Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung, and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao (December 26, 1893 - September 9, 1976), was a Chinese communist revolutionary and a founding father of the People's Republic of China, which he governed as Chairman of the Communist Party of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death. His Marxist-Leninist theories, military strategies, and political policies are collectively known as Maoism.

Born the son of a wealthy farmer in Shaoshan, Hunan, Mao adopted a Chinese nationalist and anti-imperialist outlook in early life. He converted to Marxism-Leninism and became a founding member of the Communist Party of China (CPC), of which he became the head during the Long March. On October 1, 1949 Mao proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China. In the following years he solidified his control through land reforms, through a psychological victory in the Korean War, and through campaigns against landlords, people he termed "counterrevolutionaries," and other perceived enemies of the state. In 1957 he launched a campaign known as the Great Leap Forward that aimed to rapidly transform China's economy from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. This campaign, however, exacerbated agrarian problems leading to one the deadliest famines in history. In 1966, he initiated the Cultural Revolution, a program to weed out supposed counter-revolutionary elements in Chinese society. In 1972, he welcomed American president Richard Nixon in Beijing, signaling a policy of opening China.

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A highly controversial figure, Mao is regarded as one of the most important individuals in modern world history. Supporters regard him as a great leader and credit him with numerous accomplishments including modernizing China and building it into a world power, promoting the status of women, improving education and health care, providing universal housing, and increasing life expectancy as China's population grew from around 550 to over 900 million during the period of his leadership. In contrast, critics, including many historians, have characterized him as a dictator who oversaw systematic human rights abuses, and whose rule is estimated to have contributed to the deaths of 40-70 million people through starvation, forced labor, and executions, ranking his tenure as the top incidence of democide in human history.

Early life

Mao was born on December 26, 1893 in Shaoshan village, Shaoshan, Hunan. His father, Mao Yichang, was an impoverished peasant who had become one of the wealthiest farmers in Shaoshan. Zedong described his father as a stern disciplinarian, who would beat him and his three siblings, the boys Zemin and Zetan, and an adopted girl, Zejian.1 Yichang's wife, Wen Qimei, was a devout Buddhist who tried to temper her husband's strict attitude. Zedong too became a Buddhist, but abandoned this faith in his mid-teenage years.2

At the age of eight, Mao was sent to Shaoshan Primary School where he learned the value systems of Confucianism. He later admitted that he did not enjoy the classical Chinese texts preaching Confucian morals, instead favoring popular novels like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin.3

Mao finished primary education at the age of 13 and his father had him married to the 17-year-old Luo Yixiu, uniting their land-owning families. Mao refused to recognize her as his wife, becoming a fierce critic of arranged marriage and temporarily moving away. Luo was locally disgraced and died in 1910.4 Aged 16, Mao moved to a higher primary school in nearby Dongshan, where he was bullied for his peasant background.1

Working on his father's farm, Mao read voraciously, developing a "political consciousness" from Zheng Guanying's booklet which lamented the deterioration of Chinese power and argued for the adoption of representative democracy. Mao was inspired by the military prowess and nationalistic fervor of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte.3 His political views were shaped by Gelaohui-led protests which erupted following a famine in the Hunanese capital Changsha. Mao supported the protester's demands, but the armed forces suppressed the dissenters and executed their leaders.1 The famine spread to Shaoshan, where starving peasants seized his father's grain. Disapproving of their actions as morally wrong, Mao nevertheless claimed sympathy for their situation.2

Mao ZedongSimplified Chinese:毛泽东Traditional Chinese:毛澤東Hanyu Pinyin:Máo Zédōng Transliterations Kejia (Hakka)- Romanization:Mô Chhe̍t-tûng Mandarin- Hanyu Pinyin:Máo Zédōng- Wade-Giles:Mao Tse-tung Min- Peh-oe-ji:Mô͘ Te̍k-tong Yue (Cantonese)- Jyutping:mou4 zaak6dung1

After moving to Changsha, Mao enrolled and dropped out of a police academy, a soap-production school, a law school, an economics school, and the government-run Changsha Middle School. Studying independently, he spent much time in Changsha's library, reading core works of classical liberalism such as Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws, as well as the works of western scientists and philosophers such as Darwin, Mill, Rousseau, and Spencer.2 Viewing himself as an intellectual, he admitted years later that at this time he thought himself better than working people.3

Mao's childhood home in Shaoshan, in 2010, by which time it had become a tourist destination.

