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Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

by Delia Davin

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Mao Zedong, first chairman of the People's Republic of China, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, and the architect of the Cultural Revolution, was active in Chinese politics for most of his eighty-two years, and became one of the most important revolutionary figures in the twentieth century. He spent the 1920s and 1930s struggling to build the Chinese


Mao Zedong, first chairman of the People's Republic of China, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, and the architect of the Cultural Revolution, was active in Chinese politics for most of his eighty-two years, and became one of the most important revolutionary figures in the twentieth century. He spent the 1920s and 1930s struggling to build the Chinese Communist Party. After the establishment of the People's Republic, he strove to impose his vision of socialism on his impoverished country, convinced that if the power of the people could be harnessed, China could become an economically successful and egalitarian country. The Great Leap Forward which he initiated was, however, a disaster resulting in millions of deaths. Mao used the Cultural Revolution to re-impose his authority; his critics were persecuted and a personality cult was fostered. His 'Little Red Book' sold over 740 million copies. This book offers the reader a powerful insight into the life and work of this intriguing man.

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The History Press
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Essential Biographies
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Mao Zedong

By Delia Davin

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Delia Davin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7396-3


Childhood and Formative Years

Mao Zedong was born in the village of Shaoshan in Xiangtan county, Hunan province, on 26 December 1893. His father, Mao Shunsheng, had become a soldier in order to clear his debts. On his return from his military service, he bought land to which he was able to add little by little over the years, by working his family hard. Industry and thrift finally allowed him to amass enough land to hire a farm labourer and become a grain trader. Mao's mother, Wen Qimei, was an illiterate peasant woman who, like other village women, had to cook, wash, sew and weave for her growing family, as well as working on the land.

Mao portrayed his father as a harsh, authoritarian figure who frequently beat his children. Mao Shunsheng had had two years' schooling and could keep accounts. His attitude to education was pragmatic. He wanted his children to learn enough to do book-keeping, and believed a mastery of the classics worthwhile because such knowledge was still useful in lawsuits. Other reading he regarded as a waste of time. Mao had to hide himself away to devour All Men are Brothers, Monkey and The Water Margin, great novels of adventure, rebellion and intrigue which have enraptured generations of young Chinese. He referred to these books constantly in speeches and essays throughout his life. Mao's mother was kindly and played the peacemaker in family rows. She was a pious Buddhist who sometimes incurred her husband's wrath by giving food to the poor. The children were closer to their mother than to their father. Mao had two younger brothers and a sister. We may guess that his influence on them was strong because all three later became involved in the communist movement. His sister, Mao Zehong, was executed in 1930. One brother, Mao Zetan, was killed in action in 1935 and the other, Mao Zemin, was executed in 1943.

Like other country children, Mao worked in the fields from the age of six. He was fortunate to attend primary school for about five years. At thirteen he began to work full-time on the land. Throughout his childhood Mao had conflicts with his father that he was sometimes able to win. By his own account, in arguing with his father he learned to defend his position, to negotiate, and also to obtain concessions by making threats. When he was sixteen, despite his father's opposition, Mao decided that he wanted to take up his studies again. He borrowed money for the fees and registered for a modern primary school about fifteen miles from his home. Mao was several years older than his classmates. Most of them came from well-to-do homes and he felt that they looked down on him for being poor and shabby. It must have taken courage to persevere, but he remained at this school for a year, impressing his teachers with his well-written essays. In the summer of 1911 he moved on to a school in Changsha, the provincial capital.

The humiliating defeat suffered by China at the hands of Japan in 1895 led many Chinese to search for ways to help their country regain its strength and wealth. A movement of political reform led by the gentry was suppressed by the ruling Manchu dynasty in 1898, but its advocacy of a constitutional monarchy and the modernization of government and education had a lasting influence. The Boxer Uprising of 1898–1900, a peasant movement inspired by anti-foreign feelings, ended in further disaster for China as the dynasty was forced to agree to pay huge sums in reparations for foreign lives and property. Despite half-hearted attempts to introduce reforms of its own, the Manchu dynasty, under the Empress Dowager until 1908 and thereafter under a conservative regent ruling on behalf of his infant son Pu Yi, handled the pressure for change badly. By the end of the decade its prestige was at an all-time low and it fell to a republican revolution in 1911.

It is hardly surprising that Mao developed an intense interest in national heroes. He read about Napoleon, Washington, Peter the Great and Wellington, and debated the ideas of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, leaders of the reform movement. When he heard about the 1911 revolution, Mao dropped out of his new school, cut off the pigtail that Chinese men wore as a symbol of submission to the Manchu dynasty, and joined the local revolutionary army. He spent a few months as a private, drilling, cooking and reading newspapers. When it became apparent that the revolution had overthrown the dynasty, and that its new president, Yuan Shikai, had been successfully installed in Beijing, Mao decided to leave the army and resume his studies. For most of 1912 he read widely and drifted in and out of various schools, finding each unsatisfactory. Early in 1913 he won a scholarship to the Hunan Teachers' Training College, where he remained for five years until he graduated in 1918.

