The People's Emperor: Mao

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Both Chinese and world opinion of Mao Tse-tung has undergone a sometimes startling revision since his death in 1976. In the West, his image had begun to change even before his death from that of the devil incarnate to a rather lovable old Buddha. In China, his successors—men of his own generation who knew Mao during his long rise to power—are attempting to demystify his reputation, to dismantle the cult that had been built up around him and which stifles their freedom of action. Many of the statues of Mao have been torn down, posters bearing his portrait have been removed from public places, and his words are now criticized openly, although still apologetically, by the nation’s new leaders.

Although tome after tome has been written about this peasant who became one of a handful of truly great leaders produced in our century, much about the man remains a mystery. What forces motivated him in his struggle for leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and of China itself? Why, when already well-advanced in age and his country at peace, did he initiate the Cultural Revolution that brought government, education, and commerce to a standstill? Why, finally, did he make peace with one of the world’s best-known anti-Communists, Richard Nixon, and even show public support for him after his disgrace?

The People’s Emperor: Mao addresses such questions as these in an easily accessible manner, and, in the process, tells the reader much about the modern history of this land of nine hundred million people. In the sense that it imputes rather neurotic underlying motives to Mao’s political involvement and views him as a continuer, mutatis mutandis, of the Chinese Imperial tradition, this work joins those that have attempted to demystify Mao’s image. Its author, Dick Wilson, currently an editor of the respected China Quarterly, tells surprisingly little about the personal life of Mao. The sources on his childhood and youth are few, the main one being the autobiographical account he dictated to the American journalist, Edgar Snow, who published it in his well-known book, Red Star over China, still one of the best sources on communism in China. Without corroborating evidence, however, the accuracy of this information is difficult to assess. Moreover, Mao apparently remained aloof from even his most intimate friends, so we lack the light they might have shed on his inner life. No doubt much of this mystery is due to the fact that Mao was primarily a man of action, not given to constant and deep introspection, like his Indian counterpart, Mahatma Gandhi. His personal life was, from a very early age, subordinated to his political life and ambitions. What warmth and sensitivity he had seems to have been expressed primarily in his classical poetry, which he composed throughout his life.

The personal picture that emerges in Wilson’s book is that of a man of modest habits, the most likely among the world’s leaders to appear in patched trousers and sagging socks, as the author puts it. Beyond these superficial characteristics, however, the few glimpses the reader gets are of a man driven by a profound resentment of authority stemming from his difficult relationship with his father. Born into a moderately well-off peasant family in the southern province of Hunan in 1893, Mao chafed under the rigid control of his father, who was unwilling to give his head-strong son the freedom and recognition he desired. In a society that valued so highly respect for one’s elders, and particularly for one’s father, Mao was a rebel from the start, arguing often and violently with his father, and trying on several occasions to run away from home.

On the scant evidence available on his early life, Wilson builds his interpretation of Mao’s personality. He believes that Mao’s enormous drive to succeed was a compensation for a “personal sense of rejection,” originating in his stormy relationship with his father. This feeling was in later life reinforced by his rejection by a whole series of father-figures—classmates from a better background than his, teachers, fellow Communists, and foreigners. This sense of being an outsider, Wilson maintains, is what led to Mao’s identification with the peasant masses of China, who were rejected by their society. Like many attempts by biographers to theorize about their subject’s psychology, this one leaves the impression of being overly neat or simplistic. The dearth of evidence from Mao’s youth makes any speculation of this sort haphazard at best. Even if valid, the hypothesis begs the question of why Mao’s effort to compensate for low self-esteem took precisely the form it did, the answer to which requires a larger framework than that provided by Wilson. Interestingly, another recent biographer of Mao, Ross Terrill, specifically denies that he was a neurotic and claims that his rebellion was not personal, but rather against what his father stood for. Even the evidence presented by Wilson leaves one with the impression that his rebelliousness was of a very self-conscious variety, not an irrational lashing-out.

Mao had many obstacles to overcome in his rise to the leadership of his nation. He had to fight hard for an education and was unable to enter secondary school until he was eighteen. He was basically self-educated, consuming volume after volume of books on subjects that interested him, but neglecting his classwork in areas he disliked. At the provincial capital where he went to secondary school, he had to overcome the prejudices of the other students, generally sons of landlords, who chided him for his rural background and lowly status. He quickly managed to win these students over through his strong leadership abilities and rhetorical skills.

Soon after completing his schooling in 1918, Mao went to live in Peking. He was confronted there with the choice of whether or not to join a group of Chinese students who were leaving to study in France. He chose not to go, apparently because he feared that living in France might render him an “internationalist,” unable to enjoy the full trust of the common people of his country. He feared too, perhaps, that he would not stand out among his peers abroad. This desire to remain fully Chinese and, by extension, to maintain Chinese cultural integrity, was later manifested in the independent line he followed toward the Soviet Union and its proffered advice.

Through an acquaintance, Mao was able to acquire a job at Peking University Library, whose Director was Li Ta-chao, the man who effectively introduced Marxism into China. More than Li Ta-chao, however, it was the example of successful revolution under the Bolshevik banner in Russia that led Mao to Marxism-Leninism during his late twenties. One might question Wilson’s claim that Mao chose Marxism because “it came into fashion at the time when he needed a weapon.” Mao was certainly impressed by the radical ideology’s successful application in Russia and said that “Communism is a hammer which we use to destroy the enemy.” Wilson’s...

(The entire section is 2890 words.)