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Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung)

[mou' zA dung'] creator of Chinese-style Communism

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong was born into a prosperous peasant family on December 26, 1893, in the village of Shaoshan, Hunan Province. He left home at the age of 13 to attend an advanced school in a nearby district, and went to Changsha to attend secondary school in 1911.

Mao was a student when Sun Yat-sen launched his revolution against the Manchu dynasty, and served briefly in the Kuomintang army before returning to school. After studying law enforcement, business, and history, he finally decided to focus on education, and graduated from the Changsha teachers' training school in 1918. He went on to the National University at Peking, where he worked as a librarian's assistant while taking a part-time class load. It was here that he became familiar with the tenets of Communism, and in 1919 he joined other students in mass protests against a clause in the Treaty of Versailles (which ended World War I) transferring the Shandong Province to Japan. In 1920, Mao returned to Changsha as head of a primary school. When his attempts to organize mass education were suppressed, he turned to politics. In 1921, he and 12 other Communists met in Shanghai, where they formed the Chinese Communist Party.

Mao in the 1920s
Mao in the 1920s

Work with the Kuomintang

In 1923, the Soviet Union promised to provide military assistance to Sun Yat-sen and his Kuomintang in their efforts to unite China, so long as he agreed to work with the Chinese Communist Party. Sun agreed, and Mao soon became one of his principal associates. In 1924, Mao moved his family to Shanghai, where he took up duties as a Kuomintang executive, but he returned to Hunan later that same year to organize peasant protests. By October 1925 he had become acting head of the Kuomintang propaganda department.

War with the Kuomintang

The cooperation between Communists and Kuomintang came to an end after the sudden death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925. Although his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, distrusted the Communists, he was initially willing to "keep them in the loop" in order to avoid losing Soviet assistance. In 1927, however, Chiang suddenly turned against his Communist allies, violently. Many Communist Party leaders were executed, along with thousands of sympathizers, and Mao and his followers were forced to flee for their lives.

In October 1927, Mao led a small band of Hunan peasants and Communist sympathizers to Kiangsi Province, where he established a base of operations. With the Kuomintang firmly in control of the government by 1928, Mao found himself at the head of a rebel force. He began building a guerrilla army, the mission of which was to harass the Kuomintang, and to spread Communism among the village populace along the way. In 1931 Mao was elected First Chairman of the Chinese Soviet Republic, which was proclaimed from Ruijin. Within three years Mao and his followers controlled several million people in the countryside, and he commanded a Red Army of some 200,000 men.

Mao in the 1930s
Mao in the 1930s

In 1934, after a series of humiliating losses at the hands of Mao's Red Army, Chiang managed to blockade the Communist bases. He then began a series of "extermination campaigns" that nearly wiped out the Communists. To escape Chiang's vengeance, Mao led the Red Army to Shensi Province, where they set up new bases. What is now known as The Long March covered 6,000 miles and took more than a year. Only about 8,000 of the original 80,000 Red Army troops survived the trek, but the Communist numbers were boosted by about 22,000 people who joined along the way. Mao's leadership during the ordeal made him a hero, and in January 1935 he was made head of the Communist Party.

War with Japan

In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria in retaliation for a trade boycott, but the Kuomintang government was too busy with the Communists to mount a counter-offensive. When full-scale hostilities broke out in 1937, however, Chiang had little choice but to accept a "truce" with Mao in order to mount a united Chinese front against Japan. The two sides remained uneasy allies until the end of World War II.

Mao in the 1940s
Mao in the 1940s

The Communists implemented several reforms during the course of the war, including a reduction of land rents and implementation of fairer taxes and representative village government. In response, the peasants of North China helped increase the numbers of the Red Army and militia many times over. Mao was elected Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee and Politburo in 1943, and his Red Army made major advances against the Japanese.

Meanwhile, the Kuomintang were forced to retreat to their capital of Nanking. By 1945 Communists controlled areas populated by almost 100 million Chinese.

