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Mao was born on December 26, 1893, into a prosperous peasant family; still one of only 3 peasants to rule all of China. He started his career as a physical education instructor. This qualified him as a member of the intelligentsia, at least within his community. As a young man, he read many different Chinese translations of Western works, particularly those of Karl Marx. It was after this that he began his life as a radical.
He presented a rare combination of "charisma, intellect, and brilliant interpersonal and organizational skills" along with relentless criminal incompetence when it came to actually running a country. His rule from 1949 to 1976 is believed to have caused the deaths of 40 to 70 million people, making Mao the most prolific mass murderer in human history, ahead of Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin (unless you go by percentage of population killed as a means of measuring democides, in which case Pol Pot, Hitler, Francisco Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, and King Leopold's Congo managed to be even worse).
Early political work
In 1911, the Xinhai or Nationalist Revolution overthrew the Emperor. China (to a large degree) disintegrated. Mao spent the first few years of his adulthood as a self-proclaimed anarchist and was involved in running an anarchist bookshop for several years; he was introduced to Marxism via a university study group and rapidly warmed to the new ideology. Mao joined the newly established Chinese Communist Party in 1922, although he was not (as was later claimed) one of its founding members. Also contrary to some popular sources, he never worked as a teacher after his introduction into the party, but as a librarian. Through his close connection with the party founders, he was able to achieve the position of Director of Propaganda in a short-lived allied CCP-KMT government. After the breakdown of the alliance between the Communists and Nationalists and the beginning of the Chinese Civil War, Mao took the opportunity to create a small Communist mini-state (the Chinese Soviet Republic), which was eventually crushed by the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek.
To avoid total destruction, Mao and his forces began the "Long March." Moving through the mountains of western China, they evaded the Nationalist forces and founded a new stronghold in the Yan'an area.
The war was put on a theoretical hold during World War II, when the Japanese invaded China, and the various Chinese factions nominally formed a united front. However, Chiang Kai-shek was still determined to destroy the Communists, and spent as much time attacking Mao as he did the Japanese.
By the time the war with the Japanese ended, Mao had become an accomplished guerrilla leader. After efforts to form a post-war unity government quickly ended, mostly due to Chiang's intransigence, the Civil War resumed. Mao's army, being much smaller and very lightly armed, was expected to be demolished. Instead, utilizing Mao's skills in guerrilla conflict, antipathy to the corruption and brutality of the Nationalists' warlord supporters, and large amounts of Soviet aid, the Communists managed to destroy or capture large parts of Chiang's forces. Indeed, by the end of the war most of the Chinese forces were using arms taken from Chiang. In 1949, Chiang's forces were forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan. In Tiananmen Square, on October 1, Mao proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Leader of the People's Republic
“”Be it a great, medium, or small leap forward, we probably will leap forward. If not a great leap forward, we will make a small leap forward.
|—In a speech in 1959|
After consolidating the Communist hold on China, Mao next got involved in North Korea's attempt to unify the peninsula. As UN forces under US command approached the Yalu river in December 1950, Mao decided to intervene. He snuck many of his men behind American lines (which was rather easy, as the Americans were racing so fast to the Yalu that they did not bother with basic security), and ambushed them.
After some initial success, the Chinese forces were eventually forced into a conventional war along (more or less) the 38th parallel. The Chinese forces were not equipped to fight a conventional war with a better armed foe, and many more Chinese forces died than UN (among the casualties was Mao's own son). The issue of repatriation of POWs delayed the settlement of the Korean War until 1953. (The armistice was signed just after Stalin's death, leading many to speculate that he was forcing the continuation of the war.)
Many within China considered the war a victory, in that they had prevented the US from taking any North Korean (or Chinese) territory. It was an especially sweet victory, since the US was the preeminent military power in the world. However, the leadership understood how dearly the war cost China, and asked Mao to step down from day to day domestic government work, while maintaining him as the figurehead and foreign relations chief.
Under the leadership of Zhou Enlai and the moderates, China prospered for a few years. Many farmers, with government support, undertook experiments into collectivization, with promising results. To Mao, this suggested that the whole country could collectivize in all respects and achieve even more. He stepped up, and called for a "Great Leap Forward" in January 1958.
The original goals of the Great Leap Forward were grand, with the intention of using the vast manpower of the country to create new infrastructure, enabling the creation of steel plants and increasing agricultural production. Highways and dams were built by brute labor, household goods were melted down to make steel, and farms were thrown together into collectives. It was thought that advanced engineering techniques were not needed if enough brute force could be used.
At first, the reports were positive, and Mao rewarded those that said they succeeded best. He also pushed for more to be done, and at a faster rate. However, many of these reports were completely fabricated. The infrastructure built was shoddy (at best), and many people died in creating them. The steel plants were useless, with much usable iron and steel ending as scrap.
However, the worst catastrophe was in agricultural production. While China has always had a large population, and many issues with feeding its people, the (purportedly) bad weather and the forced collectivization caused one of the largest famines ever, on par with the Holodomor. Estimates vary as to the death toll, but median figures are in the 20M+ area. Economically, the economy lost almost 30% of its value in 1961, leaving it below where it started prior to the Great Leap Forward.
As the catastrophe became evident, Mao took full responsibility and turned the government back over to the moderates. Again, he was the face for foreign policy. He publicly denounced Khrushchev and Soviet "revisionism," and was partially responsible for the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s.
