Mao Zedong was born in December 1893, in the province of Hunan. His parents were peasants, but Mao didn’t start out quite at the bottom. His father was a trader and grain merchant who made a good enough living to get his son a first-rate education.
In 1918, that education led to a job at the Beijing University Library, where Mao came into contact with Marxism. About the same time, Soviet Russia was looking to expand communism’s borders. It set up a Chinese Communist Party in 1921, and Vladimir Lenin helpfully revised Marxist theory to allow for revolution in pre-industrialized societies. (Marx would have judged China unready for revolution.) By then, Mao was already a confirmed Marxist – active in the Chinese Communist Party from its inception.
It was a turbulent time in Chinese history. Communists and nationalists organized armies to fight each other, as well as the invading Japanese, and warlords controlled whole regions of the country. The Communist Party was itself bitterly divided. Mao rose steadily in this dog-eat-dog environment, in part because he understood power politics. “Political power,” he said, “grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Rise of the People’s Republic
From 1927 to 1937, Chiang Kai-shek, a young Nationalist Party general, ruled China from Nanjing. Meanwhile, the Communist Party grew in strength by mobilizing peasants in the countryside. Determined to unite China under one rule, Chiang’s forces attempted to encircle Mao and his comrades.
The communists held out for years using guerrilla techniques developed by Mao, but eventually they were forced to flee northward in what became known as the Long March. Of the 80,000 communists who started the march, only 8,000 survived. The survivors, including Mao, were celebrated as heroes in Chinese communist lore. For the first time, Mao became the undisputed leader of the party.
More than a decade later, in 1949, Mao led the communists to victory over the nationalists, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was born. The nationalists sought refuge on the island of Taiwan, where they continued to claim to be the legitimate government of all China.
In the first days of the PRC, Mao sought to remake China in his image. One of his first measures was to redistribute land from rich peasants to the poor, but he soon moved on to more ambitious measures. In 1958, his “Great Leap Forward” tried to make China economically independent by collectivizing agriculture and developing industry. The program failed miserably, and some 20 million people died in an ensuing famine.
For the first time since the war, Mao had to battle party rivals for power. One outcome of this squabble was the “Cultural Revolution,” lasting from 1966 to 1969. Ostensibly designed to combat bureaucracy and renew the spirit of the Chinese revolution, the Cultural Revolution developed into an instrument of political oppression through which Mao could attack those who opposed him.
High school and college students were organized into committees called Red Guards and charged with exposing counter-revolutionaries. Those they accused were often beaten and forced to confess to crimes in humiliating public examinations. Many died, much of China’s cultural heritage was destroyed, and Chinese society was plunged into chaos.
After Mao died in September 1976, China chose to reject much of his legacy. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, advocated economic reform along pragmatic rather than ideological lines. Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemen, continued to liberalize China’s economic policy while endeavoring to maintain the Communist Party’s iron grip on power. Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, has largely continued those policies.
Outside China, Maoist political parties and revolutionary movements still operate, from Cambodia (the Khmer Rouge) to Peru (the Shining Path guerrillas). In Nepal, Maoist rebels have used Mao’s blueprint for guerrilla warfare to establish control over much of the country. Other movements are inspired by Mao’s advocacy of the peasantry as a revolutionary force and his focus on rural, rather than industrial, development.