Mao decided to become a teacher and enrolled at the Fourth Normal School of Changsha, which soon merged with the First Normal School of Changsha, widely seen as the best school in Hunan. Professor Yang Changji befriended Mao and urged him to read a radical newspaper, New Youth (Xin qingnian), the creation of his friend Chen Duxiu, a dean at Peking University. Mao published his first article in New Youth in April 1917, instructing readers to increase their physical strength to serve the revolution. He joined the Society for the Study of Wang Fuzhi (Chuan-shan Hsüeh-she), a revolutionary group founded by Changsha literati who wished to emulate the philosopher Wang Fuzhi.2

Seeing no use in his son's intellectual pursuits, Mao's father had cut off his allowance, forcing him to move into a hostel for the destitute.5 In his first school year, Mao befriended an older student, Xiao Yu; together they went on a walking tour of Hunan, begging and writing literary couplets to obtain food.6 In 1915 Mao was elected secretary of the Students Society. Forging an Association for Student Self-Government, he led protests against school rules. In spring 1917, he was elected to command the students' volunteer army, set up to defend the school from marauding soldiers. Increasingly interested in the techniques of war, he took a keen interest in World War I, and also began to develop a sense of solidarity with workers.3 Mao undertook feats of physical endurance with Xiao Yu and Cai Hesen, and with other young revolutionaries they formed the Renovation of the People Study Society in April 1918 to debate Chen Duxiu's ideas. The Society gained 70-80 members, many of whom would later join the Communist Party. Mao graduated in June 1919, ranked third in the year.1

Mao moved to Beijing and, paid a low wage, lived in a cramped room with seven other Hunanese students. He believed that Beijing's beauty offered "vivid and living compensation."3 His time in Beijing ended in the spring of 1919, when he traveled to Shanghai with friends departing for France, before returning to Shaoshan, where his mother was terminally ill; she died in October 1919, with her husband dying in January 1920.3

Early revolutionary activity

Mao adopted a Chinese nationalist and anti-imperialist outlook in early life, particularly influenced by the events of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and May Fourth Movement of 1919. He converted to Marxism-Leninism while working at Peking University and became a founding member of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

The Xinhai Revolution

Mao in 1913.

The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 overthrew China's last imperial dynasty (the Qing dynasty), and established the Republic of China (ROC). In Changsha there was widespread animosity towards Emperor Puyi's absolute monarchy, with many advocating republicanism. The republicans' figurehead was Sun Yat-sen, an American-educated Christian who led the Tongmenghui society.5 Mao was influenced by Sun's newspaper, The People's Independence (Minli bao), and called for Sun to become president in a school essay.1 As a symbol of rebellion against the Manchu monarch, Mao and a friend cut off their queue pigtails, a sign of subservience to the emperor.2

Mao joined the rebel army as a private soldier, but was not involved in fighting. When the revolution was over in 1912, he resigned from the army after six months of being a soldier.3 Around this time, Mao discovered socialism from a newspaper article; proceeding to read pamphlets by Jiang Kanghu, the student founder of the Chinese Socialist Party, Mao remained interested yet unconvinced by the idea.1

Beijing: Student rebellions

Following the success of the October Revolution in the Russian Empire, in which Marxists took power, Mao came under the theoretical influence of Karl Marx (left) and Lenin (right).

