Mao Zedong and China IN THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WORLD
A Concise History
By Rebecca E. Karl
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One China in the World in Mao's Youth
Mao Zedong was born on December 26, 1893, in China's south-central Hunan Province, in a small village called Shaoshan. Located in a fertile rice-growing valley at the foot of Mount Hengshan, the village is about eighty-one miles southwest from the provincial capital, Changsha. Although Mao's birthplace was a quiet rural backwater, the political and social situation in China at the beginning of the twentieth century was becoming increasingly fraught.
Free Trade, Opium, Tea, and Silver
At the time of Mao's birth, China was ruled by its last imperial dynasty, the Qing. The Manchus who founded the Qing had swept into China in the seventeenth century from their base in Manchuria to overrun the native Han-Chinese Ming Dynasty. Initially a robust dynasty, the Qing had entered a long decline by the early 1800s as the empire was repeatedly assaulted by aggressive foreign powers (led by the British) who were attempting to force China into free trade agreements the Qing resisted.
The assault on China's territorial integrity and political sovereignty began in the mid-nineteenth century with the infamous Opium Wars. These conflicts were fought between China and Britain, primarily. Trade between those two countries had thrived in the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, however, the British could find nothing that the Chinese wished to purchase from them in large enough quantities to offset the increasing British demand for Chinese tea. With the South American wars of independence against Spain closing the silver mines and provoking a global silver crisis, the British were desperate to find an alternative mode of payment for their burgeoning tea-drinking habit. They hit upon opium. Highly addictive and easily grown by the British in their newly secured nearby Indian colonies, opium began to be imported to China by British merchants in great quantities as a substitute for silver. The Dao Guang Emperor attempted to enforce a ban on the opium trade as the drug devastation spread like wildfire through his empire. Queen Victoria, incensed at the trampling of British trade prerogatives, declared war against the Qing to enforce Britain's right to "free trade."
The Chinese were no match for the powerful British navy, which decimated their coastal forts. The Qing armies had never encountered the technology possessed by the British troops. They suffered one defeat after another. Finally, in 1842, the Chinese were forced to sign a humiliating settlement, known as the Treaty of Nanjing. The treaty was weighted entirely in favor of the British. One key concession was "extraterritoriality," which meant that British citizens on Chinese soil would be subjected to British, not Chinese, law. In addition, trade would no longer be restricted by Qing imperial custom. Five ports were opened for foreign trade-Canton, Shanghai, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Xiamen (Amoy)-while Hong Kong was ceded to the British as a foothold on the Chinese coast. In subsequent decades, with the strengthening of the British colonial grip in India and Southeast Asia, the volume of opium grown increased quickly and imports of opium more than doubled.
Most destructively, the Nanjing Treaty established the principle of "most favored nation." This clause provided that any commercial or other rights wrested from the Chinese by other countries would automatically be granted to Britain. Two years later, the Qing was forced at gunpoint to sign new treaties with France and the United States; these were followed by treaties with Prussia, Italy, Russia, and other European nations. This marks the beginning of what the Chinese later would call the "century of humiliation," a century Mao is credited with ending by the founding of a strong and sovereign China in 1949.
A Crumbling Society and Defeat by Japan
The fallout from the Opium Wars played a crucial part in the decline of the imperial grip on China, which for centuries had been administered through a thinly spread network of well-educated bureaucrats. As the authority of the central government weakened, the sway of local power holders increased. A series of huge mid-century peasant rebellions-in part set off because of the Opium War disruptions-then forced the emperor to cede even more power to local officials, so that they could defeat the uprisings in their midst. The most famous of these uprisings-the Taipings-lasted for fourteen long years, before the Qing state could muster the force finally to suppress it.
Meanwhile, the spread of European and American commercial and religious settlements, initially restricted to the coastal areas, had reached, by Mao's childhood in the 1890s, the hinterlands of Hunan and beyond. The presence of foreigners, with their capitalist and Christian priorities, was insidiously destructive of the established order. Peasant handicraft production was squeezed; railroads were built where no transport systems had existed, thus rerouting familiar trade patterns; and missionary stations were set up with educational and hospital facilities that often created violent tension with local populations, whose suspicions about alien practices were often fueled by the contempt in which missionaries held local "heathen" society.
