The Chairman Mao An ambivalent figure

Introduction :

Mao Zedong, emblematic Chinese historic figure, dramatically allowed improvements in various fields of China. He overall assisted for several decades the begining of the development of the China that we know it today. Full of ambitions, this communist leader had no limits and was also the source of untolerable deaths and failures shaping himself an controversal ambivalent image.

Mao in a propaganda poster:

The birth of a great leader:

Mao Tse-tung came from a humble beginning. He was born in Shaoshan, the 26th of December 1893. It’s a small village in the Hunan province which is located in the Center-West of China. He grew up in a peasant family. At this period, China faced a crisis and this region was marked by Chinese nationalist aspirations and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. Because of theses unstable political contexts, Mao tried to join the nationalist army and developed some opinions. But its experience was shortened due to problems with authority. He decided to integrate a school in Changsha and obtained a diploma and a job of librarian in the university of Beijing in 1919.

Coming from a rural community, his job pushed him into an urban lifestyle. He developed his proper political opinion in his work place where he had an infinite access to knowledge. Mao was self-taught and learned a lot about occidental thinking and Marxist doctrine. Attached to the traditional Chinese culture and history, he met activist students. Therefore, he became sensitive to the revolutionary cause and participate to the events of the 4th may 1919 in Beijing.

The communist ideology:

Communist flag

He was influenced by communism, socialism, and nationalism. He finally decided to join the communist ranks, and the 23rd July 1921, he was the delegate in the first meeting of the Chinese communist party to represent his group of Changsha. He agreed thesis which followed the soviet doctrine.

Sun Yat Sen

In 1923, Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen began a policy of active cooperation with the Chinese Communists, who had grown in strength and number. Mao had supported both the Kuomintang and the Communist Party, but over the next few years, he adopted Leninist ideas and believed that appealing to the farming peasants was the key to establishing communism in Asia. He rose up through the ranks of the party as a delegate assemblyman and then executive to the Shanghai branch of the party.

The « Long March »:

Mao's long march:

In March 1925, Chinese President Sun Yat-sen died, and his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, became the chairman of the Kuomintang. Contrary to Sun Yat-sen, Chiang was more conservative and traditional. In April 1927, he broke the alliance and started a violent purge of the Communists, imprisoning or killing many of them.

In September, Mao created an army of peasants against the Kuomintang, but was easily beaten. The remnants of the army fled to Jiangxi Province, where they reorganized. Mao helped establish the Soviet Republic of China in the mountainous area of Jiangxi and was elected chairman of the small republic. He developed a small but strong army of guerilla fighters, and directed the torture and execution of any dissidents who defied party law.

In 1934, there were more than 10 regions under the control of the Communists in Jiangxi Province. Chiang Kai-shek became anxious about their success and their growth. Small raids and attacks on communist strongholds had not discouraged them. Chiang understood it was time to sweep the region and eliminate the Communist influence.

Chiang Kai Chek

In October 1934, Chiang amassed nearly 1 million government forces and surrounded the Communist stronghold. Mao was alerted to the impending attack. After some intense arguing with other leaders who wanted to conduct a final stand against the government forces, he convinced them that retreat was the better tactic. For the next 12 months, more than 100,000 Communists and their dependents trekked west and north in what became known as the "Long March" across the Chinese mountains and swampland to Yanan, in northern China. It was estimated that only 30,000 of the original 100,000 survived the 8,000-mile journey. As word spread that the Communists had escaped extermination by the Kuomintang, many young people migrated to Yanan. Here Mao employed his oratory talents and inspired volunteers to faithfully join his cause as he emerged the top Communist leader.

Mao’s rise to Power:

Photography of Mao with the Communist flag behind him

In July 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China, forcing Chiang Kai-shek to flee the capital in Nanking. Chiang's forces soon lost control of the coastal regions and most of the major cities. Unable to fight a war on two fronts, Chiang reached out to the Communists for a truce and a support. During this time, Mao established himself as a military leader and, with aid from Allied forces, helped fight the Japanese.

With the Japanese defeat in 1945, Mao Tse-tung could set his sights on controlling all of China. Efforts were made -to establish a coalition government, but China slid into a bloody civil war. On October 1, 1949, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, Mao announced the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled to the island of Taiwan, where they formed the Republic of China.