Mao moved to Beijing where his mentor Yang Changji had taken a job at Peking University. Yang thought Mao exceptionally "intelligent and handsome," securing him a job as assistant to the university librarian Li Dazhao, an early Chinese communist.4 Li authored a series of New Youth articles on the October Revolution in Russia, during which the communist Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin had seized power. Becoming "more and more radical," Mao was influenced by Peter Kropotkin's anarchism but joined Li's Study Group and "developed rapidly toward Marxism" during the winter of 1919.1

In May 1919, the May Fourth Movement erupted in Beijing, with Chinese patriots rallying against the Japanese and Duan's Beiyang Government. Duan's troops were sent in to crush the protests, but unrest spread throughout China. Mao began organizing protests against the pro-Duan Governor of Hunan Province, Zhang Jinghui, popularly known as "Zhang the Venomous" due to his criminal activities. He co-founded the Hunanese Student Association with He Shuheng and Deng Zhongxia, organizing a student strike for June and in July 1919 began production of a weekly radical magazine, Xiang River Review (Xiangjiang pinglun). Using vernacular language that would be understandable to the majority of China's populace, he advocated the need for a "Great Union of the Popular Masses." His ideas at that time were not Marxist, but heavily influenced by Kropotkin's concept of mutual aid.3

Students in Beijing rallied during the May Fourth Movement.

Zhang banned the Student Association, but Mao continued publishing after assuming editorship of liberal magazine New Hunan (Xin Hunan) and offering articles in popular local newspaper Justice (Ta Kung Po). Several of these articles advocated feminist views, calling for the liberation of women in Chinese society. In this, Mao was influenced by his forced arranged marriage.1 In December 1919, Mao helped organize a general strike in Hunan, securing some concessions, but Mao and other student leaders felt threatened by Zhang, and Mao returned to Beijing, visiting the terminally ill Yang Changji. Mao found that his articles had achieved a level of fame among the revolutionary movement, and set about soliciting support in overthrowing Zhang. Coming across newly translated Marxist literature by Thomas Kirkup, Karl Kautsky, and Marx and Engels-notably The Communist Manifesto-he came increasingly under their influence, but was still eclectic in his views.3

Mao visited Tianjin, Jinan, and Qufu, before moving to Shanghai, where he met Chen Duxiu. He noted that Chen's adoption of Marxism "deeply impressed me at what was probably a critical period in my life."3 In Shanghai, Mao met his old teacher, Yi Peiji, a revolutionary and member of the Kuomintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Party, which was gaining increasing support and influence. Yi introduced Mao to General Tan Yankai, a senior KMT member who held the loyalty of troops stationed along the Hunanese border with Guangdong. Tan was plotting to overthrow Zhang, and Mao aided him by organizing the Changsha students. In June 1920, Tan led his troops into Changsha, while Zhang fled. In the subsequent reorganization of the provincial administration, Mao was appointed headmaster of the junior section of the First Normal School. With a secure income, he married Yang Kaihui in the winter of 1920.1

Founding the Communist Party of China

Location of the first Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in July 1921, in Xintiandi, former French Concession, Shanghai.

In 1921 Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao founded the Communist Party of China as a study society and informal network. Mao set up a Changsha branch and opened a bookstore for the purpose of propagating revolutionary literature throughout Hunan.

By 1921, small Marxist groups existed in Shanghai, Beijing, Changsha, Wuhan, Canton, and Jinan, and it was decided to hold a central meeting, which began in Shanghai on July 23, 1921. This first session of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China was attended by 13 delegates, Mao included, and met in a girls' school that was closed for the summer. After the authorities sent a police spy to the congress, the delegates moved to a boat on South Lake near Chiahsing to escape detection.

Now party secretary for Hunan, Mao was stationed in Changsha, from which he went on a Communist recruitment drive. In August 1921, he founded the Self-Study University, through which readers could gain access to revolutionary literature, housed in the premises of the Society for the Study of Wang Fuzhi. Taking part in the Chinese National YMCA mass education movement to fight illiteracy, he opened a Changsha branch, though replaced the usual textbooks with revolutionary tracts in order to spread Marxism among the students. He continued organizing the labor movement to strike against the administration of Hunan Governor Zhao Hengti. In July 1922, the Second Congress of the Communist Party took place in Shanghai. Adopting Lenin's advice, the delegates agreed to an alliance with the "bourgeois democrats" of the KMT for the good of the "national revolution." Communist Party members joined the KMT, hoping to push its politics leftward. Mao enthusiastically agreed with this decision, arguing for an alliance across China's socio-economic classes.