China's weakness attracted the predatory attention of the rising Japanese -a people who long had been regarded by the Chinese as the "dwarves of the East," or as pesky pirates operating lawlessly near China's coasts. China was completely demoralized when the Japanese convincingly defeated their forces in a dispute over the Korean monarchy. In the process, Japan destroyed the Qing government's new navy, which was supposed to be the strongest fleet in Asia and which had been built under the supervision of French and British naval assistants. The 1895 treaty-signed at Shimoneseki-ended the short war. China was forced to cede Taiwan to Japan; to provide huge indemnity payments to Japan; and to grant Japan manufacturing rights in China's open ports.
After China's defeat at the hands of the Japanese, the Qing dynasty entered its final death throes. Failure to confront these previously weak neighbors made the educated and commercial classes of China seriously question the dynastic state's ability to safeguard China from outside assault. An attempt made in 1898 by educated elites to force the dynasty to reform its practices failed miserably. These two failures, combined with far-reaching social trouble brewing within China, led to a serious weakening of the state.
The special privileges enjoyed by colonial foreigners (British, French, Germans, Americans, and after 1895, Japanese) and native holders of local power soon provoked endemic rural violence, culminating in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901. This uprising was initiated by members of a secret Chinese martial arts group known as the "Righteous Harmonious Fists" or, as many non-Chinese called them, the "Boxers." Targeted initially at missionaries and their native converts, whose presence was deemed disruptive of local social order, the Boxer rebellion soon grew into an all-purpose anti-foreign and anti-Christian uprising. The rebels seized Beijing, executing scores of foreigners and thousands of Chinese Christian converts. The Qing joined the rebels, in a bid to regain some popular credibility. This triggered an invasion by a combined force of eight foreign nations, which in its turn massacred any Chinese suspected of sympathizing with the Boxers. The Qing court abandoned the capital, and Beijing became a bloodbath. In the ensuing punitive settlement forced upon the Qing by the allied powers (led by Britain, the United States, Prussia, and Japan), the dynasty staved off final demise, but only by effectively giving away the country to its foreign creditors.
Through the turbulent years at the beginning of the twentieth century, many rival contenders to state power emerged. Hunan Province, Mao's home region, was a hotbed of all kinds of anti-dynastic activity. However, it took some time for Mao to become aware of what was happening around him.
Mao at home in Hunan
Mao's parents had seven children (five sons and two daughters) but only three survived, all boys. Mao Zedong was the eldest; Zemin, the middle brother, and Zetan, the youngest, soon followed. All three brothers remained close through childhood. Growing up on his father's farm, in a spacious courtyard house surrounded by hills, terraced paddy fields, and ponds, Mao enjoyed the extraordinary luxury of having his own bedroom, even after his brothers were born. He worked on his father's farm from the age of six, and even when he began to attend the village school, and later a nearby higher primary school, he continued to work in the early mornings and evenings. His experience as a working peasant was limited to this childhood period, even though he later vividly recalled carrying buckets of manure from collection pits to the paddy fields for fertilizer.
Mao's father, Mao Rensheng, was a relatively wealthy but poorly educated peasant. Mao remembered him as authoritarian and unpleasant, and unsympathetic to his son's desire for a good education. According to Edgar Snow, who based his biography of Mao on interviews with him in the late 1930s, Mao attributed his father's disposition to his stint in the Qing dynasty's army. After leaving the army, he became highly preoccupied with accumulating wealth. Through dint of luck, labor, and parsimony, by 1893 he had become one of the richest of the 300 families of Mao's natal village, Shaoshan. He owned about 2.5 acres of land-later acquiring another acre or so-which produced around 133 pounds of rice, of which about two-thirds was consumed by the family, leaving one-third as surplus for the market. With two hired laborers to assist on the farm, Mao's father soon began a grain transport and selling business, and set himself up as a middleman for urban markets. The middleman merchant was a feature of the rural areas, and would later be defined by the Marxist Mao as "parasitic," and thus a target for revolutionary overthrow.
In contrast to his near-contempt for his father, Mao loved and revered his mother, née Wen Qimei. A hardworking woman who died young (at the age of fifty-three), she was reputedly selfless in her sacrifice for her sons and family. Born just beyond the mountains from Shaoshan, she and her husband actually spoke different dialects of Chinese; nevertheless, family discussions, in which she participated fully, were reputedly always vigorous and spirited. Mao's emotionally charged funeral oration for her, delivered on October 8, 1919, highlighted his mother's steadfastness, her adherence to the traditional virtues, her cleanliness and sense of order, her charity, and most important, her hatred for injustice of any sort. Indeed, Mao credited his mother for being adept at analysis, a skill that she used in supporting his side in his stormy relationship with his father. A devout Buddhist, his mother clearly imparted to Mao a distinctive ethical stance. This was not a reverence for religion, which Mao eventually labeled as "superstition" and pledged to stamp out; rather, it was a desire to correct the problems of his world through action. His mother's love and affection were a touchstone for Mao throughout his life.