Mao as a leader allowed multiple positive effects on China and its population, he in particular allowed to give freedom to China and reunite it but also to pave the way of a true economic development and improved in some ways Chinese population’s rights. These positive aspects that he established made him become quite a popular and respected figure in China. The whole positive legacy that he left behind him was called the Mao’s myth and is still present in the minds of numerous Chinese people.

THE AMBIVALENCE OF MAO’S FIGURE: Chairman Mao’s positive figure

Mao as the establisher of an independent and reunited communist China:

Poster of propaganda showing Chinese people united under Mao's Flag

After all the hardship that China went through, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China allowed Mao to be considered as a liberator in the whole country but. At this time and for the first time in a long period of time, China was finally reunited under one strong and independent communist nation. Mao was then considered as the one who had finally be able to gather and make independent China.

So Mao inevitably proves to have allowed incredible changes and improvement for China allowing it to be independent and reunited.

Mao as the source of China’s economic impulse:

Mao on a poster of Propaganda

When Mao seized power, the country that he had in his hands was really far from the one we actually know today in terms of development and economy. He however managed through his various policies to make several steps forward in the development of China.

China at the beginning of Mao’s “reign” was in a terrible state. The country’s population suffered from a high agricultural shortage because of the damages caused by the war, the country’s industry was also extremely low, China was highly industrialy backward, and actually needed to grow dramatically in order to become a superpower, enourmous proportion of peasants (90% of the population) who were in high poverty werehas the last 10% of the population owned numerous parts of lands and most of the wealth of the country. Mao wanted a communist shift in his economy that would allow China to establish a true development, push an industrial development and remove the agricultural shortages issue and the problems of inequality in the society.

In order to do so, he launched his first five year plan from 1952 to 1956. This economic plan established and applied various economic initiatives: first it established a new currency: the Yuan. The Yuan allowed to settle China even more as an independent country, with its own economy, it thus allowed to reduce the problem of inflation. The plan also established a raise in taxes for rich people in order to balance China’s deficit, and to bring more equality between the social classes of the society. The plan also aimed a strong industrialisation: it allowed to double the output of Coal, iron, and triple the output of oil. The plan also established various development of infrastructures necessary to supply the development of a growing economy, such as roads, bridge. In order to support the Chinese economic development, Mao also signed a Treaty of friendship with Russia in 1949.

Mao and Lenin on a poster of propaganda

This agreement of alliance and mutual assistance allowed China to get financial help through loans, but also experts and aids. In fact this treaty turned out to be a great deal for China as Russia provided $300 millions of loans and aid, but also 20 000 experts, allowing the creation of 200 construction projects including the world famous Tiananmen Square. This first five year plan and this alliance with the USSR had a real positive impact on China and quickly managed to bring the country out of its state of economic crisis and underdevelopment. This development represent the roots of the Chinese economy that we now today. Thus this alliance with the USSR gave credibility and recognition to China and overall Mao’s figure and communist ideas. Mao in the following decade had even more ambitions and launched the Great Leap Forward, which aimed an even more powerful economic development of the country through collectivisation and a high devotion to industrial development in order to catch up with western countries’ development. This plan mobilized the whole country to make China a leading industrial country by gathering 700 millions of persons into communes in order to produce more. This plan aimed the use of the “tremendous energy of the masses” in order to achieve a true industrial development. So this proves that Mao had great ambitions for his country and also allowed through his first five-year plan and his political and economic alliance with the USSR to achieve a great and quick improvements in the development of his country. His legacy and achievements allowed to pave the way for the gigantic economic development reached by Deng Xiaping’s 4 four modernizations.

Poster of propaganda showing Mao's Five Year plan's achievements

Mao as an improver of social rights:

Mao is also well remembered for the social changes that he brought throughout his period of power. In fact he allowed multiple improvements in lives of Chinese people and in particular women who saw their rights raise and be recognized.

