Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




China between Empire and Communism 



For more than a century, between 1811 and 1949, China was characterized by the fight against Japanese expansionist aspirations, the struggle for national unity, and bloody domestic ideological disputes. The internal power struggle between the Republicans and the Communists was briefly set aside in the face of Japanese imperialism. Following World War II, with Soviet aid, Communism prevailed and restructured the country politically and economically.


Civil War and Japanese Aggression

The end of the Empire saw political chaos and territorial breakup in the Republic of China. Japan exploited the turmoil, launching a military invasion as it sought to build an empire in Asia.


At the end of 1911, Republican revolutionaries led by 1 Sun Yat-sen and Gen.

Yuan Shikai forced the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, P'u-i, to abdicate.

A republic was proclaimed in 1912. Yuan's attempt to found a new dynasty failed in 1915 due to resistance in the provinces. The government disintegrated with his death in 1916, and until 1928 China experienced continuous civil war. Warlords ruled, particularly in the north of the country. Japan sought to capitalize on the chaos for its own purposes. Its "21 demands" of 1915 sought the colonization of the whole country.

China entered World War I in 1917 hoping to gain allies in its defense against Japanese imperialism. When by 1919 these expectations proved illusory, Chinese nationalism increased. Sun Yat-sen began militarizing the Republican National Party (Kuo-mintang) in 1923 with the aim of unifying the country. After Sun's death in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek took over the leadership of the party. With the capture of Beijing in 1928, he succeeded in subduing the warlords in the north and became president of the republic.

By 1937 Chiang had essentially restored China's unity, but his government ground itself down in domestic conflicts with the Communists.

Japan had already occupied 3 Manchuria on the Chinese mainland in 1931 and proclaimed the state of Manchoukuo.

1 Sun Yat-sen

2 Yuan Shikai gives the order to cut off the emperor's traditional plait, 1912

3 Chinese soldiers in the battle against
the occupying Japanese forces in Manchuria,

When Beijing was attacked in 1937, Chiang had no choice but to form à 4 united front with the Communists in order to defend the country.

The Japanese army, however, continued to advance further into the country.

Following the violent 5 subjugation of Nanjing, known in China as "the rape of Nanjing," the government was forced to withdraw to the west.

When the United States declared war on Japan in 1942, China received American material and military support. Following the Japanese surrender to the Allies, the Japanese left Nanjing, and the puppet state of Manchoukuo disintegrated.

4 Communist meeting to discuss the "united front," 1937

5 Japanese troops invade and lay
waste to Nanjing, 1937



P'u-i, the Last Emperor

P'u-i, the lost Chinese emperor, had just turned five when he was forced to abdicate in 1912.

In 1924, he placed himself under the protection of the Japanese, who proclaimed him emperor of their puppet state, Manchoukuo, in 1934.

At the end of World War II, P'u-i fell into Soviet captivity and was detained in custody for "reeducation" until 1959.

The Chinese imperial couple P'u-i and Wan Jung, ca. 1934




Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen

Chinese leader
Chinese (Pinyin) Sun Yixian, (Wade-Giles romanization) Sun I-hsien, original name Sun Wen, courtesy name (zi) Deming, literary name (hao) Rixin, later Yixian, also called Sun Zhongshan

born Nov. 12, 1866, Xiangshan [now Zhongshan], Guangdong province, China
died March 12, 1925, Beijing

leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang [Pinyin: Guomindang]), known as the father of modern China. Influential in overthrowing the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1911/12), he served as the first provisional president of the Republic of China (1911–12) and later as de facto ruler (1923–25).

Early life and influences
Sun was born to a family of poor farmers in Xiangshan, in the South China province of Guangdong. In 1879 his brother Sun Mei, who had earlier emigrated to Hawaii as a labourer, brought him to Honolulu, where, as a student at a British missionary school for three years and at an American school, Oahu College, for another year, he first came into contact with Western influences. Because his brother objected to his penchant for Christianity, Sun returned to his native village in 1883 and went to study at the Diocesan Home in Hong Kong in the fall; late that year, he was baptized by an American missionary.

In 1884 he transferred to the Government Central School (later known as Queen’s College) and married Lu Muzhen (1867–1952), who was chosen for him by his parents. Out of this marriage a son and two daughters were born. After another trip to Hawaii, he enrolled in the Guangzhou (Canton) Hospital Medical School in 1886. He transferred later to the College of Medicine for Chinese in Hong Kong and graduated in 1892.

Although not trained for a political career in the traditional style, Sun was nevertheless ambitious and was troubled by the way China, which had clung to its traditional ways under the conservative Qing dynasty, suffered humiliation at the hands of more technologically advanced nations. Forsaking his medical practice in Guangzhou, he went north in 1894 to seek political fortunes. In a long letter to Li Hongzhang, governor-general of Zhili (Chihli, now Hebei) province, he set forth his ideas of how China could gain strength, but all he received from Li was a perfunctory endorsement of his scheme for an agricultural-sericultural association. With this scant reference, Sun went to Hawaii in October 1894 and founded an organization called the Revive China Society (Xingzhonghui), which became the forerunner of the secret revolutionary groups Sun later headed. As far as it can be determined, the membership was drawn entirely from natives of Guangdong and from lower social classes, such as clerks, peasants, and artisans.

Years in exile
Taking advantage of China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the ensuing crisis, Sun went to Hong Kong in 1895 and plotted for an uprising in Guangzhou (Canton), the capital of his native province. When the scheme failed, he began a 16-year exile abroad.

In 1896, under circumstances not entirely clear, Sun was caught and detained for 13 days by the Chinese legation in London. It appears likely that Sun ran into a fellow Cantonese who worked for the legation and was found out and seized while visiting him under an alias. The legation planned to ship Sun back to China, but, before this could be done, Sun had converted a British employee at the legation to his side and got word through to James Cantlie, former dean of Hong Kong College of Medicine. The British Foreign Office intervened, and Sun was released from his captivity. The incident engendered great publicity and gave Sun’s career a powerful boost.

After spending much of the ensuing eight months reading in the British Museum, Sun traveled to Japan by way of Canada. Arriving in August 1897, he was met by Miyazaki Torazō, an adventurer who had heard of the London incident and who was willing to help Sun in his political activities. Miyazaki introduced Sun to many influential Japanese, including the elder statesmen Ōkuma Shigenobu, Soejima Taneomi, and Inukai Tsuyoshi, from some of whom Sun was to receive both political and financial assistance.

