Mao Zedong (毛泽东) Overview

Mao Zedong was born into a rich peasant family in the Chinese province of Hunan in 1893. The home in which he was born and grew up in is located in the small village of Shaoshan (Source 1). Mao's relatively humble social status allowed him to convincingly forge an identity as a man of the people whilst simultaneously receiving an enviable education up to university level. After his move to Beijing in 1919, Mao became involved in a Marxist study group and served as a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which was established in 1921. He was a member of the Nationalist party during the first united front, established by Sun Yat-sen and worked alongside peasant associations to improve literacy levels. After the Shanghai Massacre of 1927, where the alliance between the CCP and GMD broke down, Mao played an instrumental role in the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Changsha. This coup failed and Mao was arrested. Upon his escape, Mao led Communist forces to Jiangxi, where he established a self-contained community called the Jiangxi Soviet.

Source 1: Childhood Residence of Mao Zedong in Shaoshan (Photograph)

Source 1: Childhood Residence of Mao Zedong in Shaoshan (Photograph)

After repeated encirclement campaigns by the Nationalist army, the CCP made a decision to abandon their Jiangxi base and march north. Mao’s leadership in Jiangxi had come under scrutiny but he reasserted himself at the Zunyi conference of 1935, overturning CCP policy to emphasise the plight of the rural peasantry as opposed to the urban proletariat. In the wake of the Long March, CCP forces were severely depleted. However, once they established their base in Yan’an (Source 2), the Xi’an incident prompted the re-establishment of the United Front between Communists and Nationalists. Mao instigated successful guerrilla warfare campaigns against the Japanese after war broke out in 1937. Indeed, CCP membership rose dramatically during the Second Sino-Japanese War with many inspired Chinese making the pilgrimage to Yan’an.

Source 2: Wu Yinxian (1942) Under the Pagoda Mountain (Photograph)

Source 2: Wu Yinxian (1942) Under the Pagoda Mountain (Photograph)

Mao led the Yan’an rectification campaign in 1942 to further cement his hold on power and oust those who opposed either his leadership or policies, particularly those loyal to Moscow who did not believe in the Sinification of Marxism. In 1944, the United States Army Observation Group or Dixie Mission came to Yan’an to investigate the Communists and left with a favourable impression. The observers argued the party was better organised and less corrupt than the Nationalists. By the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the CCP and Mao were a force to be reckoned with, boasting an army of almost 1 million at the time of the Japanese surrender. Despite initial peace talks with Chiang Kai-shek (Source 3), Mao continued to lead the party once civil war broke out. Due to strategic errors by the Nationalists and increasing support of the local population (partly gained from the popular policy of land reform in communist-controlled areas) Mao resoundingly won the civil war and became leader of the People’s Republic of China on the 1st October 1949. Source 4 is a British Pathé film depicting a victory parade in Shanghai with Mao’s portrait on display in what is described as ‘the largest red city in the world.’

Source 3: Anon. (1945) Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek celebrate victory over Japan (Photograph)

Source 3: Anon. (1945) Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek celebrate victory over Japan (Photograph)

Mao met the Soviet leader Stalin in Moscow during December 1949 after his victory (Source 5). At Stalin’s behest and compounded by fears that the US might launch an attack on Chinese territory, Mao led the newly-founded nation into the Korean War. The Korean war ended in a stalemate, but Mao could persuasively argue that his forces equalled the military prowess of his technologically advanced enemy. He then launched the first five-year economic plan in 1953 which emphasised rapid industrial growth at the expense of agriculture. Farms were collectivised but lacked the administrative infrastructure to operate efficiently. These overly ambitious policies played a part in the horrific Great Famine that broke out in 1959 causing the deaths of circa 30 million people, undoubtedly leaving Mao’s reputation somewhat tarnished. Despite this pressing issue, Mao decided instead to emphasise the policy of class struggle and sent intellectuals who criticised him to the countryside for ‘thought reform.’