One of Mao's more positive influences resulted from his egalitarian view on women. He was highly dedicated to establish a true equality between men and women in the society. Mao had a high consideration for women as proved by this quote extracted from a speech in which he says that women "held up half of the heavens." Mao contributed through his communist reforms to abolish traditional practices that ignored women’s rights and overall tied them to their homes preventing them to have a real professional life. He also outlawed prostitution which is something that even some developped countries did not outlaw yet…

Even if he did not agree with birth control, he did encourage women to be the equal of men. In an other speech in 1945 he said : “Protect the interests of the youth, women and children (…) provide assistance to young students who cannot afford to continue their studies, help the youth and women to organize in order to participate on an equal footing in all work useful to the war effort and to social progress, ensure freedom of marriage and equality as between men and women, and give young people and children a useful education”

He also made a enormous step in the recognition of women’s rights by the enforcement of the Marriage Law that he signed in 1950, which guaranteed the equality of sexes in marriage and outlawed forced marriage. For the first time in China, women got to have their word in the marriage, they got as much right to choose to whom they wanted as men.

The legacy of Mao's policies dramatically transformed the role of women in Chinese society. Nowadays, plenty Chinese women get to work on trades and other professions. They seem to work on an equal stage as men. Mao also contributed to reduce social inequalities of wealth between rich and poor people by established taxes on rich people and making possible a true sustainable development which later allowed the development of a middle class. Through his cultural revolution that he launched in order to push the population to rebel against the government that was set in place when he left his role of chairman. He allowed to fight corruption in the regime set in place, and to set through youths a real communist devotion of the whole of the population. So Mao highly contributed to social improvement within the Chinese population and in particular women who finally got the right to be placed on an equal stage as men.

Chairman Mao inevitably contributed through his lifetime and with his legacy to great improvements in his country allowing it to become independent, to have a proper development and to reduce its social inequalities. This highly explains why he is nowadays considered as an ambitious and heroic charismatic figure in the minds of Chinese people. However, this character has also a highly controversial shady face that these people seem to forget about.

THE AMBIVALENCE OF MAO’S FIGURE: Chairman Mao’s shady figure:

Mao assisted China’s development and realised several improvements for this nation. However, this character remains a highly controversial figure, due to the fact that he set in place a totalitarian state, which impeded its population’s conditions of life, and was the source of numerous deaths.

Mao the democratic dictator:

Mao always claimed to have settled a democratic communist state, but this declaration is pretty much false… In fact, People’s Republic of China had all the aspect of an authoritarian dictatorship… Mao established that the PRC could only have one leader, one party in the elections: the Chinese Communist Party and it made a severe use of propaganda.

Poster of propaganda

In 1962, Mao advocated the Socialist Education Movement (SEM), which was his way to educate younger generations to true communist values but overall to build a severe propaganda around him based on the rewriting and extrapolation of his ambitions, acts and achievements. This youth was for him what will later be the Red Army which will be totally loyal to Mao’s ideas, personality and ambitions. This youth will later obey blindly to his ideas and policies. The propaganda was even more intensified by a certain cult of personality set around Mao by the government to the families, it was very common to find the portrait of Mao in the living room of the Chinese households, posters of Mao were as well highly common during his lifetime. In 1962, great quantities of politicized art were produced and circulated with Mao at the center.

Poster of propaganda showing the perfect Chinese household with Mao's Portrait on the wall
Poster of propaganda representing Mao writing
Poster of propaganda representing the Long March

The Cult of Mao proved vital in starting the Cultural Revolution. The government discouraged the creation Art for the sake of beauty and required it to serve political needs: to glorify China and Communism. So all art forms slowly became means of propaganda for the political party, with also songs, statues, posters, and even theater.

But the most important feature of Mao’s propaganda was the world famous little Red book, which contained and promoted quotes from Mao’s speeches on various subjects such class struggle, "correcting mistaken ideas" and the "mass line". The book was published on billions of copies. The book was a sort of Bible of Mao’s thought, and it became so important that it became it became almost mandatory to own and carry one during the Cultural Revolution. This book was even sold outside China to forreign countries. This revealed to be a great tool of propaganda which contributed to the huge cult of personality present around the character of Mao.

Examplary of Mao's Red Book

Even though, history proved that Mao not only had supporters but also rebels as many attempts of murder were made against him. Mao was thus not afraid to send Chinese people to a labor camp called the Laogai and sometimes send them to death. The best example of this is the hundred flowers campaign.

