Mao Zedong

It's a pretty dated idea, but what does it mean to be a "great man of history"? What does one have to achieve, for better or worse, to sit within that category. One person who always gets a mention when this phrase is discussed is Mao Zedong. 

Mao Zedong Mao Zedong

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Table of contents

    Mao Zedong biography

    Mao Zedong, the statesman and Marxist political theorist, was born in the Hunan province of China in 1893. His upbringing was rigidly structured, with an emphasis on education and traditional values.

    As a teenager, Mao left his home to pursue further education in the provincial capital of Changsha. It was here that he was first exposed to revolutionary ideas from the Western world, which changed his perception of the traditional authorities he had been raised to respect.

    It was also during his studies that Mao got his first taste of revolutionary activity when, the 10th of October 1911, a revolution was staged against the Chinese Qing dynasty. At the age of 18, Mao enlisted to fight on the republican side, who ultimately defeated the imperial forces, thus establishing the first Chinese Republic on the 12th of February 1912.

    By 1918, Mao graduated from the First Provincial Normal School in Changsha and went on to work as a library assistant at Peking University, Beijing. Here, again, he found himself fortuitously placed on the path of history. In 1919, the May Fourth movement erupted in universities throughout China.

    Starting as a protest against Japanese imperialism, the May Fourth movement gained momentum as the new generation found their voice. In an article written in 1919, Mao made the foreboding statement that

    The time has come! The great tide in the world is rolling ever more impetuously! ... He who conforms to it shall survive, he who resists it shall perish1

    By 1924, Mao was an established member of the Communist Party (CCP). He realised that, although the party had sought to develop the revolutionary consciousness of industrial workers, they had ignored the agricultural peasant class. Committing years to researching the potential for revolution in rural China, in 1927 he declared that

    The rural areas must experience a great, fervent revolutionary upsurge, which alone can rouse the peasant masses in their thousands and tens of thousands2

    In the same year, the Communist party supported a Nationalist uprising in China led by Chiang Kai-shek. Once establishing power, however, Chiang betrayed his communist allies, massacring workers in Shanghai and creating an allegiance with the affluent, landowning classes in rural areas.

    In October of 1927, Mao entered the Jinggang Mountain range in south-eastern China with a small army of peasant revolutionaries. Over the next 22 years, Mao lived in hiding throughout the Chinese countryside.

    By 1931, the communist Red Army had established the first Chinese Soviet Republic in the Jiangxi province, with Mao as the Chairman. In 1934, however, they were forced into retreat. In what would become known as the Long March, Mao's forces abandoned their stations in the south-eastern Jiangxi province in October, marching for one year to reach the north-western Shaanxi province (a journey of 5,600 miles) one year later.

    Following the Long March, Mao's Red Army were forced to enter into an allegiance with the Nationalists, putting an end to the civil war. The focus of their united forces became the increasing threat of the Japanese Empire, which was looking to engulf of all of China into its territories. Together, the communist and the nationalist troops battled with Japanese forces from 1937 until 1945.

    During this time, Mao was also involved in intense in-fighting within the CCP. Two other figureheads within the Party - Wang Ming and Zhang Guotao - were angling for leadership positions. However, unlike these two candidates for power, Mao committed himself rigidly to developing a uniquely Chinese form of communism.

    It was this idea which made Mao unique, and which won him ultimate power in the CCP in March 1943. Over the next six years, he worked to forge a path for the nation, which was declared as People's Republic of China in December 1949, with Mao Zedong as the Chairman.

    Mao Zedong communist thinkers + mao zedong biography + studysmarterFig 1: Mao Zedong (right) follows in the line of communist thinkers, Wikimedia Commons

    Mao Zedong the Great Leap Forward

    So, what did the path to Chinese socialism look like? In the economic sphere, Mao adopted the Stalinist model of economic five-year-plans to set goals for the national economy. A key feature of this plan was the collectivisation of the agricultural sector, which Mao had always framed as the foundation of Chinese society.

    Out of his unrelenting faith in the peasant classes to deliver on the quotas established in his plans, Mao developed his plans for the Great Leap Forward.

    Lasting from 1958 until 1960, the Great Leap Forward was introduced by Mao to develop the agricultural Chinese society into a modern industrialised nation. In Mao's original plan, this was to take no more than five years to achieve.

    To recognise this ambition, Mao took the radical step of introducing structured communes throughout rural areas. Millions of Chinese citizens were forcibly relocated to these communes, with some working in collectivised agricultural cooperatives and others entering small-scale factories to manufacture goods.

    This plan was rife with ideological zeal and propaganda but lacking in any sort of practical sense. First and foremost, none of the peasant classes had any experience in cooperative farming or manufacturing. People were even encouraged to create steel at home, in steel furnaces that they kept in gardens.

    The programme was a total disaster. Over 30 million people died, mainly in rural areas where enforced collectivisation led to poverty and starvation en masse. With the land rotting from over farming and pollution filling the air, the Great Leap Forward was cancelled after just two years.

    Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution

    Following the calamitous end of the Great Leap Forward, Mao's power began to come into question. Certain members of the CCP began to question his economic plan for the new Republic. In 1966, Mao declared a Cultural Revolution to purge the party, and nation, of its counter-revolutionary elements. Over the next ten years, hundreds of thousands were killed after being accused of undermining the communist party and revolution.

    Mao Zedong accomplishments

    Chairman Mao, as he became known after 1949, was arguably one of the most significant political figures of the twentieth century. A vehement revolutionary, he was willing to sacrifice almost anything to ensure China remained on its path to communism. Along the way, his accomplishments were often overshadowed by his brutality. But what did he achieve?

