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Mao Zedong


His ruthless vision united a fractured people and inspired revolutions far beyond China's borders
By JONATHAN D. SPENCE for Time Magazine


Mao Zedong loved to swim. In his youth, he advocated swimming as a way of strengthening the bodies of Chinese citizens, and one of his earliest poems celebrated the joys of beating a wake through the waves. As a young man, he and his close friends would often swim in local streams before they debated together the myriad challenges that faced their nation. But especially after 1955, when he was in his early 60s and at the height of his political power as leader of the Chinese People's Republic, swimming became a central part of his life. He swam so often in the large pool constructed for the top party leaders in their closely guarded compound that the others eventually left him as the pool's sole user. He swam in the often stormy ocean off the north China coast, when the Communist Party leadership gathered there for its annual conferences. And, despite the pleadings of his security guards and his physician, he swam in the heavily polluted rivers of south China, drifting miles downstream with the current, head back, stomach in the air, hands and legs barely moving, unfazed by the globs of human waste gliding gently past. "Maybe you're afraid of sinking," he would chide his companions if they began to panic in the water. "Don't think about it. If you don't think about it, you won't sink. If you do, you will."

Mao was a genius at not sinking. His enemies were legion: militarists, who resented his journalistic barbs at their incompetence; party rivals, who found him too zealous a supporter of the united front with the Kuomintang nationalists; landlords, who hated his pro-peasant rhetoric and activism; Chiang Kai-shek, who attacked his rural strongholds with relentless tenacity; the Japanese, who tried to smash his northern base; the U.S., after the Chinese entered the Korean War; the Soviet Union, when he attack ed Khrushchev's anti-Stalinist policies. Mao was equally unsinkable in the turmoil — much of which he personally instigated — that marked the last 20 years of his rule in China.

Mao was born in 1893, into a China that appeared to be falling apart. The fading Qin dynasty could not contain the spiralling social and economic unrest, and had mortgaged China's revenues and many of its natural resources to the apparently insatiable foreign powers. It was, Mao later told his biographer Edgar Snow, a time when "the dismemberment of China" seemed imminent, and only heroic actions by China's youth could save the day.

Mao's earliest surviving essay, written when he was 19, was on one of China's most celebrated early exponents of cynicism and realpolitik, the fearsome 4th century B.C. administrator Shang Yang. Mao took Shang Yang's experiences as emblematic of China's crisis. Shang Yang had instituted a set of ruthlessly enforced laws, designed "to punish the wicked and rebellious, in order to preserve the rights of the people." That the people continued to fear Shang Yang was proof to Mao they were "stupid." Mao attributed this fear and distrust not to Shang Yang's policies but to the perception of those policies: "At the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the mass of the people always dislike it."

After the communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Mao's position was immeasurably strengthened. Despite all that the Chinese people had endured, it seems not to have been too hard for Mao to persuade them of the visionary force and practical need for the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s. In Mao's mind, the intensive marshalling of China's energies would draw manual and mental labour together into a final harmonious synthesis and throw a bridge across the chasm of China's poverty to the promised socialist paradise on the other side.

In February 1957, Mao drew his thoughts on China together in the form of a rambling speech on "The Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People." Mao's notes for the speech reveal the curious mixture of jocularity and cruelty, of utopian visions and blinkered perceptions, that lay at the heart of his character. Mao admitted that 15% or more of the Chinese people were hungry and that some critics felt a "disgust" with Marxism. He spoke too of the hundreds of thousands who had died in the revolution so far, but firmly rebutted figures — quoted in Hong Kong newspapers — that 20 million had perished. "How could we possibly kill 20 million people?" he asked. It is now established that at least that number died in China during the famine that followed the Great Leap between 1959 and 1961. In the Cultural Revolution that followed only five years later, Mao used the army and the student population against his opponents. Once again millions suffered or perished as Mao combined the ruthlessness of Shang Yang with the absolute confidence of the long-distance swimmer.

Rejecting his former party allies, and anyone who could be accused of espousing the values of an older and more gracious Chinese civilization, Mao drew his sustenance from the chanting crowds of Red Guards. The irony here was that from his youthful readings, Mao knew the story of how Shang Yang late in life tried to woo a moral administrator to his service. But the official turned down Shang Yang's blandishments, with the words that "1,000 persons going 'Yes, yes!' are not worth one man with a bold 'No!'"

