Mao Zedong

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Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong

Chairman of the Communist Party of China
In office
1945 –  1976
Preceded by Chen Duxiu
Succeeded by Hua Guofeng

1st President of the PRC
In office
1954 –  1959
Preceded by none
Succeeded by Liu Shaoqi

Born 26 December 1893
Died 9 September 1976
Political party Communist Party of China
Given name Style name
Trad. 毛澤東 潤之¹
Simp. 毛泽东 润之
Pinyin Máo Zédōng Rùnzhī
WG Mao Tse-tung Jun-chih
IPA /mau̯ː˧˥ tsɤ˧˥.tʊŋ˥/ /ʐuənː˥˩ tʂ̩˥/
Surname: Mao
¹Originally 詠芝 (咏芝)

Mao Zedong  ( December 26, 1893 – September 9, 1976) (also Mao Tse-Tung in Wade-Giles transliteration) was a Chinese Marxist military and political leader, who led the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to victory against the Kuomintang (KMT) in the Chinese Civil War, leading to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949 in Beijing.

Mao pursued the ideal of a strong, prosperous and socially egalitarian China, endeavoring to build a modern socialist nation. However, the failings of Mao's most significant socio-political programs — including the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution — have been widely criticized. Mao is a controversial figure today. While officially held in high regard in China, he is today rarely mentioned by the government, whose policies have diverged greatly from those of Mao. Maoists around the world look to Mao as a great revolutionary leader whose thought is the highest expression of Marxism. Many of his detractors however accuse him of having been a mass-murderer, holding his leadership accountable for the deaths of tens of millions of innocent Chinese.

Early life

The eldest child of a relatively prosperous peasant family, Mao was born on December 26, 1893 in a village called Shaoshan in Xiangtan County (湘潭縣), Hunan province, and thus spoke Xiang rather than Mandarin as his first language. His ancestors had migrated from Jiangxi province during the Ming Dynasty, married indigenous women, and had settled there as farmers.

During the 1911 Revolution, Mao served in a local regiment in Hunan. However, disliking military service, he returned to school in Changsha.

Having graduated from the First Provincial Normal School of Hunan in 1918, Mao traveled with Professor Yang Changji, his high school teacher and future father-in-law, to Beijing during the May Fourth Movement in 1919.

Professor Yang held a faculty position at Peking University. Because of Yang's recommendation, Mao worked as an assistant librarian at the University with Li Dazhao as curator. Mao registered as a part-time student at Beijing University and audited many lectures and seminars by famous intellectuals, such as Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi, Qian Xuantong, etc. Over his stay in Beijing, he read as much as possible, which introduced him to Communist theories. He married Yang Kaihui, Professor Yang's daughter and also his fellow student, despite an existing marriage arranged by his father at home. Mao never acknowledged this marriage.

Mao turned down an opportunity to study in France because of poverty. Later, he claimed that it was because he firmly believed that China's problems could be studied and resolved only within China. As distinct from his contemporaries, Mao went the opposite direction, studying the peasant majority of China's population where he began his life as a professional revolutionist.

On July 23, 1921, Mao, aged 27, attended the first session of the Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai. Two years later, he was elected as one of the five commissars of the Central Committee of the Party during the third Congress session.

Mao stayed for a while in Shanghai, an important city that the CCP emphasised for the Revolution. But after the Party had encountered major difficulties in organizing labor union movements and relations with its nationalist ally, the Kuomintang, had become poor, Mao was disillusioned at the revolution there and moved back to Shaoshan. During his stay at home, Mao rekindled his interest in the revolution, having been informed of the 1925 uprisings in Shanghai and Guangzhou. He then went to Guangdong, the base of the Kuomintang, as a return of his political ambitions and took part in the preparations for the second session of the National Congress of Kuomintang.

In early 1927, Mao returned to Hunan where, in an urgent meeting held by the Communist Party, he made a report based on his investigations of the peasant uprisings in the wake of the Northern Expedition. This is considered the initial and decisive step towards the successful application of Mao's revolutionary theories.

Political ideas

Mao was introduced to Marxism in Beijing, before he married Yang Kaihui. "There were three books that left great impressions on my mind", Mao recollected, "They helped build up my solid faith in Marxism". Among the three important books was The Communist Manifesto.

The process of Mao becoming a Marxist was gradual. During the year 1920 in Hunan, Mao contributed a number of essays to newspapers advocating the autonomy of Hunan Province. He firmly believed that provincial autonomy was a prerequisite to local prosperity and that local prosperity would lead to a stronger and prosperous China.

