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Economics and Trade • Rise of China

Mao Zedong was the leader of the People's Republic of China (PRC). A great visionary, Mao Zedong was also one of history's deadliest tyrants. A rebel from childhood, Mao helped found the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. He took command of the revolution 14 years later, fought for another 14 years before the Communists' final victory, and then remained China's supreme ruler until his death in 1976 at the age of 82.

Early Years, Turn toward Revolutionary Marxism

Mao was born on December 26, 1893, in a peasant home in Hunan Province. He was educated at his village primary school and subsequently entered high school in the provincial capital. Mao was in Changsha when, on October 10, 1911, revolution broke out against the Qing Dynasty. Mao joined the revolutionary army but saw no fighting and returned to his studies six months later.

After graduating from the provincial teacher-training college, Mao went to Beijing, where he worked at Beijing University and began to learn about Marxism. In July 1921, he attended the Chinese Communist Party's founding congress in Shanghai. Mao viewed Marxist theories through a Chinese prism. He believed that revolution in China had to begin among peasants, rather than in a small industrial worker class. During the 1920s, he spent much of his time organizing peasant unions in Hunan Province.

At the end of the decade, with the Communists fighting for survival against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, Mao retreated farther into the countryside. By 1934, Mao's base in Jiangxi province was under heavy pressure from Nationalist troops. That October, some 86,000 Communists slipped through the Nationalist blockade and began a 6,000-mile retreat that became known as the Long March.

Mao as Chinese Communist Leader

Mao, in political decline when the march began, became the party's supreme leader during the trek, a role he never relinquished. At the end of the Long March, with only about 4,000 left from the original force, Mao and his comrades established a new base in Yenan in northern China.

Between 1937 and 1945, Mao and his army fought a new enemy in Japan. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945, Mao and his commanders refined the art of "people's war." Mao summed up the strategy in only 16 Chinese characters: "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."

The Red Army became a political as well as military organization. Mao's troops sought to win over the population to their cause. Instead of looting, raping, and destroying, Communist soldiers were ordered to provide food, respect women, and help repair war damage. The ideal was an army that commanded public support.

Mao Establishes the PRC

Following Japan's defeat, the struggle between Communists and Nationalists resumed, but by now the tide was running strongly in Mao's favor. By the fall of 1949, the Nationalist government had fled to Taiwan. On October 1, Mao proclaimed the PRC.

The Communists were not gentle in establishing their regime. In the first years of the People's Republic, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, were executed as landlords or capitalist exploiters. Millions more were imprisoned or tortured for real or imaginary crimes against the revolution. Others were killed or jailed simply for having a privileged background. Rigid ideological controls were imposed on educators, artists, and the press.

Early Years of the PRC

Less than a year after he came to power, the outbreak of the Korean War presented Mao with a difficult choice. His priority was rebuilding China. But a North Korean defeat would bring hostile foreign forces to China's border. In October 1950, when U.S. troops moved into North Korea, Mao decided to enter the war. The war ended in a truce in 1953. China suffered horrific casualties, but North Korea remained communist.

For many ordinary Chinese, life gradually improved after 1949. But Mao wanted faster progress. Uninformed about economics and technology, Mao began dreaming of a "Great Leap Forward" that would hurl China out of poverty and create a modern state virtually overnight. He was convinced that the sheer muscle power of China's huge population could accomplish any goal if it were just mobilized properly.

The Great Leap produced numerous mistakes, but the worst calamity occurred in agriculture. Mao decreed an immediate transition from family or small farms to vast People's Communes. Meanwhile, he called for absurdly high increases in grain production. The results were devastating. From 1959 to 1961, as many as 30 million Chinese died as a result of Great Leap policies.

Cultural Revolution

In the wake of the disaster, Mao withdrew from day-to-day administrative details. But he nursed a deep grievance against those who he imagined had sabotaged his plan. In 1966, Mao struck back with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, an event so bizarre that history shows nothing else quite like it. Mao urged China's youth to rise up against the party bureaucracy and against the "four olds": old habits, old customs, old culture, and old thinking.

At Mao's call, brigades of youthful Red Guards waving the little red book of Mao's thoughts spread out to "make revolution" in schools, factories, and offices throughout China. Within months, the country was in chaos. Red Guard groups splintered into rival mobs, each determined to outdo the other in rooting out enemies and tearing down everything connected to China's past. Teachers, managers, intellectuals, and anyone suspected of insufficient revolutionary purity were forced to confess their "misdeeds" publicly. Many victims died from torture; others committed suicide. Older revolutionary leaders were similarly mistreated.

Meanwhile, the glorification of Mao reached extraordinary heights. Posters of his face appeared on virtually every wall in China. Schoolchildren and office workers began every day with bows before Mao's picture.

Not even the frenzy of leader worship could stem a growing sense that something was wrong, however. In the torrent of slogans and accusations, the movement's goals grew steadily more inexplicable. "The whole nation slid into doublespeak," Jung Chang, then a teenager, recalled in her memoir, Wild Swans. "Words became divorced from reality. Lies were told with ease because words had lost their meanings."

Cultural Revolution Ends, Mao's Last Days

China paid a heavy price for Mao's mad fantasies. The educational system was shattered; economic losses were ruinous; much of China's rich artistic legacy was destroyed; society was fractured; and ideals crumbled. After two years of chaos, order was gradually restored, but a mood of fear and uncertainty persisted through the remaining years of Mao's rule. The Red Guards were also disbanded.

On July 28, 1976, the disastrous Tangshan earthquake struck northern China. In Chinese tradition, such disasters were thought to signal the end of a dynasty. The Communist regime officially scorned such superstitions. However, to many Chinese the old beliefs were vindicated when Mao died on September 9, 1976.


Believing that sheer willpower and human muscle could overcome any obstacle, Mao had turned China into a gigantic laboratory for his experiments in transforming human society. But when his grandiose dreams failed, he failed to recognize that his policies were flawed. Instead, Mao tore China apart in witch-hunts for the "demons and monsters" who had frustrated his efforts.

Less than a month after his death, his widow Jiang Qing and her three closest associates, the Gang of Four who had been the chief zealots of the Cultural Revolution, were imprisoned. Deng Xiaoping, whom Mao had twice expelled from the leadership, regained power and within a few years reversed nearly all of Mao's policies.

"people's war." "The pursue." "Great Forward" "four olds": "make revolution" "misdeeds" "The doublespeak," "Words meanings." "demons monsters"
Spencer C. Tucker
Dr. Spencer C. Tucker graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and was a Fulbright scholar in France. He was a U.S. army captain and intelligence analyst in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, then taught for 30 years at Texas Christian University before returning to his alma mater for 6 years as the holder of the John Biggs Chair of Military History. He retired from teaching in 2003. He is now Senior Fellow of Military History at ABC-CLIO. Dr. Tucker has written or edited more than 50 books, including ABC-CLIO's award-winning The Encyclopedia of the Cold War and The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict as well as the comprehensive A Global Chronology of Conflict.

Among honors he has received for his publications are two John Lyman Book Awards from the North American Society for Oceanic History (1989 and 2000), the Rear Admiral Ernest M. Eller Naval History Prize for best article in naval history (2000), the Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize for best book in naval history (2004), two Society for Military History awards for best reference work in military history (2008 and 2010), and four American Library Association RUSA Outstanding Reference Source awards (2009, 2010, 2014, 2015).

Further Reading

Chang, Jung. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991; Goncharov, S. N., John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao and the Korean War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993; Salisbury, Harrison E. The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992; Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 1990.

MLA Citation

Tucker, Spencer C. "Mao Zedong." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/317768. Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2171567

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