Mao died in 1976, and with the years those adulatory cries of "Yes, yes!" have gradually faded. Leaders Mao trained, like Deng Xiaoping, were able to reverse Mao's policies even as they claimed to revere them. They gave back to the Chinese people the opportunities to express their entrepreneurial skills, leading to astonishing rates of growth and a complete transformation of the face of Chinese cities.

Are these changes, these moves toward a new flexibility, somehow Mao's legacy? Despite the agony he caused, Mao was both a visionary and a realist. He learned as a youth not only how Shang Yang brought harsh laws to the Chinese people, even when they saw no need for them, but also how Shang Yang's rigors helped lay the foundation in 221 B.C. of the fearsome centralizing state of Qin. Mao knew too that the Qin rulers had been both hated and feared and that their dynasty was soon toppled, despite its monopoly of force and efficient use of terror. But in his final years, Mao seems to have welcomed the association of his own name with these distant Qin precursors. The Qin, after all, had established a united state from a universe in chaos. They represented, like Mao, not the best that China had to offer, but something ruthless yet canny, with the power briefly to impose a single will on the scattered emotions of the errant multitude. It is on that grimly structured foundation that Mao's successors have been able to build, even as they struggle, with obvious nervousness, to contain the social pressures that their own more open policies are generating. Surely Mao's simple words reverberate in their ears: As long as you are not afraid, you won't sink.


Chinese; chairman of the Chinese Communist party 1935 – 76, paramount leader of the People's Republic of China 1949 – 76 Mao Zedong was the single most influential figure in Chinese politics in the twentieth century. Even after his death, his legacy for Chinese politics was immense — indeed the continued use of the term "post-Mao" China to define the current epoch is testimony to his importance and standing. As Mao was also a crucial player in global politics for three decades, he was quite simply one of the most important leaders in the world.

While many other Chinese Communist leaders spent some time in France or Moscow, Mao's formative political experiences were all in China. The young Mao spent much of his spare time travelling in the local countryside, talking to the local peasants about their problems. Like many of his generation, he was later inspired by opposition to the oppressive Confucian family system. In many ways, the translation of Ibsen's A Doll's House was more of an inspiration to Mao's generation than translations of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Indeed, Mao did not have a particularly good knowledge of the major Communist texts, and in later life often made a virtue out of his experiences with the Chinese people, extolling the importance of "seeking truth from facts" at the expense of book-learned socialism.

Whilst enrolled as a mature teacher-training student in Changsha in 1913, Mao first became involved in political organization and mobilization under the influence of his first mentor, the philosopher Yang Changji. In 1918, Yang helped Mao secure a job under the Marxist theoretician, Li Dazhao in the Beijing University library, which marked Mao's conversion from liberal to Marxist. Nevertheless, although Mao was a founder member of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, he still did not have a firm understanding of the basics of Marxism at this time.

On Moscow's instructions, the Communists joined a United Front with the Nationalists in the early 1920s, and Mao was placed in charge of the peasant work department where he undertook a study of the situation in rural Hunan. Mao became convinced that the peasantry and not the urban proletariat would be the source of revolution in China. This view was antithetical to the official party line, and resulted in much criticism from both Moscow and the party leaders in Shanghai. Mao retained a fierce grudge against his critics during this period, particularly those who he felt were isolated from the real revolution and struggle in the Chinese countryside.

When the Nationalists installed a new national government in Nanjing, Chiang Kai-shek abandoned the united front and moved against the Communists. Mao led one of a number of failed Communist uprisings (in Changsha), and the defeated troops escaped to the mountains of Jiangxi Province. Joined over the years by other sympathizers, and the remnants of another abortive set of rebellions in 1930, the Communists established a Soviet headquarters at Ruijin, where Mao devised the strategy that was later to bring the Communists to power. In addition to his formula for rural-based revolution, Mao developed a mobile warfare guerilla strategy built on a cohesive, disciplined, and democratic Red Army.