In 1920, Mao also developed his theory of violent revolution. His theory was inspired by the Russian revolution and was likely influenced by the Chinese literary works: Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Mao sought to subvert the alliance of imperialism and feudalism in China. He thought the Nationalists to be both economically and politically vulnerable and thus that the revolution could not be steered by Nationalists. He concluded that violent revolution must be conducted by the proletariat under the supervision of a Communist party.

Throughout the 1920s, Mao led several labor struggles based upon his studies of the propagation and organization of the contemporary labor movements. However, these struggles were successfully subdued by the government, and Mao fled from Changsha after he was labeled a radical activist. He pondered these failures and finally realized that 1) workers were unable to lead the revolution because they made up only a small portion of China's population and 2) unarmed labor struggles could not resolve the problems of imperial and feudal suppression.

Mao began to depend on Chinese peasants who later became staunch supporters of his theory of violent revolution. This dependence on the rural rather than the urban proletariat to instigate violent revolution distinguished Mao from his predecessors and contemporaries. Mao himself was from a peasant family, and thus he cultivated his reputation among the farmers and peasants and introduced them to Marxism.

War and Revolution

In 1927 Mao conducted the famous Autumn Harvest Uprising in Changsha, Hunan, as commander-in-chief. The army led by Mao, entitled Revolutionary Army of Workers and Peasants, was defeated and scattered after some fierce battles. Afterwards the exhausted troops were forced to leave Hunan for Sanwan, Jiangxi, where Mao re-organized the scattered soldiers, rearranging them from a military division into a smaller regiment. And Mao ordered that each company must have a party branch office with a commissar as its leader who would give political instructions based upon superior mandates. This military rearrangement in Sanwan, Jiangxi initiated the CCP's absolute control over its military force and has been considered to have the most fundamental and profound impact upon the Chinese revolution. Later on, they moved to Jinggang Mountains, Jiangxi.

On the Jinggang mountains, Mao persuaded two local insurgent leaders who pledged their allegiance to him. And there Mao rejoined his army with that of Zhu De. Thus he created the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army of China, Red Army in short. (the Fourth Front of Workers' and Peasants' Red Army of China).

From 1931 to 1934, Mao helped establish the Soviet Republic of China and was elected Chairman of this small republic among the mountainous areas in Jiangxi. Here, Mao was married to He Zizhen. His wife Yang Kaihui, who sacrificed for the revolution, had been arrested and executed in 1930, just three years after their departure.

In Jiangxi, Mao's authoritative domination, especially that of the military force was challenged by the Jiangxi branch of the CCP and military officers. Mao's opponents, among whom the most prominent was Li Wenlin, the founder of the CCP's branch and Red Army in Jiangxi, were against Mao's land policies and proposals to reform the local party branch and army leadership. Mao reacted first by accusing the opponents of opportunism and kulakism and then set off a series of systematic suppressions of them. Later the suppressions were turned into bloody physical elimination. The estimated number of the victims amounted to several thousands. Through the so-called revolutionary terrorism, or red terrorism, Mao's authority and domination in Jiangxi was secured and reassured. However, this had left unforgettable scars on Mao's mind.

Mao, with the help of Zhu De, built a modest but effective army, undertook experiments in rural reform and government, and provided refuge for Communists fleeing the rightist purges in the cities. Mao's methods are normally referred to as Guerrilla warfare; but he himself made a distinction between guerrilla warfare (youji zhan) and Mobile Warfare (yundong zhan).

Mao's Guerrilla Warfare and Mobile Warfare was based upon the fact of the poor armament and military training of the red army which consisted mainly of impoverished peasants, who, however, were all encouraged by revolutionary passions and aspiring after a communist utopia.

Around 1930, there had been more than ten regions, usually entitled " soviet areas", under control of the CCP. And the number of Red Army soldiers ran to no less than a hundred thousand. The prosperity of "soviet areas" startled and worried Chiang Kai-shek, chairman of the Kuomintang government, who waged five waves of besieging campaigns against the " central soviet area". More than one million Kuomintang soldiers were involved in these five campaigns, four out of which were defeated by the red army led by Mao.

Under increasing pressures from the KMT encirclement campaigns, there was a struggle for power within the Communist leadership. Mao was removed from his important positions and replaced by individuals (including Zhou Enlai) who appeared loyal to the orthodox line advocated by Moscow and represented within the CCP by a group known as the 28 Bolsheviks.

