Dressed in the drab military uniform that symbolized the revolutionary government of Communist China, Mao Zedong’s body still looked powerful, like an giant rock in a gushing river. An enormous red flag draped his coffin, like a red sail unfurled on a Chinese junk, illustrating the dualism of traditional China and the present Communist China that typified Mao. A river of people flowed past while he lay in state during the second week of September 1976. Workers, peasants, soldiers and students, united in grief; brought together by Mao, the helmsman of modern China. He had assembled a revolutionary government using traditional Chinese ideals of filial piety, harmony, and order. Mao’s cult of personality, party purges, and political policies reflect Mao’s esteem of these traditional Chinese ideals and history. Mao was born on December 26, 1893 in Shao Shan, a village in Hunan Province.
His family lived in a rural village where for hundreds of years the pattern of everyday life had remained largely unbroken. Mao’s father, the son of a “poor peasant,” during Mao’s childhood however, prospered and become a wealthy land owner and rice dealer. Yet, the structure of Mao’s family continued to mirror the rigidity of traditional Chinese society. His father, a strict disciplinarian, demanded filial piety. Forced to do farm labor and study the Chinese classics, Mao was expected to be obedient. On the other hand, Mao remembers his mother was “generous and sympathetic.” Mao urged his mother to confront his father but Mao’s mother who believed in many traditional ideas replied that “was not the Chinese way.” Mao in his interviews with historian Edgar Snow reports how during his childhood he tried to escape this traditional Chinese upbringing by running away from The rebellion Mao claims to have manifested might have distanced Mao physically from his family but, traditional Chinese values were deeply ingrained, shaping his political and personal persona.
His father’s harshness with dealing with opposition, his cunning, his demand for reverence from subordinates, and his ambition were to be seen in how Mao demanded harmony, order, and reverence as a ruthless dictator. Yet, Mao, was also the kindly father figure for the people of China, as manifested in characteristic qualities of Mao’s mother: kindness, benevolence, and The China that Mao was born into was fast becoming a shell of its former past. The Ch’ing dynasty which had ruled China for 250 years was only 14 years away from its collapse. Peasant rebellions, famines, and riots heralded its failing. For Mao, one particular event when he was just ten years old, left a lasting impression. It both symbolized the deterioration of order in Chinese traditional society and was in sharp contrast to principles of harmony. A group of local villagers rioted for food during a famine in 1903. The leaders were captured, beheaded, and their heads displayed on poles as a warning for future rebels.
Amidst the change that quaked the Chinese nation and Mao’s family’s economic situation, Mao sought solace in books about Chinese history and its emperors. 12 He became known in his family as, “the scholar.” As a child “[I was] fascinated by accounts of the rulers of ancient China: Yao, Shun, Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, and Hu Wu Ti, and read many books about them.” Indeed, the emperors grandeur, elegance and power were a sharp contrast to the brutish leaders that Mao was exposed to during his childhood. 14 Yao and Shun are credited with forming the first Chinese society in the Yellow River Valley; Ch’in Shih Huang Ti unified the Chinese empire and built the Great Wall of China; Han Wu Ti solidified the foundation of the Han Empire. 1In the turmoil that China was to undergo, particularly after Mao became the head of the Communist party, we will see how he was guided by traditional Chinese values and the history of the emperors provided him with a map for the future.
However, at first, he did not seem strongly During the next ten years, 1909-1918, Mao drifted. In 1909 at the age of , he left home to attend school in Hsiang. In 1911, he enlisted in the Army for six months after which he moved to Changsha the capital of Hunan Province where he stayed until 1918. While in Changsha, he tried numerous schools. Finally, he enrolled at the Hunan Normal School, Mao’s mother’s died in 1918, which seemed to be a precipitant factor in his final break with home and in September of that year he traveled to Beijing. Arriving at Beijing University21 he was exposed to a wide range of political philosophy such as, anarchism, communism, and western ideas of democracy and capitalism. Nonetheless, when describing to Edgar Snow the events that stood out in his mind from his time in Beijing, Mao did not select political ideology but three journeys to Chinese sites that captured the grandeur of the historic Chinese Empires.