Mao does not seem to have been an easy student. He did not like the natural sciences and refused to study them. On one occasion he was nearly expelled for his part in a student protest against the mismanagement of the school. On another he grabbed by the collar a teacher with whom he was having a dispute. On the recommendation of his favourite teacher, Yang Changji, Mao read a Chinese translation of Friedrich Paulsen's A System of Ethics, a book which emphasizes self-control and the power of the human will. Mao clearly took the book very seriously – his marginal notes in the copy he used amount to 12,000 characters. Mao absorbed from such texts those ideas from Europe's nineteenth-century liberal tradition which seemed to him convincing or useful. The view that man is essentially good would not have been alien to anyone steeped in the Confucian classics. Mao also came to believe that human nature was malleable and could be shaped according to need, and that China could be made rich and strong by mobilizing the energy latent in each individual. Decades later the influence of such ideas was discernible in Mao's policies of mass mobilization. As a student he applied the idea of self-discipline in his daily life, dressing very simply and exercising regularly. In the summer of 1916, having decided to see whether they could live without money, he and a classmate tramped through the countryside living on whatever food the villagers gave them.

Mao's teacher Yang Changji also introduced him to the magazine New Youth edited by Chen Duxiu, later a founder member of the Chinese Communist Party and at this time one of China's most exciting young thinkers. New Youth was a major national forum for the discussion of radical ideas about how China might be transformed. In these years Mao also became involved in student organizations and in 1917, with other students, he founded the New People's Study Group. In 1918 some of the members of this group decided to go to France on a work and study programme. Mao, who had just graduated from the Teachers' College, accompanied them to Beijing where he obtained a job through Li Dazhao, the librarian at Peking University, to whom he was introduced by his former teacher, Yang Changji. In Beijing he fell in love with Yang Changji's daughter, Yang Kaihui. Mao's pay and living conditions were miserable, but his post brought him into contact with Chen Duxiu, the editor of New Youth, who was a dean at the University. It also enabled him to attend lectures by some of the most famous scholars of the day. However, Mao's efforts to strike up conversations with them failed for they were too busy to talk to a humble library clerk. There has been speculation that Mao's later harshness towards intellectuals may be attributable to the resentment he felt in this period.

Early in 1919 Mao accompanied friends to Shanghai where they were to embark for the work-study programme in France. In his own account he explained that he decided not to go with them because he wished to learn more about his own country. The fact that he was a poor linguist and lacked the money for the fare may also have played a part in his decision. From Shanghai he returned to Changsha, where he quickly became involved in politics once more. As China had declared war on Germany in 1917 and sent labourers to Europe to assist behind the front, the Chinese hoped that German concessions in China would be restored to them once Germany had been defeated; however, under the Treaty of Versailles Germany's interests in China were to be passed to Japan. The news provoked a demonstration in Beijing on 4 May 1919. The great wave of protest that subsequently engulfed the country was known as the May Fourth Movement. It included demands for the rejection of the Treaty, and also for the adoption of democracy and science in China, and the abandonment of the classical Chinese in favour of a vernacular written language that would make mass literacy possible. Mao took an active part in the movement in Changsha.

It was an eventful year for Mao in other ways. His mother died and he wrote an affectionate essay in her memory, praising her love and kindness. He took on the editorship of two student papers, both of which were later suppressed by the provincial government. In November, unhappy about the match that had been arranged for her, a Miss Zhao cut her throat behind the curtains of the sedan chair which was carrying her to her bridegroom's house. Her suicide inspired Mao to published nine articles attacking the evils of arranged marriage. Although there were women members in the New People's Study Group, and many women students took part in the May Fourth Movement, educated women were still a tiny minority. In Mao's generation men were responsible for much of the writing advocating women's emancipation. The interest of young male intellectuals in what was then known as the 'Woman Question' often developed from their opposition to the arranged marriage system. Mao's personal history fits this pattern. When he was fourteen his father had arranged a marriage for him with a woman six years his senior. Mao refused to consummate the marriage or recognize it. Later, at the Teachers' College, Mao had helped a fellow student escape from an arranged marriage.

Early in 1920 Mao left for Beijing once more because his political activities had made Changsha unsafe for him. In the capital he was able to see Yang Kaihui again and to read the first part of the Communist Manifesto that had just been translated into Chinese, as well as some works about Marxism. In April he travelled on to Shanghai, where for some months he earned a living as a laundry man. In this period he was able to talk to the editor of New Youth, Chen Duxiu, whom Mao still regarded as a mentor. Chen's activities in the May Fourth Movement had landed him in prison. He had taken refuge in Shanghai on his release and had begun to organize a small communist group. Meanwhile, after a civil war in Hunan province, it became safe for Mao to return to Changsha. There, in 1920, with a number of friends, he established a group to study Russian affairs, a work-study group to help Chinese to go to study in Soviet Russia and a Marxist study group. He was also appointed head teacher in a primary school. That post, which he held for over two years, gave him enough financial security to marry Yang Kaihui, with whom he was to have four children.