Source 5  Anon. (1949) Mao meets Stalin in Moscow (Photograph)

Source 5 Anon. (1949) Mao meets Stalin in Moscow (Photograph)

In 1966, the Cultural Revolution was declared, which involved purging elements of traditional Chinese culture and heritage along with any supposedly dissenting party members. Mass protests were incited to shore up the primacy of Mao Zedong thought. This created a cult of personality around Mao (Source 6). Estimates of 2 million deaths as a direct cause of the Cultural Revolution have been made, a form of  ‘continuous revolution’ which persisted until Mao’s death. In July 1976, a huge earthquake shook the city of Tangshan with at least 400,000 combined deaths and injuries. According to Chinese tradition, such a tragedy usually foreshadows a change of dynasty. It appeared that Mao had finally lost the mandate of heaven and he passed away just two months later. This BBC documentary excerpt (Source 7) aptly summarises Mao’s rise to power and rule over China.


Source 6 Anon. (1968) Mao Zedong is the Red Sun In Our Hearts (Propaganda Poster)

Source 6 Anon. (1968) Mao Zedong is the Red Sun In Our Hearts (Propaganda Poster)

Given the extent of the transformation of China under Mao, how then do historians view the rule of the Chairman and his legacy? In 1981, the central committee of the CCP issued their own resolution on how Mao should be perceived historically (Source 8). As would be expected, the CCP credits Mao with instigating the revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, stating:

Our Party had creatively applied the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism and integrated them with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution. In this way, the great system of Mao Zedong Thought came into being and the correct path to victory for the Chinese Revolution.

However, the party are frank in pointing out Mao’s ‘mistakes’ during the Cultural revolution.

During this period his theoretical and practical mistakes concerning class struggle in a socialist society became increasingly serious, his personal arbitrariness gradually undermined democratic centralism in Party life and the personality cult grew graver and graver.

One prominent party member who had clashed with Mao over the Great Leap, Chen Yun, has a slightly different method of periodisation: ‘ Had Chairman Mao died in 1956 there would be no doubt that he was a great leader… had he died in 1966 his meritorious deeds would have been somewhat tarnished but his overall record still very good, since he actually died in 1976 there is nothing we can do.’ Here, it would seem that Chen Yun ranks the Cultural Revolution as an event more horrific that the Great Famine. Less people died as a direct result of the Cultural Revolution, but it involved directly targeting people who were accused of not following the party line. The extent of the Great Famine was also caused in part by factors separate from Mao’s leadership, such as officials exaggerating crop yields, poor advice from Soviet experts and natural disasters.

Deng Xiaoping created a simple formula to assess the Maoist era, stating that Mao was ’70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong.’ Naturally, many historians would question the CCP’s periodisation of the Cultural Revolution as Mao’s only pitfall. The CCP’s emphasis on Mao Zedong thought in winning the civil war and creating the People’s Republic is also questionable given the importance of the Second Sino-Japanese War and other international circumstances in precipitating the revolution. Therefore, beyond the official CCP historiography, what are other ways of interpreting Mao’s contribution to Chinese history? Let’s consider a diverse range of views presented by prominent historians.

First of all, we turn to Jonathan Spence’s biography Mao Zedong (1999). Spence characterises Mao’s rule in the following manner: ‘His visions of social and economic change became hopelessly enmeshed with violence and fear’ (1999: xvi). Perhaps here, Spence is differentiating between Mao Zedong thought that was elaborated in Yan’an and its practical implications in mass campaigns once the CCP came to power. Indeed, at the end of his biography, Spence continues to split the legacy of Mao into two halves: his rise to power followed by the aftermath. To support this thesis further, Spence cites Mao’s own assessment of himself close to his death:

‘Mao had done two things that mattered, he said. He had battled Chiang Kai-Shek for years and finally chased him off to “that little island.” And in the long war of resistance he had ‘asked the Japanese to return to their ancestral home’ and had fought his way into the Forbidden City. Few people would argue those were achievements. But what about the Cultural Revolution where he had few supporters and “quite a few opponents.” That revolution remained unfinished Mao said’ (Spence: 1999:178).

As with the CCP official line, Spence particularly focusses on the Cultural Revolution and the violence, fear and perhaps 2 million deaths it precipitated. However, Spence equally draws attention to the Great Famine asserting that Mao was well aware of the risk before it happened, something the official resolution of 1981 fails to indict Mao for.