Collaboration with the Kuomintang

Mao the revolutionary in 1927.

At the Third Congress of the Communist Party in Shanghai in June 1923, the delegates reaffirmed their commitment to working with the KMT against the Beiyang government and imperialists. Supporting this position, Mao was elected to the Party Committee, taking up residence in Shanghai. Attending the First KMT Congress, held in Guangzhou in early 1924, Mao was elected an alternate member of the KMT Central Executive Committee, and put forward four resolutions to decentralize power to urban and rural bureaus. His enthusiastic support for the KMT earned him the suspicion of some communists.1 In late 1924, Mao returned to Shaoshan to recuperate from an illness. Discovering that the peasantry were increasingly restless due to the upheaval of the past decade (some had seized land from wealthy landowners to found communes) he became convinced of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. As a result, Mao was appointed to run the KMT's Peasant Movement Training Institute, also becoming Director of its Propaganda Department and editing its Political Weekly (Zhengzhi zhoubao) newsletter.4

Through the Peasant Movement Training Institute, Mao took an active role in organizing the revolutionary Hunanese peasants and preparing them for militant activity, taking them through military training exercises and getting them to study various left-wing texts. In the winter of 1925, Mao fled to Canton after his revolutionary activities attracted the attention of Zhao's regional authorities.

When KMT party leader Sun Yat-sen died in May 1925, he was succeeded by a rightist, Chiang Kai-shek, who initiated moves to marginalize the position of the communists. Mao nevertheless supported Chiang's decision to overthrow the Beiyang government and their foreign imperialist allies using the National Revolutionary Army, who embarked on the Northern Expedition in 1926. In the wake of this expedition, peasants rose up, appropriating the land of the wealthy landowners, many of whom were killed. Such uprisings angered senior KMT figures, who were themselves landowners, emphasizing the growing class and ideological divide within the revolutionary movement.

In March 1927, Mao appeared at the Third Plenum of the KMT Central Executive Committee in Wuhan, which sought to strip General Chiang of his power by appointing Wang Jingwei leader. There, Mao played an active role in the discussions regarding the peasant issue, defending a set of "Regulations for the Repression of Local Bullies and Bad Gentry," which advocated the death penalty or life imprisonment for anyone found guilty of counter-revolutionary activity, arguing that in a revolutionary situation, "peaceful methods cannot suffice."4 In April 1927, Mao was appointed to the KMT's five-member Central Land Committee, urging peasants to refuse to pay rent. Mao led another group to put together a "Draft Resolution on the Land Question," which called for the confiscation of land belonging to "local bullies and bad gentry, corrupt officials, militarists and all counter-revolutionary elements in the villages." 1

Civil War

Main article: Chinese Civil War

In 1927 Mao's Autumn Harvest Uprising showed the potential revolutionary power of the peasants. At the same time, the KMT's military leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek mounted an anti-communist purge, setting off the Chinese Civil War.

The Nanchang and Autumn Harvest Uprisings

The CPC continued supporting the Wuhan KMT government, a position Mao initially supported, but he had changed his mind by the time of the CPC's Fifth Congress, deciding to stake all hope on the peasant militia.5 The question was rendered moot when the Wuhan government expelled all communists from the KMT. The CPC founded the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army of China, better known as the "Red Army," to battle Chiang. A battalion led by General Zhu De was ordered to take the city of Nanchang on August 1, 1927 in what became known as the Nanchang Uprising; initially successful, they were forced into retreat after five days, marching south to Shantou, and from there being driven into the wilderness of Fujian.