During the turmoil of 1900, Sun participated in secret maneuvers involving Sir Henry Blake, the British governor of Hong Kong, and He Kai, an influential Chinese in that colony. Their aim was to persuade Li Hongzhang to declare independence from the Qing. Responding to an invitation by Li’s staff, Sun journeyed to Hong Kong, but, fearing a trap, he did not go ashore. Instead, he was represented by Miyazaki and two other Japanese at the meeting, which proved fruitless.

Previously, Sun had made contact with bandits and secret societies in Guangdong. These forces began a revolt in Huizhou (present-day Huiyang in Guangdong) in October 1900. The campaign, the second of 10 claimed by Sun between 1895 and 1911, lasted 12 days.

Founding of the United League
The year 1903 marked a significant turning point in Sun’s career; from then on, his following came increasingly from the educated class, the most prestigious and influential group in China. For this decisive change Sun owed much to two factors: the steady decline of the Qing dynasty and the powerful propaganda of Liang Qichao, a reformist who fled to Japan in 1898, founded a Chinese press, and turned it into an instant success. Liang did not actually oppose the Qing regime, but his attacks on Cixi, the empress dowager, who effectively ruled the country, served to undermine the regime and make revolution the only logical choice. As a consequence, Sun’s stock rose steadily among the Chinese students abroad. In 1904 he was able to establish several revolutionary cells in Europe, and in 1905 he became head of a revolutionary coalition, the United League (Tongmenghui), in Tokyo. For the next three years the society propagandized effectively through its mouthpiece, “People’s Journal” (Minbao).

The rise in Sun’s fortune increased many of his difficulties. The United League was very loosely organized, and Sun had no control over the individual members. Worse still, all the revolts Sun and the others organized ended in failure. The members fell into despair, and outside financial contributions declined. Furthermore, as a result of pressures exercised by the Qing, foreign governments increasingly shunned Sun. In 1907 the Japanese government gave him a sum of money and asked him to leave the country. A year later French Indochina, where Sun had hatched several plots, banned him completely. Hong Kong and several other territories were similarly out of his reach.

In the circumstances, Sun spent a year in 1909–10 touring Europe and the United States. Returning to Asia in June 1910, he left for the West again in December after a meeting with other revolutionaries, in which they decided to make a massive effort to capture Guangzhou. This time Sun raised more money in Canada and the United States, but the uprising of April 27 in Guangzhou (known as the March 29 Revolution, because of its date in the Chinese calendar) fared no better than the earlier plots. The possibility of revolutionary success seemed more remote than ever.

But help was to come from the Qing. If only for self-preservation, the court had sponsored reform since 1901. In the next few years it reorganized the army, instituted a school system, abolished the civil-service examinations based on traditional Chinese scholarship, reconstructed many government organs, and convened provincial and national assemblies. The educated class nevertheless remained unsatisfied with the tempo of change, and the regime was rapidly losing its grip over the situation.

The revolution of 1911
In 1911 the Qing decided to nationalize all the trunk railways, thus incurring the wrath of local vested interests. Armed rebellion broke out in the province of Sichuan, and the court exposed itself to further attacks by failing to suppress it. In October of the same year a local revolutionary group in Wuhan, one of many in China by this time, began another rebellion, which, in spite of its lack of coordination, unexpectedly managed to overthrow the provincial government. Its success inspired other provincial secessions.

Sun Yat-sen learned of the Wuhan revolution from the newspapers while he was in Denver, Colo. He returned to Shanghai in December and was elected provisional president by delegates meeting in Nanjing. Knowing that his regime was weak, Sun made a deal with Yuan Shikai (Yüan Shih-k’ai), an imperial minister who had been entrusted with full power by the court. On Feb. 12, 1912, the emperor abdicated; the next day Sun resigned, and on the 14th Yuan was elected his successor.

Later struggles
In September, Yuan appointed Sun director-general of railway development. Their entente might have lasted if Song Jiaoren, who had reorganized the Alliance Society into the Nationalist Party and was serving as its head, had not been assassinated in March 1913, reportedly at Yuan’s instigation. This precipitated a second revolution, in which Sun opposed Yuan. When the campaign failed, Sun fled once again to Japan. While there, he unavailingly sought Japanese aid by promising vast concessions in China, and he also alienated many revolutionaries by requiring them to take an oath of personal allegiance to him. He was also criticized for marrying his secretary, Song Qingling (Soong Ch’ing-ling), in October 1915, without divorcing his first wife.

A combination of internal opposition and external pressures defeated Yuan in 1916. The next year Sun went from Shanghai to Guangdong to launch a movement against the premier, Duan Qirui (Tuan Ch’i-jui). Elected generalissimo of a separatist regime in July, Sun had to resign and leave for Shanghai toward the middle of 1918, when he lost the support of Lu Rongting, the military overlord of Guangdong.

Earlier, Lu had agreed to Sun’s gaining control over 20 battalions of armed guards if the forces would remain outside Guangdong. Accepting this condition, Sun appointed Chen Jiongming (Ch’ien Chiung-ming) as the commander and dispatched his men to Fujian. By persuading Chen to fight Lu, Sun found his way back to office for another 16 months, at the end of which Chen turned against him, and Sun had to leave for Shanghai again. From that sanctuary, he wooed the troops from Guangxi and Yunnan, and with their help he again returned to Guangzhou. In February 1923 he installed himself as generalissimo of a new regime.

Meanwhile, a new factor had risen in Sun’s political life. Unsuccessful at obtaining aid from the West and Japan, he looked increasingly to the Soviet government, which had come to power in Russia in 1917. A Soviet diplomat, Adolf Joffe, visited Sun in Shanghai in both 1922 and 1923. On the latter occasion the two issued the Sun-Joffe Manifesto declaring that the communist system was not suitable for China, that Russia intended to give up its privileges there, and that Russia had no intention of extending its influence over Outer Mongolia. At Soviet prodding, the Chinese Communist Party resolved to cooperate with the Nationalists.

In October 1923, Mikhail Borodin, a representative of the Comintern (Communist International), arrived at Guangzhou and soon gained Sun’s confidence. Early in 1924 Sun reorganized the Nationalist Party as a tightly disciplined body with authority descending from the top to the lower levels on the model of the Soviet Communist Party. Under his directive a party congress elected three communists to its central executive committee and approved the establishment of a military academy (of which Sun appointed Chiang Kai-shek [Jiang Jieshi] president). Part of his party-building efforts were a series of lectures Sun delivered on his own doctrine, the Three Principles of the People.

Although these actions strengthened the Nationalists, there was still considerable opposition to Sun’s authority when he died of cancer in Beijing in March 1925. His coffin remained uninterred in a temple in Xishan until 1929, when it was moved to a mausoleum in Nanjing.

