Mao Zedong Research Paper

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Mao Zedong (previously Mao Tse-tung) is undisputedly the preeminent figure in modern Chinese history, and also a commanding presence in the history of the twentieth century. The Mao-led Communist revolution in 1949 ended China’s century of humiliation and laid the foundations of the rapidly developing nation of the early twenty-first century. But Mao also created much unnecessary social turmoil in the latter part of his political career; he did not know when to exit the historical stage gracefully. As a result, most Chinese today have a mixed view of Mao—a great leader who united and rejuvenated their massive country, but also one who left considerable human suffering in his wake. Mao is often compared to Qin Shihuangdi (259 BCE–210 BCE), the First Emperor of Qin, a brilliant but ruthless leader who created the first unified Chinese empire in 221 BCE.

Mao was a complex personality who was torn between admiration for China’s past imperial glory and despair at its parlous condition in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, when he was born. As a young man, he struggled to reconcile the dichotomy in his mind (and in the minds of many others in his generation) between China’s traditional civilization and the increasing demands of a modern world dominated by the advanced nations of Europe and North America. In MarxistLeninist theory, Mao discovered a penetrating Western critique of the West, which enabled him to adopt many of its revolutionary premises (and promises) without abandoning China’s own impressive cultural heritage. In direct intellectual descent from Mao, China’s succeeding leaders continue to claim they are building socialism with Chinese characteristics, a somewhat ambiguous concept that has yet to be fully articulated, which (at least in the narrower area of economics) is often referred to as market socialism.

Rise to Power

Mao was born on December 26 into a moderately well-off peasant family in the village of Shaoshan in Xiangtan County, Hunan province, in south-central China, not far from the provincial capital of Changsha. He developed an early interest in political and international affairs, and his years at the First Provincial Normal School in Changsha, where he studied to be a teacher, brought him into contact with young men and women from all over the province. Seeking a wider stage after graduation, Mao set out for Beijing in 1918, where he studied and worked part-time in the library at Peking University, the nation’s premier institution of higher education, and, at the time, a hotbed of radical political thinking among many of the faculty and students.

Mao took an active interest in the student-inspired May Fourth movement, which sparked off a country-wide nationalist upsurge directed against unwanted European and Japanese influence in China. Soon after, Mao declared himself to be a Marxist-Leninist, without actually undertaking a thorough study of either the revolutionary doctrine or the Russian Revolution in 1917. After a short period as an elementary school principal and political activist back home in Hunan, he became a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party, which was formally established in Shanghai on July 23, 1921.

Consolidating Power

Mao’s rural background gave him a special interest in the peasantry, and he was often at odds with his more urban-oriented colleagues. In early 1927, after an intensive study of rural conditions in his native province, Mao wrote his seminal “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” in which he predicted that the peasant masses would soon rise up and sweep away the old, feudal system of land ownership that exploited and oppressed them. The Communists, he argued, should lead the peasants or get out of the way. Chiang Kai-shek’s (1887–1975) bloody coup in the spring of 1927 effectively destroyed the Communist organizations in Shanghai and other major cities, forcing them to find refuge in Jiangxi province, in the mountainous hinterland in south-central China, adjacent to Hunan where Mao had been born and raised. Mao was elected chairman of the new Jiangxi Soviet (local Communist government) in this isolated base area, but soon lost power to the Returned Student group (a reference to their study in Moscow), which took over party leadership and pushed him aside.

Mao finally came into his own during the famous Long March in 1934 to 1936, when the Communists had to flee from Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s fifth and finally successful military encirclement campaign to surround their base area and destroy them. At the decisive Zunyi conference in January 1935, in the early part of this arduous 6,000-mile trek, Mao was recognized as the political and military leader of the Communist movement. At the Communists’ new base area in Yan’an, a small county seat in China’s arid northwest region, Mao built an elaborate system of ideology, organization, guerrilla warfare, and rural recruitment that led quickly to the emergence of a powerful political movement, backed up by its own military forces (the Red Army). Both the party and the army grew rapidly during the war against Japan, which had invaded China in July 1937, and the Communists emerged as a formidable competitor for state power with the Nationalists.

By the end of the war in 1945, Mao was hailed as the Party’s leading political and military strategist, and, coincidentally, its preeminent ideological thinker. What was now called Mao Zedong thought was said to represent the Sinification of Marxism, that is to say, the adaptation of Marxist theory to China’s actual historical conditions. Mao’s thought, reinforced through a powerful personality cult and an oppressive rectification campaign to tame his critics, was to become the ideological foundation of the Chinese Communist movement in subsequent years.

Success—and Failure

Despite unfavorable odds, the Red Army (renamed the People’s Liberation Army) employed superior strategic tactics to defeat the Nationalists in the civil war (1946–1949). Mao wasted no time in consolidating Communist rule; he proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and moved decisively to consolidate its borders and occupy and reintegrate Tibet. His intention was not merely to rebuild the shattered nation, but also transform it, which, with a staggering population of over 400 million, was the world’s largest. In late 1949 to early 1950, Mao traveled to Moscow (his first trip abroad) and signed an alliance with the Soviets; but Mao and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) neither liked nor trusted each other and their relationship was to prove unstable. The Korean War (1950–1953) could not have come at a worse time for the new regime, but at great cost Chinese troops succeeded in repulsing the U.S. advance into the north, near the Yalu River on the Chinese border.