Mao's early education at the local school was presided over by an old-style scholar, whose interest in world and dynastic affairs was apparently minimal and whose mode of teaching relied on the age-old method of rote memorization of the Confucian classics. In an oft-told story, Mao narrates that after a particularly harsh lesson, he ran away from school and home. His worried family found him only after he had wandered alone without food for three days. Upon his return home, Mao claims, his father's disposition towards him moderated, at least temporarily, as did the teacher's. According to Mao, in a clearly apocryphal attachment of significance to a childhood prank, this episode indelibly taught him the value and utility of rebellion.
As the eldest son and only literate one in the family, Mao was soon put to work at bookkeeping for his father's business, a task that required writing ability as well as facility with an abacus. By this point, the business included not only farming activities and grain transport, but also the mortgages that Mao's father had bought on other people's land, part of the usurious rural credit and petty landlord system that Mao later learned to despise. It is during this period the disciplinarian side of his father flourished, and confrontations over Mao's continued education became endemic. Mao recalls that for these several years he was often beaten as well as deprived of meat and eggs in his diet. In subsequent years-after learning the Marxist analytical method-Mao often referred to his father as "the Ruling Power" that he, his mother, and assorted laborers always tried to overthrow in an ever-shifting dialectic of family relations.
Meanwhile, at school, Mao had become acquainted with the Confucian texts, which he found dry and boring. He nevertheless learned to cite them from memory, sometimes hurling Confucian sayings at his father during their arguments. He soon became attracted to the old novels of China, including the popular stories of rebellion, knights-errant, mythology, and romance. His lifelong love of books, and in particular of classical tales and legends, clearly stemmed from his voracious reading as a youngster. In his subsequent theoretical, philosophical, and historical writings, Mao never ceased to illustrate his political and social lessons with the folksy and earthy color derived from these popular yarns.
It was only after leaving the stifling atmosphere of the traditional-style school that Mao seems to have discovered the roiling debates over dynastic and republican politics then animating the urban scene all over China. He began reading political articles published in journals smuggled in from the coast. These primarily featured members of a reformist monarchical faction, led by Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei, and a revolutionary republican faction, led by Sun Yatsen, all of whom were exiles in Japan. In addition to these factions based abroad, there were various conservative defenders of the dynasty, as well as local activists, who advocated regional autonomy in China, with calls for Hunanese independence leading the way. Mao subsequently commented that he found all these issues very exciting-except for the dynastic defense-but that he couldn't tell any of them apart at the time.
Right before the fall of the Qing dynasty in late 1911, the social and political situations became even more chaotic. Famines were endemic, in part stemming from poor weather but also in part because merchants like Mao's father shipped rice from rural areas into the cities for enormous profit. Peasants rebelled in frustration and were ruthlessly suppressed by local forces of order. These local rebellions, in Mao's later recounting, were of great significance to the development of his political consciousness: he particularly remembered having to pass the severed heads of executed rebels stuck on top of stakes in public places that served as a warning to would-be troublemakers. And yet, he was not a wholehearted sympathizer of the peasants: while he condemned people like his father for their rapaciousness, he did not support violent seizures of other people's property.
Mao leaves home
In 1909, at the age of sixteen, Mao convinced his father to pay for him to go to the district city of Xiangtan, a busy trading center on the Xiang River around twenty-five miles away from Shaoshan. There he enrolled in a new-style school, whose curriculum was not defined by the Confucian classics, but rather included natural sciences and what was called at the time "Western learning." One of the teachers had even studied in Japan and had completely different ideas about learning from those of the old-style Confucianists. In this context Mao was more systematically introduced to the anti-dynastic thought of the time. He was also exposed to a worldly milieu, in which China was conceived as part of the larger global historical moment, which included the contemporary situations of Japan and Russia after Japan's surprise victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5; the colonizations of neighboring countries such as Vietnam (French), Korea (Japanese), Burma (British), and the Philippines (American); as well as knowledge of the American and French Revolutions. He also encountered the biographies of past European and American political and intellectual leaders, such as Napoleon, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Lincoln, even as he continued to be fascinated by the rebels and heroes of Chinese history.
Excerpted from Mao Zedong and China IN THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WORLD by Rebecca E. Karl Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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