Sun’s political doctrines are summarized in his Three Principles of the People (nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood—the last involving the regulation of private capital and “equalizing land rights”) and his Plan for National Reconstruction, which explained basic parliamentary procedures, attacked the traditional Chinese saying that to know is easier than to do, and set forth a grandiose plan for China’s industrialization, concocted by Sun without much help from engineers or economists.

Although sanctified by his followers, Sun’s doctrine was not his major strength. All contemporary sources attribute to him a magnetic personality, a great capacity for tolerating others’ weaknesses, a singular dedication to the pursuit of power, and a knowledge of the West unequaled by that of any of his political rivals. Perhaps the last factor is the most important, for it is this that set Sun apart and made him the symbol of Chinese modernization. Quite fittingly, the Chinese communists call him “a pioneer of the revolution.”

Yi Chu Wang

Encyclopaedia Britannica



The Rise of Communism under Mao Zedong

The influence of the Communist Party under Mao Zedong grew steadily through the 1920s and 1930s. Despite being brutally persecuted by the government, the Communists were able to prevail over the Republicans after World War II.


With China's entry into World War I and the Bolshevik victory in Russia, Western revolutionary thought penetrated China and found expression in the "Fourth of May Movement." The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) emerged in 1921 from the movement's Marxist study groups. With Soviet help, the groups became an important power in the country.

In the wake of national unification efforts, the Communists at first united with the Republican party in 1922. The influence of the Communists steadily increased, however, culminating in a rift between the parties in 1927.

Chiang Kai-shek's forces then persecuted the Communists.


Chiang Kai-shek

6 Chiang Kai-Shek, Koumintang
politician, with his wife, 1927

Chinese statesman
Wade-Giles romanization Chiang Chieh-shih, official name Chiang Chung-cheng

born October 31, 1887, Chekiang province, China
died April 5, 1975, Taipei, Taiwan

soldier and statesman, head of the Nationalist government in China from 1928 to 1949, and subsequently head of the Chinese Nationalist government in exile on Taiwan.

Chiang was born into a moderately prosperous merchant and farmer family in the coastal province of Chekiang. He prepared for a military career first (1906) at the Paoting Military Academy in North China and subsequently (1907–11) in Japan. From 1909 to 1911 he served in the Japanese army, whose Spartan ideals he admired and adopted. More influential were the youthful compatriots he met in Tokyo; plotting to rid China of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, they converted Chiang to republicanism and made him a revolutionary.

In 1911, upon hearing of revolutionary outbreaks in China, Chiang returned home and helped in the sporadic fighting that led to the overthrow of the Manchus. He then participated in the struggles of China’s republican and other revolutionaries in 1913–16 against China’s new president and would-be emperor, Yuan Shikai.

After these excursions into public life, Chiang lapsed into obscurity. For two years (1916–17) he lived in Shanghai, where he apparently belonged to the Green Gang (Qing Bang), a secret society involved in financial manipulations. In 1918 he reentered public life by joining Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. Thus began the close association with Sun on which Chiang was to build his power. Sun’s chief concern was to reunify China, which the downfall of Yuan had left divided among warring military satraps. Having wrested power from the Qing, the revolutionists had lost it to indigenous warlords; unless they could defeat these warlords, they would have struggled for nothing.

Shortly after Sun Yat-sen had begun to reorganize the Nationalist Party along Soviet lines, Chiang visited the Soviet Union in 1923 to study Soviet institutions, especially the Red Army. Back in China after four months, he became commandant of a military academy, established on the Soviet model, at Whampoa near Canton. Soviet advisers poured into Canton, and at this time the Chinese communists were admitted into the Nationalist Party. The Chinese communists quickly gained strength, especially after Sun’s death in 1925, and tensions developed between them and the more conservative elements among the Nationalists. Chiang, who, with the Whampoa army behind him, was the strongest of Sun’s heirs, met this threat with consummate shrewdness. By alternate shows of force and of leniency, he attempted to stem the communists’ growing influence without losing Soviet support. Moscow supported him until 1927, when, in a bloody coup of his own, he finally broke with the communists, expelling them from the Nationalist Party and suppressing the labour unions they had organized.

Meanwhile, Chiang had gone far toward reunifying the country. Commander in chief of the revolutionary army since 1925, he had launched a massive Nationalist campaign against the northern warlords in the following year. This drive ended only in 1928, when his forces entered Beijing, the capital. A new central government under the Nationalists, with Chiang at its head, was then established at Nanking, farther south. In October 1930 Chiang became Christian, apparently at the instance of the powerful westernized Soong family, whose youngest daughter, Mei-ling, had become his second wife. As head of the new Nationalist government, Chiang stood committed to a program of social reform, but most of it remained on paper, partly because his control of the country remained precarious. In the first place, the provincial warlords, whom he had neutralized rather than crushed, still disputed his authority. The communists posed another threat, having withdrawn to rural strongholds and formed their own army and government. In addition, Chiang faced certain war with Japan, which, after seizing Manchuria (Northeast Provinces) in 1931, showed designs upon China proper. Chiang decided not to resist the coming Japanese invasion until after he had crushed the communists—a decision that aroused many protests, especially since a complete victory over the communists continued to elude him. To give the nation more moral cohesion, Chiang revived the state cult of Confucius and in 1934 launched a campaign, the so-called New Life Movement, to inculcate Confucian morals.

In December 1936 Chiang was seized by one of his generals who believed that Chinese forces should concentrate on fighting the Japanese instead of the communists. Chiang was held captive for some two weeks, and the Sian (Xian) Incident, as it became known, ended after he agreed to form an alliance with the communists against the Japanese invaders. In 1937 the mounting conflict between the two countries erupted into war (see Sino-Japanese War). For more than four years China fought alone until it was joined by the Allies, who with the exception of the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in 1941. China’s reward was an honoured place among the victors as one of the Big Four. But internally Chiang’s government showed signs of decay, which multiplied as it resumed the struggle against the communists after the Japanese surrendered to the United States in 1945. Civil war recommenced in 1946; by 1949 Chiang had lost continental China to the communists, and the People’s Republic of China was established. Chiang moved to Taiwan with the remnants of his Nationalist forces, established a relatively benign dictatorship over the island with other Nationalist leaders, and attempted to harass the communists across the Formosa Strait. The chastened Chiang reformed the ranks of the once-corrupt Nationalist Party, and with the help of generous American aid he succeeded in the next two decades in setting Taiwan on the road to modern economic development. In 1955 the United States signed an agreement with Chiang’s Nationalist government on Taiwan guaranteeing its defense. Beginning in 1972, however, the value of this agreement and the future of Chiang’s government were seriously called in question by the growing rapprochement between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Chiang did not live to see the United States finally break diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979 in order to establish full relations with the People’s Republic of China. After his death in 1975 he was succeeded temporarily by Yen Chia-kan (C.K. Yen), who was in 1978 replaced by Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo.

