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Mao Zedong: Hero and Villain

Combine a champion of the poor, a visionary leader, a cult hero, a misguided social engineer, a blind ideologue, and a brutal tyrant. What do you get? Mao Zedong was all of these and more.

Large portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong.Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary and founder of the People’s Republic of China, is both loved and loathed in the country he helped build. Some speak his name with respect, even reverence, others with bitterness and hatred.

Rural Roots, Turbulent Times

The eldest of four children, Mao was born December 26, 1893, in a rugged rural village called Shaoshan in the Hunan Province of south central China. Though his mother and father were peasant farmers, they were middle class, not poor.

When Mao was born and while he was growing up, social and political upheaval in China was spreading. Poverty and hunger were on the rise. Government corruption was rampant. Rebellions were common. Resentment toward foreigners was bitter. And Chinese people were increasingly discontent with life under the rule of the emperor Qing.

Mao enrolled in school when he was eight years old, but his time in the classroom lasted just five years before his father put him to work full time on the farm. The boy did fieldwork by day and managed the family’s finances at night.

Young Mao hated farm life and longed for more education. In 1909, he ran away to live with an uncle, who arranged for his nephew to go to school. Mao, who was six years older than his classmates, proved to be a fast and eager learner. By the time he enrolled in middle school two years later, Mao had become an avid reader. He especially loved newspapers. Within those pages, he followed China’s turbulent times.

During the Revolution of 1911, the Nationalist movement led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing dynasty. After thousands of years, imperial rule in China was over. Sun Yat-sen, who advocated democracy, became president of a new Chinese Republic. But China soon descended into civil war as factions fought over who would control the country.

During the summer and fall of 1911, two important things happened to Mao: He joined the army and he had his first exposure to Marxist/Communist ideas. After two years in the army, he went back to school and went on to become a librarian, a journalist, a school principal, and a growing political voice.

By 1921, the 27-year-old Mao had become an avowed Communist. He led a delegation from Hunan to the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai and was named secretary of the Hunan branch. He soon began an effort to organize laborers, sending emissaries to unionize coal miners, railroad workers, carpenters and other workers. Mao rose quickly through the Communist Party ranks.

Communists and Nationalists Intertwine then Pull Apart

Believing they could help him defeat hostile warlords and military strongmen and reunify China, Nationalist Party Leader Sun Yat-sen sought help from the Communist Soviet Union. Mao, who by now was living in Shanghai, did whatever he could to cement the relationship between the Communist and Nationalist parties. By 1925, Mao was in charge of the Nationalist Party's propaganda department.

But by that time, the fragile alliance was beginning to fray. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, and the Nationalists, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, drove the Communists from party ranks. Mao was stripped of any real authority or responsibility. By 1927, the Nationalist-Communist alliance had collapsed entirely, and the stage had been set for two decades of civil war between Communist and Nationalist forces.

As the war waged, Mao steadily built his military strength in rural China, establishing the Red Army and building party loyalty. He successfully fought off several Nationalist attempts to encircle and destroy Communist forces. One such siege resulted in what is known today as the “long march.” The yearlong, 6,000-mile march began in October of 1934, when 90,000 people broke through Nationalist lines and marched through mountains and across rivers for 6,000 miles.

The People’s Republic of China and “Chairman Mao”

Eventually, Communist forces took control of China’s mainland. In 1949, from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a victorious Mao announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

As leader of the central government “Chairman Mao,” as he was known, twice imposed social policies that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people and crippled China’s economy.

The first was a move known as the “Great Leap Forward.” Hoping to take advantage of China’s labor surplus, Mao encouraged China’s industrialization by focusing on the creation of small “backyard” steel factories. Meanwhile little else was being manufactured. And because traditional farm workers were laboring in factories instead of fields, much of the nation’s food was not harvested.

From 1959 to 1961 famine gripped the country, a period known as the “Three Bitter Years.” The exact number will never be known, but estimates of the number of people who died during the period range from 20 million to 50 million.

During that time, Mao’s popularity was falling and political rivals were rising. He was forced out as chairman of the central government council, but Mao retained his chairmanship of the Communist Party.

Mao’s second disaster began in 1966, during his “Cultural Revolution,” a decade-long period of political and social persecution. Encouraged by Mao, Red Guard soldiers began harassing, torturing and imprisoning and murdering Mao’s political rivals as well as intellectuals, scientists, artists, teachers and others who were seen as a threat to the Communist regime and labeled as “counterrevolutionaries.”

Churches and temples were burned; monks, missionaries and other clergy were ostracized; ancient art, writings and books destroyed. As the Red Guard ran roughshod, the country descended into lawlessness and chaos.

Power of the Personality

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao elevated himself to god-like status, as though all that was good in China came from Mao. One newspaper proclaimed: “Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts.” He was heralded as Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Supreme Commander, and Great Helmsman. His portrait adorned many public places. His political and social ideas and observations were everywhere, Little Red Bookshowcased in red letters. In short, Mao was China and China was Mao.

Much of Mao’s thinking is collected in a small red volume known by westerners as the “Little Red Book” or the “Book of Mao.” The book has 427 quotations, divided thematically into 33 chapters. Here are some of Mao’s thoughts:

About Young People:

“The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you. China's future belongs to you.”

About Communism:

“At no time and in no circumstances should a Communist place his personal interests first; he should subordinate them to the interests of the nation and of the masses. Hence, selfishness, slacking, Different version of Mao's Little Red Book.corruption, seeking the limelight, and so on, are most contemptible, while selflessness, working with all one's energy, whole-hearted devotion to public duty, and quiet hard work will command respect.”

About War and Peace

“Revolutionary war is an antitoxin that not only eliminates the enemy's poison but also purges us of our own filth. Every just, revolutionary war is endowed with tremendous power and can transform many things or clear the way for their transformation.”

About Politics:

“Every Communist must grasp the truth; Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

While building a cult-like following, Mao was also eliminating potential political challenges to his authority. In 1968, he began the “Down to the Countryside Movement,” which banished thousands of the country’s young, college-educated intellectuals to a harsh existence in rural China, where many died. By 1970, he had taken firm control as the nation’s supreme leader.

Mao died September 9, 1976. In the power struggle that followed, Deng Xiaoping emerged as the nation’s new leader and would usher in a series of economic reforms that led to China’s economic boom today.

Even in death Mao remains a figure of intense interest. His carefully preserved body is on public display in a mausoleum in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and thousands file past it each year. Some visit the former leader’s body merely because it is an oddity. Others go to pay it honor and homage.

Does Mao deserve that kind of respect and adoration? While heated debates continue about whether Mao was a good leader or a bad one, most agree on one thing: For better or worse, few people have shaped a nation and the world the way he has.


Mao had two brothers, Mao Zemin (1895-1943) and Mao Zetan (1905-1935), and a sister, Mao Zehong (d. 1930).

The official view of the People's Republic of China is that Mao Zedong was a great revolutionary leader, although he made serious mistakes. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, said Mao was “seven parts right and three parts wrong”, and his “contributions are primary and his mistakes secondary.”

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