (People's Republic of China) in 1949, Mao was responsible for many of the political initiatives that transformed the face of China. These included land reform, the collectivization of agriculture, and the spread of medical services. In particular, this leader of the revolution remained alert to what he saw to be new forms of oppression and sensitive to the interests of the oppressed. In 1958 he advocated a self-reliant "Great Leap Forward" campaign in rural development. The failure of the Leap led Mao to turn many responsibilities over to other leaders (Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, etc.) and to withdraw from active decision making.

During the early 1960s, Mao continued his restless challenge of what he perceived as new forms of domination (in his words, "revisionism," or "capitalist restoration"). In foreign policy he led China's divorce from the Soviet Union. Domestically, he became increasingly wary of his subordinates' approach to development, fearing that it was fostering deep social and political inequalities. When Liu, Deng, and others seemed to be ignoring his call to "never forget class struggle," Mao in 1966 initiated the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," exploiting discontent among some students (the "Red Guards") and others. The Cultural Revolution was successful in removing many who opposed his policies but led to serious disorder, forcing Mao to call in the military to restore order in 1967.

In 1969 Mao designated Defense Minister Lin Biao, a Cultural Revolution ally, as his heir apparent. But Mao came to have doubts about Lin and soon challenged him politically. One of the issues of debate was the opening to the United States, advocated by Mao and Zhou Enlai as a counter to the Soviet Union. In 1971 Lin was killed in a plane crash while fleeing China after an alleged assassination attempt on Mao.

Until his death, a failing Mao refereed a struggle between those who benefited from the Cultural Revolution and defended its policies, and rehabilitated veterans who believed that the Cultural Revolution had done China serious harm. It seemed for a while that the veterans, led by Deng Xiaoping, had won the day. But the radicals, either by manipulating Mao or by appealing to his basic instincts, regained momentum after Zhou Enlai's death in January 1976. Mao chose the more centrist Hua Guofeng to carry on his vision. Four weeks after Mao's death, Hua led the arrest of major radical figures, four of whom — Zhang Chunqiao, Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan — were dubbed a "gang."

The post-Mao era has seen a reversal of much that Mao stood for and the eclipse of many individuals, living and dead, that he stood behind. His leadership, especially the Cultural Revolution initiative, has been hotly debated. In June 1981 the Party Central Committee approved a resolution that criticized Mao's rule after 1958, but affirmed his place as a great leader and ideologist of the Chinese Communist revolution.

From Focus on Asian Studies, vol. IV, no. 1, Fall 1984 (New York: The Asia Society). © 1984 The Asia Society. Reprinted with permission.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you think Mao's childhood influenced his later years?
  2. What tactics did Mao use that were different from other revolutionaries that helped him win the revolution?
  3. Some have said that Mao was a visionary who slowly lost touch with reality as time went on. Do you agree or disagree? Answer by citing two examples or events from the reading to support your position.