Chiang Kai-shek, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill
at the Cairo Conference November 25, 1943

Among the reasons for Chiang’s overthrow by the communists, one frequently cited is the corruption that he countenanced in his government; another was his loss of flexibility in dealing with changing conditions. Growing more rigid in his leadership over the years, he became less responsive to popular sentiment and to new ideas. He came to prize loyalty more than competence and to rely more on personal ties than on ties of organization. His dependence on a trusted clique also showed in his army, in which he favoured narrow traditionalists over many abler officers. Chiang initially maintained his position as republican China’s paramount leader by shrewdly playing off provincial warlords and possible Nationalist rivals against each other and later by his adroit cultivation of American military, diplomatic, and financial support for his regime. His overthrow by the communists can perhaps be traced to his strategy during World War II; he generally refused to use his U.S.-equipped armies to actively resist China’s Japanese occupiers and counted instead on the United States to eventually defeat Japan on its own. He chose rather to preserve his military machine until the time came to unleash it on the communists at the war’s end and then crush them once and for all. But by that point Chiang’s strategy had backfired; his passive stance against the Japanese had lost him the prestige and support among the Chinese populace that the communists ultimately gained by their fierce anti-Japanese resistance. The morale and effectiveness of his armies had decayed during their enforced passivity in southwestern China, while the communists had built up large, battle-hardened armies on the strength of their appeal to Chinese nationalist sentiment. Finally, it can be said that Chiang “lost China” because he had no higher vision or coherent plan for making the deep social and economic changes needed to bring Chinese society into the 20th century. From his purge of the Nationalists’ communist partners in 1927 and his subsequent alliance with the landowning and mercantile classes, Chiang inexorably followed an increasingly conservative path that virtually ignored the plight of China’s oppressed and impoverished peasantry. The peasants formed almost 90 percent of China’s population, though, and it was their support, as demonstrated by the communist victory, which proved crucial in once more establishing a strong central government that could achieve the modern unification of China.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


During the worst attack, in Shanghai on April 12,1927, thousands of Communists and union members were 7 massacred.

7 Execution of a Chinese
communist student, 1927

The CCP then withdrew its 8 People's Liberation Army into the countryside and built up a local government.

After carrying out an agrarian revolution, it set up a Soviet-style republic in Yiangxi province in southeastern China. To evade the pressure from the "extermination campaigns" of the Republican government, the CCP was forced to move with its troops to the north of the country.

Under their new undisputed leader, 11 Mao Zedong, the Communists managed to escape in 1934-1935 on the "Long March" through western China to Yan'an, which they built up to be their central base.

The CCP steadily expanded its control during the 9, 10 war with Japan.

When the Soviet Union occupied Manchuria in 1945, the CCP seized power there. By 1949 Communists controlled the whole of the Chinese mainland with Soviet support. Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China on October 1,1949.

8 Communist fighters on the "Long March," 1935

11 Mao Zedong speaking at a
Communist conference, 1933


9 Shanghai shortly after a Japanese
airraid bombing, 1937

10 Japanese infantrymen with Chinese
prisoners during WW II



The Fourth of May Movement

Named after the date of a Beijing student demonstration against the pro-Japanese government, the Fourth of May Movement became a nationwide political emancipation movement of intellectuals, students, and workers in 1919.

Its demands, along with national independence, included tire rejection of traditional Confucianism, more civil rights, and social reform within the state.

Student demonstration. 1919




The "Long March"

The Communists' long March to the north of China took place in 1934-1935 over a distance of some 6000 miles.

Many soldiers gave up along the way; others died of illness, of exhaustion, or in battle.

In the end, only about 8000 of the original 90,000 reached Yan'an. The CCP later used the Long March as a symbol of the socialist struggle in China.

Ìàî Zedong




Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

Chinese leader
Wade-Giles romanization Mao Tse-tung
born Dec. 26, 1893, Shaoshan, Hunan province, China
died Sept. 9, 1976, Beijing

principal Chinese Marxist theorist, soldier, and statesman who led his nation’s communist revolution. Leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1935, he was chairman (chief of state) of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1959 and chairman of the party until his death.

When China emerged from a half century of revolution as the world’s most populous nation and launched itself on a path of economic development and social change, Mao Zedong occupied a critical place in the story of the country’s resurgence. To be sure, he did not play a dominant role throughout the whole struggle. In the early years of the Chinese Communist Party, he was a secondary figure, though by no means a negligible one, and even after the 1940s (except perhaps during the Cultural Revolution) the crucial decisions were not his alone. Nevertheless, looking at the whole period from the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 to Mao’s death in 1976, one can fairly regard Mao Zedong as the principal architect of the new China.

Early years
Born in the village of Shaoshan in Hunan province, Mao was the son of a former peasant who had become affluent as a farmer and grain dealer. He grew up in an environment in which education was valued only as training for keeping records and accounts. From the age of eight he attended his native village’s primary school, where he acquired a basic knowledge of the Confucian Classics. At 13 he was forced to begin working full-time on his family’s farm. Rebelling against paternal authority (which included an arranged marriage that was forced on him and that he never acknowledged or consummated), Mao left his family to study at a higher primary school in a neighbouring county and then at a secondary school in the provincial capital, Changsha. There he came in contact with new ideas from the West, as formulated by such political and cultural reformers as Liang Qichao and the Nationalist revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. Scarcely had he begun studying revolutionary ideas when a real revolution took place before his very eyes. On Oct. 10, 1911, fighting against the Qing dynasty broke out in Wuchang, and within two weeks the revolt had spread to Changsha.

Enlisting in a unit of the revolutionary army in Hunan, Mao spent six months as a soldier. While he probably had not yet clearly grasped the idea that, as he later put it, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” his first brief military experience at least confirmed his boyhood admiration of military leaders and exploits. In primary school days, his heroes had included not only the great warrior-emperors of the Chinese past but Napoleon and George Washington as well.

The spring of 1912 saw the birth of the new Chinese republic and the end of Mao’s military service. For a year he drifted from one thing to another, trying, in turn, a police school, a law school, and a business school; he studied history in a secondary school and then spent some months reading many of the classic works of the Western liberal tradition in the provincial library. This period of groping, rather than indicating any lack of decision in Mao’s character, was a reflection of China’s situation at the time. The abolition of the official civil service examination system in 1905 and the piecemeal introduction of Western learning in so-called modern schools had left young people in a state of uncertainty as to what type of training, Chinese or Western, could best prepare them for a career or for service to their country.

