Mao Zedong

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Revolution is not a dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of 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.

— Mao, February 1927 [98]

The CCP Central Committee, hiding in Shanghai, expelled Mao from their ranks and from the Hunan Provincial Committee, as punishment for his "military opportunism", for his focus on rural activity, and for being too lenient with "bad gentry". The more orthodox Communists especially regarded the peasants as backward and ridiculed Mao's idea of mobilizing them. [67] They nevertheless adopted three policies he had long championed: the immediate formation of Workers' councils, the confiscation of all land without exemption, and the rejection of the KMT. Mao's response was to ignore them. [99] He established a base in Jinggangshan City, an area of the Jinggang Mountains, where he united five villages as a self-governing state, and supported the confiscation of land from rich landlords, who were "re-educated" and sometimes executed. He ensured that no massacres took place in the region, and pursued a more lenient approach than that advocated by the Central Committee. [100] He proclaimed that "Even the lame, the deaf and the blind could all come in useful for the revolutionary struggle", he boosted the army's numbers, [101] incorporating two groups of bandits into his army, building a force of around 1,800 troops. [102] He laid down rules for his soldiers: prompt obedience to orders, all confiscations were to be turned over to the government, and nothing was to be confiscated from poorer peasants. In doing so, he moulded his men into a disciplined, efficient fighting force. [101]


When the enemy advances, we retreat.
When the enemy rests, we harass him.
When the enemy avoids a battle, we attack.
When the enemy retreats, we advance.

— Mao's advice in combating the Kuomintang, 1928 [103] [104]

Chinese Communist revolutionaries in the 1920s Bare foot revolutionary.jpg
Chinese Communist revolutionaries in the 1920s

In spring 1928, the Central Committee ordered Mao's troops to southern Hunan, hoping to spark peasant uprisings. Mao was skeptical, but complied. They reached Hunan, where they were attacked by the KMT and fled after heavy losses. Meanwhile, KMT troops had invaded Jinggangshan, leaving them without a base. [105] Wandering the countryside, Mao's forces came across a CCP regiment led by General Zhu De and Lin Biao; they united, and attempted to retake Jinggangshan. They were initially successful, but the KMT counter-attacked, and pushed the CCP back; over the next few weeks, they fought an entrenched guerrilla war in the mountains. [103] [106] The Central Committee again ordered Mao to march to south Hunan, but he refused, and remained at his base. Contrastingly, Zhu complied, and led his armies away. Mao's troops fended the KMT off for 25 days while he left the camp at night to find reinforcements. He reunited with the decimated Zhu's army, and together they returned to Jinggangshan and retook the base. There they were joined by a defecting KMT regiment and Peng Dehuai's Fifth Red Army. In the mountainous area they were unable to grow enough crops to feed everyone, leading to food shortages throughout the winter. [107] [108]

In 1928, Mao met and married He Zizhen, an 18-year-old revolutionary who would bear him six children. [109] [110]

Jiangxi Soviet Republic of China: 1929–1934

Mao in Yan'an Mao Zedong in Yan'an.jpg
Mao in Yan'an

In January 1929, Mao and Zhu evacuated the base with 2,000 men and a further 800 provided by Peng, and took their armies south, to the area around Tonggu and Xinfeng in Jiangxi. [111] The evacuation led to a drop in morale, and many troops became disobedient and began thieving; this worried Li Lisan and the Central Committee, who saw Mao's army as lumpenproletariat , that were unable to share in proletariat class consciousness. [112] [113] In keeping with orthodox Marxist thought, Li believed that only the urban proletariat could lead a successful revolution, and saw little need for Mao's peasant guerrillas; he ordered Mao to disband his army into units to be sent out to spread the revolutionary message. Mao replied that while he concurred with Li's theoretical position, he would not disband his army nor abandon his base. [113] [114] Both Li and Mao saw the Chinese revolution as the key to world revolution, believing that a CCP victory would spark the overthrow of global imperialism and capitalism. In this, they disagreed with the official line of the Soviet government and Comintern. Officials in Moscow desired greater control over the CCP and removed Li from power by calling him to Russia for an inquest into his errors. [115] [116] [117] They replaced him with Soviet-educated Chinese Communists, known as the "28 Bolsheviks", two of whom, Bo Gu and Zhang Wentian, took control of the Central Committee. Mao disagreed with the new leadership, believing they grasped little of the Chinese situation, and he soon emerged as their key rival. [116] [118]

Military parade on the occasion of the founding of a Chinese Soviet Republic in 1931 1931 military parade of formation of Chinese Soviet Republic.jpg
Military parade on the occasion of the founding of a Chinese Soviet Republic in 1931

In February 1930, Mao created the Southwest Jiangxi Provincial Soviet Government in the region under his control. [119] In November, he suffered emotional trauma after his second wife Yang Kaihui and sister were captured and beheaded by KMT general He Jian. [108] [116] [120] Facing internal problems, members of the Jiangxi Soviet accused him of being too moderate, and hence anti-revolutionary. In December, they tried to overthrow Mao, resulting in the Futian incident, during which Mao's loyalists tortured many and executed between 2000 and 3000 dissenters. [121] [122] [123] The CCP Central Committee moved to Jiangxi which it saw as a secure area. In November, it proclaimed Jiangxi to be the Soviet Republic of China, an independent Communist-governed state. Although he was proclaimed Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, Mao's power was diminished, as his control of the Red Army was allocated to Zhou Enlai. Meanwhile, Mao recovered from tuberculosis. [124] [125]

The KMT armies adopted a policy of encirclement and annihilation of the Red armies. Outnumbered, Mao responded with guerrilla tactics influenced by the works of ancient military strategists like Sun Tzu, but Zhou and the new leadership followed a policy of open confrontation and conventional warfare. In doing so, the Red Army successfully defeated the first and second encirclements. [126] [127] Angered at his armies' failure, Chiang Kai-shek personally arrived to lead the operation. He too faced setbacks and retreated to deal with the further Japanese incursions into China. [124] [128] As a result of the KMT's change of focus to the defence of China against Japanese expansionism, the Red Army was able to expand its area of control, eventually encompassing a population of 3 million. [127] Mao proceeded with his land reform program. In November 1931 he announced the start of a "land verification project" which was expanded in June 1933. He also orchestrated education programs and implemented measures to increase female political participation. [129] Chiang viewed the Communists as a greater threat than the Japanese and returned to Jiangxi, where he initiated the fifth encirclement campaign, which involved the construction of a concrete and barbed wire "wall of fire" around the state, which was accompanied by aerial bombardment, to which Zhou's tactics proved ineffective. Trapped inside, morale among the Red Army dropped as food and medicine became scarce. The leadership decided to evacuate. [130]

Long March: 1934–1935

An overview map of the Long March Map of the Long March 1934-1935-en.svg
An overview map of the Long March

On October 14, 1934, the Red Army broke through the KMT line on the Jiangxi Soviet's south-west corner at Xinfeng with 85,000 soldiers and 15,000 party cadres and embarked on the "Long March". In order to make the escape, many of the wounded and the ill, as well as women and children, were left behind, defended by a group of guerrilla fighters whom the KMT massacred. [131] [132] The 100,000 who escaped headed to southern Hunan, first crossing the Xiang River after heavy fighting, [132] [133] and then the Wu River, in Guizhou where they took Zunyi in January 1935. Temporarily resting in the city, they held a conference; here, Mao was elected to a position of leadership, becoming Chairman of the Politburo, and de facto leader of both Party and Red Army, in part because his candidacy was supported by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Insisting that they operate as a guerrilla force, he laid out a destination: the Shenshi Soviet in Shaanxi, Northern China, from where the Communists could focus on fighting the Japanese. Mao believed that in focusing on the anti-imperialist struggle, the Communists would earn the trust of the Chinese people, who in turn would renounce the KMT. [134]

From Zunyi, Mao led his troops to Loushan Pass, where they faced armed opposition but successfully crossed the river. Chiang flew into the area to lead his armies against Mao, but the Communists outmanoeuvred him and crossed the Jinsha River. [135] Faced with the more difficult task of crossing the Tatu River, they managed it by fighting a battle over the Luding Bridge in May, taking Luding. [136] Marching through the mountain ranges around Ma'anshan, [137] in Moukung, Western Szechuan, they encountered the 50,000-strong CCP Fourth Front Army of Zhang Guotao, and together proceeded to Maoerhkai and then Gansu. Zhang and Mao disagreed over what to do; the latter wished to proceed to Shaanxi, while Zhang wanted to retreat east to Tibet or Sikkim, far from the KMT threat. It was agreed that they would go their separate ways, with Zhu De joining Zhang. [138] Mao's forces proceeded north, through hundreds of kilometres of Grasslands, an area of quagmire where they were attacked by Manchu tribesman and where many soldiers succumbed to famine and disease. [139] [140] Finally reaching Shaanxi, they fought off both the KMT and an Islamic cavalry militia before crossing the Min Mountains and Mount Liupan and reaching the Shenshi Soviet; only 7,000–8000 had survived. [140] [141] The Long March cemented Mao's status as the dominant figure in the party. In November 1935, he was named chairman of the Military Commission. From this point onward, Mao was the Communist Party's undisputed leader, even though he would not become party chairman until 1943. [142]

