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The Life of Mao Zedong

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Dressed in the drab military uniform that symbolized the

revolutionary government of Communist China, Mao Zedong’s body still looked

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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. 1 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. 3 His family lived in a rural village where for hundreds of years

the pattern of everyday life had remained largely unbroken.

4 Mao’s father,

the son of a “poor peasant,” during Mao’s childhood however, prospered and

become a wealthy land owner and rice dealer. 5 Yet, the structure of Mao’s

family continued to mirror the rigidity of traditional Chinese society. His

father, a strict disciplinarian, demanded filial piety. 6 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.” 7

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.” 8 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. 9 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. 10

Amidst the change that quaked the Chinese nation and Mao’s family’s

economic situation, 11 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.”

13 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.

15 In 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. 16 However, at first, he did not seem strongly

During the next ten years, 1909-1918, Mao drifted. In 1909 at the

age of 16, he left home to attend school in Hsiang. 17 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. 18 While in Changsha, he tried

numerous schools. 19 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. 23 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. 25 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. 28 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. 29 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. 30 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. 31 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. 33 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. 34 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. 35 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. 36 During the next five years, Mao

focused on structuring the new Chinese government. 37

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. 38 Below Mao

in authority, were a plethora of overlapping bureaucracies. 39 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. 40 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. 42 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. 45 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. 46 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.” 48

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,” 49 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. 50 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. 52 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. 53 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. 55

Mao, in the years following the Great Leap Forward again sought to

regain power in the party. 56 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. 58 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. 59 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. 61 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.

Cite this The Life of Mao Zedong

The Life of Mao Zedong. (2018, Oct 11). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-life-of-mao-zedong-essay/

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