Mao eventually graduated from the First Provincial Normal School in Changsha in 1918. While officially an institution of secondary level rather than of higher education, the normal school offered a high standard of instruction in Chinese history, literature, and philosophy as well as in Western ideas. While at the school, Mao also acquired his first experience in political activity by helping to establish several student organizations. The most important of these was the New People’s Study Society, founded in the winter of 1917–18, many of whose members were later to join the Communist Party.

From the normal school in Changsha, Mao went to Peking University, China’s leading intellectual centre. The half year he spent there working as a librarian’s assistant was of disproportionate importance in shaping his future career, for it was then that he came under the influence of the two men who were to be the principal figures in the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party: Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu. Moreover, he found himself at Peking University precisely during the months leading up to the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which was to a considerable extent the fountainhead of all of the changes that were to take place in China in the ensuing half century.

In a limited sense, May Fourth Movement is the name given to the student demonstrations protesting against the Paris Peace Conference’s decision to hand over former German concessions in Shandong province to Japan instead of returning them to China. But the term also evokes a period of rapid political and cultural change, beginning in 1915, that resulted in the Chinese radicals’ abandonment of Western liberalism for Marxism-Leninism as the answer to China’s problems and the subsequent founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. The shift from the difficult and esoteric classical written language to a far more accessible vehicle of literary expression patterned on colloquial speech also took place during this period. At the same time, a new and very young generation moved to the centre of the political stage. To be sure, the demonstration on May 4 was launched by Chen Duxiu, but the students soon realized that they themselves were the main actors. In an editorial published in July 1919, Mao wrote:

The world is ours, the nation is ours, society is ours. If we do not speak, who will speak? If we do not act, who will act?

From then onward his generation never ceased to regard itself as responsible for the nation’s fate, and, indeed, its members remained in power, both in Beijing and in Taipei, until the 1970s.

During the summer of 1919 Mao Zedong helped to establish in Changsha a variety of organizations that brought the students together with the merchants and the workers—but not yet with the peasants—in demonstrations aimed at forcing the government to oppose Japan. His writings at the time are filled with references to the “army of the red flag” throughout the world and to the victory of the Russian Revolution, but it was not until January 1921 that he was finally committed to Marxism as the philosophical basis of the revolution in China.

Mao Zedong

Mao and the Chinese Communist Party
In September 1920 he became principal of the Lin Changsha primary school, and in October he organized a branch of the Socialist Youth League there. That winter he married Yang Kaihui (Yang K’ai-hui), the daughter of his former ethics teacher. In July 1921 he attended the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, together with representatives from the other communist groups in China and two delegates from the Moscow-based Comintern (Communist International). In 1923, when the young party entered into an alliance with Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist Party (Kuomintang [Pinyin: Guomindang]), Mao was one of the first communists to join the Nationalist Party and to work within it. During the first half of 1924, he lived mostly with his wife and two infant sons in Shanghai, where he was a leading member of the Nationalists’ Executive Bureau.

In the winter of 1924–25, Mao returned to his native village of Shaoshan for a rest. There, after witnessing demonstrations by peasants stirred into political consciousness by the shooting of several dozen Chinese by foreign police in Shanghai (May and June 1925), Mao suddenly became aware of the revolutionary potential inherent in the peasantry. Although born in a peasant household, he had, in the course of his student years, adopted the Chinese intellectual’s traditional view of the workers and peasants as ignorant and dirty. His conversion to Marxism had forced him to revise his estimate of the urban proletariat, but he continued to share Marx’s own contempt for the backward and amorphous peasantry. Now he turned back to the rural world of his youth as the source of China’s regeneration. Following the example of other communists working within the Nationalist Party who had already begun to organize the peasants, Mao sought to channel the spontaneous protests of the Hunanese peasants into a network of peasant associations.

The communists and the Nationalists
Pursued by the military governor of Hunan, Mao was soon forced to flee his native province once more, and he returned for another year to an urban environment—this time to Guangzhou (Canton), the main power base of the Nationalists. But, though he lived in Guangzhou, Mao still focused his attention on the countryside. He became the acting head of the propaganda department of the Nationalist Party—in which capacity he edited its leading organ, the Political Weekly, and attended the Second Kuomintang Congress in January 1926—but he also served at the Peasant Movement Training Institute, set up in Guangzhou under the auspices of the Nationalists, as principal of the sixth training session. Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) had become the leader of the Nationalists after the death of Sun Yat-sen in March 1925; and, although Chiang still declared his allegiance to the “world revolution” and wished to avail himself of Soviet aid, he was determined to remain master in his own house. He therefore expelled most communists from responsible posts in the Nationalist Party in May 1926. Mao, however, stayed on at the institute until October of that year. Most of the young peasant activists Mao trained were shortly at work strengthening the position of the communists.

In July 1926 Chiang Kai-shek set out on what became known as the Northern Expedition, aiming to unify the country under his own leadership and to overthrow the conservative government in Beijing as well as other warlords. In November Mao once more returned to Hunan; there, in January and February 1927, he investigated the peasant movement and concluded that in a very short time several hundred million peasants in China would “rise like a tornado or tempest—a force so extraordinarily swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to suppress it.” Strictly speaking, this prediction proved to be false. Revolution in the shape of spontaneous action by hundreds of millions of peasants did not sweep across China “in a very short time,” or indeed at all. Chiang Kai-shek, who was bent on an alliance with the propertied classes in the cities and in the countryside, turned against the worker and peasant revolution, and in April he massacred the very Shanghai workers who had delivered the city to him. Stalin’s strategy for carrying out revolution in alliance with the Nationalists collapsed, and the Chinese Communist Party was virtually annihilated in the cities and decimated in the countryside. But in a broader and less literal sense, Mao’s prophecy was justified. In October 1927 Mao led a few hundred peasants who had survived the autumn harvest uprising in Hunan to a base in the Jinggang Mountains, on the Jiangxi-Hunan border, and embarked on a new type of revolutionary warfare in the countryside in which the Red Army, rather than the unarmed masses, would play the central role. But it was only because a large proportion of China’s hundreds of millions of peasants sympathized with and supported this effort that Mao Zedong was able in the course of the civil war to encircle the cities from the countryside and thus defeat Chiang Kai-shek and gain control of the country.