He visited the wall of Hsuchou famous in the San Kuo [three kingdoms]; climbed the T’ai Shan, a Chinese mountain of historic and religious significance; and made a Mao now age 26, returned to Changsha in the spring of 1919. It was at this point that he became active in politics. During the summer of 1919, Mao became involved in demonstrations, which although not Marxist- inspired, were strongly anti-imperialist. 24 But, by the summer of 1920, he embraced Marxism. However, like everything that Mao embarked upon, it also had “Maoist” tenets. The Marxism that Mao espoused became by the 1930’s, an amalgam of Marxism and Mao’s Chinese traditional ideas. He In 1923, after the Communists formed an alliance with the Guomingdang, the Chinese National People’s Party, 27 Mao became a leader in the combined party. He was sent in 1925 to organize the Peasants of Hunan province. This event and Mao’s report of it became a pivotal point in documenting and disseminating Mao’s hallmark of Chinese Communism.
It reflected Mao’s revolutionary belief in the peasantry’s ability to rule while also giving credence to Chinese traditional ideals. With glee, Mao described the peasant associations which had successfully taken over in Hunan. In his report, Mao pays tribute to the peasants for selectively relying on Chinese traditions of order, harmony, and filial piety. While praising the peasants for abandoning the worship of Gods and rejecting Buddhism, he congratulates the peasants puritan prohibitions against gambling and drinking wine. Although the peasants rejected “the traditional Buddhist religion” by spurning idols, Mao praises the peasants for saving certain idols such as, a statue of Pao Cheng who was a official in the Sung Dynasty (960-1127), an impartial judge. Finally, he applauds the Hunan peasant association for restoring order, which was to be a theme echoed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution when Mao relied on the military to Mao’s belief in the ability of peasants to organize and rule was at the heart of the Communist success in attaining power.
In 1927, the Guomingdang broke with the Communists. Chased from the urban areas, the Communists fled to the countryside. 32 This proved to be a blessing. Throughout the 1930’s, the Communists organized the rural areas and solidified the party organization. The Japanese invasion of China during World War II, also provided Mao with opportunity to draw the Chinese people behind him in an united front against the Japanese invaders. Mao’s stature within the party continued to grow. After leading the Communists on the Long March to the City of Yunan in Northern China in 1935, he assumed leadership of the party at age 42. Mao’s belief in harmony, set him upon a campaign that would solidify his power, and further strengthen his role, the Rectification Campaign (1942-1943).
The Rectification Campaign was a harbinger of the purges that Mao would initiate again during the Cultural Revolution; it was a symbol of Mao’s belief in harmony and order. This campaign aimed at purging the party of Stalinist supporters. Purging of dissident elements within the party created unity according to Mao. The Rectification Campaign was a turning point for the Communists. With a strong leader, unity within, and a specifically tailored Chinese political ideology, the Communists made steady gains against the Guomingdang in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). By 1949, the Communists controlled the Chinese mainland. Not surprisingly, on October 1st, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Equally in character, Mao’s proclamation took place at the Imperial Gate in Tianamen Square, the gate where the Emperors of China had stood prior to the fall of the Ch’ing Dynasty in 1911.
During the next five years, Mao focused on structuring the new Chinese government. Again, Mao turned to Chinese history. Using the Imperial governments as a blueprint, he copied the principles of an Imperial state, with a commanding head as the supreme authority. Like that of an ancient Chinese family tree, authority was placed in one person: Mao. Below Mao in authority, were a plethora of overlapping bureaucracies. This structure served Mao in later years as these branches squabbled amongst themselves allowing Mao to rise above these disputes and be able to exercise absolute imperial power. By the mid 1950’s, Mao had what the Chinese Emperors, his childhood heroes, had struggled to create: a unified mainland China with a supreme ruler. Mao’s lifestyle during the 1950’s also began to resemble the imperial luxury of a Chinese Emperor.
His court consisted of an inner circle of around thirty to forty people who worked to his rhythm. 41 In bed for days, lounging by the side of a private pool, or enjoying a bevy of women, Mao lived in an atmosphere reminiscent of the Forbidden City, the place where Chinese Emperors were isolated from their country. His appetite and desire for luxury was continually satisfied. Mao emulated the First Tang Emperor of China43 binding people to him by discovering their weaknesses. Sycophantic advisors whose position resided with pleasing Mao, never disagreed with him. Security staff during the Great Leap Forward would set up vast potemkin fields of grain to lead Mao to think that the economy was doing well, while in reality, huge numbers of people were starving. Mao, born a peasant, had become an emperor. According to Mao’s personal doctor, Dr. Li Zhisui, “At the end, the most loved man in China Mao also knew how to use Chinese culture to consolidate his place as the head of China.