Mao was temporarily displaced from power as the Nationalists increased their attacks and forced the Communists to retreat. The heavy losses of the early days of the Long March out of Jiangxi proved the wisdom of Mao's mobile strategy, and although Wang Ming still claimed the mantle of Communist leadership from the safety of Moscow, Mao was effectively leader of the Chinese Communists from the Zunyi Conference of January 1935 to his death in 1976.

From the end of the Long March in 1935 throughout the subsequent war against Japan, Mao and his colleagues planned their military and revolutionary strategy from Yanan in Shaanxi Province. Through a combination of exploiting their nationalist credentials, moderate social and economic reform, political cohesion and mobilization, effective guerilla military tactics, and the concomitant failings of the nationalists, the Communists surprised perhaps even themselves by establishing a new People's Republic on 1 October 1949.

Having won the revolution in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, Mao became convinced that there was nothing that the Chinese people could not achieve if they were correctly educated and mobilized. Whilst other leaders argued for a slow and stable process of economic development based on Soviet Leninist principles, Mao argued for a Chinese solution entailing mass mobilization to bring about the simultaneous political development of the Chinese people, and rapid economic change.

Mao's first radical experiment saw the rapid collectivization of the countryside. The early successes of this policy led on to the Great Leap Forward — a mass campaign to communize the Chinese population as soon as possible, and in the process unleash the enthusiasm of the masses in economic production. China would surpass Britain's level of development in fifteen years and China would be pushed to the verge of real Communism. The result was somewhat different. The Great Leap collapsed into a great famine, resulting in the deaths of 40 million Chinese between 1961 and 1963.

Instead of accepting the errors of his strategy, Mao instead blamed the failings of local officials, the peasants' poor understanding of socialism, and the failings of some of his leadership colleagues. When these leaders, notably Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, intervened to marginalize his Socialist Education Campaign from 1962 to 1964, Mao became convinced that if his correct vision of the Chinese revolution was to succeed, then the party had to get rid of these "capitalist roaders".

Thus, Mao unleashed the revolutionary enthusiasm of the Chinese students who had been indoctrinated in loyalty to his name in a Cultural Revolution against class enemies. The result was chaos. Communist leaders at all levels were arrested, and many lost their lives. Countless others also died as the student Red Guards became ever more vindictive and imaginative in defining ways to identify class traitors, and parts of the country descended into virtual civil war. By 1971, Mao had been forced to rely on the military to restore order, and purged two of his closest political allies, Lin Biao and Chen Boda, as the system lurched uncertainly back towards a semblance of stability.

Mao grew ever more ill during the 1970s, and his political role in these years remains unclear. Many believe that his radical followers, the Gang of Four, exercised power in Mao's name, although it is likely that he still had the final word on major issues. Despite the arrest of the Gang of Four, and Deng Xiaoping's ascension to power in 1978, the party did not feel able to criticize Mao directly for the Cultural Revolution until 1981. Even then, the party took great care to show that his many great deeds vastly outweighed his errors. Chen Yun's appreciation of Mao's career is closer to the truth: if he had died in 1956, the party could have remembered Mao as a great revolutionary hero. As he died in 1976, "there is nothing that we can do about it".


Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was a Chinese statesman whose status as a revolutionary in world history is probably next only to that of Lenin.

More than anyone else in recent times, Mao Zedong, with his supple mind and astute judgment, helped to reshape the social and political structures of his ancient and populous country. In doing so, Mao is likely to influence the destiny of the "third world" as well. Highly literate and sensitive, he was dedicated to a relentless struggle against inequality and injustice; thus at times he was capable of utter ruthlessness. He lived through reform and revolution in the early years of China's awakening nationalism, accepting at first the philosophies behind both movements. With the onset of the warlords' reaction after the revolution of 1911, disillusionment drove him to radicalism. This occurred at a time when Wilsonian self-determination was being ignored at the Paris Peace Conference and the messianic messages of the Russian October Revolution had attracted the attention of Chinese intellectuals, as China itself was passing through a period of traumatic cultural changes. Skeptical of Western sincerity and iconoclastic toward Confucianism, Mao sought inspiration from Marx's class struggle and Lenin's anti-imperialism to become a Communist.