This campain was launched in 1956 and consisted in allowing Chinese people to let off some steam by sending letters of recommandations and complaints in order to improve the country’s leadership and policies. In fact hundreds thousands of letters were sent which led Mao to crack down to critics and do what he called « pluck the poisonous weeds from the bed of flower » which consisted in arresting hundreds of pro-democracy activist and launching the « Antic Rightist » campain. This campain resulted in the killing and the sending of 500000 governments critics to « reeducation » through labor camps. So Mao lied by saying that he established a true democratic communist dictatorship, as his regime turned out to be simply an authoritarian, suspicious regime providing a strong propaganda and cult of personality around Mao and restricting its people freedom of thoughts and speech. This sadly reminds us of other emblematic historic figures…

Chinese soldiers about to shoot a Chinese citizen
Stalin and Mao fighting fascism

Mao the torturer:

Even if Mao allowed significant improvements in his country and his population, this character also impeded his population’s conditions of life and was the source of numerous deaths…

Mao making a gesture of sympathy to a supposed crowed

Chairman Mao was a real man of ambitions who dedicated his entire life to turn China into a communist superpower able to shine internationally. However, the hardships that he has made his population go through with the policies that he set in place tends to make severe irremovable stains on his character. The first important example of this is the Second Five Year Plan (1958-1958), commonly known as « The Great Leap Forward » which as explained before aimed to make a shift from agriculture to industrialization at a fast pace. It gathered the population into communes which used together the capital in order to product steel,. The secondary aim was to make China become independent from any forreign aid. This economic plan however turned out to be a complete failure. In fact the first failure was agriculture, China, because of a bad weather did not produce enough resources in agriculture to feed its own population…

Chinese women helping a child suffering from starvation

This led to a wave of great starvation in the whole country from 1959 to 1962 resulting in an enormous amount of deaths… The industrial leap forward also turned out to be a complete failure as workers had to make an overproduction of steel. They lacked of raw materials and were obliged to pick the steel materials directly from their own properties and objects. Plus workers had no protections, and no adapted tools to make steel and often hurt themselves and died. This overall resulted in an overproduction of poor quality goods, with goods falling to pieces and the steel produced could not be used because of its very low quality. Concerning the outcome of this policy, according to estimations, 20 to 48 millions of people died, which led this period to be called « the three bitter years » and Mao to quit his position of Chairman. Even though Mao recognized his error this does not excuse the nearly 50 millions of deaths that he caused.

His cultural revolution also had a severe negative impact onto China as his Red guards led to outbursts of violence, humiliations, deaths, and the destructions of numerous sacred religious buildings. This period of instability was so important that the Chinese economy fell down by 12% in only two years. His cultural revolution revealed to be out of control even for him and continued until his death… At his death Mao left China in a disastrous economic state leaving his population in dire poverty because of the chaos caused by the cultural revolution that he launched. Mao’s long march is also an example of Mao’s insensibility, this march made to prove Chinese communist party’s strength involved 90 000 communists and their families and lasted one year (1934-1935). The marchers suffered from harsh conditions, the physical effort and also starvation but this did not prevent Mao from stopping the march. At the very end of the march only 8000 people survived. Chairman Mao Zedong proved to be an unconscious insensible or heartless character blindly dedicated to his ambitions not fearing to see his population die and his country become instable…

Mao's Red Guards reading their red books


Mao Zedong's impact on Chinese people was monumental during his lifetime and this is the same for his legacy as plenty of people would argue that effects of his leadership continue to be felt today. (Domestification of the population ?) Paradoxically, even if this charismatic dicatator’s campaigns where the cause of a great number of deaths, pains, hardships and sufferings on his people, Chinese people still have a great love for Mao due to the fact that he achieved the independance, the reunication of the country and paved to way for a future significant economic development. His legacy with the Great Leap Forward, the whole Cult of personality around him, the Cultural Revolution, but also the Hundred Flowers Campaign, and also the advances in woman rights, have significantly shaped the way China and Chinese people are today. Thus One cannot deny that even if Mao put China in a terrible state his most profound ambition was to lead his people into greatness through Communism.

If you want to have further details about China and Mao's legacy, we invite you to watch this video from crash course about China:

Created By
Armand Croisonnier

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