Mao Zedong's actions changed the lives of one-quarter of the people on this planet.
Mao Zedong is one of the greatest figures in China's four thousand-year history and one of the most important leaders of any country in the twentieth century. His actions changed the lives of one-quarter of the people on this planet. Born among China's peasants (poor farmers), he grew up in a country weakened by overpopulation and by a failing government. To empower the peasants and to restore the strength of China, he led a revolution. He was successful, and China prospered during the first few years of his new government. However, he soon tried to extend his government's control over the peasants, resulting in the worst famine in the history of the world. Civil wars and quarrels among government officials marked the remaining years of his leadership.
Mao was born on December 26, 1893, in the small village of Shaoshan in Hunan, a province in central China. Although his parents, Mao Jen-shen and Wen Qimei, were peasants, his family never lacked food or clothing. Mao began working in the fields around his home when he was five and did not begin school until he was seven. In 1910 he was sent to a more modern school in a nearby town. He studied traditional works of Chinese history and literature and modern works that offered solutions to China's current problems.
At this time, China was collapsing. For thousands of years, China had been controlled by dynasties, periods in which a particular family ruled, sometimes for centuries. Under the current dynasty, the Manchus or Ch'ing, foreigners invaded China, sparking civil wars. Chinese peasants suffered. In 1912 a revolution led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Manchus and a new government was formed. However, Sun could not unify the country and by 1916 power had fallen into the hands of military generals, or warlords, who controlled the numerous provinces in the country.
Learns from the Russian Revolution
While chaos reigned over China, Mao completed his education at a teacher's training college in Changsha, Hunan's capital city. Hoping to find a solution to China's crisis, he and other intellectuals began to look at the Communist government recently formed in Russia by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin had shown that Russian workers could carry out a revolution and gain control of the government. Mao believed Chinese peasants could do the same. In 1921 he helped found the Chinese Communist party, which grew rapidly over the next few years.
In 1927 China came under the control of the Nationalist government (Kuomintang) led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Nationalists wanted to keep control of China in the hands of landowners and businessmen, but the Communists wanted the country turned over to the peasantry. In April 1927, fearing the influence of the Communists, Chiang turned his army against them, slaughtering thousands.
During the next seven years, Mao and other Communists hid in remote mountainous regions in southern China. They successfully built a strong rebel government in this area, attracting more and more people to their cause. After repeated attacks by Nationalist forces, the Communists began a six-thousand-mile journey to the north in 1934. During this "Long March," the Communists fought constant battles and suffered incredible hardships. By the time they reached their destination the following year, more than half of the original marchers had died. For his courage and leadership during this journey, Mao was elected chairman of the Chinese Communist party.
Creates a Communist nation
A truce between the Communists and the Nationalist government was declared when Japan invaded China in 1937. During World War II (1939-45), the two sides fought uneasily against this common enemy. After the war, they resumed their battle against each other. By 1949 the Nationalist government had been driven from the country and Mao proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Mao immediately ordered the peasants to seize property from the landlords who controlled almost all the farmland. Over the next few years, life improved for the peasants as they grew more than enough food to eat. In 1953 Mao directed that all farms be pooled into cooperatives, where numerous peasant families would work together on a larger tract of land. Within two years, almost two-thirds of all peasants had joined cooperatives. Farm output increased dramatically. Peasants sold the extra food they grew and many of them became prosperous.
Tries to industrialize China
Mao had a vision of an industrial China. To raise the money needed to build industries, Mao turned to the peasants. In 1956 he decreed that all farms, animals, and tools be placed under government control. Peasants were forced to work on what were called collective farms. The government dictated what would be grown, how much of it, and what the peasants would be paid for their work. Within months, all of China's six million peasants were working in collectives. They lost what little wealth they had.
That same year Mao encouraged people to offer helpful criticism of the Communist party, a policy he called "Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom." Party leaders, quickly attacked for being corrupt, convinced Mao to reject this policy. In 1957 Mao called those people who spoke out "enemies" or "rightists." Nearly one million people were condemned as rightists and sent to jail or prison camps during the next year.
The Great Leap Forward
To make China equal with industrial nations, Mao launched his Great Leap Forward program in 1958. With the promise of a better future, the government encouraged people to work day and night to increase production. In a drive to make steel, people melted all the tools they had, but their primitive methods produced useless steel. To win the favor of high government leaders, local party officials inflated farm output figures. The government took grain from the peasants based on these high, false amounts. As a result, the peasants were left with nothing, and they ate tree bark, grass roots, and earth. Between 1959 and 1961, 30 million peasants starved to death.
In the early 1960s, Mao stepped down as leader of the government, but still controlled the Chinese Communist party. The new leaders, more moderate, worked to rebuild the country. They relaxed government controls and China prospered over the next few years. In 1966, however, Mao attacked these leaders, saying they were betraying the radical ideas of the original revolution. He then called on young Chinese to rebel against party officials, starting the Cultural Revolution. Bands of young Chinese, called Red Guards, ransacked museums, libraries, temples, and people's homes. They captured and publicly beat millions of officials, intellectuals, and former landowners. At least four hundred thousand of these people were beaten to death.
Establishes contact with United States
In 1967 the Red Guards began to fight among themselves. By summer, with millions of workers and soldiers joining the battle, China was in turmoil. The following year Mao ordered the Red Guards to disband and peace was restored. Mao then regained authority in the government and worked to improve relations with other countries. A visit by United States president Richard Nixon in 1972 eventually led to diplomatic contact with the United States after decades of hostile relations. Mao's health declined in the next few years, and moderates and radicals in the government fought for control. When Mao died in Beijing on September 9, 1976, the new leaders began to steer China away from his strict policies.
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