Mao in 1938, writing On Protracted War
Mao in 1938, writing On Protracted War

Chiang Kai-shek, who had earlier assumed nominal control of China due in part to the Northern Expedition, was determined to eliminate the Communists. By October 1934, he had them surrounded, prompting them to engage in the " Long March," a retreat from Jiangxi in the southeast to Shaanxi in the northwest of China. It was during this 9,600 kilometer (5,965 mile), year-long journey that Mao emerged as the top Communist leader, aided by the Zunyi Conference and the defection of Zhou Enlai to Mao's side. At this Conference, Mao entered the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China.

From his base in Yan'an, Mao led the Communist resistance against the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Mao further consolidated power over the Communist Party in 1942 by launching the Cheng Feng, or "Rectification" campaign against rival CCP members such as Wang Ming, Wang Shiwei, and Ding Ling. Also while in Yan'an, Mao divorced He Zizhen and married the actress Lan Ping, who would become known as Jiang Qing.

Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong met in the wartime capital of Chongqing, to toast to the Chinese victory over Japan, but their shaky alliance was short-lived.
Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong met in the wartime capital of Chongqing, to toast to the Chinese victory over Japan, but their shaky alliance was short-lived.

During the Sino-Japanese War, Mao Zedong's strategies were opposed by both Chiang Kai-shek and the United States. The US regarded Chiang as an important ally, able to help shorten the war by engaging the Japanese occupiers in China. Chiang, in contrast, sought to build the ROC army for the certain conflict with Mao's communist forces after the end of World War II. This fact was not understood well in the US, and precious lend-lease armaments continued to be allocated to the Kuomintang. In turn, Mao spent part of the war (as to whether it was most or only a little is disputed) fighting the Kuomintang for control of certain parts of China. Both the Communists and Nationalists have been criticised for fighting amongst themselves rather than allying against the Japanese Imperial Army.

In 1944, the Americans sent a special diplomatic envoy, called the Dixie Mission, to the Communist Party of China. According to Edwin Moise, in Modern China: A History 2nd Edition:

Most of the Americans were favourably impressed. The CCP seemed less corrupt, more unified, and more vigorous in its resistance to Japan than the Guomindang. United States fliers shot down over North China...confirmed to their superiors that the CCP was both strong and popular over a broad area. In the end, the contacts with the USA developed with the CCP led to very little.

Then again, modern commentators have refuted such claims. Amongst others, Willy Lam stated that during the war with Japan:

The great majority of casualties sustained by Chinese soldiers were borne by KMT, not Communist divisions. Mao and other guerrilla leaders decided at the time to conserve their strength for the "larger struggle" of taking over all of China once the Japanese Imperial Army was decimated by the U.S.-led Allied Forces.
Mao in 1946 at Yan'an
Mao in 1946 at Yan'an

After the end of World War II, the US continued to support Chiang Kai-shek, now openly against the Communist Red Army (led by Mao Zedong) in the civil war for control of China. The US support was part of its view to contain and defeat "world communism." Likewise, the Soviet Union gave quasi-covert support to Mao (acting as a concerned neighbour more than a military ally, to avoid open conflict with the US) and gave large supplies of arms to the Communist Party of China, although newer Chinese records indicate the Soviet "supplies" were not as large as previously believed, and consistently fell short of the promised amount of aid.

On January 21, 1949, Kuomintang forces suffered massive losses against Mao's Red Army. In the early morning of December 10, 1949, Red Army troops laid siege to Chengdu, the last KMT-occupied city in mainland China, and Chiang Kai-shek evacuated from the mainland to Taiwan (Formosa) that same day.

Leadership of China

The People's Republic of China was established on October 1, 1949. It was the culmination of over two decades of civil and international war. From 1954 to 1959, Mao was the Chairman of the PRC. During this period, Mao was called Chairman Mao (毛主席) or the Great Leader Chairman Mao(伟大领袖毛主席). The Communist Party assumed control of all media in the country and used it to promote the image of Mao and the Party. The Nationalists under General Chiang Kai-Shek were vilified as were countries such as the United States of America and Japan. The Chinese people were exhorted to devote themselves to build and strengthen their country. In his speech declaring the foundation of the PRC, Mao announced: "The Chinese people have stood up!"

Almost everyone in China had a book called the Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong(《毛主席语录》),which was regarded as a source of infallible truth in discussions or arguments at schools or the workplace. He took up residence in Zhongnanhai, a compound next to the Forbidden City in Beijing, and there he ordered the construction of an indoor swimming pool and other buildings. Mao often did his work either in bed or by the side of the pool, preferring not to wear formal clothes unless absolutely necessary, according to Dr. Li Zhisui, his personal physician. (Li's book, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, is regarded as controversial especially by those sympathetic to Mao.)