Alliance with the Kuomintang: 1935–1940

Zhang Guotao (left) and Mao Zedong in Yan'an, 1937 1938 Mao Zedong Zhang Guotao in Yan'an.jpg
Zhang Guotao (left) and Mao Zedong in Yan'an, 1937

Mao's troops arrived at the Yan'an Soviet during October 1935 and settled in Pao An, until spring 1936. While there, they developed links with local communities, redistributed and farmed the land, offered medical treatment, and began literacy programs. [140] [143] [144] Mao now commanded 15,000 soldiers, boosted by the arrival of He Long's men from Hunan and the armies of Zhu De and Zhang Guotao returned from Tibet. [143] In February 1936, they established the North West Anti-Japanese Red Army University in Yan'an, through which they trained increasing numbers of new recruits. [145] In January 1937, they began the "anti-Japanese expedition", that sent groups of guerrilla fighters into Japanese-controlled territory to undertake sporadic attacks. [146] [147] In May 1937, a Communist Conference was held in Yan'an to discuss the situation. [148] Western reporters also arrived in the "Border Region" (as the Soviet had been renamed); most notable were Edgar Snow, who used his experiences as a basis for Red Star Over China , and Agnes Smedley, whose accounts brought international attention to Mao's cause. [149]

In an effort to defeat the Japanese, Mao (left) agreed to collaborate with Chiang (right). 1945 Mao and Chiang.jpg
In an effort to defeat the Japanese, Mao (left) agreed to collaborate with Chiang (right).
Mao in 1938, writing On Protracted War Mao1938a.jpg
Mao in 1938, writing On Protracted War

On the Long March, Mao's wife He Zizen had been injured by a shrapnel wound to the head. She travelled to Moscow for medical treatment; Mao proceeded to divorce her and marry an actress, Jiang Qing. [150] [151] He Zizhen was reportedly "dispatched to a mental asylum in Moscow to make room" for Qing. [152] Mao moved into a cave-house and spent much of his time reading, tending his garden and theorising. [153] He came to believe that the Red Army alone was unable to defeat the Japanese, and that a Communist-led "government of national defence" should be formed with the KMT and other "bourgeois nationalist" elements to achieve this goal. [154] Although despising Chiang Kai-shek as a "traitor to the nation", [155] on May 5, he telegrammed the Military Council of the Nanking National Government proposing a military alliance, a course of action advocated by Stalin. [156] Although Chiang intended to ignore Mao's message and continue the civil war, he was arrested by one of his own generals, Zhang Xueliang, in Xi'an, leading to the Xi'an Incident; Zhang forced Chiang to discuss the issue with the Communists, resulting in the formation of a United Front with concessions on both sides on December 25, 1937. [157]

The Japanese had taken both Shanghai and Nanking (Nanjing)—resulting in the Nanking Massacre, an atrocity Mao never spoke of all his life—and was pushing the Kuomintang government inland to Chungking. [158] The Japanese's brutality led to increasing numbers of Chinese joining the fight, and the Red Army grew from 50,000 to 500,000. [159] [160] In August 1938, the Red Army formed the New Fourth Army and the Eighth Route Army, which were nominally under the command of Chiang's National Revolutionary Army. [161] In August 1940, the Red Army initiated the Hundred Regiments Campaign, in which 400,000 troops attacked the Japanese simultaneously in five provinces. It was a military success that resulted in the death of 20,000 Japanese, the disruption of railways and the loss of a coal mine. [160] [162] From his base in Yan'an, Mao authored several texts for his troops, including Philosophy of Revolution, which offered an introduction to the Marxist theory of knowledge; Protracted Warfare, which dealt with guerrilla and mobile military tactics; and New Democracy, which laid forward ideas for China's future. [163]

Mao with Kang Sheng in Yan'an, 1945 Kang Seng Mao Zedong in Yan'an.jpg
Mao with Kang Sheng in Yan'an, 1945

Resuming civil war: 1940–1949

In 1944, the U.S. sent a special diplomatic envoy, called the Dixie Mission, to the Chinese Communist Party. The American soldiers who were sent to the mission were favourably impressed. The party seemed less corrupt, more unified, and more vigorous in its resistance to Japan than the Kuomintang. The soldiers confirmed to their superiors that the party was both strong and popular over a broad area. [164] In the end of the mission, the contacts which the U.S. developed with the Chinese Communist Party led to very little. [164] After the end of World War II, the U.S. continued their diplomatic and military assistance to Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT government forces against the People's Liberation Army (PLA) led by Mao Zedong during the civil war and abandoned the idea of a coalition government which would include the CCP. [165] Likewise, the Soviet Union gave support to Mao by occupying north-eastern China, and secretly giving it to the Chinese communists in March 1946. [166]

PLA troops, supported by captured M5 Stuart light tanks, attacking the Nationalist lines in 1948 PLAHuaihai.jpg
PLA troops, supported by captured M5 Stuart light tanks, attacking the Nationalist lines in 1948

In 1948, under direct orders from Mao, the People's Liberation Army starved out the Kuomintang forces occupying the city of Changchun. At least 160,000 civilians are believed to have perished during the siege, which lasted from June until October. PLA lieutenant colonel Zhang Zhenglu, who documented the siege in his book White Snow, Red Blood , compared it to Hiroshima: "The casualties were about the same. Hiroshima took nine seconds; Changchun took five months." [167] On January 21, 1949, Kuomintang forces suffered great losses in decisive battles against Mao's forces. [168] In the early morning of December 10, 1949, PLA troops laid siege to Chongqing and Chengdu on mainland China, and Chiang Kai-shek fled from the mainland to Formosa (Taiwan). [168] [169]

Leadership of China

Mao Zedong declares the founding of the modern People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949 Mao Proclaiming New China.JPG
Mao Zedong declares the founding of the modern People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949

Mao proclaimed the establishment of The People's Republic of China from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'anmen) on October 1, 1949, and later that week declared "The Chinese people have stood up" (中国人民从此站起来了). [170] Mao went to Moscow for long talks in the winter of 1949–50. Mao initiated the talks which focused on the political and economic revolution in China, foreign policy, railways, naval bases, and Soviet economic and technical aid. The resulting treaty reflected Stalin's dominance and his willingness to help Mao. [171] [172]

Mao with his fourth wife, Jiang Qing, called "Madame Mao", 1946 Mao and Jiang Qing 1946.jpg
Mao with his fourth wife, Jiang Qing, called "Madame Mao", 1946

Mao pushed the Party to organise campaigns to reform society and extend control. These campaigns were given urgency in October 1950, when Mao made the decision to send the People's Volunteer Army, a special unit of the People's Liberation Army, into the Korean War and fight as well as to reinforce the armed forces of North Korea, the Korean People's Army, which had been in full retreat. The United States placed a trade embargo on the People's Republic as a result of its involvement in the Korean War, lasting until Richard Nixon's improvements of relations. At least 180 thousand Chinese troops died during the war. [173]

Mao directed operations to the minutest detail. As the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), he was also the Supreme Commander in Chief of the PLA and the People's Republic and Chairman of the Party. Chinese troops in Korea were under the overall command of then newly installed Premier Zhou Enlai, with General Peng Dehuai as field commander and political commissar. [174]

During the land reform campaigns, large numbers of landlords and rich peasants were beaten to death at mass meetings organised by the Communist Party as land was taken from them and given to poorer peasants, which significantly reduced economic inequality. [175] [176] The Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries [177] targeted bureaucratic burgeoisie, such as compradores, merchants and Kuomintang officials who were seen by the party as economic parasites or political enemies. [178] In 1976, the U.S. State department estimated as many as a million were killed in the land reform, and 800,000 killed in the counter-revolutionary campaign. [179]

Mao himself claimed that a total of 700,000 people were killed in attacks on "counter-revolutionaries" during the years 1950–1952. [180] Because there was a policy to select "at least one landlord, and usually several, in virtually every village for public execution", [181] the number of deaths range between 2 million [181] [182] [177] and 5 million. [183] [184] In addition, at least 1.5 million people, [185] perhaps as many as 4 to 6 million, [186] were sent to "reform through labour" camps where many perished. [186] Mao played a personal role in organising the mass repressions and established a system of execution quotas, [187] which were often exceeded. [177] He defended these killings as necessary for the securing of power. [188]

