Last Updated 01 Apr 2020

Mao Zedong

Category Mao Zedong
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Alyssa Franco 11/28/12 Mao Zedong is considered to be one of the most controversial political leaders of the twentieth century. He has been known both as a savior and a tyrant to the Chinese people. From his strategic success of the Long March, to his humiliating failure of the Great Leap Forward, to the Cultural Revolution that shocked the country and took countless lives, Mao has significantly influenced the result of what China is today. From humble origins, Mao Zedong rose to absolute power, unifying with an iron fist a vast country torn apart by years of weak leadership, imperialism, and war.

This astute and insightful account by Jonathan D. Spence brings to life this modern-day ruler and the tumultuous era that Mao Zedong did so much to shape. Mao Zedong was born on December 26, 1893 in Shaoshan village in Hunan. He experienced a middle peasant upbringing that was “rooted in long-standing rural Chinese patterns of expectation and behavior” (Mao, 10). Mao went to Shaoshan village school where he learned the customary Chinese curriculum as well as studied the “time-honored texts from the Confucian canon” (Mao, 11).

At this time in his childhood, the whole country could foresee the fall of the previous dynasty, the Qing. Mao studied to be a teacher at The First Provincial Normal School, in Changsha, which influenced his future thinking and beliefs. He believed that the Chinese way of thinking needed reform, therefore fixated on younger people and peasants to build his political career. In 1912 Mao decided to go to Wuhan. For five years he studied and received an education in academics, as well as politics. When Mao graduated in 1918, he was a political writer with a notable following.

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He had studied Marxism and other communist ideas and by 1919 considered himself to be a Marxist. For several years Mao wrote on his views and even began establishing groups that shared the same political opinions as he did. Mao had organized a group of Communists in Changsha and in 1921when he went to Shanghai to participate in the First National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. He rose to absolute power when he survived the Long March, a military retreat undertaken by the Red Army to escape the attacks ordered by Chiang Kai-Shek.

This began his ascent to power because of the leadership displayed during the retreat. It gained him the support of many members of the party. Through the years Mao had many successes as well as failures as a leader. He put into actions two 5 year plans, established the Hundred Flower Movement, launched the Great Leap Forward, and set the groundwork for the Cultural Revolution, forever leaving his mark in Chinese history. The Great Leap Forward, what was supposed to be one of Mao Zedong’s greatest achievements, in turn actually became his most prominent failure.

By 1957, to Mao at least, following the Soviet Union example no longer seemed sufficient. Growth was too slow, too reliant on technical experts, and too controlled. He believed that China had to find a way to use their labor power to revolutionize more rapidly. Mao began to introduce the idea of the Great Leap Forward. In Mao’s mind the Great Leap “would combine the imperativeness of large-scale cooperative agriculture with a close-to-utopian vision of the ending of distinctions between occupations, sexes, ages, and levels of education” (Mao 143).

Through the concentrated work of hundreds of millions of people laboring together, China would convert itself from a poverty stricken nation into a mighty one. Mao believed that China as a whole would procure the “benefits of scale and of flexibility” (Mao, 143). The peasants and workers performed large amounts of labor, working with “almost no respite in the fields” (Mao, 144). Trusting Mao, the Chinese Communist party, as well as the people of China got caught up in the idea of a “utopian” type society and fully supported the plan.

This ideal however, did not transfer over to reality. The Great Leap became one of Mao’s biggest failures as the ruler of China. Many officials were surprised at Mao's naivety, especially since Mao used to be a farmer himself. Some Great Leap projects were successes, although all too often they were disasters. These projects were undertaken with too much haste and with so little methodical knowledge that serious mistakes were made. After Mao had realized that his plan was deteriorating he quickly called for a slower pace and more attainable goals.

Mao’s faulty economics ended up creating a famine of massive proportions. The Great Leap Forward ended up killing approximately 30 million people as a result of starvation and diseases related to poor supplies and dearth of food, this time period is known as the Three Hard Years. Not surprisingly the Great Leap Forward strained the connection between China and the Soviet Union. Mao was never partial to Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, their relations were never affable. The countries continued to grow apart till their political split in 1960.

The Great Leap Forward as well as the preceding intellectual Hundred Flowers Movement presented Mao being increasingly detached “from any true reality check” (Mao, 145). He appeared to be less and less concerned for the consequences that might transpire from his own “erratic utterances” (Mao, 145). Another notable event that took place during the control of Mao was the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1969. Mao, now 70, was still overly enamored with revolutionary continuity.

He told his nephew, what he believed were the five essential elements in his succession: “One must be a genuine Marxist-Leninist; one must be willing to work for the masses wholeheartedly; one must work with the majority and accept their criticisms, even if the criticisms seemed to be misplaced at the time; one must be a model of obedient discipline under the strictures of democratic centralism; and one must be modest about oneself, always ready to indulge in self-criticism” (Mao, 168).

Mao then posed this question, “You grew up eating honey, and thus far you have never known suffering. In future, if you do not become a rightist, but rather a centralist, I shall be satisfied. You have never suffered, how can you be a leftist? ”(Mao 168). This question obsessed many of China’s youth during the infancy of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s answer was to be founded on the idea that “wanting leftist revolutionary activism could be regenerated by identifying the enemies correctly and then using all one’s ingenuity in rooting them out and destroying them” (Mao, 169).

It was a power struggle between Mao and the older officers in the government. Mao used youth and freedom to rally against the older powers in an attempt to show the people that he was really the one with the best idea of Chinese thought. He did not specifically coordinate the coming of the revolution, “but he established an environment that made it possible and helped to set many people and issues in place” (Mao, 170). The army became involved because Mao could not control the followers by words alone.

Since Lin Biao, in charge of the military, thought that the army would keep the newfound power it had gained through the Cultural Revolution, he decided he would change Mao's power. The army took care of gathering youth from around China to produce the Red Army. This displayed that Mao was still in power and had the Army behind him. Mao left behind him a legacy that cannot be easily forgotten. He reformed the thoughts of the Chinese people from very reserved and old fashioned, to a new age of thinking. Being in power for such a long period of time, and uniting China to make it stronger was a great accomplishment.

Mao Zedong should be considered to be a tyrant because of his lack of compassion during the Three Hard Years; although he did manage to capture the hearts of many, especially the youth of his time. Mao did demonstrate extreme perseverance and leadership, controlling China until it was physically not possible for him to do so. Spence does a good job of placing Mao in history, but it's the private man with whom he is most sympathetic. Spence creates Mao as clever and foolish, harsh and loving, practical and naive. Yet Mao's deepest motivations remain mysterious. This book is a satisfactory introduction to the enigmatic life of Mao Zedong.

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