(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Jonathan Spence is the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and the author of numerous works on Chinese history, including The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980 (1981), God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1996), and The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds (1998). He is also the coauthor of a photographic history of twentieth century China, The Chinese Century (1996). One of the most respected historians of modern China, Spence is eminently qualified to relate the career of Mao Zedong.

Spence’s Mao Zedong is a volume in the Penguin Lives series, which encompasses brief biographies of significant historical figures. Mao Zedong obviously belongs in any such list. The leader of the Chinese Communists in their successful civil war against Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, he dominated China as had few emperors during its long imperial history, which ended in 1911. His Marxist theories led to the transformation of China but also to the death of millions, often for ideologically inspired reasons. To many he was the “Great Helmsman”; to others he was one of the bloodiest dictators in a century of bloody dictators. It is a fascinating story, and Spence tells it well.

Mao was born in 1893 during the decades of the waning Qing Dynasty as the West and Japan staked out spheres of influence in the dying imperial China. His father was a moderately prosperous farmer, and the young Mao attended a local primary school until he was thirteen. In a traditional and conservative family (his mother was a devout Buddhist), he learned the rudiments of early Chinese history and studied the works of Confucius and other early Chinese sages. After leaving school he worked on his father’s farm, married (it was arranged, as was traditional) at fourteen, and became a widower at seventeen. He left farming and returned to school, where he became exposed to China’s more recent history and troubles, but all the while he remained in Hunan province. He briefly joined the New Republican Army but soon returned to his books, reading widely but without any particular purpose. He remained a student until 1918, when he was twenty-four, and traveled little outside Hunan except for a brief sojourn in Beijing.

One of the valuable aspects of Spence’s biography is the elucidation of the various influences upon the young Mao, and there were many in that era of intellectual ferment—feminist, socialist, nationalist, and others. He established his own journal and wrote about the need for reform in China; not yet a Marxist, he focused upon the corruption of the local warlord. He was becoming an activist, leading student strikes in Hunan, traveling again to Beijing and elsewhere, and admiring the revolutionary events of the Soviet Union. He opened a bookshop, became a school principal, and agitated for Hunan independence from the rest of China.

Mao was not an immediate revolutionary. Spence describes him as a monarchist until the 1920’s, and in 1912, he defended an early authoritarian monarchy as working for the welfare of the population in spite of the stupidity of the Chinese people. In 1920, he discussed Vladimir Ilich Lenin for the first time but doubted the applicability of Lenin’s revolution because China lacked a strong party and was too localized. Nevertheless, that same year, under the instigation of Soviet agents, Mao’s city of Changsha in Hunan became one of several centers for the study of communism. Mao was one of only fifty invited to the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and among the thirteen who actually attended. At that time his knowledge of Marxism was minimal, and Spence suggests Mao’s invitation was the result of his considerable energy, courage, and physical charisma. Assigned to build up the communist movement in Hunan, by 1922 he had found his focus as a professional revolutionary.

One issue that divided Chinese Communists was their relation to Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. The Soviet Comintern urged an alliance, and although Mao had reservations he joined the Nationalist Party in 1923. The same year he was elected to the Communist Party’s Central Executive Committee, and in 1924 he was elected an alternate member of Kuomintang’s Executive Committee. In 1925, he dropped out of active involvement in both parties, claiming he was exhausted. Spence accepts that explanation but also suggests that Mao desired direct experience with rural peasant communities, and by 1926 rural activism had become central to his beliefs; it was the peasantry, he believed, who held China’s destiny.

The Kuomintang and Communist alliance disintegrated in 1927 as Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists turned against the latter. Mao was ordered to use the peasants as insurrectionists but lacked the military means to do so, leading to his famous statement, “Political power is obtained from the barrel of the gun.” Fleeing to the mountains, he...

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