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Mao Tse Tung (1893 – 1976)

Early Life

Born on the 26th of December 1893 in the Village of Shaoshun in Hunan Province, Mao Tse Tung was to become one of the most influential leaders of the twentieth century. An avid reader from an early age, Mao saw education as his key to the world. Denied a University place he trained as a teacher and would later describe his primary role in life as that of a teacher.

At this time China was going through a time of great political, social and economic upheaval. In 1911 the Manchu-Quing dynasty fell. Sun Yat-sen came to power and tried to improve conditions through land reform. However, this proved to be a failure and by 1916 China was under military rule.

In 1918 Mao moved to Peking (modern day Beijing) where he worked in the University library. It was here that he became involved in Marxism. He believed that China did not lack the will or the power for a revolution but the technique.

Rise to Power

In 1921 the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai. Mao was one of the thirteen men involved. He returned to Hunan Province to form a local branch of the Party and a Marxist study group of his own. However, the Soviet Union aided Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomitang to build a powerful army and a party along Soviet lines. Sun’s group was to become Mao’s greatest rival for power in China. The Kuomitang went about taking on the warlords and unifying China. The Communist Party, at this time, obeyed Moscow’s edicts and cooperated with the Kuomitang. However, unlike Marxist doctrine, Mao thought the peasants would be the backbone to China’s revolution.

The massacre of thousands of communists by the Kuomitang, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, in 1927 led to open hostilities between the two groups. It proved to be a long and bitter war. 1934 saw Mao become ‘Chairman’ of the Party and leader of their army. The Kuomitang drove them from their sanctuary and thus began the “Long March” – a year long, 6,000 miles journey around China.

The beginning of World War II in the Pacific saw the two warring factions reunite in a tenuous alliance to fight their common enemy, Japan. When Japan lay in ruin and defeat after the dropping of the A – bomb the conflict resumed. While the Kuomitang had a more modern war machine, Mao had the fervour of millions of peasants. Chiang Kai-shek, seeing the fruitlessness of continuing the war, fled to Taiwan.

In Power

Mao found himself in charge of a country that was severely underdeveloped, poverty-stricken and with no concrete plans for the future.

He encountered mixed success with problems of land reform and modernisation. 1956 saw the beginning of the ‘Hundred Flowers and the Hundred Schools’ movement. The Hundred Flowers were taken to be the arts and the Hundred Schools the different philosophies. He believed that this movement could bring many opinions in the communist fold and that this freedom would be used gently and discreetly. However it had the opposite effect. The Party and its Chairman, Mao, were publicly criticised and radical reforms were demanded. Mao’s response was to curtail the movement.

The ensuing years were marked with disputes with the Soviet Union, internal squabbles over economic policy and increasing rivalries among those closest to the Chairman. Despite this considerable gains were made in the agricultural sector and industrial development. People were no longer starving and China was experiencing an industrial revolution. Added to this relations were developed among its Asian neighbours while Europeans treated China cautiously as an equal.

The Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1969 overthrew the Party hierarchy and threatened the collapse of the revolution. The newly formed Red Guard massed in Peking on August of 1966 chanting the slogan “To rebel is right”. They were urged by Mao to ferret out traces of Western influence. Important leaders were humiliated, paraded wearing dunce caps and placards with derogatory slogans. However, by 1969 the Red Guards were getting out of hand and Mao brought the ‘Revolution’ to a halt.

Mao and the U.S.

Despite failing health Mao met with the President of the United States, Mr. Richard Nixon, in 1972. This was a truly historic occasion considering the previous animosity between the two countries. The famous photographs of Nixon shaking hands with Mao represents one of the watersheds of the twentieth century.


During his last years Mao suffered from pneumonia, congestive heart disease, swelling of the internal organs and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He died in 1976; his embalmed body was placed on public display.