Following the consolidation of power, Mao launched the First Five Year Plan (1953-8). The plan aimed to end Chinese dependence upon agriculture in order to become a world power. With the USSR's assistance, new industrial plants were built and agricultural production eventually fell to a point where industry was beginning to produce enough capital that China no longer needed the USSR's support. The success of the First Five Year Plan was to encourage Mao to instigate the Second Five Year Plan, the Great Leap Forward, in 1958. Mao also launched a phase of rapid collectivization. The CCP introduced price controls as well as a Chinese character simplification aimed at increasing literacy. Land was taken from landlords and more wealthy peasants and given to poorer peasants. Large scale industrialization projects were also undertaken.

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 even encouraged. However, after a few months, Mao's government reversed its policy and persecuted those, totalling perhaps 500,000, who criticized, and were merely alleged to have criticized, the Party 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. Others such as Dr Li Zhisui have suggested that Mao had initially seen the policy as a way of weakening those within his party who opposed him, but was surprised by the extent of criticism and the fact that it began to be directed at his own leadership. It was only then that he used it as a method of identifying and subsequently persecuting those critical of his regime. The Hundred Flowers movement led to the condemnation, silencing, and death of many intellectuals, also linked to Mao's Anti-Rightist Movement, with death tolls possibly in the millions.

Great Leap Forward

In January 1958, Mao launched the second Five Year Plan known as the Great Leap Forward, a plan intended 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 which had been formed to date were rapidly merged into far larger people's communes, and many of the peasants ordered to work on massive infrastructure projects and the small-scale production of iron and steel. All private food production was banned; livestock and farm implements were brought under collective ownership.

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. Combined with the diversion of labour to steel production and infrastructure projects and the reduced personal incentives under a commune system this led to an approximately 15% drop in grain production in 1959 followed by further 10% reduction in 1960 and no recovery in 1961. In an effort to win favour with their superiors and avoid being purged, each layer in the party hierarchy exaggerated the amount of grain produced under them and based on the fabricated success, party cadres were ordered to requisition a disproportionately high amount of the true harvest for state use primarily in the cities and urban areas but also for export. The net result, which was compounded in some areas by drought and in others by floods, was that the rural peasants were not left enough to eat and many millions starved to death in what is thought to be the largest famine in human history. This famine was a direct cause of the death of tens of millions of Chinese peasants between 1959 and 1962. Further, many children who became emaciated and malnourished during years of hardship and struggle for survival, died shortly after the Great Leap Forward came to an end in 1962 (Spence, 553).

The extent of Mao's knowledge as to the severity of the situation has been disputed. According to some, most notably Dr. Li Zhisui, Mao was not aware of anything more than a mild food and general supply shortage until late 1959.

"But I do not think that when he spoke on July 2, 1959, he knew how bad the disaster had become, and he believed the party was doing everything it could to manage the situation"

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, in Mao: the Unknown Story, provide some documentary evidence that Mao knew of the vast suffering and that he was dismissive of it, blaming bad weather or other officials for the famine.

"Although slaughter was not his purpose with the Leap, he Mao was more than ready for myriad deaths to result, and hinted to his top echelon that they should not be too shocked if they happened (438-439).

- Whatever the case, the Great Leap Forward led to millions of deaths in China. Mao lost esteem among many of the top party cadres and was eventually forced to abandon the policy in 1962, also losing some political power to moderate leaders. However, he was able to use his propaganda base to mitigate the damage caused by the failure of the programme, implying that he was only partly to blame. As a result, he was able to remain Secretary of the Communist Party.

The Great Leap Forward was a disaster for China. Although the steel quotas were officially reached, almost all of it made in the countryside was useless lumps of iron, as it had been made from assorted scrap metal in home made furnaces with no reliable source of fuel such as coal. 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 neighbors did likewise. We put all everything in a big fire and melted down all the metal.

Moreover, most of the dams, canals and other infrastructure projects, which millions of peasants and prisoners had been forced to toil on and in many cases die for, proved useless as they had been built without the input of trained engineers, whom Mao had rejected on ideological grounds.

Mao, shown here with Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai.
Mao, shown here with Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai.

In the Party Congress at Lushan in July/August 1959, several leaders expressed concern that the Great Leap Forward was not as successful as planned. The most direct of these was Minister of Defence Peng Dehuai. Mao orchestrated a denouncement of Peng and his supporters, stifling criticism of the Great Leap policies.