The road to power
Mao Zedong’s 22 years in the wilderness can be divided into four phases. The first of these is the initial three years when Mao and Zhu De, the commander in chief of the army, successfully developed the tactics of guerrilla warfare from base areas in the countryside. These activities, however, were regarded even by their protagonists, and still more by the Central Committee in Shanghai (and by the Comintern in Moscow), as a holding operation until the next upsurge of revolution in the urban centres. In the summer of 1930 the Red Army was ordered by the Central Committee to occupy several major cities in south-central China in the hope of sparking a revolution by the workers. When it became evident that persistence in this attempt could only lead to further costly losses, Mao disobeyed orders and abandoned the battle to return to the base in southern Jiangxi. During this year Mao’s wife was executed by the Nationalists, and he married He Zizhen, with whom he had been living since 1928.

The second phase (the Ziangxi period) centres on the founding in November 1931 of the Chinese Soviet Republic in a portion of Jiangxi province, with Mao as chairman. Since there was little support for the revolution in the cities, the promise of ultimate victory now seemed to reside in the gradual strengthening and expansion of the base areas. The Soviet regime soon came to control a population of several million; the Red Army, grown to a strength of some 200,000, easily defeated large forces of inferior troops sent against it by Chiang Kai-shek in the first four of the so-called encirclement and annihilation campaigns. But it was unable to stand up against Chiang’s own elite units, and in October 1934 the major part of the Red Army, Mao, and his pregnant wife abandoned the base in Jiangxi and set out for the northwest of China, on what is known as the Long March.

There is wide disagreement among specialists as to the extent of Mao’s real power, especially in the years 1932–34, and as to which military strategies were his or other party leaders’. The majority view is that, in the last years of the Chinese Soviet Republic, Mao functioned to a considerable extent as a figurehead with little control over policy, especially in military matters. In any case, he achieved de facto leadership over the party (though not the formal title of chairman) only at the Zunyi Conference of January 1935 during the Long March.

When some 8,000 troops who had survived the perils of the Long March arrived in Shaanxi province in northwestern China in the autumn of 1935, events were already moving toward the third phase in Mao’s rural odyssey, which was to be characterized by a renewed united front with the Nationalists against Japan and by the rise of Mao to unchallenged supremacy in the party. This phase is often called the Yan’an period (for the town in Shaanxi where the communists were based), although Mao did not move to Yan’an until December 1936. In August 1935 the Comintern at its Seventh Congress in Moscow proclaimed the principle of an antifascist united front, and in May 1936 the Chinese communists for the first time accepted the prospect that such a united front might include Chiang Kai-shek himself, and not merely dissident elements in the Nationalist camp. The so-called Xi’an Incident of December 1936, in which Chiang was kidnapped by military leaders from northeastern China who wanted to fight Japan and recover their homelands rather than participate in civil war against the communists, accelerated the evolution toward unity. By the time the Japanese began their attempt to subjugate all of China in July 1937, the terms of a new united front between the communists and the Nationalists had been virtually settled, and the formal agreement was announced in September 1937.

In the course of the anti-Japanese war, the communists broke up a substantial portion of their army into small units and sent them behind the enemy lines to serve as nuclei for guerrilla forces that effectively controlled vast areas of the countryside, stretching between the cities and communication lines occupied by the invader. As a result, they not only expanded their military forces to somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 at the time of the Japanese surrender but also established effective grassroots political control over a population that may have totaled as many as 90,000,000. It has been argued that the support of the rural population was won purely by appeals to their nationalist feeling in opposition to the Japanese. This certainly was fundamental, but communist agrarian policies likewise played a part in securing broad support among the peasantry.

During the years 1936–40, Mao had, for the first time since the 1920s, the leisure to devote himself to reflection and writing. It was then that he first read in translation a certain number of Soviet writings on philosophy and produced his own account of dialectical materialism, of which the best-known portions are those entitled “On Practice” and “On Contradiction.” More important, Mao produced the major works that synthesized his own experience of revolutionary struggle and his vision of how the revolution should be carried forward in the context of the united front. On military matters there was first Strategic Problems of China’s Revolutionary War, written in December 1936 to sum up the lessons of the Jiangxi period (and also to justify the correctness of his own military line at the time), and then On Protracted War and other writings of 1938 on the tactics of the anti-Japanese war. As to his overall view of the events of these years, Mao adopted an extremely conciliatory attitude toward the Nationalists in his report entitled On the New Stage (October 1938), in which he attributed to it the leading role both in the war against Japan and in the ensuing phase of national reconstruction. By the winter of 1939–40, however, the situation had changed sufficiently so that he could adopt a much firmer line, claiming leadership for the communists. Internationally, Mao argued, the Chinese revolution was a part of the world proletarian revolution directed against imperialism (whether it be British, German, or Japanese); internally, the country should be ruled by a “joint dictatorship of several parties” belonging to the anti-Japanese united front. For the time being, Mao felt, the aims of the Communist Party coincided with the aims of the Nationalists, and therefore communists should not try to rush ahead to socialism and thus disrupt the united front. But neither should they have any doubts about the ultimate need to take power into their own hands in order to move forward to socialism. During this period, in 1939, Mao divorced He Zizhen and married a well-known film actress, Lan Ping (who by that time had changed her name to Jiang Qing).

The issues of Nationalist-communist rivalry for the leadership of the united front are related to the continuing struggle for supremacy within the Chinese Communist Party, for Mao’s two chief rivals—Wang Ming, who had just returned from a long stay in Moscow, and Zhang Guotao (Chang Kuo-t’ao), who had at first refused to accept Mao’s political and military leadership—were both accused of excessive slavishness toward the Nationalists. But perhaps even more central in Mao’s ultimate emergence as the acknowledged leader of the party was the question of what he had called in October 1938 the “Sinification” of Marxism—its adaptation not only to Chinese conditions but to the mentality and cultural traditions of the Chinese people.

Mao could not claim the firsthand knowledge possessed by many other leading members of the Chinese Communist Party of how communism worked within the Soviet Union nor the ability to read Marx or Lenin in the original, which some of them enjoyed. He could and did claim, however, to know and understand China. The differences between him and the Soviet-oriented faction in the party came to a head at the time of the so-called Rectification Campaign of 1942–43. This program aimed at giving a basic grounding in Marxist theory and Leninist principles of party organization to the many thousands of new members who had been drawn into the party in the course of the expansion since 1937. But a second and equally important aspect of the movement was the elimination of what Mao called “foreign dogmatism”—in other words, blind imitation of Soviet experience and obedience to Soviet directives.

