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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2047

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.

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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 isolated himself from the Communist leadership but pursued his own radical reforms by seizing land from the wealthy, requiring work from everyone, and using guerrilla tactics against the enemy. By 1929 he had relocated to the Fujian border region where he remained for five years, frequently criticized by Communist Party leaders and under regular attack by the Nationalists, who became so threatening that in late 1934 the party decided upon what would become legendary as “the Long March.” During that calamitous year-long affair, Mao’s prestige rose again by the time they reached their final destination at Yan’an in the north.

In Yan’an Mao succeeded in holding the party together and strengthening his own power. In the face of Japanese aggression, a reluctant truce developed between Mao’s Communists and Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists. During the years of war against Japan, Mao also engaged in a struggle for control of the party. Forced for the first time to undertake a systematic study of Marxism and Leninism, with the help of the Soviet-trained Chen Boda, Mao was able to justify himself as a communist theorist. It was at Yan’an that Mao moved toward dominance and power, becoming less flexible and more demanding, and in particular frequently criticizing his intellectual opponents as being isolated from and illiterate about the proletariat and the peasant masses, which Spence suggests might have been in revenge for slights he had experienced as a peasant child. The correct interpretations were always Mao’s, and intellectuals and others were forced to criticize their own inadequacies, sometimes assisted by the use of violence. By 1943 there was a recognizable cult of Mao, and in 1945 the preamble of the Communist Party constitution adopted “Mao Zedong’s thought . . . as the guide for all its work.”

The war against Japan ended suddenly, and although neither the Nationalists nor the Communists were ready to resume their struggle, Mao, in the north, was at a geographical advantage because of the Soviet presence in Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. Civil war escalated, and Mao entered Beijing in January, 1949, announcing the formation of the People’s Republic of China that October. After almost two decades of violent conflict, China was in disastrous straits. Mao met with Joseph Stalin in December, 1949 and January, 1950, and the Soviet leader promised aid. China’s reconstruction was an immense task. Land reform was a priority, as was the nationalization of industry and the hunting down of counterrevolutionaries.

Spence argues that given the challenges facing the new regime, Mao could not have desired the Korean War. However, Stalin gave support to North Korea and in March, 1950, Mao learned about the planned invasion. Once North Korea invaded the south, there was a long debate within the Chinese Communist elite about the desirability of joining the war, but with Mao’s advocacy Chinese troops entered the fray in October, 1950. Mao lost a son but used the war to mobilize popular support for the regime. After the war he reigned supreme as head of the Communist Party and chairman of the People’s Republic, but as the bureaucracy increased he also became more isolated from the lives of most Chinese. Mao, ever the revolutionary, urged the consolidation of peasant cooperatives into larger communes, and in 1957 he launched the Great Leap Forward.

Dividing Chinese society into “the enemy and ourselves,” Mao justified depriving the former of their rights and contrasted Western democracy with China’s “class freedom” and “democracy with leadership.” Claiming that the transformation to socialism could be facilitated by discussion, he said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend.” When criticism resulted, the party crackdown, headed by Deng Xiaoping, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. The Great Leap Forward proved disastrous—the agricultural communes and communal kitchens resulted in famine, industry declined, and the backyard iron furnaces were failures. Millions died. Mao was largely isolated from reality. The press was controlled, and Mao’s advisers generally told him what he wanted to hear. His angry rages were intimidating, and any dissent led to dismissal or worse. As Spence aptly writes, “The Maoist vision had finally tumbled into nightmare.”

During the Great Leap Forward Mao resigned from the position of head of state, giving the office to Liu Shaoqi, and the Great Leap was slowed and abandoned beginning in 1961. A new division, however, was beginning to build over the issue of the “Thought of Mao,” with some in the party claiming that, while important, it should not be overused, while Mao’s loyalists defended his thought in every area. Fearing a reversal of the revolution, Mao claimed that it was necessary to “set fires” continuously. The result was the appearance of Mao’s little red book, first in the military and then throughout all of China. Spence points out that Mao did not institute the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, but he established the environment which made it probable. Purging and suicides within the party hierarchy spilled over into the streets of Beijing as posters at the university attacked rightists and “capitalist-roaders.” He announced “To rebel is justified” and in August, 1966, at Tiananmen Square Mao received a Red Guard armband before an audience of hundreds of thousands of students. Part of the Cultural Revolution was directed from the center of the bureaucracy, but much of it was spontaneous, carried on by the young against their teachers, parents, and anyone else who appeared to lack revolutionary enthusiasm, and the victims numbered in the millions.

The radicalism of the masses was in time restrained by use of the army and the party, and some of the excesses began to die down by 1969, but under Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and a former actress, it remained pervasive in the cultural arena until the mid- 1970’s. By the early 1970’s Mao’s health began to fail. His last major initiative was to invite United States president Richard M. Nixon to China in 1972 as a balance to the Soviets, from whom the People’s Republic had been estranged since 1960. Deng Xiaoping, who was purged during the Cultural Revolution, was restored to favor in 1973, perhaps to counter the radicalism of Jiang Qing, and Mao received U.S. president Gerald R. Ford in 1975. By then Mao, though plagued with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was alert enough to appoint an unknown, Hua Huofeng, as his successor. After a series of heart attacks, he died on September 9, 1976. Earlier that year he said that his two major accomplishments were defeating Chiang Kai-Shek and forcing the Japanese from China. The revolution he passed on to the future.

Although Mao Zedong lacks footnotes, the bibliography is most helpful and illustrates the plethora of recent works, primary and secondary, available on Mao. As a volume in the Penguin Lives Series, it is relatively short, but in less than 108 pages of text Spence gives the reader a well-written and insightful portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most influential and controversial figures. One might wish that it had been longer, answering more fully how it was that the child of rural peasants rose to power in the world’s most populous country and how he was able to impose his will, often so disastrously, upon his Communist Party peers and the entire nation. The consequences of his life were and continue to be enormous, and not just for the people of China.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 31, 1999, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly 246 (September 20, 1999): 61.

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