Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong was the leader of the People's Republic of China. A great visionary, Mao Zedong was also one of history's deadliest tyrants. A rebel from childhood, Mao helped found the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, took command of the revolution 14 years later in the midst of the Red Army's epic Long March, fought another 14 years before the Communists' final victory, and then remained China's supreme ruler for more than a quarter-century until his death at age 82.
The leader of the Chinese Communist Revolution was born on December 26, 1893, in a peasant home in Hunan Province. He was educated at his village primary school and subsequently entered high school in Changsha, the provincial capital. Mao was in Changsha when, on October 10, 1911, revolution broke out against the last of the Qing Dynasty emperors. Mao joined the revolutionary army but saw no fighting and returned to his studies after six months as a soldier.
After graduating from the provincial teacher-training college, Mao went to Beijing, where he worked as an assistant librarian at Beijing University and began to learn about Marxism. In July 1921, he attended the Chinese Communist Party's founding congress in Shanghai. Seeing Marxist theories through a Chinese prism, unlike many of his more orthodox comrades, Mao believed that revolution in China had to begin among peasants, rather than in an embryonic industrial working class. During the 1920s, he spent much of his time organizing peasant unions in his native Hunan Province.
At the end of the decade, with the Communists fighting for survival against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, Mao retreated farther into the countryside instead of joining other Communist leaders in suicidal urban uprisings. By 1934, Mao's base in Jiangxi province was under heavy pressure from Nationalist troops. That October, some 86,000 Communists slipped through the Nationalist blockade and began a 6,000-mile retreat that became known as the Long March. Mao, in political eclipse when the march began, became the party's supreme leader during the trek, a role he never relinquished. At the end of the Long March, with only about 4,000 left from the original force, Mao and his comrades established a new base in Yenan in northern China.
Between 1937 and 1945, Mao and his army fought a new enemy in Japan. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, Mao and his commanders refined the art of "people's war." Mao summed up the strategy in only 16 Chinese characters: "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."
The Red Army became a political as well as military organization. Instead of victimizing the peasantry, as Chinese soldiers had done from time immemorial, Mao's troops sought to win over the population to their cause. Instead of looting, raping, and destroying, Communist soldiers were ordered to pay for food, respect women, and help repair war damage. The ideal, and to an extent the reality, was an army that commanded public support and could, in Mao's most famous simile, swim among the people as fish swim in the sea.
Following Japan's defeat, the struggle between Communists and Nationalists resumed, but by now the tide was running strongly in Mao's favor. By the fall of 1949, the Nationalist government and what remained of its army had fled to the island of Taiwan. On October 1, Mao stood under China's new flag, red with five gold stars, and proclaimed the People's Republic of China.
The Communists were not gentle in establishing their regime. "A revolution is not the same thing as inviting people to dinner or writing an essay or painting a picture or embroidering a flower," Mao once wrote. "It cannot be anything so refined, so calm and gentle." In the first years of the People's Republic, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, were executed as landlords or capitalist exploiters. Millions more were imprisoned or tortured for real or imaginary crimes against the revolution, or simply for having a privileged background. Rigid ideological controls were imposed on educators, artists, and the press.
Less than a year after he came to power, the outbreak of the Korean War presented Mao with difficult choices. His priority was on consolidating his new government and rebuilding China. But a North Korean defeat would bring hostile foreign forces to China's northeastern border and, Mao feared, might encourage Chiang to send his forces back across the Taiwan Strait to reopen the civil war on the mainland. The key issue for China was whether counterattacking U.S. forces would halt at the 38th parallel in the fall of 1950 or continue their advance into North Korea. If the latter, Mao decided, China had no choice but to enter the war.
On October 8, the day after the first U.S. troops moved onto North Korean territory, Mao issued the official directive: "It has been ordered that the Northeast Border Defense Army be turned into the Chinese People's Volunteers" (the name was a fig leaf, a transparent device for China to go to war with the United States without formally avowing it) "and that the Chinese People's Volunteers move immediately into the territory of Korea to assist the Korean comrades in their struggle."
Mao's decision to intervene in Korea cost the life of his oldest son. Mao Anying, age 28, was killed in a U.S. air strike on a Chinese People's Volunteer Army (CPVA) command post in November 1950, just weeks after the intervention began.
For many ordinary Chinese, life gradually improved in the years following 1949. But Mao was impatient for faster progress. Uninformed about economics and technology, and convinced that the sheer muscle power of China's huge population could accomplish any goal if it were just mobilized properly, he began dreaming of a "Great Leap Forward" that would hurl China out of poverty and backwardness and create a modern, prosperous state virtually overnight.