There is a great deal of controversy over the number of deaths by starvation during the Great Leap Forward. 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 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 be localised or exaggerated as China was continuing to claim record harvests and was a net exporter of grain through the period. Censuses were carried out in China in 1953, 1964 and 1982. The first attempt to analyse this data in order 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 underreporting during the famine years, the figure was around 30 million. Various other sources have put the figure between 20 and 72 million.

On the international front, the period was dominated by the further isolation of China, due to start of the Sino-Soviet split which resulted in Khrushchev withdrawing all Soviet technical experts and aid from the country. The split was triggered by border disputes, and arguments over the control and direction of world communism, and other disputes pertaining to foreign policy. Most of the problems regarding communist unity resulted from the death of Stalin and his replacement by Khrushchev. Stalin had established himself as the successor of "correct" Marxist thought well before Mao controlled the Communist Party of China, and therefore Mao never challenged the suitability of any Stalinist doctrine (at least while Stalin was alive). Upon the death of Stalin, Mao believed (perhaps because of seniority) that the leadership of the "correct" Marxist doctrine would fall to him. The resulting tension between Khrushchev (at the head of a politically/militarily superior government), and Mao (believing he had a superior understanding of Marxist ideology) eroded the previous patron-client relationship between the USSR and CCP.

Partly-surrounded by hostile American military bases (reaching from South Korea, Japan, Okinawa, and Taiwan), China was now confronted with a new Soviet threat from the north and west. Both the internal crisis and the external threat called for extraordinary statesmanship from Mao, but as China entered the new decade the statesmen of the People's Republic were in hostile confrontation with each other.

The Great Leap policies were effectively given up following a Politburo meeting in January 1961 and Mao took a more backseat role whilst more moderate leaders such as Liu Shaoqi, who had become State President in 1959 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.

Cultural Revolution

Following these events, other members of the Communist Party, including Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, decided that Mao should be removed from actual power and only remain in a largely ceremonial and symbolic role. They attempted to marginalize Mao, and by 1959, Liu Shaoqi became State President, but Mao remained Chairman. Liu and others began to look at the situation much more realistically, somewhat abandoning the idealism Mao wished for.

Facing the prospect of losing his place on the political stage, Mao responded to Liu and Deng's movements by launching the Cultural Revolution in 1966. According to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, in Mao: the Unknown Story, Mao was bitter that his Great Leap Forward programme had been stopped by Liu and other party leaders, and he was determined to exact revenge. The Cultural Revolution allowed Mao to circumvent the Communist hierarchy by giving power directly to the Red Guards, groups of young people, often teenagers, who set up their own tribunals. The Revolution led to the destruction of much of China's cultural heritage and the imprisonment of a huge number of Chinese intellectuals, as well as creating general economic and social chaos in the country. Millions of lives were ruined during this period, which is depicted by such Chinese films as To Live and Farewell My Concubine.

It was during this period that Mao chose Lin Biao to become his successor. Mao and Lin Biao formed an alliance leading up to the Cultural Revolution in order for the purges to succeed. Mao needed Lin's clout for his plan to work. In return, Lin was made Mao's successor. Somewhat later, it is unclear whether Lin was planning a military coup or an assassination attempt; he died trying to flee China, probably anticipating his arrest, in a suspicious plane crash over Mongolia. It was declared that Lin was planning to depose Mao, and he was posthumously expelled from the CCP. At this time, Mao lost trust in many of the top CCP figures.

Mao greeted United States President Richard Nixon (right) in a China visit in 1972
Mao greeted United States President Richard Nixon (right) in a China visit in 1972

In 1969, Mao declared the Cultural Revolution to be over, although the official history of the People's Republic of China marks the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 with Mao's death. In the last years of his life, Mao was faced with declining health due to either Parkinson's disease or, according to Li Zhisui, motor neurone disease, as well as lung ailments due to smoking and heart trouble. Mao remained passive as various factions within the Communist Party mobilized for the power struggle anticipated after his death. When Mao could not swim any longer, the indoor swimming pool he had at Zhongnanhai was converted into a giant reception hall, according to Li Zhisui.


Mao Zedong died at the age of 82, on September 9, 1976 at 10 minutes past midnight in Beijing. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Mao had been in poor health for several years and had declined visibly for some months prior to his death. His body lay in state at the Great Hall of the People. A memorial service was held in Tiananmen Square on September 18, 1976. There was a three minute silence observed during this service. His body was later placed into the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, although he wished to be cremated and had been one of the first high-ranking officials to sign the "Proposal that all Central Leaders be Cremated after Death" in November 1956.