Mao at Joseph Stalin's 70th birthday celebration in Moscow, December 1949 Mao, Bulganin, Stalin, Ulbricht Tsedenbal.jpeg
Mao at Joseph Stalin's 70th birthday celebration in Moscow, December 1949

The Mao government is credited with eradicating both consumption and production of opium during the 1950s using unrestrained repression and social reform. [7] [189] Ten million addicts were forced into compulsory treatment, dealers were executed, and opium-producing regions were planted with new crops. Remaining opium production shifted south of the Chinese border into the Golden Triangle region. [189]

Starting in 1951, Mao initiated two successive movements in an effort to rid urban areas of corruption by targeting wealthy capitalists and political opponents, known as the three-anti/five-anti campaigns. Whereas the three-anti campaign was a focused purge of government, industrial and party officials, the five-anti campaign set its sights slightly broader, targeting capitalist elements in general. [190] Workers denounced their bosses, spouses turned on their spouses, and children informed on their parents; the victims were often humiliated at struggle sessions, where a targeted person would be verbally and physically abused until they confessed to crimes. Mao insisted that minor offenders be criticised and reformed or sent to labour camps, "while the worst among them should be shot". These campaigns took several hundred thousand additional lives, the vast majority via suicide. [191]

Mao and Zhou Enlai meeting with Dalai Lama (right) and Panchen Lama (left) to celebrate Tibetan New Year, Beijing, 1955 Mao dalai lama-1955.jpg
Mao and Zhou Enlai meeting with Dalai Lama (right) and Panchen Lama (left) to celebrate Tibetan New Year, Beijing, 1955

In Shanghai, suicide by jumping from tall buildings became so commonplace that residents avoided walking on the pavement near skyscrapers for fear that suicides might land on them. [192] Some biographers have pointed out that driving those perceived as enemies to suicide was a common tactic during the Mao-era. In his biography of Mao, Philip Short notes that Mao gave explicit instructions in the Yan'an Rectification Movement that "no cadre is to be killed" but in practice allowed security chief Kang Sheng to drive opponents to suicide and that "this pattern was repeated throughout his leadership of the People's Republic". [193]

Photo of Mao Zedong sitting, published in "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung", ca. 1955 Mao Zedong sitting.jpg
Photo of Mao Zedong sitting, published in "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung", ca. 1955

Following the consolidation of power, Mao launched the First Five-Year Plan (1953–1958), which emphasised rapid industrial development. Within industry, iron and steel, electric power, coal, heavy engineering, building materials, and basic chemicals were prioritised with the aim of constructing large and highly capital-intensive plants. Many of these plants were built with Soviet assistance and heavy industry grew rapily. [194] Agriculture, industry and trade was organised on a collective basis (socialist cooperatives). [195] This period marked the beginning of China's rapid industrialisation and it resulted in an enormous success. [196]

The success of the First-Five Year Plan encouraged Mao to instigate the Second Five-Year Plan in 1958. During this period, industrial output value doubled; the gross value of agricultural products increased by 35 percent; steel production in 1962 was between 10.6 million tons or 12 million tons; investment in capital construction rose 5 percent; investment in capital construction was doubled and the average income of workers and farmers increased by up to 30 percent. [197]

Programs pursued during this time include the Hundred Flowers Campaign, in which Mao indicated his supposed willingness to consider different opinions about how China should be governed. Given the freedom to express themselves, liberal and intellectual Chinese began opposing the Communist Party and questioning its leadership. This was initially tolerated and encouraged. After a few months, Mao's government reversed its policy and persecuted those who had criticised the party, totalling perhaps 500,000, [198] as well as those who were merely alleged to have been critical, in what is called the Anti-Rightist Movement. Authors such as Jung Chang have alleged that the Hundred Flowers Campaign was merely a ruse to root out "dangerous" thinking. [199]

Li Zhisui, Mao's physician, suggested that Mao had initially seen the policy as a way of weakening opposition to him within the party and that he was surprised by the extent of criticism and the fact that it came to be directed at his own leadership. [200]

Great Leap Forward

Mao with Nikita Khrushchev, Ho Chi Minh and Soong Ching-ling during a state dinner in Beijing, 1959 Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Soong Ching-ling.jpg
Mao with Nikita Khrushchev, Ho Chi Minh and Soong Ching-ling during a state dinner in Beijing, 1959

In January 1958, Mao launched the second Five-Year Plan, known as the Great Leap Forward, a plan intended to turn China from an agrarian nation to an industrialised one [201] and as an alternative model for economic growth to the Soviet model focusing on heavy industry that was advocated by others in the party. Under this economic program, the relatively small agricultural collectives that had been formed to date were rapidly merged into far larger people's communes, and many of the peasants were ordered to work on massive infrastructure projects and on the production of iron and steel. Some private food production was banned, and livestock and farm implements were brought under collective ownership.[ citation needed ]

Under the Great Leap Forward, Mao and other party leaders ordered the implementation of a variety of unproven and unscientific new agricultural techniques by the new communes. The combined effect of the diversion of labour to steel production and infrastructure projects, and cyclical natural disasters led to an approximately 15% drop in grain production in 1959 followed by a further 10% decline in 1960 and no recovery in 1961. [202]

In an effort to win favour with their superiors and avoid being purged, each layer in the party exaggerated the amount of grain produced under them. Based upon the falsely reported success, party cadres were ordered to requisition a disproportionately high amount of that fictitious harvest for state use, primarily for use in the cities and urban areas but also for export. The result, compounded in some areas by drought and in others by floods, was that farmers were left with little food for themselves and many millions starved to death in the Great Chinese Famine. The people of urban areas in China were given food stamps each month, but the people of rural areas were expected to grow their own crops and give some of the crops back to the government. The death count in rural parts of China surpassed the deaths in the urban centers. Additionally, the Chinese government continued to export food that could have been allocated to the country's starving citizens. [203] The famine was a direct cause of the death of some 30 million Chinese peasants between 1959 and 1962. [204] Furthermore, many children who became malnourished during years of hardship died after the Great Leap Forward came to an end in 1962. [202]

The extent of Mao's knowledge of the severity of the situation has been disputed. Mao's physician believed that he may have been unaware of the extent of the famine, partly due to a reluctance of local officials to criticise his policies, and the willingness of his staff to exaggerate or outright fake reports. [205] Upon learning of the extent of the starvation, Mao vowed to stop eating meat, an action followed by his staff. [206]

Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikötter, [207] in his book Mao's Great Famine , challenged the notion that Mao did not know about the famine throughout the country until it was too late as "largely a myth—at most partially true for the autumn of 1958 only." At a secret meeting in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai dated March 25, 1959, Dikötter continues, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one third of all the grain, and announced that "To distribute resources evenly will only ruin the Great Leap Forward. When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill." [208] [209] Thomas P. Bernstein of Columbia University offered his view that Mao's statement in the March 25, 1959, meeting was "an instance of Mao's use of hyperbole, another being his casual acceptance of death of half the population during a nuclear war." In other contexts, Bernstein went on, Mao did not in fact accept mass death. In October 1958, Mao expressed real concern that 40,000 people in Yunnan had starved to death and shortly after the March 25 meeting, he worried about 25.2 million people who were at risk of starvation. [210] From late summer on, Mao forgot about this issue until the Xinyang Incident came to light in October 1960. [211] Anthony Garnaut says that Dikötter's juxtaposition and sampling techniques fall short of academic best practice. He also posits that Dikötter's interpretation of Mao's quotation ("It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill") not only ignores the substantial commentary on the conference by other scholars and several of its key participants but defies the very plain wording of the archival document in his possession on which he hangs his case. [212] There is a discussion about Dikötter's misuse of Mao's quotation in H-Net. [213]

Early in the Great Leap Forward, commune members were encouraged to eat their fill in communal canteens, but many canteens shut down as they ran out of food and fuel. People's commone canteen3.jpg
Early in the Great Leap Forward, commune members were encouraged to eat their fill in communal canteens, but many canteens shut down as they ran out of food and fuel.

