Often described as one of the twentieth-century’s most controversial figures, Mao Zedong was born in Shaoshan, China in 1893. Mao is one of the most important figures in modern Chinese history. At turns he has been revered as the singular modernizing catalyst of twentieth-century China and feared for the cost of human life his policies exacted. Mao rose from the status of peasant to the rank of 1st Chairman of the People’s Republic of China where his influence in contemporary China is still profound.
The son of a farmer, Mao attended school intermittently and in 1911 he joined Hunan’s Revolutionary Army against the waning Qing Dynasty. After the war Mao returned the First Provincial Normal School of Hunan and graduated in 1918. Mao then attended Peking University where he worked as a library assistant and became a Marxist. A member of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai, Mao became Executive of the Shanghai arm of the nationalist Kuomintang and Secretary of its Organization Department. Soon after Mao became the acting Propaganda Director for the Kuomintang. However, when the Kuomintang began to purge Communists, Mao returned to Hunan where he began to organize peasant uprisings against the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek.
The Communists continued to fight the Kuomintang, but in 1934 Mao and the Communist Army were forced to retreat in the infamous Long March—a 5,965 mile journey filled with immense hardship and loss of life. After the march Mao emerged as the leader of the Communist Red Army. Still a viable force, the Red Army collaborated with the Kuomintang in 1937 when the Japanese attacked China. China’s civil war was halted during WWII, but the two factions continually undermined one another which left China vulnerable to the Japanese Army.
After WWII and the Japanese surrender, Mao’s guerilla force began to take over the country and in 1949 Mao established the People’s Republic of China. Over the next several years, Mao claimed that he executed 700,000 people, but the U.S. State Department figure is much higher. Mao continued to cement his power and also to enact various reforms that would eventually transform China. Some reforms ultimately failed such as the Great Leap Forward which sought to reorganize the agricultural economy of the country, but resulted in immense famine and death. Mao restructured Chinese society with controversial programs like The Cultural Revolution. Millions of Chinese people were sent to work camps to be re-educated according to Mao’s Communist doctrines and many were executed for counter-revolutionary beliefs.
Mao was eventually very successful at modernizing China despite the suffering of millions of Chinese people. Mao transformed a fractured China into a major world power. His brand of Communism has been highly influential in Asia and other parts of the world and he famously expounded his beliefs in his Little Red Book. During his life Mao was married four times. He died in 1976 in Beijing.