Appointed commander-in-chief of the Red Army, Mao led four regiments against Changsha in the Autumn Harvest Uprising, hoping to spark peasant uprisings across Hunan. On the eve of the attack, Mao composed a poem-the earliest of his to survive-titled "Changsha." Mao's plan was to attack the KMT-held city from three directions on September 9, but the Fourth Regiment deserted to the KMT cause, attacking the Third Regiment. Mao's army made it to Changsha, but could not take it; by September 15 he accepted defeat, with 1,000 survivors marching east to the Jinggang Mountains of Jiangxi.4

The CPC Central Committee expelled Mao from their rank and from the Hunan Provincial Committee, punishment for his "military opportunism," for his focus on rural activity, and for being too lenient with "bad gentry." Setting up base in Jinggangshan City, an area of the Jinggang Mountains, Mao united five villages as a self-governing state, supporting the confiscation of land from rich landlords, who were "re-educated" and sometimes executed. He ensured that no massacres took place in the region, pursuing a more lenient approach than that advocated by the Central Committee.1 Proclaiming that "Even the lame, the deaf and the blind could all come in useful for the revolutionary struggle," he boosted the army's numbers, incorporating two groups of bandits into his army, building a force of around 1,800 troops. He laid down rules for his soldiers: prompt obedience to orders, all confiscations were to be turned over to the government, and nothing was to be confiscated from poorer peasants. In doing so, he molded his men into a disciplined, efficient fighting force.5

In spring 1928, the Central Committee ordered Mao's troops to southern Hunan, hoping to spark peasant uprisings. Mao was skeptical, but complied. Reaching Hunan, they were attacked by the KMT and fled after heavy losses. Meanwhile, KMT troops had invaded Jinggangshan, leaving them without a base. Wandering the countryside, Mao's forces came across a CPC regiment led by General Zhu De and Lin Biao; they united and retook Jinggangshan after prolonged guerrilla war against the KMT. Joined by a defecting KMT regiment and Peng Dehuai's Fifth Red Army, the mountainous area was unable to grow enough crops to feed everyone, leading to food shortages throughout the winter.4

Jiangxi Soviet Republic of China

Mao with his third wife, He Zizhen.

In January 1929, Mao and Zhu evacuated the base and took their armies south, to the area around Tonggu and Xinfeng in Jiangxi, which they consolidated as a new base. Together having 2,000 men, with a further 800 provided by Peng, the evacuation led to a drop in morale, and many troops became disobedient and began thieving; this worried Li Lisan and the Central Committee. Li believed that only the urban proletariat could lead a successful revolution, and saw little need for Mao's peasant guerrillas. Mao refused to disband his army or abandon his base. Officials in Moscow desired greater control over the CPC, removing Li from power by calling him to Russia for an inquest into his errors and replacing him with Soviet-educated Chinese communists, known as the "28 Bolsheviks," two of whom, Bo Gu and Zhang Wentian, took control of the Central Committee. Mao disagreed with the new leadership, believing they grasped little of the Chinese situation, and soon emerged as their key rival.1

In February 1930, Mao created the Southwest Jiangxi Provincial Soviet Government in the region under his control. In November his wife and sister were captured and beheaded by KMT general He Jian. Mao then married He Zizhen, an 18-year-old revolutionary who bore him five children over the following nine years.4 Members of the Jiangxi Soviet accused him of being too moderate, and hence anti-revolutionary. In December, they tried to overthrow Mao, resulting in the Futian incident; putting down the rebels, Mao's loyalists tortured many and executed between 2,000 and 3,000 dissenters.1 Seeing it as a secure area, the CPC Central Committee moved to Jiangxi, which in November was proclaimed to be the Soviet Republic of China, an independent Communist-governed state. Although proclaimed Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, Mao's power was diminished, with control of the Red Army being allocated to Zhou Enlai; Mao meanwhile recovered from tuberculosis.5

Mao in 1931.