In late autumn 1958, Mao condemned cadres for tactics such as requiring exhausting labour acknowledge that anti-rightist pressures were a major cause of "production at the expense of livelihood." He refused to abandon the GLF to solve these difficulties, but he did demand that they be confronted. After the July 1959 clash at Lushan Conference with Peng Dehuai, Mao launched a new anti-rightist campaign along with the radical policies that he previously abandoned. Mao expressed concern about abnormal deaths and other abuses in the spring of 1960, but did not move to stop them. Bernstein concludes that the Chairman "wilfully ignored the lessons of the first radical phase for the sake of achieving extreme ideological and developmental goals". [210]

Jasper Becker notes that Mao was dismissive of reports he received of food shortages in the countryside and refused to change course, believing that peasants were lying and that rightists and kulaks were hoarding grain. He refused to open state granaries, [215] and instead launched a series of "anti-grain concealment" drives that resulted in numerous purges and suicides. [216] Other violent campaigns followed in which party leaders went from village to village in search of hidden food reserves, and not only grain, as Mao issued quotas for pigs, chickens, ducks and eggs. Many peasants accused of hiding food were tortured and beaten to death. [217]

Mao stepped down as President of China on April 27, 1959; however, he retained other top positions such as Chairman of the Communist Party and of the Central Military Commission. [218] The Presidency was transferred to Liu Shaoqi. [218] He was eventually forced to abandon the policy in 1962, and he lost political power to Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. [219]

The Great Leap Forward was a tragedy for the vast majority of the Chinese. Although the steel quotas were officially reached, almost all of the supposed steel made in the countryside was iron, as it had been made from assorted scrap metal in home-made furnaces with no reliable source of fuel such as coal. This meant that proper smelting conditions could not be achieved. According to Zhang Rongmei, a geometry teacher in rural Shanghai during the Great Leap Forward: "We took all the furniture, pots, and pans we had in our house, and all our neighbours did likewise. We put everything in a big fire and melted down all the metal".[ citation needed ] The worst of the famine was steered towards enemies of the state. [220] Jasper Becker explains: "The most vulnerable section of China's population, around five percent, were those whom Mao called 'enemies of the people'. Anyone who had in previous campaigns of repression been labeled a 'black element' was given the lowest priority in the allocation of food. Landlords, rich peasants, former members of the nationalist regime, religious leaders, rightists, counter-revolutionaries and the families of such individuals died in the greatest numbers." [221]

At a large Communist Party conference in Beijing in January 1962, dubbed the "Seven Thousand Cadres Conference", State Chairman Liu Shaoqi denounced the Great Leap Forward, attributing the project to widespread famine in China. [222] The overwhelming majority of delegates expressed agreement, but Defense Minister Lin Biao staunchly defended Mao. [222] A brief period of liberalisation followed while Mao and Lin plotted a comeback. [222] Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping rescued the economy by disbanding the people's communes, introducing elements of private control of peasant smallholdings and importing grain from Canada and Australia to mitigate the worst effects of famine. [223]


Mao with Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, Beijing, 1972 Kissinger Mao.jpg
Mao with Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, Beijing, 1972

At the Lushan Conference in July/August 1959, several ministers expressed concern that the Great Leap Forward had not proved as successful as planned. The most direct of these was Minister of Defence and Korean War veteran General Peng Dehuai. Following Peng's criticism of the Great Leap Forward, Mao orchestrated a purge of Peng and his supporters, stifling criticism of the Great Leap policies. Senior officials who reported the truth of the famine to Mao were branded as "right opportunists." [224] A campaign against right-wing opportunism was launched and resulted in party members and ordinary peasants being sent to prison labour camps where many would subsequently die in the famine. Years later the CCP would conclude that as many as six million people were wrongly punished in the campaign. [225]

The number of deaths by starvation during the Great Leap Forward is deeply controversial. Until the mid-1980s, when official census figures were finally published by the Chinese Government, little was known about the scale of the disaster in the Chinese countryside, as the handful of Western observers allowed access during this time had been restricted to model villages where they were deceived into believing that the Great Leap Forward had been a great success. There was also an assumption that the flow of individual reports of starvation that had been reaching the West, primarily through Hong Kong and Taiwan, must have been localised or exaggerated as China was continuing to claim record harvests and was a net exporter of grain through the period. Because Mao wanted to pay back early to the Soviets debts totalling 1.973 billion yuan from 1960 to 1962, [226] exports increased by 50%, and fellow Communist regimes in North Korea, North Vietnam and Albania were provided grain free of charge. [215]

Censuses were carried out in China in 1953, 1964 and 1982. The first attempt to analyse this data to estimate the number of famine deaths was carried out by American demographer Dr. Judith Banister and published in 1984. Given the lengthy gaps between the censuses and doubts over the reliability of the data, an accurate figure is difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, Banister concluded that the official data implied that around 15 million excess deaths incurred in China during 1958–61, and that based on her modelling of Chinese demographics during the period and taking account of assumed under-reporting during the famine years, the figure was around 30 million. The official statistic is 20 million deaths, as given by Hu Yaobang. [227] Yang Jisheng, a former Xinhua News Agency reporter who had privileged access and connections available to no other scholars, estimates a death toll of 36 million. [226] Frank Dikötter estimates that there were at least 45 million premature deaths attributable to the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962. [228] Various other sources have put the figure at between 20 and 46 million. [229] [230] [231]

Split from Soviet Union

U.S. President Gerald Ford watches as Henry Kissinger shakes hands with Mao during their visit to China, December 2, 1975 President Gerald Ford and Daughter Susan Watch as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger Shakes Hands with Mao Tse-Tung.jpg
U.S. President Gerald Ford watches as Henry Kissinger shakes hands with Mao during their visit to China, December 2, 1975

On the international front, the period was dominated by the further isolation of China. The Sino-Soviet split resulted in Nikita Khrushchev's withdrawal of all Soviet technical experts and aid from the country. The split concerned the leadership of world communism. The USSR had a network of Communist parties it supported; China now created its own rival network to battle it out for local control of the left in numerous countries. [232] Lorenz M. Lüthi writes: "The Sino-Soviet split was one of the key events of the Cold War, equal in importance to the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Second Vietnam War, and Sino-American rapprochement. The split helped to determine the framework of the Second Cold War in general, and influenced the course of the Second Vietnam War in particular." [233]

The split resulted from Nikita Khrushchev's more moderate Soviet leadership after the death of Stalin in March 1953. Only Albania openly sided with China, thereby forming an alliance between the two countries which would last until after Mao's death in 1976. Warned that the Soviets had nuclear weapons, Mao minimised the threat. Becker says that "Mao believed that the bomb was a 'paper tiger', declaring to Khrushchev that it would not matter if China lost 300 million people in a nuclear war: the other half of the population would survive to ensure victory". [234] Struggle against Soviet revisionism and U.S imperialism was an important aspect of Mao's attempt to direct the revolution in the right direction. [235]

Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

A public appearance of Chairman Mao and Lin Biao among Red Guards, in Beijing, during the Cultural Revolution (November 1966) 1966-11 1966Nian Mao Ze Dong Lin Biao Yu Hong Wei Bing .jpg
A public appearance of Chairman Mao and Lin Biao among Red Guards, in Beijing, during the Cultural Revolution (November 1966)

During the early 1960s, Mao became concerned with the nature of post-1959 China. He saw that the revolution and Great Leap Forward had replaced the old ruling elite with a new one. He was concerned that those in power were becoming estranged from the people they were to serve. Mao believed that a revolution of culture would unseat and unsettle the "ruling class" and keep China in a state of "perpetual revolution" that, theoretically, would serve the interests of the majority, rather than a tiny and privileged elite. [236] State Chairman Liu Shaoqi and General Secretary Deng Xiaoping favoured the idea that Mao be removed from actual power as China's head of state and government but maintain his ceremonial and symbolic role as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, with the party upholding all of his positive contributions to the revolution. They attempted to marginalise Mao by taking control of economic policy and asserting themselves politically as well. Many claim that Mao responded to Liu and Deng's movements by launching the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966. Some scholars, such as Mobo Gao, claim the case for this is overstated. [237] Others, such as Frank Dikötter, hold that Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to wreak revenge on those who had dared to challenge him over the Great Leap Forward. [238]

Believing that certain liberal bourgeois elements of society continued to threaten the socialist framework, groups of young people known as the Red Guards struggled against authorities at all levels of society and even set up their own tribunals. Chaos reigned in much of the nation, and millions were persecuted. During the Cultural Revolution, nearly all of the schools and universities in China were closed, and the young intellectuals living in cities were ordered to the countryside to be "re-educated" by the peasants, where they performed hard manual labour and other work.[ citation needed ]

The Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of much of China's traditional cultural heritage and the imprisonment of a huge number of Chinese citizens, as well as the creation of general economic and social chaos in the country. Millions of lives were ruined during this period, as the Cultural Revolution pierced into every part of Chinese life, depicted by such Chinese films as To Live , The Blue Kite and Farewell My Concubine . It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, perished in the violence of the Cultural Revolution. [231] This included prominent figures such as Liu Shaoqi. [239] [240] [241]

When Mao was informed of such losses, particularly that people had been driven to suicide, he is alleged to have commented: "People who try to commit suicide—don't attempt to save them! ... China is such a populous nation, it is not as if we cannot do without a few people." [242] The authorities allowed the Red Guards to abuse and kill opponents of the regime. Said Xie Fuzhi, national police chief: "Don't say it is wrong of them to beat up bad persons: if in anger they beat someone to death, then so be it." [243] In August and September 1966, there were a reported 1,772 people murdered by the Red Guards in Beijing alone. [244]