As anticipated after Mao’s death, there was a power struggle for control of China. On one side were the leftists led by the Gang of Four, who wanted to continue the policy of revolutionary mass mobilization. On the other side were the rightists, which consisted of two groups. One was the restorationists led by Hua Guofeng who advocated a return to central planning along the Soviet model. The other was the reformers, led by Deng Xiaoping, who wanted to overhaul the Chinese economy based on market-oriented policies and to de-emphasize the role of Maoist ideology in determining economic and political policy.

Eventually, the moderates won control of the government. Deng Xiaoping, with clear seniority over Hua Guofeng, defeated Hua in a bloodless power struggle shortly afterwards.

Cult of Mao

One of the reasons Mao is most remembered is the Cult of Mao, the personality cult that was created around him. Mao presented himself as an enemy of landowners, businessmen, and Western and American imperialism, as well as an ally of impoverished peasants, farmers and workers. Some argue that personality cults go against the basic ideas of Marxism. Stalin, however, circumvented this and began cultivating a cult of personality around himself and Lenin, even though Lenin expressly wished that no monuments be created after his death.

Mao said the following about cults at the 1958 Party congress in Chengdu, where he expressed support for the idea of personality cults — even ones like Stalin's:

Mao Zedong
There are two kinds of personality cults. One is a healthy personality cult, that is, to worship men like Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Because they hold the truth in their hands. The other is a false personality cult, i.e. not analysed and blind worship.
Mao Zedong

In 1962, Mao proposed the Socialist Education Movement (SEM) in an attempt to "protect" the peasants against the temptations of feudalism and the sprouts of capitalism that he saw re-emerging in the countryside (due to Liu's economic reforms). Large quantities of politicised art were produced and circulated — with Mao at the centre. Numerous posters and musical compositions referred to Mao as "A red sun in the centre of our hearts" (我们心中的红太阳) and a "Savior of the people" (人民的大救星).

The Cult of Mao proved vital in starting the Cultural Revolution. China's youth had mostly been brought up during the Communist era, and they had been told to love Mao. Thus they were his greatest supporters. Their feelings for him were so strong that many followed his urge to challenge all established authority.

In October 1966, Mao's Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, which was 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. 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.


Mao's legacy has produced a large amount of controversy. Many Chinese mainlanders continue to regard Mao Zedong as a great revolutionary leader, although they also believe that he made serious mistakes later in his life. According to Deng Xiaoping, Mao was "seventy-percent right and thirty-percent wrong", and his "contributions are primary and his mistakes secondary." Some, including members of the Communist Party of China, hold Mao responsible for pulling China away from its biggest ally, the USSR, in the Sino-Soviet Split, while others admire his break with what Mao considered to be "capitalist-roaders." The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were also considered to be major disasters in his policy by his critics and even many of his supporters. Mao has also been blamed for not encouraging birth control and for creating a demographic bump, which later Chinese leaders responded to with the one child policy.

Supporters of Mao credit him with advancing the social and economic development of Chinese society. They point out that before 1949, for instance, the illiteracy rate in Mainland China was 80 percent, and life expectancy was a meager 35 years. At his death, illiteracy had declined to less than seven percent, and average life expectancy had increased to more than 70 years (alternative statistics also quote improvements, though not nearly as dramatic). In addition to these increases, the total population of China increased 57% to 700 million, from the constant 400 million mark during the span between the Opium War and the Chinese Civil War. Supporters also state that, under Mao's regime, China ended its "Century of Humiliation" from Western imperialism and regained its status as a major world power. They also state their belief that Mao also industrialized China to a considerable extent and ensured China's sovereignty during his rule. Some of Mao's supporters view the Kuomintang as having been corrupt and credit Mao with driving them off the Chinese mainland to Taiwan.

They also argue that the Maoist era improved women's rights by abolishing prostitution, a phenomenon that was to return after Deng Xiaoping and post-Maoist CCP leaders increased liberalization of the economy. Indeed, Mao once famously remarked that "Women hold up half the heavens". A popular slogan during the Cultural Revolution was, "Break the chains, unleash the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution!"

Skeptics observe that similar gains in literacy and life expectancy occurred after 1949 on the small neighboring island of Taiwan, which was ruled by Mao's opponents, namely Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang, even though they themselves perpetrated substantial repression in their own right. The regime that continued to rule Taiwan was composed of the same people ruling the Mainland for over 20 years when life expectancy was so low, yet life expectancy there also increased. A counterpoint, however, was that the United States helped Taiwan with aid and infrastructure, along with Japan and other countries, whereas the mainland was under economic sanctions from the same countries for many years.