Attempting to defeat the Communists, the KMT armies adopted a policy of encirclement and annihilation; outnumbered, Mao responded with guerrilla tactics, but Zhou and the new leadership replaced this approach with a policy of open confrontation and conventional warfare. In doing so the Red Army successfully defeated the first and second encirclements. Angered at his armies' failure, Chiang Kai-shek personally arrived to lead the operation; also facing setbacks, he retreated to deal with the further Japanese incursions into China. Victorious, the Red Army expanded its area of control, eventually encompassing a population of 3 million. Viewing the Communists as a greater threat than the Japanese, Chiang returned to Jiangxi, initiating the fifth encirclement campaign, involving the construction of a concrete and barbed wire "wall of fire" around the state, accompanied by aerial bombardment, to which Zhou's tactics proved ineffective. Trapped inside, morale among the Red Army dropped as food and medicine became scarce, and the leadership decided to evacuate.4

The Long March

Main article: Long March

On October 14, 1934, the Red Army broke through the KMT line on the Jiangxi Soviet's south-west corner at Xinfeng with 85,000 soldiers and 15,000 party cadres and embarked on the "Long March." In order to make the escape, many of the wounded and the ill as well as women and children, including Mao's two young children born to He Zizhen who accompanied Mao on the march, were left behind. They took Zunyi in January 1935 where they held a conference. Mao was elected to a position of leadership, becoming Chairman of the Politburo and de facto leader of both Party and Red Army, in part because his candidacy was supported by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Insisting that they operate as a guerrilla force, Mao laid out a destination: the Shenshi Soviet in Shaanxi, Northern China, from where the Communists could focus on fighting the Japanese.

Mao led his troops to Loushan Pass, where they faced armed opposition but successfully crossed the river. Chiang flew into the area to lead his armies against Mao, but the Communists out-maneuvered him and crossed the Jinsha River. Faced with the more difficult task of crossing the Tatu River, they managed it by fighting a battle over the Luding Bridge in May, taking Luding. Marching through the mountain ranges around Ma'anshan, in Moukung, Western Szechuan they encountered the 50,000-strong CPC Fourth Front Army of Zhang Guotao, together proceeding to Maoerhkai and then Gansu. However, Zhang and Mao disagreed over what to do; the latter wished to proceed to Shaanxi, while Zhang wanted to flee east to Tibet or Sikkim, far from the KMT threat. It was agreed that they would go their separate ways, with Zhu De joining Zhang. Mao's forces proceeded north, through hundreds of miles of Grasslands, an area of quagmire where they were attacked by Manchu tribesman and where many soldiers succumbed to famine and disease. Finally reaching Shaanxi, they fought off both the KMT and an Islamic cavalry militia before crossing over the Min Mountains and Mount Liupan and reaching the Shenshi Soviet; only 7-8,000 had survived.4

While costly, the Long March gave the Communist Party of China (CPC) the isolation it needed, allowing its army to recuperate and rebuild in the north of China. The Chinese communists developed their ideology, their methods of indoctrination and their guerrilla tactics. The determination and dedication of the surviving participants of the Long March was vital in helping the CPC to gain a positive reputation among the peasants.

The Long March cemented Mao's status as the dominant figure in the party. In November 1935, he was named chairman of the Military Commission. From this point onward, Mao was the Communist Party's undisputed leader, even though he would not become party chairman until 1943.7

It should be noted that many of the events as later described by Mao and which now form the official story of the Communist Party of China, as told above, are regarded as lies by some historians. During the decade spent researching the book, Mao: The Unknown Story, for instance, Jung Chang found evidence that there was no battle at Luding and that the CCP crossed the bridge unopposed.8

Alliance with the Kuomintang

Main article: Second Sino-Japanese War
In an effort to defeat the Japanese, Mao (left) agreed to collaborate with Chiang (right).

Arriving at the Yan'an Soviet during October 1935, Mao's troops settled in Pao An. Remaining there till spring 1936, they developed links with local communities, redistributed and farmed the land, offered medical treatment and began literacy programs.4 Mao now commanded 15,000 soldiers, boosted by the arrival of He Long's men from Hunan and the armies of Zhu Den and Zhang Guotao, returning from Tibet. In February 1936 they established the North West Anti-Japanese Red Army University in Yan'an, through which they trained increasing numbers of new recruits. In January 1937 they began the "anti-Japanese expedition," sending groups of guerrilla fighters into Japanese-controlled territory to undertake sporadic attacks, while in May 1937, a Communist Conference was held in Yan'an to discuss the situation. Western reporters also arrived in the "Border Region" (as the Soviet had been renamed); most notable were Edgar Snow, who used