The Great Leap produced numerous follies, but the worst calamity occurred in agriculture. Intoxicated by his own visions and seduced by crackpot theorists (at one point, Chinese "scientists" claimed to have crossed a cotton plant and a tomato plant to produce red cotton!) Mao decreed an overnight transition from family or small cooperative farms to vast People's Communes, while calling for absurdly high increases in grain production. The results were devastating. From 1959 to 1961, as many as 30 million Chinese died as a direct or indirect result of Great Leap policies.
In the wake of the disaster, Mao withdrew from day-to-day administrative details. But he nursed a deep grievance against those who he imagined had sabotaged his plan. In 1966, Mao struck back with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, an event so irrational and bizarre that recorded history shows nothing else quite like it. Proclaiming "rebellion is justified," Mao urged China's youth to rise up against the party bureaucracy and against the "four olds": old habits, old customs, old culture, and old thinking.
At Mao's call, brigades of youthful Red Guards waving the little red book of Mao's thoughts spread out to "make revolution" in schools, factories, and offices throughout China. Within months, the country was in chaos. Red Guard groups splintered into rival mobs, each determined to outdo the other in rooting out enemies and tearing down everything that symbolized incorrect thoughts or China's past. Teachers, managers, intellectuals, and anyone suspected of insufficient revolutionary purity were paraded before howling mobs and forced to confess their misdeeds. Savage beatings were common. Many victims died under torture; constant physical and mental harassment drove many others to commit suicide.
Among those persecuted were almost all of the old cadres—party workers and Red Army soldiers whose struggle and sacrifice had brought the Communists to power. Meanwhile, the glorification of Mao reached extraordinary heights. His face, with its high-domed forehead, backswept hair tufting over each ear, and the celebrated mole just to the left of the center line of the chin, gazed out from virtually every wall in China. Badges with his image became part of the national dress. Schoolchildren and office workers began every day with bows before Mao's picture.
Not even the frenzy of leader-worship could stem a growing sense that something was wrong, however. In the torrent of slogans and accusations, the movement's goals grew steadily more inexplicable. "The whole nation slid into doublespeak," Jung Chang, then a teenager, recalled in her memoir, Wild Swans. "Words became divorced from reality, responsibility, and people's real thoughts. Lies were told with ease because words had lost their meanings—and had ceased to be taken seriously by others."
China paid a heavy price for Mao's mad fantasies: the educational system was shattered for years; economic losses were ruinous; much of China's rich artistic legacy was destroyed; society was fractured; and ideals crumbled. After two years of chaos, order was gradually restored, often at gunpoint by People's Liberation Army units, but a mood of fear and uncertainty persisted through the remaining years of Mao's rule.
The Red Guards were disbanded and millions of young people were sent from towns and cities to work as farm laborers. Out loud, nearly all of them obediently vowed willingness to "serve the people" wherever they were sent. But inwardly, many were confused, disillusioned, and hurt.
On July 28, 1976, the disastrous Tangshan earthquake struck north China. Nearly a quarter-million people were killed, and physical destruction was immense, even in Beijing, 100 miles from the epicenter. In Chinese tradition, such disasters were thought to signal the end of a dynasty. The Communist regime officially scorned such superstitions, but to many Chinese the old beliefs were vindicated when, at 10 minutes past midnight on September 9, Mao died.
Believing that sheer willpower and human muscle could overcome any obstacle, Mao had turned China into a gigantic laboratory for his experiments in transforming human society. But when his grandiose dreams failed, instead of recognizing that his policies were flawed, Mao tore China apart in mad witch-hunts for the "demons and monsters" who had frustrated his efforts.
Mao's career was rich in contradictions. He proclaimed Marxism his lifelong faith, but his revolutionary ideas owed little to Marx and much more to ancient Chinese sagas of bandits and peasant rebellions. He preached simplicity and egalitarianism, but had himself glorified as a virtual god-king. He declared war against China's feudal past and its oppressive traditions, but his reign, rife with arbitrary cruelties and constant intrigues, mirrored many of the worst aspects of imperial despotism.
Mao's remains were given a place of high honor in an enormous mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, but his ideas were entombed with him. Less than a month after his death, his widow Jiang Qing and her three closest associates, the Gang of Four who had been the chief zealots of the Cultural Revolution, were imprisoned. Deng Xiaoping, whom Mao had twice expelled from the leadership, regained power and within a few years reversed nearly all of Mao's policies. In the end, it was the pragmatic Deng rather than the visionary Mao who laid the groundwork for economic reforms that transformed China in the 1980s and 1990s.