Philip Short’s Mao: A Life (1999) is often categorised as one of the more positive portrayals of Mao in the west. Short (2001:630) emphasises Mao’s leadership skills as a ‘visionary, statesman, political and military strategist of genius, philosopher and poet’ but also notes of his expediency in brutally killing any political opponents. He also grimly observes that Mao ‘brought about the deaths of more of his own people than any other leader in history' (Short:2001:591) but qualifies this statement by asserting the, ‘overwhelming majority of those whom Mao's policies killed were the unintended casualties of famine’ (2001:592) As such, Short argues that Mao cannot be placed into the same historical category of brutal dictators like Hitler and Stalin.

In stark contrast, Jun Chang and Jon Halliday published the work ‘Mao: The Unknown Story’ in 2005.  Jun Chang’s parents were denounced by the Communist party due to their criticisms of the Great Leap Forward. Chang and her parents became part of the ‘sent down to the countryside’ generation. This book resolutely condemns Mao’s actions both before and after the founding of the people’s republic of China questioning Mao’s self-styled peasant upbringing for example.  Chang and Halliday (2012:9-10) argue:

''Mao claimed later that when he was a boy in Shaoshan, he had been stirred by concern for poor peasants. There is no evidence for this. He said he had been influenced by a certain P’ang, who had been arrested and beheaded after leading a local peasant revolt, but an exhaustive search by Party historians for this hero has failed to turn up any trace of his. There is no sign that Mao derived from his peasant roots any social concerns or sense of injustice. Mao evinced no particular sympathy for peasants.’

The book received a lot of praise from members of the public and a considerable number of journalists, but many academics took criticised the book’s one-sided portrayal of Mao. There are clearly some emotive passages in the work. In this characteristic passage, Mao is described in the following way (2012:594):

‘What Mao had in mind was a completely arid society, devoid of civilisation, deprived of representation of human feelings, inhabited by a herd with no sensibility, which would automatically obey his orders. He wanted the nation to be brain-dead in order to carry out his big purge—and to live in this state permanently. In this he was more extreme than Hitler or Stalin, as Hitler allowed apolitical entertainment, and Stalin preserved the classics.’

In particular, Jonathan Spence (2010:38) critiqued the stance of Chang and Halliday’s work noting:

‘Mao: The Unknown Story avoids seriously grappling with other factors that made the twentieth century such a terrible one for tens of millions of Chinese, irrespective of what Mao may have done: these would include the depth and savagery of the Japanese assault on China, the nature of the Chinese labor movement, the realities of peasant deprivation in republican China, the collapse of local order and the spread of banditry, the strength of organized criminal gangs, the significance of Chiang Kai-shek’s lack of political and military skills, the social, regional, and class differences that separated the Communists from one another, and the technical aid, including police training methods, spycraft, and military communications, furnished by the United States to the Nationalists. By focusing so tightly on Mao’s vileness—to the exclusion of other factors—the authors undermine much of the power their story might have had.’ 

Here, Spence is arguing that it is important to situate Mao in the context of the 20th century in China and globally, something that Mao and his actions were undeniably a product of.

Indeed, it is vital to find a space between the god-like status Mao still enjoys amongst many loyal Chinese, some of whom have created temples in his name, and the vision of a vile monster endorsed by victims of the Cultural Revolution. By way of example, in 2015, in Mao’s home province of Hunan, a giant gold statue of the Chairman was erected by a local businessman (Source 9). This divided public opinion. Certain people pointed to the irony of a luxurious statue in an area that was one of the worst hit by the great famine caused in part by Mao’s policies. Moreover, Hunan remains one of China’s poorer regions today. The statue was torn down which caused other locals to lament the loss of a monument dedicated to a man they perceived as their liberator from a century of oppression. As such, the legacy of Mao remains divisive to this very day.  

Source 9: Anon. (2015) Gold Statue of Mao Zedong in Tongxu county, Hunan Province (Photograph)

Source 9: Anon. (2015) Gold Statue of Mao Zedong in Tongxu county, Hunan Province


Chang, June, Halliday, Jon., (2012) Mao: The Unknown Story 

Chun, Lin, Benton, Gregor eds. (2010) Was Mao really a Monster? The Academic Response to Chang and Halliday's "Mao: The Unknown Story". London: Routledge

Short, P. (2001) Mao: A Life. New York: Holt

Spence, J. D. (1999) Mao. New York: Viking


Mao Zedong Overview