    Establishing a republic

    Communism has always been - and will continue to be - an incredibly divisive ideology. Its attempted application in a number of different countries throughout the twentieth century failed, more often than not, to truly deliver on the promises of equality and fairness. It is true, however, that through his belief in the communist ideology, Mao developed a system which lasted for generations in China.

    In 1949, as we have seen, Mao established the People's Republic of China. In this moment, he was transformed from head of the CCP into Chairman Mao, leader of the new Chinese republic. Despite difficult negotiations with Joseph Stalin, Mao managed to establish a trade relationship with Russia. Ultimately, it was this Soviet funding over the next 11 years which sustained the fledgling Chinese state.

    Rapid industrialisation

    With Soviet backing, Mao was able to instigate a process of rapid industrialisation which fundamentally altered the Chinese economy. Mao's faith in the peasant classes to transform the nation had been established long before 1949, and through industrialisation he believed he would prove that revolution began in the countryside.

    Mao was aware that, following his ascent to power, he had inherited one of the poorest and most undeveloped economies in the world. As a result, he initiated a process of rapid industrialisation which transformed China's economy into one based on production and industry.

    Mao Zedong influence

    Perhaps the greatest evidence of Mao's influence is that, to this day, the People's Republic of China remains theoretically aligned with the communist ideology. To this day, the CCP retains its total monopoly on political power and productive resources. As a result of Mao's influence, political dissent is still a costly practise in China.

    In Tiananmen Square, where he declared the establishment of the new Chinese Republic on the 1st of October 1949, Mao's portrait still hangs from the main gate. It was here that, in 1989, the communist party quashed a pro-democracy protest instigated by students from Beijing, killing hundreds of demonstrators in the process.

    One final example of Mao's influence can be seen by the fact that, in 2017, the Chinese premier Xi Jinping followed in Mao's footsteps by adding his name to the Constitution. In 1949, Mao had established his 'Mao Zedong Thought' as the guiding principles by which China would revolutionise its economy. By adding his 'Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era' to the constitution, Jinping displayed that the idealisation of Mao is still very much alive in China today.

    Mao Zedong tiananmen square + mao zedong influence + studysmarterFig 2: Mao's portrait hangs in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, Wikimedia Commons

    Mao Zedong facts

    To finish off, let's take a look at some of the key facts from Mao's personal and political life.

    Facts from personal life

    Let's first summarise some facts about Mao's personal life

    • Mao Zedong was born in the Hanan province of China in 1893 and died in 1976.
    • During the revolution against the Qing imperial dynasty in 1911, Mao fought on the republican side to overthrow China's final imperial regime.
    • Eight years later, Mao was heavily involved in the May Fourth Movement in 1919.
    • Mao married four times during his life and had 10 children.

    Facts from political life

    In his political life, Mao's life was fraught with major events, including

    • During a prolonged civil war, Mao led communist troops on a 5,600-mile trek which has come to be known as the Long March.
    • Mao Zedong became the first Chairman of the People's Republic of China, which was declared on the 1st of October 1949.
    • From 1958 until 1960, he attempted to industrialise the economy through his programme The Great Leap Forward.
    • From 1966 until 1976, Mao oversaw the Cultural Revolution in China, which sought to eradicate 'counter-revolutionary' and 'bourgeoise' individuals.

    Mao Zedong painting StudySmarterFig 3: a painting, found in a home in Shanghai, which was used as a propaganda piece during the Great Leap Forward (1958 - 1960), Wikimedia Commons

    Mao Zedong - Key takeaways

    • Mao Zedong was a revolutionary from an early age, participating in both 1911 revolution and 1919 May Fourth movement during his teenage years.

    • In October of 1927, Mao began a 22-year period in the jungle, engaging in guerrilla warfare against the nationalist army in a prolonged civil-war.

    • After emerging from this period, Mao was made the Chairman of the People's Republic of China on the 1st of October 1949.

    • During his time in power, Mao introduced programmes such as the Great Leap Forward (1958 - 1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976).

    • Mao's ideology - which looked to harness the revolutionary potential of the Chinese peasant class - was enshrined into the constitution under the title 'Mao Zedong Thought'


    1. Mao Zedong, To the Glory of the Hans, 1919.
    2. Mao Zedong, Report on the Peasant Movement in Central China, 1927.
    3. Fig 1: mao and communist thinkers ( by Mr. Schnellerklärt ( licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (
    4. Fig 2: Mao Tiananmen Square ( by Rabs003 ( licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (
    5. Fig 3: great leap forward propaganda ( by Fayhoo ( licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Mao Zedong

    What did Mao Zedong do that was so important? 

    Mao Zedong fundamentally altered the course of Chinese history upon assuming the position of Chairman of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

    What good things did Mao Zedong do? 

    Arguably, Mao inherited one of the poorest, most unequal societies in the world when he took power in 1949. By the end of his life in 1976, he had seen China develop into a powerful, productive economy.

    What was Mao's main goal for China? 

    Mao's ultimate goal for China was to create an economically dominant state of empowered, revolutionary labourers who served the interests of the nation first and foremost.

    What was Mao's ideology? 

    Mao's ideology, known as Mao Zedong Thought, aims to harness the revolutionary capacity of the working class by creating nationalised, communalised work.

    When did Mao Zedong come to power? 

    Mao took power on the 1st of October 1949.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the name given to Mao Zedong's ideology?

    What is the name given to the 5,600-mile retreat carried out by Mao in 1934?

    With what faction did Mao fight against in a prolonged civil war from 1927 until 1949?


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