It was during this period that Mao chose Lin Biao, who seemed to echo all of Mao's ideas, to become his successor. Lin was later officially named as Mao's successor. By 1971, a divide between the two men had become apparent. Official history in China states that Lin was planning a military coup or an assassination attempt on Mao. Lin Biao died on September 13, 1971, in a plane crash over the air space of Mongolia, presumably as he fled China, probably anticipating his arrest. The CCP declared that Lin was planning to depose Mao and posthumously expelled Lin from the party. At this time, Mao lost trust in many of the top CCP figures. The highest-ranking Soviet Bloc intelligence defector, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa claimed he had a conversation with Nicolae Ceaușescu, who told him about a plot to kill Mao Zedong with the help of Lin Biao organised by the KGB. [245]

Despite being considered a feminist figure by some and a supporter of women's rights, documents released by the US Department of State in 2008 show that Mao declared women to be a "nonsense" in 1973, in conversation with Henry Kissinger, joking that "China is a very poor country. We don't have much. What we have in excess is women. ... Let them go to your place. They will create disasters. That way you can lessen our burdens." [246] When Mao offered 10 million women, Kissinger replied by saying that Mao was "improving his offer". [247] Mao and Kissinger then agreed that their comments on women be removed from public records, prompted by a Chinese official who feared that Mao's comments might incur public anger if released. [248]

In 1969, Mao declared the Cultural Revolution to be over, although various historians in and outside of China mark the end of the Cultural Revolution—as a whole or in part—in 1976, following Mao's death and the arrest of the Gang of Four. [249] The Central Committee in 1981 officially declared the Cultural Revolution a "severe setback" for the PRC. [250] It is often looked at in all scholarly circles as a greatly disruptive period for China. [251] Despite the pro-poor rhetoric of Mao's regime, his economic policies led to substantial poverty. [252] Some scholars, such as Lee Feigon and Mobo Gao, claim there were many great advances, and in some sectors the Chinese economy continued to outperform the West. [253]

Estimates of the death toll during the Cultural Revolution, including civilians and Red Guards, vary greatly. An estimate of around 400,000 deaths is a widely accepted minimum figure, according to Maurice Meisner. [254] MacFarquhar and Schoenhals assert that in rural China alone some 36 million people were persecuted, of whom between 750,000 and 1.5 million were killed, with roughly the same number permanently injured. [255] In Mao: The Unknown Story , Jung Chang and Jon Halliday claim that as many as 3 million people died in the violence of the Cultural Revolution. [256]

Historian Daniel Leese writes that in the 1950s Mao's personality was hardening: "The impression of Mao's personality that emerges from the literature is disturbing. It reveals a certain temporal development from a down-to-earth leader, who was amicable when uncontested and occasionally reflected on the limits of his power, to an increasingly ruthless and self-indulgent dictator. Mao's preparedness to accept criticism decreased continuously." [257]

State visits

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong in 1959 (cropped).jpg
Mao in 1959
Chairman of the Communist Party of China
In office
March 20, 1943 September 9, 1976
Flag of the Soviet Union.svg  Soviet Union December 16, 1949 Joseph Stalin
Flag of the Soviet Union.svg  Soviet Union November 2–19, 1957 Nikita Khrushchev

During his leadership, Mao travelled outside China on only two occasions, both state visits to the Soviet Union. His first visit abroad was to celebrate the 70th birthday of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, which was also attended by East German Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers Walter Ulbricht and Mongolian communist General Secretary Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal. [258] The second visit to Moscow was a two-week state visit of which the highlights included Mao's attendance at the 40th anniversary (Ruby Jubilee) celebrations of the October Revolution (he attended the annual military parade of the Moscow Garrison on Red Square as well as a banquet in the Moscow Kremlin) and the International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties, where he met with other communist leaders such as North Korea's Kim Il-Sung [259] and Albania's Enver Hoxha. When Mao stepped down as head of state on April 27, 1959, further diplomatic state visits and travels abroad were undertaken by President Liu Shaoqi, Premier Zhou Enlai and Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping rather than Mao personally.[ citation needed ]

Death and aftermath

Mao's health declined in his last years, probably aggravated by his chain-smoking. [260] It became a state secret that he suffered from multiple lung and heart ailments during his later years. [261] There are unconfirmed reports that he possibly had Parkinson's disease [262] in addition to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. [263] His final public appearance—and the last known photograph of him alive—had been on May 27, 1976, when he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. [264] He suffered two major heart attacks, one in March and another in July, then a third on September 5, rendering him an invalid. He died nearly four days later, at 00:10 on September 9, 1976, at the age of 82. The Communist Party delayed the announcement of his death until 16:00, when a national radio broadcast announced the news and appealed for party unity. [265]

Mao's embalmed body, draped in the CCP flag, lay in state at the Great Hall of the People for one week. [266] One million Chinese filed past to pay their final respects, many crying openly or displaying sadness, while foreigners watched on television. [267] [268] Mao's official portrait hung on the wall with a banner reading: "Carry on the cause left by Chairman Mao and carry on the cause of proletarian revolution to the end". [266] On September 17 the body was taken in a minibus to the 305 Hospital, where his internal organs were preserved in formaldehyde. [266]

On September 18, guns, sirens, whistles and horns across China were simultaneously blown and a mandatory three-minute silence was observed. [269] Tiananmen Square was packed with millions of people and a military band played "The Internationale". Hua Guofeng concluded the service with a 20-minute-long eulogy atop Tiananmen Gate. [270] Despite Mao's request to be cremated, his body was later permanently put on display in the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, in order for the Chinese nation to pay its respects. [271]


A large portrait of Mao at Tiananmen Portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong 2018-2019.png
A large portrait of Mao at Tiananmen

The simple facts of Mao's career seem incredible: in a vast land of 400 million people, at age 28, with a dozen others, to found a party and in the next fifty years to win power, organize, and remold the people and reshape the land–history records no greater achievement. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, all the kings of Europe, Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin–no predecessor can equal Mao Tse-tung's scope of accomplishment, for no other country was ever so ancient and so big as China.

John King Fairbank, American historian [272]

Mao remains a controversial figure and there is little agreement over his legacy both in China and abroad. He is regarded as one of the most important and influential individuals in the twentieth century. [273] [274] He is also known as a political intellect, theorist, military strategist, poet, and visionary. [275] He was credited and praised for driving imperialism out of China, [276] having unified China and for ending the previous decades of civil war. He is also credited with having improved the status of women in China and for improving literacy and education. In December 2013, a poll from the state-run Global Times indicated that roughly 85% of the 1,045 respondents surveyed felt that Mao's achievements outweighed his mistakes. [277]

His policies resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people in China during his 27-year reign, more than any other 20th-century leader; estimates of the number of people who died under his regime range from 40 million to as many as 80 million, [278] [279] done through starvation, persecution, prison labour in laogai , and mass executions. [193] [278] Mao rarely gave direct instruction for peoples' physical elimination. [lower-alpha 2] [193] According to biographer Philip Short, the overwhelming majority of those whom Mao's policies killed were unintended casualties of famine. [280] The others – three or four million – were the human detritus of his epic struggle to transform China. [280] China's population grew from around 550 million to over 900 million under his rule while the government did not strictly enforce its family planning policy, leading his successors such as Deng Xiaoping to take a strict one-child policy to cope with the human overpopulation. [281] [282] Mao's revolutionary tactics continue to be used by insurgents, and his political ideology continues to be embraced by many Communist organisations around the world. [283]

Had Mao died in 1956, his achievements would have been immortal. Had he died in 1966, he would still have been a great man but flawed. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?