Mao stayed in the background until 1966, when he came forward to denounce new "bourgeois" elements in China and called for a "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." He advocated purging of the Four Olds-"old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas." He also called on the youth and the factory workers to step forward and enforce the Cultural Revolution.
From the perspective of most observers, what resulted was as near a mobocracy as has been seen in recent times. The government figures warred in the courts of public opinion, and used revolutionary cadres and other groups to punish opponents. Mao and his followers developed a "cult of Mao" throughout the country. It was at this time that Mao's Little Red Book became ubiquitous, along with pictures of Chairman Mao. Hymns were composed to Mao, and people throughout the country had to sing and participate, or else be denounced.
In 1969, Mao may have recognized what he had unleashed, and called for an end to the revolution. However, he did nothing to actually end it. This has been blamed on both senility and malevolence on his part. His wife enthusiastically continued the Cultural Revolution, and it did not end until his death on September 9, 1976. Despite his wish to be cremated, his body was preserved and can be seen in the "Maoseleum" in Tiananmen Square.
Impact and legacy
Mao's impact on China is hard to overestimate. Many consider him to be the founder of the modern Chinese state. He is remembered as the guerrilla hero who destroyed the colonialists and imperialists, as well as the fascist and corrupt Chiang Kai-shek. Strangely enough, the state that Chiang founded is now liberal and democratic (it happened after he died, although some of his policies had made it more feasible), unlike the state that the destroying hero founded.
One of the more infuriating aspects about his legacy is the insistence that he did not nearly destroy the country twice. He was capable of extreme cruelty in service to ideology, and was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his own people - it's not for nothing that a common phrase is "Mao killed more Chinese than the Japanese in World War II".
Outside of China, he is regarded as either an anti-colonialist liberator or a horrible despot. Of course, he could also be both. In the litany of Communist dictators, he is normally listed right after Stalin. Yet in the annals of anti-capitalist heroes of disaffected youth, he's also right after Che Guevara. Much of this has more to do with the West than Mao himself.
Mao started as a standard Marxist, placing a great deal of emphasis on liberating the working class. However, in the course of his career, he laid out a considerably different vision, known as Mao Zedong Thought or Maoism. He tended to claim it was just an extension into an agrarian society, but others see it as a radically different version of Communism.
Mao Zedong and the dark era of sparrows
Besides condemning to death millions of people, Mao Zedong is also responsible for one of the greatest bird massacres in history. In 1958 Mao declared sparrows (specifically the Eurasian tree sparrow) an enemy of the state and started the Great Sparrow campaign (also known as the Kill a Sparrow campaign). Officially it was called the Four Pests campaign, and was meant to eliminate rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. Sparrows were included on the list because they ate grain seeds, causing disruption to agriculture. Peasants were told to go out to the fields, screaming at the tops of their voices and making noise in every possible way. The birds were frightened and took off, and since the hubbub went on steadily, the sparrows did not dare to land. People also carried tall sticks and chased away birds from the trees. Constant flying and escaping exhausted the sparrows soon and they simply fell down and died. The method was highly effective, and millions of sparrows were slaughtered.
However, by April 1960 the National Academy of Science found that sparrows ate insects more than seeds. Mao declared "forget it", and ordered the end of the campaign against sparrows. By this time it was too late: with no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward and adverse weather conditions, leading to the Great Chinese Famine in which around 30 million people died of starvation.
“”Sweet potato tastes good; I like it.
Mao was a prolific writer in both modern (Baihua) Chinese articles on policies and traditional poems. While serving with the republican army, Mao spent much of a half year studying in the Chang-sha provincial library; he also briefly worked as a librarian's assistant at Peking University. It is known that he had a taste for Qing-dynasty Chinese popular fictions, often giving out novels as gifts to his subordinates and children. Mao's favorite sport or leisure activity was swimming in the wild, and has swam kilometers in the Yangtze river for multiple times after he become chairman. He was an alcoholic (during a period of depression at any rate) and a chain-smoker, for which he cleaned his teeth by rubbing green leaves on them, leaving a faint greenish tinge. Some sources speculate that he was a womanizer and an ephebophile who had sex with teenage girls in the belief that it would prolong his life while others suggest he suffered from monorchism, or at least, had an undescended testicle.
- Jonathan Mirsky. "A bleak anniversary: Mao the mass murderer." New York Times. 2004 January 9.
- He was supposed to be a delegate to the party's second congress, but somebody gave him bad directions and he couldn't find the address of the meeting.
- Yes, people made a few "nasty teacher" jokes.
- Schram, Stuart (1966). Mao Tse-Tung. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-14-020840-5.
- "Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) homepage." Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). 2011 July 17.
- "The secret life of sparrows." The Independent. 2006 August 2.
- See the Wikipedia article on Cultural Revolution. "Workers were supposed to "grasp revolution and promote productions", while peasants were supposed to raise more pigs because "more pigs means more manure, and more manure means more grain". Even a casual remark by Mao, "Sweet potato tastes good; I like it" became a slogan everywhere in the countryside."
- That is, being one-balled
- "Me and Mao’s girl". 29 October 2011. http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/7342808/me-and-maos-girl.
- "Was Chairman Mao a Pedophile?". 21 February 2014. http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/45480/was-chairman-mao-a-pedophile-and-how-would-tom-clancy/.