Born in Hunan on Dec. 26, 1893, Mao Zedong did not venture outside his home province until he was 25. Up to then, his formal education was limited to 6 years at a junior normal school where he acquired a meagre knowledge of science, learned almost no foreign language, but developed a lucid written style and a considerable understanding of social problems, Chinese history, and current affairs. He was, however, still parochial in the sense that he had inherited the pragmatic and utilitarian tradition of Hunan scholarship with the hope that somehow it would help him in his groping for ways and means to strengthen and enrich his country.

Mao's visit to Peking in 1918 broadened his view. Although his life there was miserable, he was working under the chief librarian of Peking University, who was one of the pioneer Marxists of China. On his return to Hunan in the following year, Mao was already committed to communism. While making a living as a primary schoolteacher, he edited radical magazines, organized trade unions, and set up politically oriented schools of his own in the orthodox manner of Communist agitation among city workers and students. With the inauguration of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) in 1921, of which Mao was one of the 50 founder-members, these activities were pursued with added energy and to a greater depth.

Meanwhile, the major political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), was reorganized, and a coalition was formed between the KMT and CCP on anti-warlord and anti-imperialist principles. Mao's principal task was to coordinate the policies of both parties, an ill-suited role on account of his lack of academic and social standing. In 1925, when the coalition ran into heavy weather, Mao was sent back to Hunan to "convalesce."

Champion of the Peasants

An unfortunate result of this rebuff was that he was completely left out of the nationwide strikes against Japan and Britain in the summer of that year, during which many of his comrades made their mark as leaders of the trade union movement or party politics. A by-product of his "convalescence" was that he discovered the revolutionary potential of the peasants, who had in such great numbers been displaced and pauperized by the misrule of the warlords. From then on Mao switched his attention to this vast underprivileged class of people. He studied them, tried to understand their grievances, and agitated among them.

Mao's newly acquired knowledge and experience enabled him to play a leading role in the peasant movement led by both the KMT and CCP. By 1927 he was in a position to advocate a class substitution in the Chinese Revolution. Instead of the traditional proletarian hegemony, Mao proposed that the poor peasants fill the role of revolutionary vanguard. Shortly after the publication of his Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan, the KMT-CCP coalition broke up and the Communists were persecuted everywhere in the country.

Establishment of Soviets

Some survivors of the party went underground in the cities, to continue their struggle as a working-class party; the rest took up arms to defy the government and eventually to set up rural soviets in central and northern China. One of these soviets was Mao's Ching-kang Mountain base area between Kiangsi and Hunan, where he had to rely chiefly on the support of the poor peasants.

Under conditions of siege, the autonomy of these soviets threatened to disrupt the unity of the revolutionary movement, breaking it up into small pockets of resistance like premodern peasant wars. Doctrinally, this development was anything but orthodox Marxism. The centre of the CCP, located underground in Shanghai, therefore assigned to itself the task of strengthening its leadership and party discipline. A successful revolution, in its view, had to take the course of a series of urban uprisings under proletarian leadership.

In its effort to achieve this, the centre had to curb the growing powers of the soviet leaders like Mao, and it had the authority of the Comintern behind it. Its effort gradually produced results: Mao first lost his control over the army he had organized and trained, then his position in the soviet party, and finally even much of his power in the soviet government.

The Long March

The years of this intraparty struggle coincided with Chiang Kai-shek's successes in his anti-Communist campaigns. Eventually Chiang was able to drive the Communists out of their base areas on the Long March. The loss of nearly all the soviets in central China and crippling casualties and desertions suffered by the Communists in the first stages of the march were sufficient evidence of the ineptitude of the central party leadership. At the historic Tsunyi Conference of the party's Politburo in January 1935, Mao turned the tables against the pro-Russian leaders. On that occasion Mao was elected, thanks mainly to his support from the military, to the chairmanship of the Politburo.

During the low ebb of the revolutionary tide and the hardships of the Long March, those who might have challenged Mao fell by the wayside, largely through their own fault. By the time the Communists arrived at Yenan, the party had attained a measure of unity, to be further consolidated after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. This was the first truly nationalist war China had ever fought, in which the nation as a whole united to face the common foe. However, from 1939 onward, as the war entered a long period of stalemate, clashes began to occur between KMT and Communist troops.

By early 1941 the united front between the KMT and CCP had come to exist in name only. This new situation called for the emergence of a Communist leader who could rival Chiang in his claim to national leadership in the event of a resumption of the civil war. But this could not be done so long as the CCP remained under the Russian wing.