Fighting between the Communists and Kuomintang resumed after the war, but with the vast majority of the Chinese populace backing the Communists the Kuomintang's days were numbered. Communists took Beijing without a fight in January 1949, and had gained control of all China by October. The Kuomintang were forced to withdraw to the island of Taiwan.

The People's Republic

The Chinese People's Republic was proclaimed on October 1, 1949, with Mao as Chairman and Chou Enlai as Premier.

Within a relatively short time after taking office, Mao's policies had resulted in a curbing of high inflation, restoration of the economy, and the rebuilding of war-damaged industrial plants and infrastructure facilities. Socially, the illiteracy rate was significantly lowered, near universal health care was established, life expectancy rose, and women were given the same rights as men.

In 1950 China and the Soviet Union signed a mutual defense pact, under the terms of which Russia helped strengthen the Chinese army during the Korean War (1950-1953).

In 1954 the First National People's Congress adopted a new constitution and formally elected Mao Chairman of the People's Republic.

Mao initially followed the Soviet model of society through redistribution of land, heavy industrialization, and a centralized bureaucracy, but gradually developed a uniquely Chinese form of Communism that stressed self-reliance through labor-intensive rather than technologically-advanced agriculture. In 1958 he launched a program he called the Great Leap Forward, which replaced the centrally-controlled economy with a system of autonomous local agricultural communes and projects. Under the program, everyone, including Party members, intellectuals, professionals, and technical workers, were required to work in communes, factories, mines, and/or on public works projects in order to gain firsthand experience of manual labor and the conditions faced by the peasantry. Despite the program's grand design and name, it failed, miserably. Demoralization and exhaustion of the workforce, combined with a series of coincidental natural disasters and the end of economic assistance from the Soviet Union, led to massive shortages of food and consumer goods.

Taking full responsibility for the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao gave up his title as Chairman of the People's Republic in 1959, but kept his hold on the Communist Party. Over the next several years the government of President Liu Shaoqi and Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping gradually dismantled much of Mao's work and returned China to a more Soviet-style system.

Mao (center) resigning as Chairman of the Chinese People's Republic
Mao resigning as Chairman

In 1966, Mao decided to retake control of the country he had helped form by launching the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Quotations from Chairman Mao (The Little Red Book), published in October 1966, inspired millions of youngsters to form the Red Guard, and millions of peasants to form the People's Liberation Army. Together these two Mao-inspired forces attacked the party establishment, which retaliated by severely curtailing cultural expression and suppressing religious practices. Millions of "intellectuals" and "reactionists" were sent to "re-education" camps, purged from the party, and/or killed before Mao finally allowed the army to restore order in 1969.

girl proudly holding a Little Red Book
girl proudly holding a Little Red Book

Mao, Marshal Lin Piao, and Chou Enlai review Red Guards
Mao, Marshal Lin Piao, and Chou Enlai review Red Guards

Having once again "saved his country," Mao was made Supreme Commander of China in 1970, and he once again set out to restore the nation's economy and infrastructure. Having broken formal relations with the Soviet Union, Mao began courting the United States and other Western nations. In February 1972, Richard Nixon became the first President of the United States to visit China; diplomatic relations were established with Japan in September of that same year. These new relationships opened vast new markets for Chinese goods, and China's economy began to grow again.

But Mao's Cultural Revolution had left him alienated from much of the Communist Party leadership, which did what it could to minimize his control over day-to-day affairs. He made his last official appearance at the First Plenum of the 10th National Party Congress in August 1973, and died of a heart attack on September 9, 1976.


Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia Funk & Wagnalls Corporation, 1993
The World Book Encyclopedia
Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979

See Also

World War I
World War II
Chou Enlai
Deng Xiaoping
Richard Nixon

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The Robinson Library >> People's Republic, 1949 to Present

This page was last updated on December 26, 2018.