In March 1943 Mao achieved for the first time formal supremacy over the party, becoming chairman of the Secretariat and of the Political Bureau. Shortly thereafter the Rectification Campaign took, for a time, the form of a harsh purge of elements not sufficiently loyal to Mao. The campaign was run by Kang Sheng, who was later to be one of Mao’s key supporters in the Cultural Revolution. Exaggerating considerably this dimension of events, Soviet spokesmen have bitterly denounced the Rectification Campaign as an attempt to purge the Chinese Communist Party of all those elements genuinely imbued with “proletarian internationalism” (i.e., devotion to Moscow). It is therefore not surprising that, as Mao’s campaign in the countryside moved into its fourth and last phase—that of civil war with the Nationalists—Stalin’s lack of enthusiasm for a Chinese communist victory should have become increasingly evident. Looking back at this period in 1962, when the Sino-Soviet conflict had come to a head, Mao declared:

In 1945, Stalin wanted to prevent China from making revolution, saying that we should not have a civil war and should cooperate with Chiang Kai-shek, otherwise the Chinese nation would perish. But we did not do what he said. The revolution was victorious. After the victory of the revolution he [Stalin] next suspected China of being a Yugoslavia, and that I would become a second Tito.

This account of Stalin’s attitude is substantiated by a whole series of public gestures at the time, culminating in the fact that, when the People’s Liberation Army took Nanjing in April 1949, the Soviet ambassador was the only foreign diplomat to accompany the retreating Nationalist government to Guangzhou. Stalin’s motives were obviously those described by Mao in the above passage; he did not believe in the capacity of the Chinese communists to achieve a clear-cut victory, and he thought they would be a nuisance if they did.

Mao Zedong

Formation of the People’s Republic of China
Nevertheless, when the communists did take power in China, both Mao and Stalin had to make the best of the situation. In December 1949 Mao, now chairman of the People’s Republic of China—which he had proclaimed on October 1—traveled to Moscow, where, after two months of arduous negotiations, he succeeded in persuading Stalin to sign a treaty of mutual assistance accompanied by limited economic aid. Before the Chinese had time to profit from the resources made available for economic development, however, they found themselves dragged into the Korean War in support of the Moscow-oriented regime in P’yŏngyang. Only after this baptism of fire did Stalin, according to Mao, begin to have confidence in him and believe he was not first and foremost a Chinese nationalist.

Despite these tensions with Moscow, the policies of the People’s Republic of China in its early years were in very many respects based, as Mao later said, on “copying from the Soviets.” While Mao and his comrades had experience in guerrilla warfare, in mobilization of the peasants in the countryside, and in political administration at the grass roots, they had no firsthand knowledge of running a state or of large-scale economic development. In such circumstances the Soviet Union provided the only available model. A five-year plan was therefore drawn up under Soviet guidance; it was put into effect in 1953 and included Soviet technical assistance and a number of complete industrial plants. Yet, within two years, Mao had taken steps that were to lead to the breakdown of the political and ideological alliance with Moscow.

The emergence of Mao’s road to socialism
In the spring of 1949, Mao proclaimed that, while in the past the Chinese revolution had followed the unorthodox path of “encircling the cities from the countryside,” it would in the future take the orthodox road of the cities leading and guiding the countryside. In harmony with this view, he had agreed in 1950 with Liu Shaoqi that collectivization would be possible only when China’s heavy industry had provided the necessary equipment for mechanization. In a report of July 1955, he reversed this position, arguing that in China the social transformation could run ahead of the technical transformation. Deeply impressed by the achievements of certain cooperatives that claimed to have radically improved their material conditions without any outside assistance, he came to believe in the limitless capacity of the Chinese people, especially of the rural masses, to transform at will both nature and their own social relations when mobilized for revolutionary goals. Those in the leadership who did not share this vision he denounced as “old women with bound feet.” He made these criticisms before an ad hoc gathering of provincial and local party secretaries, thus creating a groundswell of enthusiasm for rapid collectivization such that all those in the leadership who had expressed doubts about Mao’s ideas were soon presented with a fait accompli. The tendency thus manifested to pursue his own ends outside the collective decision-making processes of the party was to continue and to be accentuated.

Even before Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev’s secret speech of February 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes, Mao Zedong and his colleagues had been discussing measures for improving the morale of the intellectuals in order to secure their willing participation in building a new China. At the end of April, Mao proclaimed the policy of “letting a hundred flowers bloom”—that is, the freedom to express many diverse ideas—designed to prevent the development in China of a repressive political climate analogous to that in the Soviet Union under Stalin. In the face of the disorders called forth by de-Stalinization in Poland and Hungary, Mao did not retreat but rather pressed boldly forward with this policy, against the advice of many of his senior colleagues, in the belief that the contradictions that still existed in Chinese society were mainly nonantagonistic. When the resulting “great blooming and contending” got out of hand and called into question the axiom of party rule, Mao savagely turned against the educated elite, which he felt had betrayed his confidence. Henceforth he would rely primarily on the creativity of the rank and file as the agent of modernization. As for the specialists, if they were not yet sufficiently “red,” he would remold them by sending them to work in the countryside.

It was against this background that Mao, during the winter of 1957–58, worked out the policies that were to characterize the Great Leap Forward, formally launched in May 1958. While his economic strategy was by no means so one-sided and simplistic as was commonly believed in the 1960s and ’70s and although he still proclaimed industrialization and a “technical revolution” as his goals, Mao displayed continuing anxiety regarding the corrupting influence of the fruits of technical progress and an acute nostalgia for the purity and egalitarianism that had marked the moral and political world of the Jinggang Mountains and Yan’an eras.

Thus it was logical that he should endorse and promote the establishment of “people’s communes” as part of the Great Leap strategy. As a result, the peasants, who had been organized into cooperatives in 1955–56 and then into fully socialist collectives in 1956–57, found their world turned upside down once again in 1958. Neither the resources nor the administrative experience necessary to operate such enormous new social units of several thousand households were in fact available, and, not surprisingly, the consequences of these changes were chaos and economic disaster.

By the winter of 1958–59, Mao himself had come to recognize that some adjustments were necessary, including decentralization of ownership to the constituent elements of the communes and a scaling down of the unrealistically high production targets in both industry and agriculture. He insisted, however, that in broad outline his new Chinese road to socialism, including the concept of the communes and the belief that China, though “poor and blank,” could leap ahead of other countries, was basically sound. At the Lushan meeting of the Central Committee in July–August 1959, Peng Dehuai, the minister of defense, denounced the excesses of the Great Leap and the economic losses they had caused. He was immediately removed from all party and state posts and placed in detention until his death during the Cultural Revolution. From that time, Mao regarded any criticism of his policies as nothing less than a crime of lèse-majesté, meriting exemplary punishment.