Chen Yun, a leading Chinese Communist Party official under Mao and Deng Xiaoping [284]

Mao Zedong Square at Saoshan Mao Zedong Square 20210319.jpg
Mao Zedong Square at Saoshan

In mainland China, Mao is revered by many members and supporters of the Communist Party and respected by a great number of the general population as the "Founding Father of modern China", credited for "giving the Chinese people dignity and self-respect." [285] Mobo Gao, in his 2008 book The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, credits him for raising the average life expectancy from 35 in 1949 to 63 by 1975, bringing "unity and stability to a country that had been plagued by civil wars and foreign invasions", and laying the foundation for China to "become the equal of the great global powers". [286] Gao also lauds him for carrying out massive land reform, promoting the status of women, improving popular literacy, and positively "transform(ing) Chinese society beyond recognition." [286] Mao is credited for boosting literacy (only 20% of the population could read in 1949, compared to 65.5% thirty years later), doubling life expectancy, a near doubling of the population, and developing China's industry and infrastructure, paving the way for its position as a world power. [287] [9] [10]

Mao also has Chinese critics. Opposition to him can lead to censorship or professional repercussions in mainland China, [288] and is often done in private settings such as the Internet. [289] When a video of Bi Fujian insulting him at a private dinner in 2015 went viral, Bi garnered the support of Weibo users, with 80% of them said in a poll that Bi shouldn't apologize amidst backlash from state affiliates. [290] [291] In the West, Mao has a bad reputation. He is known for the deaths during the Great Leap Forward and for persecutions during the Cultural Revolution. Chinese citizens are aware of Mao's mistakes, but nonetheless, many see Mao as a national hero. He is seen as someone who successfully liberated the country from Japanese occupation and from Western imperialist exploitation dating back to the Opium Wars. [292] A 2019 study showed that a sizeable amount of the Chinese population, when asked about the Maoist era, described a world of purity and simplicity, where life had clear meaning, people trusted and helped one another and inequality was minimal. [292] According to the study, older people felt some degree of nostalgia for the past and expressed support for Mao even while acknowledging negative experiences. [292]

Statue of young Mao in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Mao Zedong youth art sculpture 4.jpg
Statue of young Mao in Changsha, the capital of Hunan

Though the Chinese Communist Party, which Mao led to power, has rejected in practice the economic fundamentals of much of Mao's ideology, it retains for itself many of the powers established under Mao's reign: it controls the Chinese army, police, courts and media and does not permit multi-party elections at the national or local level, except in Hong Kong and Macau. Thus it is difficult to gauge the true extent of support for the Chinese Communist Party and Mao's legacy within mainland China. For its part, the Chinese government continues to officially regard Mao as a national hero. On December 25, 2008, China opened the Mao Zedong Square to visitors in his home town of central Hunan Province to mark the 115th anniversary of his birth. [293]

A talented Chinese politician, an historian, a poet and philosopher, an all-powerful dictator and energetic organizer, a skillful diplomat and utopian socialist, the head of the most populous state, resting on his laurels, but at the same time an indefatigable revolutionary who sincerely attempted to refashion the way of life and consciousness of millions of people, a hero of national revolution and a bloody social reformer—this is how Mao goes down in history. The scale of his life was too grand to be reduced to a single meaning.

— Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine, Mao: The Real Story (2012) [294]

There continue to be disagreements on Mao's legacy. Former party official Su Shachi has opined that "he was a great historical criminal, but he was also a great force for good." [285] In a similar vein, journalist Liu Binyan has described Mao as "both monster and a genius." [285] Some historians argue that Mao was "one of the great tyrants of the twentieth century", and a dictator comparable to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, [295] [296] with a death toll surpassing both. [193] [278] In The Black Book of Communism , Jean Louis Margolin writes that "Mao Zedong was so powerful that he was often known as the Red Emperor. ... the violence he erected into a whole system far exceeds any national tradition of violence that we might find in China." [297] Mao was frequently likened to the First Emperor of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang, and personally enjoyed the comparison. [298] During a speech to party cadre in 1958, Mao said he had far outdone Qin Shi Huang in his policy against intellectuals: "What did he amount to? He only buried alive 460 scholars, while we buried 46,000. In our suppression of the counter-revolutionaries, did we not kill some counter-revolutionary intellectuals? I once debated with the democratic people: You accuse us of acting like Ch'in-shih-huang, but you are wrong; we surpass him 100 times." [299] [300] As a result of such tactics, critics have compared it to Nazi Germany. [296] [lower-alpha 3]

External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Booknotes interview with Philip Short on Mao: A Life, April 2, 2000, C-SPAN

Others, such as Philip Short in Mao: A Life, reject comparisons by saying that whereas the deaths caused by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were largely systematic and deliberate, the overwhelming majority of the deaths under Mao were unintended consequences of famine. [280] Short stated that landlord class were not exterminated as a people due to Mao's belief in redemption through thought reform, [280] and compared Mao with 19th-century Chinese reformers who challenged China's traditional beliefs in the era of China's clashes with Western colonial powers. Short writes that "Mao's tragedy and his grandeur were that he remained to the end in thrall to his own revolutionary dreams. ... He freed China from the straitjacket of its Confucian past, but the bright Red future he promised turned out to be a sterile purgatory. [280] In their 2013 biography, Mao: The Real Story, Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine assert that Mao was both "a successful creator and ultimately an evil destroyer" but also argue that he was a complicated figure who should not be lionised as a saint or reduced to a demon, as he "indeed tried his best to bring about prosperity and gain international respect for his country." [301]

In 1978, the classroom of a kindergarten in Shanghai putting up portraits of then- Chairman Hua Guofeng and former Chairman Mao Zedong Shanghai, guarderia 1978 03.jpg
In 1978, the classroom of a kindergarten in Shanghai putting up portraits of then- Chairman Hua Guofeng and former Chairman Mao Zedong

Mao's way of thinking and governing was terrifying. He put no value on human life. The deaths of others meant nothing to him.

Li Rui, Mao's personal secretary and Communist Party comrade [302]

Mao's English interpreter Sidney Rittenberg wrote in his memoir The Man Who Stayed Behind that whilst Mao "was a great leader in history", he was also "a great criminal because, not that he wanted to, not that he intended to, but in fact, his wild fantasies led to the deaths of tens of millions of people." [303] In their book Mao: The Unknown Story , which is highly discredited in academia, [304] [305] [306] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday take a very critical view of Mao's life and influence. They say that Mao was well aware that his policies would be responsible for the deaths of millions. While discussing labour-intensive projects such as waterworks and making steel, Mao said to his inner circle in November 1958: "Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die. If not half, one-third, or one-tenth—50 million—die." [307] Thomas Bernstein of Columbia University responds that this quotation is taken out of context. [308] [lower-alpha 4] Dikötter argues that CCP leaders "glorified violence and were inured to massive loss of life. And all of them shared an ideology in which the end justified the means. In 1962, having lost millions of people in his province, Li Jingquan compared the Great Leap Forward to the Long March in which only one in ten had made it to the end: 'We are not weak, we are stronger, we have kept the backbone.'" [309] Regarding the large-scale irrigation projects, Dikötter stresses that, in spite of Mao being in a good position to see the human cost, they continued unabated for several years, and ultimately claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of exhausted villagers. He also writes: "In a chilling precursor of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, villagers in Qingshui and Gansu called these projects the 'killing fields.'" [310]

Mao greets U.S. President Richard Nixon during his visit to China in 1972. Mao Zedong, Zhang Yufeng et Richard Nixon.jpg
Mao greets U.S. President Richard Nixon during his visit to China in 1972.

The United States placed a trade embargo on the People's Republic as a result of its involvement in the Korean War, lasting until Richard Nixon decided that developing relations with the PRC would be useful in dealing with the Soviet Union. [311] The television series Biography stated: "[Mao] turned China from a feudal backwater into one of the most powerful countries in the World. ... The Chinese system he overthrew was backward and corrupt; few would argue the fact that he dragged China into the 20th century. But at a cost in human lives that is staggering." [285] In the book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know published in 2010, Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California, Irvine compares China's relationship to Mao to Americans' remembrance of Andrew Jackson; both countries regard the leaders in a positive light, despite their respective roles in devastating policies. Jackson forcibly moved Native Americans through the Trail of Tears, resulting in thousands of deaths, while Mao was at the helm during the violent years of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. [312] [lower-alpha 5]

Statue of Mao in Lijiang MaoStatueinLijang.jpg
Statue of Mao in Lijiang

I should remind you that Chairman Mao dedicated most of his life to China, that he saved the party and the revolution in their most critical moments, that, in short, his contribution was so great that, without him, the Chinese people would have had a much harder time finding the right path out of the darkness. We also shouldn't forget that it was Chairman Mao who combined the teachings of Marx and Lenin with the realities of Chinese history—that it was he who applied those principles, creatively, not only to politics but to philosophy, art, literature, and military strategy.