Another comparison has been between India and China. It is argued that India was ahead of China in some health measures before Mao took over, but Communist-ruled China surpassed India in virtually every measure of economic and social development, a position supported by a study by Indian economist Amartya Sen. It is worth noting, however, that China did not have the same kind of ethnic and social problems that India did, such as the caste system; furthermore, India's economy has historically featured considerable state control; the removal of some of these controls in the 1990s and 2000s has coincided with considerable GDP growth there.

Comparisons to culturally similar Hong Kong, however are not so positive. Under a British legal system, Hong Kong greatly outstripped Chinese economic growth until economic reforms after Mao's death. Neither Hong Kong or Taiwan suffered from the great famines caused by farm collectivization, nor from the purges and dislocations of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao believed that "socialism was the only way out for China" because the United States and other Western countries would not allow China to develop using theories such as Imperialism, as described by Lenin. The United States placed a trade embargo on China as a result of its involvement in the Korean War, lasting until Richard Nixon decided that developing relations with China would be useful in also dealing with the Soviet Union. Some people claim that while the Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) obtained favorable trade terms from the United States, most Third World capitalist countries did not, and they saw nothing like the economic growth of the Tigers. The other side of this debate argue that the disparity in per capita income between Taiwan and the mainland today demonstrates that Mao's statement may have been a self-fulfilling proposition.

There is more consensus on Mao's role as a military strategist and tactician during the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War. Even among those who find Mao's ideology to be either unworkable or abhorrent, many acknowledge that Mao was a brilliant political and military strategist. 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.

Remains of Mao's personality cult: one of the last publicly displayed portraits of Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen gate.
Remains of Mao's personality cult: one of the last publicly displayed portraits of Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen gate.

The ideology of Maoism has influenced many communists around the world, including Third World revolutionary movements such as Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, The Communist Party of Peru, and the revolutionary movement in Nepal. The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA also claims Marxism-Leninism-Maoism as its ideology, but its policy contradicts the anti-imperialist policy advocated by Lenin and Mao, as Lenin believed that First World wage recipients receive superprofits from imperialism (he referred to such people as a " labor aristocracy" categorized by a "seal of parasitism"), while the RCP denies this, stating that the U.S. has a large proletariat which is, by definition, not parasitic in its relationship with the Third World. China 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 Mao's legacy.

Many in mainland China regard Mao as a revolutionary hero in the first half of his life but hold that he was corrupt after gaining power. However, most Chinese liberals eschew Mao's authoritarian tactics.

Contemporary views about him in the PRC are affected by bans on some works that criticise Mao (including this article). The controversial Mao: the Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, provides a far less flattering picture of Mao than previous historical works do. Chang's book claim that Mao fabricated many myths about his background and youth to enhance his image as a true "people's hero." It likewise contends that details relevant to key events in the Long March (in particular the 1935 Battle of Luding Bridge) were falsified. Open academic discussion of Mao's life is restricted by the official "70% good, 30% bad" verdict.

As the Chinese government instituted free market economic reform in the early 21st century, it put less emphasis on studying Mao. For example, there was little state recognition of the 25th anniversary of Mao's death. This was a clear contrast with 1993, when the state organized numerous events and seminars commemorating Mao's 100th birthday. Nevertheless, unlike the denunciations of Stalin and "the cult of personality" by Khrushchev during the Soviet era in Russia, the Chinese government has never officially repudiated the tactics of Mao. Critics of the government who uphold Mao's critique of the current rulers of China as betraying the core principals of socialism are also suppressed by the Chinese government.

In the mid-1990s, Mao Zedong'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 recognized 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 replace Mao's portrait on currency with that of Sun Yat-sen and Deng Xiaoping.


Mao Zedong had several wives which contributed to a large family. These were:

  1. Luo Yixiu (罗一秀, 1889-1910) of Shaoshan: married 1907 to 1910
  2. Yang Kaihui (杨开慧, 1901-1930) of Changsha: married 1921 to 1927, executed by the Kuomintang in 1930
  3. He Zizhen (贺子珍, 1910-1984) of Jiangxi: married May 1928 to 1939
  4. Jiang Qing: (江青, 1914-1991), married 1939 to Mao's death
From left to right: Mao Zetan, Mao Zemin, Wen Qimei, Mao Zedong. At Changsha, 1919.
From left to right: Mao Zetan, Mao Zemin, Wen Qimei, Mao Zedong. At Changsha, 1919.

