Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung)

Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung)
Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung)

Mao Zedong was the son of a prosperous farmer from the Hunan Province in central China. After graduating from normal school he worked as a library assistant at National Beijing (Peking) University, where he came under the influence of intellectuals disillusioned with Western democracies and turned to Marxism, hailing the success of the communist revolution in Russia.

Mao joined a Marxist study club organized by faculty leaders of Beijing University Chen Duxiu (Ch'en Tuhsiu) and Li Dazhao (Li Ta-chao). In July 1921 he was one of 12 men who formed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Shanghai; Chen was elected general secretary of the party.

In January 1923 the father of the Chinese republic, Sun Yat-sen, formed a (First) United Front with Soviet representative Adolf Joffe under which the Soviet Union gave advice and aid to Sun's Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalist Party) in return for admission of members of the CCP to the KMT.

As a result, Mao was elected a reserve member of the Central Executive Committee of the KMT and made head of the farmers' organization in the United Front government in Canton. Mao participated in the Northern Expedition led by Chiang Kai-shek against the warlords and helped rouse the peasants in Hunan against the warlord regime and economic inequities. In 1927 Chiang Kai-shek purged the CCP from areas under his control. Mao escaped to the hills of Jiangxi (Kiangsi) Province in central China.

Between 1927 and 1933 Mao and other Communists who fled the Nationalist dragnet established a Chinese Soviet Republic in the hills of Jiangxi, where they implemented violent land reforms while their Red Army, under commander Zhu De (Chu Teh), fought off KMT armies sent against them.

However, decisive defeats by an army personally led by Chiang forced the battered CCP to flee in the Long March, which lasted a year (1934–35). Mao consolidated his power in a conference at Zungyi (Tsungyi) during the flight and maintained it throughout the subsequent Yanan (Yenan) period of the CCP.

Although Yanan's location in remote northwestern China bought the CCP time, the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War ensured its survival because it forced the KMT to call off its anti-Communist campaign and form a Second United Front. The CCP grew explosively during the eightyear war (1937–45). Mao wrote extensively during the war and mapped out strategies for future victory against the KMT.

Civil war broke out almost immediately after the defeat of Japan. After the United States failed to mediate a cease-fire, it withdrew support from the KMT government. A combination of many factors led to the KMT's defeat in 1949 and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, which Mao led as chairman of both the CCP and the government.

Moa Zedong propaganda poster
Moa Zedong propaganda poster

China became allied with the Soviet Union, received Soviet aid, and followed its model of land collectivization and industrialization. Impatient to surpass the Soviet Union, Mao inaugurated in 1958 the Great Leap Forward, which dragooned the people into communes and wrecked the economy with wildly unrealistic programs. 

As a result, about 30 million people died in a Mao-made famine, the greatest in human history. Mao's pragmatic colleagues then forced him to give up his chairmanship of the government in 1959 and began repairing the catastrophically broken economy.

Mao fumed in impotence between 1959 and 1966, then formed a coalition with his wife, Jiang Qing (Chiang Ch'ing), young students, and army leader Lin Biao (Lin Piao) and launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966.

The student Red Guards ousted the pragmatists, wreaked havoc throughout the land, and returned Mao to power in a cult of personality that rivaled Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's. China did not begin recovery from the disastrous Cultural Revolution until the increasingly sick and senile Mao died in 1976.