In 1921 Mao made a third trip to Shanghai, this time to attend a meeting of delegates from the various small communist groups. This meeting is now considered as the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. It elected a Central Committee although Mao was not among its members. It would be some years before he achieved high office in the Party to which he would devote the rest of his life.


Labour Organizer and Party Worker

In Hunan between 1921 and 1923 Mao engaged in a variety of political and educational activities. He set up a 'Self-study University'. Its students were provided with the occasional stimulus of a lecture from an invited speaker, and organized discussion groups, but the main emphasis was on independent reading and reflection. Despite a focus on modern learning and Marxism, traditional Chinese thought also had a place on the curriculum, reflecting Mao's belief that in adopting Marxism, the Chinese should not reject their own history and culture. Educational and political work overlapped here and some of the students later became cadres in the Chinese Communist Party.

Mao was also involved in the labour movement. This was a period of considerable labour unrest. Together with two fellow provincials, Liu Shaoqi and Li Lisan, later also to become important Party leaders, he helped to lead strikes in the mines at Anyuan in Jiangxi province and on the Guangzhou–Hankou railway. He was forced to leave Hunan again in 1923 to avoid arrest. He attended the Third Party Congress in Guangzhou in the same year and was elected to the Central Committee. This Congress was important for its discussion of the CCP's relationship with the Guomindang or Nationalist Party. Although some people, including Mao's former student and fellow labour organizer, Li Lisan, opposed it, the principle of a united front between the parties was accepted at this conference. The United Front was to last until 1927.

No single national government had achieved effective control over the whole of China since the establishment of the Republic in 1912. Instead, numerous semi-independent states, most of which were controlled by warlords, played out their rivalries in shifting alliances and civil wars. The Guomindang led by Sun Yat-sen had established its power base at Guangzhou. It was a successor organization to the groups which had overthrown the Manchu dynasty, and the revolutionary credentials of its leader, Sun Yat-sen, dated from the 1890s in Japan. Comintern policy in this period was to advocate united fronts between workers and nationalists in the underdeveloped world, and Comintern advisers in China identified the Guomindang as the progressive nationalist force with which the tiny CCP should ally. It was agreed in negotiations over the alliance that communism was not relevant to China at her level of development, that the CCP was to be allowed to keep its own identity while accepting subordination to the Guomindang, and that CCP members would be allowed to join the Guomindang as individuals. Soviet advisers assisted the Guomindang to reorganize itself along the lines of the Soviet Communist Party with decision-making powers concentrated at the top.

Mao was based in Shanghai from the time of the Third Party Congress in 1923, for he was now head of the CCP Organization Department. He was also present at the First Congress of the Guomindang and became an alternate member of its Central Executive Committee. Under united front policies, he worked for both the Guomindang and the CCP in Shanghai, a position sneered at by communists such as Li Lisan who were opposed to the alliance. In the spring he revisited the Anyuan coalmines, still fertile ground for CCP organizers, and in the summer he spoke at the Peasant Training Institute in Guangzhou. Late in 1924 he was back in Hunan recuperating from a bout of ill health. He spent some time in his home countryside working with peasant associations until he attracted the attention of the provincial governor and was once more forced to flee. In Guangzhou in late 1925 he began to act as head of the Guomindang's Propaganda Department and directed its Peasant Training Institute. In February he became a member of the Guomindang Peasant Movement Committee.

The death of Sun Yat-sen in March 1925 left the Guomindang without clear leadership. The right wing of the party opposed the united front and began to vie for power with the left. In March 1926 Chiang Kai-shek made a bid for the party leadership by declaring martial law, arresting a number of CCP members and putting his Russian advisers under house arrest. He used his hostages to make himself leader of the Party and to obtain Russian agreement to a military expedition to the north which was intended to achieve national reunification under a Guomindang government.

As a result of this coup Mao lost his position as acting director of propaganda for the Guomindang, but he continued to work in its peasant department even when his comrades were being held hostage. He stayed in the Peasant Training Institute in Guangzhou until the end of its sixth session in October, and then returned to Hunan. At the beginning of 1927 he spent over a month in the countryside, investigating the peasant movement there. Mao's own family background had given him a familiarity with the countryside, and his work since 1925 had brought him increasingly into contact with the peasant movement. His month in the villages seems to have strengthened his belief in the revolutionary potential of the peasantry and to have made him determined to convince others of it. In a famous passage in his report on the movement he wrote:

In a very short time, in China's central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will break through the trammels that now bind them and push forward along the road to liberation. They will send all imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local bullies and evil gentry to their graves. All revolutionary parties and all revolutionary comrades will stand before them to be tested, to be accepted or rejected by them. To march at their head and lead them? Or follow in the rear, gesticulating at them, and criticizing them? To face them as opponents? Every Chinese is free to choose among the three, but the circumstances demand that a quick choice be made.


Excerpted from Mao Zedong by Delia Davin. Copyright © 2011 Delia Davin. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Delia Davin has written a number of books on China, including Internal Migration in Contemporary China and Woman-Work: Women and the Party in Revolutionary China.

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