Despite these international concerns, Mao launched a wide-ranging program of reconstruction and nationalization in major industrial and commercial cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton). In the countryside, land was confiscated from the landlord class, many of whom were summarily executed by makeshift tribunals, and land passed (if only briefly) into the hands of the ordinary peasants. A comprehensive range of social reforms was also launched, including marriage reform favoring the female; a crackdown on crime, drugs, and prostitution; and clean-up campaigns targeted at government and business corruption. Although U.S. intervention had placed Taiwan beyond their grasp, by the mid to late-1950s things had gone very well for the Communists, and for this much credit must go to Mao and his fellow party leaders.

But Mao had ever more ambitious plans. He wanted to speed up the pace of economic growth, based on industrial development and the collectivization of agriculture; and he wanted to emancipate China from the bonds of the Soviet alliance, which he found increasingly restrictive. Unfortunately it was at this juncture, in the late 1950s, that Mao’s hitherto deft political touch began to fail him and he launched two disastrous political campaigns that convulsed the country and ultimately damaged his reputation. The Great Leap Forward in 1958, calling for the establishment of small backyard factories in the towns and giant people’s communes (consolidated cooperative enterprises) in the countryside, resulted in an economic lurch backward. The consequent three bitter years (1959–1961) saw rural peasants perish in the millions due to harsh conditions for the very young, the very old, and the disadvantaged. Chastened, and under criticism from his more moderate colleagues, Mao agreed to step back from the forefront of leadership; he turned his attention to the growing ideological polemic marking the growing Sino-Soviet split and left it to others to repair the untold damage at home.

In his heart, Mao believed that the Great Leap Forward had failed largely because too many party officials (cadres) did not boldly implement his policies; disparagingly, he compared them to old women tottering about in bound feet. He decided to purge these revisionist (pro-Soviet) officials and others said to be taking the capitalist road (more open to Europe and North America generally) from positions of authority. Mao and his militant party faction (the Gang of Four) called upon the nation’s youth (primarily high school and university students) to rise up and call the errant officials to account. The result was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which witnessed the unusual spectacle of the top Communist leader declaring war on his own party organization. Millions of inflamed students and others donned Red Guard armbands, and, waving the Little Red Book (1966) of selected Mao quotations, they proceeded to carry out their assigned mission. The campaign tore the country apart from 1966 to 1969, forcing Mao to call for military intervention to restore order, and it dragged on destructively until his death in 1976. Still, from the perspective of foreign policy, the Cultural Revolution’s sharp anti-Soviet orientation succeeded in liberating China from its underlying dependency on the Soviet Union, and prepared the nation for a more independent role in international affairs in the years ahead.

A Beginning, and an End

Despite his miscalculations with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Mao wisely decided to play the American card in order to counterbalance growing Soviet military power on the conflict-prone Chinese border. With the surprise invitation to a U.S. table tennis team then in Japan to visit China, Mao set in motion the ping-pong diplomacy that led to U.S. president Richard Nixon’s state visit to China in February 1972, which culminated in the landmark Shanghai communiqué calling for a more constructive relationship between the countries. Mao and Nixon toasted each other cordially in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, laying to rest a generation of bitter enmity and setting the stage for the remarkable flowering of Sino-American relations that has continued into the early twenty-first century. It was to be Mao’s final hurrah; already in declining health (possibly suffering from Parkinson’s disease), he gradually faded from the scene and passed away peacefully at age eightytwo on September 9, 1976.

In an official assessment of his lengthy career, the Communist Party hailed Mao as an illustrious national hero who laid the foundations of the new China, but at the same time a tragic figure with all too human frailties. Mao is buried in a grand mausoleum in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and he enjoys considerable popular approbation despite his rather clouded historical record. But while many people revere Mao, many others revile him, as they do the First Emperor of Qin, who lived some two thousand years earlier. For most Chinese though, many of whom were born well after Mao’s death, he remains the human embodiment of China’s national regeneration and its reemergence as a great world power.

English historian Lord Acton (1834–1902), in his famous observation on power, concluded that “great men are almost always bad men,” and, in the case of Mao, there is considerable truth to this. Mao was a romantic visionary who set himself seemingly impossible goals, but he had the necessary qualities of leadership, persistence, and ruthlessness to reach them, at least to a degree. In addition to his political and military prowess, he is also considered a talented calligrapher and poet in the classical style, and he left behind a small corpus of work that is generally well regarded. But he was also something of an uncouth peasant who lacked personal polish, could be vulgar in his choice of words, and (even in his declining years) overly enjoyed the company of young women. As he aged, he became increasingly out of touch with political reality, vainly attempting to force the entire nation onto the Procrustean bed of his own ideological convictions (ideological fantasies, some would say).

Will history remember Mao Zedong? Undoubtedly, for Mao occupies a historical position comparable to individuals such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Qin Shihuangdi—these individuals were a frustrating mix of good and bad, but they all left a distinctive imprint on their own historical ages. Like playwright William Shakespeare’s Caesar, they “bestrode the narrow world like a Colossus,” and to this day their achievements and failures are enshrined in countless volumes for future generations to read and ponder. The same will quite likely be true of Mao Zedong.


  1. Li, 1994. The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician. Trans. Tai Hung-chao. New York: Random House.
  2. Schram, Stuart 1969. The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
  3. Short, Phillip. Mao: A Life. New York: Holt.
  4. Snow, Edgar P. Red Star over China. Rev. ed. New York: Grove. (Orig. pub. 1937.)
  5. Spence, Jonathan 1999. Mao Zedong. New York: Viking.
  6. Wylie, Raymond F. 1980. The Emergence of Maoism: Mao Tse-tung, Ch’en Po-ta, and the Search for Chinese Theory,1935–1945. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Pr

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