Retreat and counterattack
Though few spoke up at Lushan in support of Peng, a considerable number of the top leaders sympathized with him in private. Almost immediately, in 1960, Mao began building an alternative power base in the People’s Liberation Army, which the new defense minister, Lin Biao, had set out to turn into a “great school of Mao Zedong Thought.” At about the same time, Mao began to denounce the emergence, not only in the Soviet Union but also in China itself, of “new bourgeois elements” among the privileged strata of the state and party bureaucracy and the technical and artistic elite. Under these conditions, he concluded, a “protracted, complex, and sometimes even violent class struggle” would continue during the whole socialist stage.

The open split with the Soviet Union, which had become public and irreparable by 1963—though it can be traced to Mao’s resentment at Khrushchev’s failure to consult him before launching de-Stalinization—resulted, above all, from the Soviet reaction to the Great Leap policies. Regarding Mao’s claims for the communes as ideologically presumptuous, Khrushchev heaped ridicule upon them; he underlined his displeasure by withdrawing Soviet technical assistance in 1960, leaving many large plants unfinished. Khrushchev also tried to put pressure on China in its dealings with Taiwan and India and in other foreign-policy issues. Mao forgot neither the affront to his and China’s dignity nor the economic damage.

As for class struggle in China itself, Mao’s fear that revisionism might appear there was heightened by the policies pursued in the early 1960s to deal with the economic consequences of the Great Leap Forward. The disorganization and waste created by the Great Leap, compounded by natural disasters and by the termination of Soviet economic aid, led to widespread famine in which, according to much later official Chinese accounts, millions of people died. The response to this situation by Liu Shaoqi (who had succeeded Mao as chairman of the People’s Republic in 1959), Deng Xiaoping, and the economic planners was to make use of material incentives and to strengthen the role of individual households in agricultural production. At first Mao agreed reluctantly that such steps were necessary, but during the first half of 1962 he came increasingly to perceive the methods used to promote recovery as implying the repudiation of the whole thrust of the Great Leap strategy. It was as a direct response to this challenge that at the 10th Plenary Session of the Central Committee in September 1962 he issued the call, “Never forget the class struggle!”

During the next three years Mao waged such a struggle, primarily through the Socialist Education Movement in the countryside, and it was over the guidelines for this campaign that the major political battles were fought within the Chinese leadership. At the end of 1964, when Liu Shaoqi refused to accept Mao’s demand to direct the main thrust of class struggle against “capitalist roaders” in the party, Mao decided that “Liu had to go.”

The Cultural Revolution
The movement that became known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution represented an attempt by Mao to go beyond the party rectification campaigns, of which there had been many since 1942, and to devise a new and more radical method for dealing with what he saw as the bureaucratic degeneration of the party. But it also represented, beyond any doubt or question, a deliberate effort to eliminate those in the leadership who, over the years, had dared to cross him. The victims, from throughout the party hierarchy, suffered more than mere political disgrace. All were publicly humiliated and detained for varying periods, sometimes under very harsh conditions; many were beaten and tortured, and not a few were killed or driven to suicide. Among the casualties was Liu, who died because he was denied proper medical attention.

The justification for these sacrifices was defined in a key slogan of the time: “Fight selfishness, criticize revisionism.” When the Red Guards, who constituted the first shock troops of Mao’s enterprise, burst upon the scene in the summer of 1966 with their battle cry “To rebel is justified!” it seemed for a time that not only the power of the party cadres but also authority in all its forms was being questioned. It soon became evident that Mao, who in 1956 had justified decentralization as a means to building a “strong socialist state,” still believed in the need for state power. When the Shanghai leftists Zhang Chunqiao and Yao Wenyuan—who were later to make up half the Gang of Four—came to see him in February 1967, immediately after setting up the Shanghai Commune, Mao asserted that the demand for the abolition of “heads” (leaders), which had been heard in their city, was “extreme anarchism” and “most reactionary”; in fact, he stated, there would “always be heads.” Communes, he added, were “too weak when it came to suppressing counterrevolution” and in any case required party leadership. He therefore ordered them to dissolve theirs and to replace it with a “revolutionary committee.”

These committees, based on an alliance of former party cadres, young activists, and representatives of the People’s Liberation Army, were to remain in place until two years after Mao’s death. At first they were largely controlled by the army. The Ninth Congress of 1969 initiated the process of rebuilding the party; and the death of Lin Biao diminished, though it by no means eliminated, the army’s role. Thereafter it seemed briefly, in 1971–72, that a compromise, of which Zhou Enlai was the architect, might produce some kind of synthesis between the values of the Cultural Revolution and the pre-1966 political and economic order.

Even before Zhou’s death in January 1976, however, this compromise had been overturned. All recognition by Mao of the importance of professional skills was swallowed up in an orgy of political rhetoric, and all things foreign were regarded as counterrevolutionary. Mao’s last decade, which had opened with manifestos in favour of the Paris Commune model of mass democracy, closed with paeans of praise to that most implacable of centralizing despots, Shihuangdi, the first Qin emperor.

While the Cultural Revolution was an entirely logical culmination of Mao’s last two decades, it was by no means the only possible outcome of his approach to revolution, nor need a judgment of his work as a whole be based primarily on this last phase.

Few would deny Mao Zedong the major share of credit for devising the pattern of struggle based on guerrilla warfare in the countryside that ultimately led to victory in the civil war and thereby to the overthrow of the Nationalists, the distribution of land to the peasants, and the restoration of China’s independence and sovereignty. These achievements must be given a weight commensurate with the degree of injustice prevailing in Chinese society before the revolution and with the humiliation felt by the Chinese people as a result of the dismemberment of their country by the foreign powers. “We have stood up,” Mao said in September 1949. These words will not be forgotten.

Mao’s record after 1949 is more ambiguous. The official Chinese view, defined in June 1981, is that his leadership was basically correct until the summer of 1957, but from then on it was mixed at best and frequently wrong. It cannot be disputed that Mao’s two major innovations of his later years, the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, were ill-conceived and led to disastrous consequences. His goals of combating bureaucracy, encouraging popular participation, and stressing China’s self-reliance were generally laudable—and the industrialization that began during Mao’s reign did indeed lay a foundation for China’s development in the late 20th century—but the methods he used to pursue them were often violent and self-defeating.

There is no single accepted measure of Mao and his long career. How does one weigh, for example, the good fortune of peasants acquiring land against millions of executions and deaths? How does one balance the real economic achievements after 1949 against the starvation that came in the wake of the Great Leap Forward or the bloody shambles of the Cultural Revolution? It is, perhaps, possible to accept the official verdict that, despite the “errors of his later years,” Mao’s merits outweighed his faults, while underscoring the fact that the account is very finely balanced.

Stuart Reynolds Schram

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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