His ancestors were:

  • Wen Qimei (文七妹, 1867-1919), mother
  • Mao Yichang (毛贻昌, 1870-1920), father, courtesy name Mao Shunsheng (毛顺生)
  • Mao Enpu (毛恩普), paternal grandfather

He had several siblings:

  • Mao Zemin (毛泽民, 1895-1943), younger brother
  • Mao Zetan (毛泽覃, 1905-1935), younger brother
  • Mao Zehong, sister (executed by the Kuomintang in 1930)
Mao Zedong's parents altogether had six 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 Zemin and Zetan were killed in warfare during Mao Zedong's lifetime.

Note that the character ze (泽) appears in all of the siblings' given names. This is a common Chinese naming convention.

He had several children:

  • Mao Anying (毛岸英): son to Yang, married to Liu Siqi (刘思齐), who was born Liu Songlin (刘松林), killed in action during the Korean War
  • Mao Anqing (毛岸青): son to Yang, married to Shao Hua (邵华), son Mao Xinyu (毛新宇)
  • Li Min (李敏): daughter to He, married to Kong Linghua (孔令华), son Kong Ji'ning (孔继宁), daughter Kong Dongmei (孔冬梅)
  • Li Na (李讷): daughter to Jiang (whose birth given name was Li), married to Wang Jingqing (王景清), son Wang Xiaozhi (王效芝)

Sources suggest that Mao did have other children during his revolutionary days; in most of these cases the children were left with peasant families because it was difficult to take care of the children while focusing on revolution. Two English researchers who retraced the entire Long March route in 2002-2003 located a woman who they believe might well be a missing child 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.


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): this is a collection of short extracts from his speeches and articles, edited by Lin Biao and ordered topically. Mao wrote several other philosophical treatises, both before and after he assumed power. These include:

  • On Practice (《实践论》); 1937
  • On Contradiction (《矛盾论》); 1937
  • On Protracted War (《论持久战》); 1938
  • In Memory of Norman Bethune (《纪念白求恩》); 1939
  • On New Democracy (《新民主主义论》); 1940
  • Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art (《在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话》); 1942
  • Serve the People (《为人民服务》); 1944
  • On the Correct Handling of the Contradictions Among the People (《正确处理人民内部矛盾问题》); 1957
  • The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains (《愚公移山》); 1957
Mao's calligraphy: The People's Republic of China: all nationalities unite.
Mao's calligraphy: The People's Republic of China: all nationalities unite.

Mao was furthermore a skilled calligrapher with a highly personal style, and his calligraphy is still very visible in Mainland China.


Mao also wrote poetry, mainly in the classical ci and shi forms. His poems are all in the traditional Chinese verse style.

As did most Chinese intellectuals of his generation, Mao received rigorous education in Chinese classical literature, and thus his skill in poetry is of little surprise. His style was deeply influenced by the great Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai and Li He. He is considered to be a romantic poet, in contrast to the realist poets represented by Du Fu.

Many of Mao's poems are still very popular in China. They are frequently quoted in popular culture, literature and daily conversations. Some of his most well-known poems are: Changsha (1925), The Double Ninth (1929.10), Loushan Pass (1935), The Long March (1935), Snow (1936.02), The PLA Captures Nanjing (1949.04), Reply to Li Shuyi (1957.05.11), and Ode to the Plum Blossom (1961.12).

Notable actors who have played Mao Zedong

  • Gu Yue (古月) in 《开国大典》《大决战》《中国出了个毛泽东》《毛泽东的故事》《走出西柏坡》《毛泽东与斯诺》《重庆谈判》《大决战2-淮海战役》《库尔班大叔上北京》《大进军解放大西北》
  • Yu Shizhi (于是之) in 《大河奔流》
  • Zhang Keyao (张克瑶) in 《风雨下钟山》《巍巍昆仑》《白求恩——一个英雄的成长》
  • Wang Ren (王仁) in 《毛泽东和他的儿子》
  • Li Xuezhi (李学志)
  • Han Shi (韩适)
  • Zhang Keyao (张克瑶)
  • Tang Guoqiang (唐国强) in 《长征》《开国领袖毛泽东》
  • Wang Yang (王雵) in 《开天辟地》《秋收起义》《杨开慧》《彝海结盟》《相伴到永远》《毛泽东与斯诺》《日出东方》
  • Li Kejian (李克俭)
  • Wang Zhen (王震)

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