Ross Terrill, a prolific author/editor of six books on China and numerous magazine and newspaper articles, brings together numerous sources, some only recently available, to create a study of the life of Mao Zedong (1893-1976). His approach falls between two earlier classics on Mao: Stuart Schram’s Mao Tse-tung, which developed an analytical structure of Mao’s thought, and Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, the exciting personal-interest story of the military struggles of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Terrill uses personal and psychological aspects of Mao’s life with political and cultural analysis to show that Mao was a complex man who was often inconsistent in his intellectual development. Mao is described as China’s greatest figure in this century, a “Marx-Lenin-Stalin rolled into one” with all the variety that view implies. As a young iconoclast, an adapter of Marxist doctrine in the Chinese context, and a military strategist, Mao led the CCP to victory over the forces of imperialism (Japan) and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Once the revolution had been achieved in 1949, however, he was much less effective as a manager and builder of the new China.
Mao was born into a fairly well-off peasant family in Hunan province, a mountainous region with a history of rebellions. His mother was a considerate and devoted Buddhist, while Mao’s father was a disciplinarian. The young Mao revolted early against his father’s commands, but when he himself was in power, some of the same personality traits emerged. As a young man, he preferred tales of war and banditry to the Confucian classics, although he learned the lessons of both. Terrill suggests that these early experiences and the traumas of growing up help to explain Mao in later years.
In 1911, Mao left his village for middle school at Changsha, but his academic training was marked with starts and stops. Largely self-taught, Mao always held a jaundiced view of education and intellectuals. There was greater excitement in the changes occurring beyond the school walls. In 1912, the archaic Ch’ing dynasty finally fell and China began a long period of division and chaos.
In 1918, Mao went to Peking, where he worked in the periodical room of the library of Peking University. On the fringes of academic life, he found himself snubbed by many students and teachers. Nevertheless, Mao read widely and came into contact with Marxist philosophy, given new weight by the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. In April 1919, he returned to Changsha as a political activist. He was a patriot but not yet a Marxist. Terrill claims that Mao’s sense of social injustice actually dated from his early youth and was given shape later by Marxism.
In 1920, Mao traveled back to Peking and then to Shanghai where he and twelve other young men (the average age was twenty-six) secretly met to form the CCP. At that time there were only fifty-seven members in all China, but political chaos and social injustice were fertile soil. Mao spent most of the next six years organizing peasants in his native Hunan, while the CCP followed an urban policy dictated by Moscow. Cooperation with Chiang Kai-shek in 1927 proved disastrous to the CCP as Chiang’s troops slaughtered the Communists, including thirty-thousand in Hunan alone. Under orders, Mao led an abortive urban uprising, but its failure only proved the weakness of following Russian policy. He retreated, with a small band, to a rugged area of eastern Hunan.
From 1927 to 1935, Mao was in no way the leader of the CCP, but those years were critical for his later success. He advocated a rural strategy of mobilizing the peasant masses and training an army. Terrill argues that this was Mao’s unique contribution: the union of the gun, peasant power, and Marxism. These ideas individually were not new, but the combination was; and it was based on a pragmatic assessment of the realities of Chinese society, not Marxist theory. With Zhu De, who arrived in April, 1928, Mao built a force of ten thousand men, the nucleus of the Red Army that would carry him to power over all of China in 1949.
The army that Mao and Zhu built was quite different from the warlord bands Chinese peasants had come to dread. The Red Army was infused with a spirit of democracy and political training. Instead of victimizing the peasants, the Red Army helped them and always paid for food. In time, the Army won the support of the peasantry, which was essential for guerrilla warfare. A policy of modest land reform was aimed at building support while antagonizing as few as possible. These tactics were attacked by Moscow-trained members of the CCP who controlled the party. Meanwhile, from 1930 to 1933, Mao had to survive encirclement campaigns launched by Chiang Kai-shek. By 1934, aided by German advisers, Nationalist troops had greatly reduced the Red Army base. Survival required an escape further into China’s interior.
The Long March, as it came to be called, began as a retreat, but it proved to be the test that brought Mao leadership of the CCP. In 1932, Mao respectfully urged the CCP to declare war on Japan, a brilliant political stroke as it gave him the mantle of a patriot. To fight Japan, it was essential to break out of Jiangxi and join with other Communist groups in the north. Using the slogan, “March north in order to fight Japan,” Mao transformed a military retreat into a symbol of national and revolutionary effort. He developed, according to the author, “flexible, nativistic, and mind-over-matter military tactics.” The crossing of twenty-four rivers and eighteen mountain ranges cost Mao ninety percent of his followers, but the...
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