The three great rivers of China, the Pearl, the Xiang, and the Yangtze were historically signs of the power of nature. Mao proposed that he swim the three great rivers in the spring of 1956. Mao’s security staff opposed the swim. He defied them and swam. Chairman Mao was as mighty as the rivers he had swam, the propaganda posters depicting the swim seemed to say to the people of China. One staff member, Yang Shangkun said, “No other world leader looks down with such disdain on great Mao’s swimming in 1956 showed his desire to do what no one else had imagined which epitomized his power. Mao’s strength lay in his ability to devise colossal plans, plans that only an emperor would dream of and be able to execute. Shortly after his swim in the Yangtze, in July of 1956, Mao told Dr. Li that he wanted to dam the Yangtze in the area of the Three Gorges.
The dam was to be like Emperor Qin Shihuangdi’s “Great Wall.” In February, 1957 Mao turned back to politics. He moved to solidify his power in the party. Again, he called upon traditional Chinese ideas. An ancient Chinese adage, “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” became The Hundred Flower’s Movement. Traditionally, Chinese intellectuals were given freedom to criticize the Imperial Governments without fear of persecution. Many of the Chinese histories that Mao had read, were written by intellectuals who during imperial times had criticized the government. A Hundred Flowers promoted criticism of the Communist Party. However, other leaders in the Communist Party, did not embrace such Chinese tradition.
They condemned the Flowers Movement and launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign which condemned critics of the Undaunted by the failure of the Hundred Flowers Movement, Mao in May of 1958 launched another grandiose plan: the Great Leap Forward. This was Mao’s economic plan to transform China into an industrial nation in two years. The plan was to decentralize agriculture and create communes which would promote heavy industry and agricultural production. The Great Leap Forward seemed to symbolize Mao’s embrace of technology and industry. In fact, it epitomizes Mao’s reliance on traditional Chinese ideals first formulated in his observance of the peasant culture. The Great Leap Forward relied on a commune system, which operates much like the China of Mao’s childhood. Small villages would set rice quotas and economic priorities and work as a group, sharing resources for the harvest. Communes can be seen as based on the Confucian idea of obligation.
Traditionally, Confucianism obligated a child to respect a parent. Communes, according to Mao would replace that obligation to parents, with an obligation to Communism. Unfortunately, the experiment failed. Misapplication of resources coupled with an unforeseen drought was disastrous and 54 Millions starved. Mao, in the years following the Great Leap Forward again sought to regain power in the party. Convinced that “new bourgeois” elements were emerging in the party, he began what at first was to be a modest attack on enemies in the Communist Party. It quickly transformed itself into an all- out attack on figures of authority which Mao promoted under the slogan, “to This marked the era of the Cultural Revolution. From 1964 to 1969, Chinese society was turned upside down, like the turning over of a giant hourglass.
A state of chaos reigned: universities and school were shut down, widespread purges of “rightist elements” forced many former Communist officials into rural re-education camps, children were urged to denounce their parents and teachers, and students formed into Red Guard brigades, which dictated barbarous policies to provincial governments. Mao’s belief in an organized “Strong Socialist State” was clearly headed into anarchy. Yet, Mao’s strong sense of Chinese ideals of order, filial piety, and harmony were still in place. He quickly restored order, relying on the military. The Cultural Revolution, like the Great Leap Forward, had tried to replace filial piety for parents with reverence for the Communist Party as embodied in Mao. During The Cultural Revolution, Mao’s personality cult had grown into a God-father figure reinforcing traditional Chinese obligation of filial piety: the same as the Emperors By 1969 order was somewhat restored.
During the next six years, Mao’s health gradually deteriorated and he ceded most of his power to his wife and the Gang of Four, a group consisting of Mao’s wife and three others. They ruled China while Mao grew more incapacitated. But even in the waning years of his life, Mao continued to write and espouse his belief in On September 9th 1976, the man who had fathered the People’s Republic of China died. Thousands of people poured into Beijing to pay their respects to the “helmsman of modern China.” Mao, the young boy who had discovered a glorious nation in Chinese history books; filled with wise and mighty emperors, had combined Chinese traditional values with revolutionary Marxism to restore China to its glory. The man and the nation he conceived were anchored in Chinese tradition.