Deng Xiaoping [313]

The ideology of Maoism has influenced many Communists, mainly in the Third World, including revolutionary movements such as Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, [314] Peru's Shining Path, and the Nepalese revolutionary movement. Under the influence of Mao's agrarian socialism and Cultural Revolution, Cambodia's Pol Pot conceived of his disastrous Year Zero policies which purged the nation of its teachers, artists and intellectuals and emptied its cities, resulting in the Cambodian genocide. [315] The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, also claims Marxism–Leninism-Maoism as its ideology, as do other Communist Parties around the world which are part of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement. China itself has moved sharply away from Maoism since Mao's death, and most people outside of China who describe themselves as Maoist regard the Deng Xiaoping reforms to be a betrayal of Maoism, in line with Mao's view of "Capitalist roaders" within the Communist Party. [316] As the Chinese government instituted free market economic reforms starting in the late 1970s and as later Chinese leaders took power, less recognition was given to the status of Mao. This accompanied a decline in state recognition of Mao in later years in contrast to previous years when the state organised numerous events and seminars commemorating Mao's 100th birthday. Nevertheless, the Chinese government has never officially repudiated the tactics of Mao. Deng Xiaoping, who was opposed to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, stated that "when we write about his mistakes we should not exaggerate, for otherwise we shall be discrediting Chairman Mao Zedong and this would mean discrediting our party and state." [317]

Mao's military writings continue to have a large amount of influence both among those who seek to create an insurgency and those who seek to crush one, especially in manners of guerrilla warfare, at which Mao is popularly regarded as a genius. [318] The Nepali Maoists were highly influenced by Mao's views on protracted war, new democracy, support of masses, permanency of revolution and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. [319] Mao's major contribution to the military science is his theory of People's War, with not only guerrilla warfare but more importantly, Mobile Warfare methodologies. Mao had successfully applied Mobile Warfare in the Korean War, and was able to encircle, push back and then halt the UN forces in Korea, despite the clear superiority of UN firepower.[ citation needed ] In 1957, Mao also gave the impression that he might even welcome a nuclear war. [320] [lower-alpha 6]

Mao's poems and writings are frequently cited by both Chinese and non-Chinese. The official Chinese translation of President Barack Obama's inauguration speech used a famous line from one of Mao's poems. [324] In the mid-1990s, Mao's picture began to appear on all new renminbi currency from the People's Republic of China. This was officially instituted as an anti-counterfeiting measure as Mao's face is widely recognised in contrast to the generic figures that appear in older currency. On March 13, 2006, a story in the People's Daily reported that a proposal had been made to print the portraits of Sun Yat-sen and Deng Xiaoping. [325]

Public image

Mao gave contradicting statements on the subject of personality cults. In 1955, as a response to the Khrushchev Report that criticised Joseph Stalin, Mao stated that personality cults are "poisonous ideological survivals of the old society", and reaffirmed China's commitment to collective leadership. [326] At the 1958 party congress in Chengdu, Mao expressed support for the personality cults of people whom he labelled as genuinely worthy figures, not those that expressed "blind worship". [327]

In 1962, Mao proposed the Socialist Education Movement (SEM) in an attempt to educate the peasants to resist the "temptations" of feudalism and the sprouts of capitalism that he saw re-emerging in the countryside from Liu's economic reforms. [328] Large quantities of politicised art were produced and circulated—with Mao at the centre. Numerous posters, badges, and musical compositions referenced Mao in the phrase "Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts" (毛主席是我們心中的紅太陽; Máo Zhǔxí Shì Wǒmen Xīnzhōng De Hóng Tàiyáng) [329] and a "Savior of the people" (人民的大救星; Rénmín De Dà Jiùxīng). [329]

In October 1966, Mao's Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung , known as the Little Red Book, was published. Party members were encouraged to carry a copy with them, and possession was almost mandatory as a criterion for membership. According to Mao: The Unknown Story by Jun Yang, the mass publication and sale of this text contributed to making Mao the only millionaire created in 1950s China (332). Over the years, Mao's image became displayed almost everywhere, present in homes, offices and shops. His quotations were typographically emphasised by putting them in boldface or red type in even the most obscure writings. Music from the period emphasised Mao's stature, as did children's rhymes. The phrase "Long Live Chairman Mao for ten thousand years" was commonly heard during the era. [330]

Visitors wait in line to enter the Mao Zedong Mausoleum. Mao mausoleum queue.jpg
Visitors wait in line to enter the Mao Zedong Mausoleum.

Mao also has a presence in China and around the world in popular culture, where his face adorns everything from T-shirts to coffee cups. Mao's granddaughter, Kong Dongmei, defended the phenomenon, stating that "it shows his influence, that he exists in people's consciousness and has influenced several generations of Chinese people's way of life. Just like Che Guevara's image, his has become a symbol of revolutionary culture." [303] Since 1950, over 40 million people have visited Mao's birthplace in Shaoshan, Hunan. [331]

A 2016 survey by YouGov survey found that 42% of American millennials have never heard of Mao. [332] [333] According to the CIS poll, in 2019 only 21% of Australian millennials were familiar with Mao Zedong. [334] In 2020s China, members of Generation Z are embracing Mao's revolutionary ideas, including violence against the capitalist class, amid rising social inequality, long working hours, and decreasing economic opportunities. [335]



Mao's ancestors were:


Mao with Jiang Qing and daughter Li Na in the 1940s Mao Jiang Qing and daughter Li Na.jpg
Mao with Jiang Qing and daughter Li Na in the 1940s

Mao had four wives who gave birth to a total of 10 children, among them:

  1. Luo Yixiu (October 20, 1889 – 1910) of Shaoshan: married 1907 to 1910
  2. Yang Kaihui (1901–1930) of Changsha: married 1921 to 1927, executed by the KMT in 1930; mother to Mao Anying, Mao Anqing, and Mao Anlong
  3. He Zizhen (1910–1984) of Jiangxi: married May 1928 to 1937; mother to 6 children
  4. Jiang Qing (1914–1991), married 1939 until Mao's death; mother to Li Na


Mao had several siblings:

Mao's parents altogether had five sons and two daughters. Two of the sons and both daughters died young, leaving the three brothers Mao Zedong, Mao Zemin, and Mao Zetan. Like all three of Mao Zedong's wives, Mao Zemin and Mao Zetan were communists. Like Yang Kaihui, both Mao Zemin and Mao Zetan were killed in warfare during Mao Zedong's lifetime. Note that the character () appears in all of the siblings' given names; this is a common Chinese naming convention.

From the next generation, Mao Zemin's son Mao Yuanxin was raised by Mao Zedong's family, and he became Mao Zedong's liaison with the Politburo in 1975. In Li Zhisui's The Private Life of Chairman Mao , Mao Yuanxin played a role in the final power-struggles. [337]


Mao Zedong with his nephew Mao Yuanxin, and daughters Li Min (second from left) and Li Na Li Min and Mao Zedong 1952.jpg
Mao Zedong with his nephew Mao Yuanxin, and daughters Li Min (second from left) and Li Na

Mao had a total of ten children, [338] including:

Mao's first and second daughters were left to local villagers because it was too dangerous to raise them while fighting the Kuomintang and later the Japanese. Their youngest daughter (born in early 1938 in Moscow after Mao separated) and one other child (born 1933) died in infancy. Two English researchers who retraced the entire Long March route in 2002–2003 [339] located a woman whom they believe might well be one of the missing children abandoned by Mao to peasants in 1935. Ed Jocelyn and Andrew McEwen hope a member of the Mao family will respond to requests for a DNA test. [340]

Through his ten children, Mao became grandfather to twelve grandchildren, many of whom he never knew. He has many great-grandchildren alive today. One of his granddaughters is businesswoman Kong Dongmei, one of the richest people in China. [341] His grandson Mao Xinyu is a general in the Chinese army. [342] Both he and Kong have written books about their grandfather. [343]

Personal life

Mao and Zhang Yufeng in 1964 Mao Zedong and Zhang Yufeng in 1964.jpg
Mao and Zhang Yufeng in 1964

Mao's private life was kept very secret at the time of his rule. After Mao's death, Li Zhisui, his personal physician, published The Private Life of Chairman Mao , a memoir which mentions some aspects of Mao's private life, such as chain-smoking cigarettes, addiction to powerful sleeping pills and large number of sexual partners. [344] Some scholars and some other people who also personally knew and worked with Mao have disputed the accuracy of these characterisations. [345]

Having grown up in Hunan, Mao spoke Mandarin with a marked Hunanese accent. [346] Ross Terrill wrote Mao was a "son of the soil ... rural and unsophisticated" in origins, [347] while Clare Hollingworth said that Mao was proud of his "peasant ways and manners", having a strong Hunanese accent and providing "earthy" comments on sexual matters. [346] Lee Feigon said that Mao's "earthiness" meant that he remained connected to "everyday Chinese life." [348]

Sinologist Stuart Schram emphasised Mao's ruthlessness but also noted that he showed no sign of taking pleasure in torture or killing in the revolutionary cause. [120] Lee Feigon considered Mao "draconian and authoritarian" when threatened but opined that he was not the "kind of villain that his mentor Stalin was". [349] Alexander Pantsov and Steven I. Levine wrote that Mao was a "man of complex moods", who "tried his best to bring about prosperity and gain international respect" for China, being "neither a saint nor a demon." [350] They noted that in early life, he strove to be "a strong, wilful, and purposeful hero, not bound by any moral chains", and that he "passionately desired fame and power". [351]

Mao learned to speak some English, particularly through Zhang Hanzhi, his English teacher, interpreter and diplomat who later married Qiao Guanhua, Foreign Minister of China and the head of China's UN delegation. [352] His spoken English was limited to a few single words, phrases, and some short sentences. He first chose to systematically learn English in the 1950s, which was very unusual as the main foreign language first taught in Chinese schools at that time was Russian. [353]

Writings and calligraphy

Mao's calligraphy: a bronze plaque of a poem by Li Bai. (Chinese: Bai Di Cheng Mao Ze Dong Shou Shu Li Bai Shi Tong Bian  ) Baidi Mao.jpg
Mao's calligraphy: a bronze plaque of a poem by Li Bai. (Chinese: 白帝城毛澤東手書李白詩銅匾 )

<span lang="zh-Hant" style="font-size: 110%

Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide in the limpid deep;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this boundless land
Who rules over man's destiny?