Events in the early 1940s helped the CCP, in its search for independence, to become nationalistic. Russia, preoccupied with its war against Hitler, was unable to influence the CCP effectively, and soon the Comintern was dissolved. Mao seized this opportunity to sinicize the Chinese Communist movement in the famous rectification campaign of 1942-1944.

Leader of the Chinese Communists

The personality cult of Mao grew until his thought was written into the party's constitution of 1945 as a guiding principle of the party, side by side with Marxism-Leninism. Under Mao's brilliant leadership the party fought from one victory to another, till it took power in 1949.

Mao's thought now guided the Communists in their way of thinking, their organization, and their action. In giving their faith to Mao's thought, they found unity and strength, an understanding of the nature, strategy, and tactics of the revolution, a set of values and attitudes which made them welcome to the peasant masses, and a style of work and life which differentiated them from the bureaucrats and the romantic, culturally alienated intellectuals.

But Mao's thought had very little to say on the modernization and industrialization of China, on its socialist construction. Therefore, after 1949 the CCP was left to follow the example of Russia, with Russian aid in the years of the cold war. The importance, and relevance, of Mao therefore declined steadily while China introduced its first Five-Year Plan and socialist constitution. Once more the pro-Russian wing of the CCP was on the ascendancy, though still unable to challenge Mao's ideological authority. This authority enabled Mao to fight back by launching the Socialist Upsurge in the Countryside of 1955 and the Great Leap Forward in 1958. The essential feature of these movements was to rely upon the voluntary zeal of the people motivated by a new moral discipline, rather than upon monetary incentives, price mechanism, professionalism, and the legalism of gradual progress. The failure of the Great Leap Forward impaired Mao's power and prestige even further. His critics within the CCP attributed the failure to the impracticability of his mass line of socialist construction; in his own view, the failure was due to inadequate ideological preparation and, perhaps, abortive implementation by the pro-Russian wing of the CCP.

Cultural Revolution

At this juncture, the worsening Sino-Soviet dispute made its fatal impact. The condemnation of Russian "revisionism" cut the pro-Russian wing from its ideological source, and the withdrawal of Russian material aid practically sounded the death knell of China's attempt to emulate the Russian model. In the midst of this, Mao began his comeback.

The groundwork had been laid through the socialist education movement early in the 1960s, which started with the remolding of the People's Liberation Army under the command of Lin Piao. When this had been accomplished, Mao, with the help of the army and young students organized into the Red Guards, waged a fierce struggle against what he called the revisionists in power in his own party. This was the famous cultural revolution of 1966-1969. In this struggle it was revealed how elitist, bureaucratic, and brittle the CCP had become since 1949.

With Mao's victory in the cultural revolution, China became the most politicized nation of the world. No Chinese thought beyond the premises of Mao's thought - a state of affairs reminiscent of the Christianization of Europe in the Middle Ages. By this Mao hoped to whip up the unbound enthusiasm and altruistic spirit of the Chinese masses to work harder while enduring a frugal life. This may be the only way for a poor and populous country like China to accumulate enough capital for its rapid industrialization.

By the time Mao was in his late 70s, his lifework was essentially done, although he retained power until the end. Physically debilitated, suffering from a lifetime of effort and Parkinson's Disease, Mao's ability to rule in new and innovative ways to meet the demands of China's modernization grew increasingly enfeebled. To what degree his radical actions in his later years were due to his illness and age is a matter of debate among historians. His final years were marked by bitter maneuvering among his clique to succeed him upon his death. One of his final major acts was to reopen contact with the United States. In September of 1976, Mao died. Mao was undoubtedly the key figure in China in the 20th century and one of the century's most important movers and reformers. He had devoted his life to the advancement of a peasant class terrorized for centuries by those in power. However, in pursuit of his own goals, Mao himself could be violent and dictatorial. To Mao must go the credit for developing a revolutionary strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside, a mass line of political thought and application to bridge the chasm between the leaders and the led, and, finally, a strategy of permanent violent and non-violent revolution to guard against the recurrence of that kind of bureaucratism which so far in history has always emerged once a revolution is over and revolutionaries have turned into reformers.










This web page was last updated on: 18 December, 2008