—Excerpt from Mao's poem "Changsha", September 1927 [95]

Mao was a prolific writer of political and philosophical literature. [354] The main repository of his pre-1949 writings is the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, published in four volumes by the People's Publishing House since 1951. A fifth volume, which brought the timeline up to 1957, was briefly issued during the leadership of Hua Guofeng, but subsequently withdrawn from circulation for its perceived ideological errors. There has never been an official "Complete Works of Mao Zedong" collecting all his known publications. [355] Mao is the attributed author of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung , known in the West as the "Little Red Book" and in Cultural Revolution China as the "Red Treasure Book" (紅寶書). First published in January 1964, this is a collection of short extracts from his many speeches and articles (most found in the Selected Works), edited by Lin Biao, and ordered topically. The Little Red Book contains some of Mao's most widely known quotes. [lower-alpha 7]

Mao wrote prolifically on political strategy, commentary, and philosophy both before and after he assumed power. [lower-alpha 8] Mao was also a skilled Chinese calligrapher with a highly personal style. In China, Mao was considered a master calligrapher during his lifetime. [356] His calligraphy can be seen today throughout mainland China. [357] His work gave rise to a new form of Chinese calligraphy called "Mao-style" or Maoti, which has gained increasing popularity since his death. There exist various competitions specialising in Mao-style calligraphy. [358]

Literary works

As did most Chinese intellectuals of his generation, Mao's education began with Chinese classical literature. Mao told Edgar Snow in 1936 that he had started the study of the Confucian Analects and the Four Books at a village school when he was eight, but that the books he most enjoyed reading were Water Margin , Journey to the West , the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dream of the Red Chamber . [359] Mao published poems in classical forms starting in his youth and his abilities as a poet contributed to his image in China after he came to power in 1949. His style was influenced by the great Tang dynasty poets Li Bai and Li He. [360]

Some of his most well-known poems are "Changsha" (1925), "The Double Ninth" (October 1929), "Loushan Pass" (1935), "The Long March" (1935), "Snow" (February 1936), "The PLA Captures Nanjing" (1949), "Reply to Li Shuyi" (May 11, 1957), and "Ode to the Plum Blossom" (December 1961).

Portrayal in film and television

Mao has been portrayed in film and television numerous times. Some notable actors include: Han Shi, the first actor ever to have portrayed Mao, in a 1978 drama Dielianhua and later again in a 1980 film Cross the Dadu River; [361] Gu Yue, who had portrayed Mao 84 times on screen throughout his 27-year career and had won the Best Actor title at the Hundred Flowers Awards in 1990 and 1993; [362] [363] Liu Ye, who played a young Mao in The Founding of a Party (2011); [364] Tang Guoqiang, who has frequently portrayed Mao in more recent times, in the films The Long March (1996) and The Founding of a Republic (2009), and the television series Huang Yanpei (2010), among others. [365] Mao is a principal character in American composer John Adams' opera Nixon in China (1987). The Beatles' song "Revolution" refers to Mao in the verse "but if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao you ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow..."; [366] John Lennon expressed regret over including these lines in the song in 1972. [367]

See also


  1. /ˈm(t)səˈtʊŋ/ ; [1] Chinese :毛泽东; pinyin :Máo Zédōng pronounced [mǎʊ tsɤ̌.tʊ́ŋ] ; also romanised traditionally as Mao Tse-tung. In this Chinese name, the family name is Mao andZe is a generation name.
  2. Mao's only direct involvement of hunting down political opponents was limited to the period from 1930–1931, during the Chinese Civil War in the Jiangxi base area. [280]
  3. "The People's Republic of China under Mao exhibited the oppressive tendencies that were discernible in all the major absolutist regimes of the twentieth century. There are obvious parallels between Mao's China, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Each of these regimes witnessed deliberately ordered mass 'cleansing' and extermination." [296]
  4. "The Chinese original, however, is not quite as shocking. In the speech, Mao talks about massive earthmoving irrigation projects and numerous big industrial ones, all requiring huge numbers of people. If the projects, he said, are all undertaken simultaneously 'half of China's population unquestionably will die; and if it's not half, it'll be a third or ten percent, a death toll of 50 million people.' Mao then pointed to the example of Guangxi provincial Party secretary, Chén Mànyuǎn (陳漫遠) who had been dismissed in 1957 for failing to prevent famine in the previous year, adding: 'If with a death toll of 50 million you didn't lose your jobs, I at least should lose mine; whether I should lose my head would also be in question. Anhui wants to do so much, which is quite all right, but make it a principle to have no deaths.'" [308]
  5. "Though admittedly far from perfect, the comparison is based on the fact that Jackson is remembered both as someone who played a significant role in the development of a political organisation (the Democratic Party) that still has many partisans, and as someone responsible for brutal policies toward Native Americans that are now referred to as genocidal. Both men are thought of as having done terrible things yet this does not necessarily prevent them from being used as positive symbols. And Jackson still appears on $20 bills, even though Americans tend to view as heinous the institution of slavery (of which he was a passionate defender) and the early 19th-century military campaigns against Native Americans (in which he took part). At times Jackson, for all his flaws, is invoked as representing an egalitarian strain within the American democratic tradition, a self-made man of the people who rose to power via straight talk and was not allied with moneyed interests. Mao stands for something roughly similar." [312]
  6. The often-cited evidence quote as proof is as follows: "Let us imagine how many people would die if war breaks out. There are 2.7 billion people in the world, and a third could be lost. If it is a little higher, it could be half. ... I say that if the worst came to the worst and one-half dies, there will still be one-half left, but imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist. After a few years there would be 2.7 billion people again." [321] [322] Historians dispute the sincerity of Mao's words. Robert Service says that Mao "was deadly serious", [323] while Frank Dikötter claims that Mao "was bluffing ... the sabre-rattling was to show that he, not Khrushchev, was the more determined revolutionary." [321]
  7. Among them are:
    "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."
    "Problems of Strategy in China's Revolutionary War" (December 1936), Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, I, p. 180.
    "Every communist must grasp the truth, 'Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.'"
    1938, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, II, pp. 224–225.
    "Taken as a whole, the Chinese revolutionary movement led by the Communist Party embraces two stages, i.e., the democratic and the socialist revolutions, which are two essentially different revolutionary processes, and the second process can be carried through only after the first has been completed. The democratic revolution is the necessary preparation for the socialist revolution, and the socialist revolution is the inevitable sequel to the democratic revolution. The ultimate aim for which all communists strive is to bring about a socialist and communist society."
    "The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party" (December 1939), Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, 'II, pp. 330–331.
    "All reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality they are not so powerful. From a long-term point of view, it is not the reactionaries but the people who are really powerful."
    Mao Zedong (July 1956), "U.S. Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger".
  8. The most influential of these include:

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  30. Schram 1966 , p. 34; Pantsov & Levine 2012 , pp. 34–35
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  35. Pantsov & Levine 2012 , pp. 40–41.
  36. Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 36.
  37. Schram 1966 , pp. 36–37; Terrill 1980 , p. 27; Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 37.
  38. Schram 1966 , pp. 38–39
  39. Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 43; see also Hsiao Yu (Xiao Yu, alias of Xiao Zisheng). Mao Tse-Tung and I Were Beggars. (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1959).
  40. Schram 1966 , pp. 42–43; Terrill 1980 , p. 32; Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 48.
  41. Schram 1966 , p. 41; Terrill 1980 , p. 32; Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 42.
  42. Schram 1966 , pp. 40–41; Terrill 1980 , pp. 30–31.
  43. Schram 1966 , p. 43; Terrill 1980 , p. 32; Pantsov & Levine 2012 , pp. 49–50.
  44. Pantsov & Levine 2012 , pp. 49–50.
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  47. Schram 1966 , p. 48; Pantsov & Levine 2012 , pp. 47, 56–57.
  48. Feigon 2002 , p. 18; Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 39.
  49. Schram 1966 , p. 48; Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 59.
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  56. Pantsov & Levine 2012 , pp. 66–67.
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  59. Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 76.
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  61. Schram 1966 , p. 55; Pantsov & Levine 2012 , pp. 76–77.
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  63. Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 80.
  64. Pantsov & Levine 2012 , pp. 81–83.
  65. Pantsov & Levine 2012 , p. 84.
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  70. Schram 1966 , pp. 64–66.
  71. 1 2 Schram 1966 , p. 68
  72. Schram 1966 , pp. 68–69
  73. Schram 1966 , p. 69.
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