Mao's Early Life:
On December 26, 1893, a son was born to the Mao family, wealthy farmers in Shaoshan, Hunan Province, China. They named the boy Mao Zedong.
The child studied Confucian classics at the village school for five years, but left at the age of 13 to help out full-time on the farm. Rebellious and probably spoiled, young Mao had been expelled from several schools and even ran away from home for several days.
In 1907, Mao's father arranged a marriage for his 14-year-old son. Mao refused to acknowledge his 20-year-old bride, even after she moved into the family home.
Education and Introduction to Marxism:
Mao moved to Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, to continue his education. He spent 6 months in 1911 and 1912 as a soldier in the barracks at Changsha, during the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Mao called for Sun Yatsen to be president, and cut off his long braid of hair (queue), a sign of anti-Manchu revolt.
Between 1913 and 1918, Mao studied at the Teachers' Training School, where he began to embrace ever more revolutionary ideas. He was fascinated by the 1917 Russian Revolution, and by the 4th century BCE Chinese philosophy called Legalism.
After graduation, Mao followed his professor Yang Changji to Beijing, where he took a job at the Beijing University library. His supervisor, Li Dazhao, was a cofounder of the Chinese Communist Party, and greatly influenced Mao's developing revolutionary ideas.
In 1920 Mao married Yang Kaihui, the daughter of his professor, despite his earlier marriage. He read a translation of The Communist Manifesto that year, and became a committed Marxist.
Six years later, the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek massacred at least 5,000 communists in Shanghai. This was the start of China's Civil War. That fall, Mao led the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Changsha against the Kuomintang (KMT). The KMT crushed Mao's peasant army, killing 90% of them and forcing the survivors out into the countryside, where they rallied more peasants to their cause.
In June, 1928, the KMT took Beijing and was recognized as the official government of China by foreign powers. Mao and the Communists continued to set up peasant soviets in the southern Hunan and Jiangxi Provinces, however. He was laying the foundations of Maoism.
Mao and the Chinese Civil War:
A local warlord in Changsha captured Mao's wife, Yang Kaihui, and one of their sons in October of 1930. She refused to denounce communism, so the warlord had her beheaded in front of her 8-year-old son. Mao had married a third wife, He Zizhen, in May of that year.
In 1931, Mao was elected Chairman of the Soviet Republic of China, in Jiangxi Province. Mao ordered a reign of terror against landlords; perhaps more than 200,000 were tortured and killed. His Red Army, made up mostly of poorly-armed but fanatical peasants, numbered 45,000.
Under increasing KMT pressure, Mao was demoted from his leadership role. Chiang Kai-shek's troops surrounded the Red Army in the mountains of Jiangxi, forcing them to make a desperate escape in 1934.
The Long March and Japanese Occupation:
About 85,000 Red Army troops and followers retreated from Jiangxi, and started walking the 6,000 km arc to the northern province of Shaanxi. Beset by freezing weather, dangerous mountain paths, unbridged rivers, and attacks by warlords and the KMT, only 7,000 of the communists made it to Shaanxi in 1936.
This Long March cemented Mao Zedong's position as leader of the Chinese Communists. He was able to rally the troops despite their dire situation.
Japan captured Beijing and the Chinese coast, but never occupied the interior. Both of China's armies fought on; the Communists' guerrilla tactics were particularly effective. Meanwhile, in 1938, Mao divorced He Zizhen and married the actress Jiang Qing, later known as "Madame Mao."
Civil War Resumes and the Founding of the PRC:
Even as he led the fight against the Japanese, Mao was planning to seize power from his erstwhile allies, the KMT. Mao codified his ideas in a number of pamphlets, including On Guerrilla Warfare and On Protracted War. In 1944, the US sent the Dixie Mission to meet Mao and the Communists; the Americans found the Communists better organized and less corrupt than the KMT, which had been receiving western support.
After World War II ended, the Chinese armies started to fight again in earnest. The turning point was the 1948 Siege of Changchun, in which the Red Army, now called the People's Liberation Army (PLA), defeated the Kuomintang's army in Changchun, Jilin Province.
By October 1, 1949, Mao felt confident enough to declare the establishment of the People's Republic of China. On December 10, the PLA besieged the final KMT stronghold at Chengdu, Sichuan. On that day, Chiang Kai-shek and other KMT officials fled the mainland for Taiwan.
Five Year Plan and the Great Leap Forward:
From his new home next to the Forbidden City, Mao directed radical reforms in China. Landlords were executed, perhaps as many as 2-5 million across the country, and their land redistributed to poor peasants. Mao's "Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries" claimed at least 800,000 additional lives, mostly former KMT members, intellectuals and businessmen.
In the Three-Anti/Five-Anti Campaigns of 1951-52, Mao directed the targeting of wealthy people and suspected capitalists, who were subjected to public "struggle sessions." Many who survived the initial beatings and humiliation later committed suicide.
Between 1953 and 1958, Mao launched the First Five-Year Plan, intending to make China an industrial power. Buoyed by his initial success, Chairman Mao launched the Second Five-Year Plan, called the "Great Leap Forward," in January of 1958. He urged farmers to smelt iron in their yards, rather than tending the crops. The results were disastrous; an estimated 30-40 million Chinese starved in the Great Famine of 1958-60.
Mao's Foreign Policies:
Shortly after Mao took power in China, he sent the "People's Volunteer Army" in to the Korean War to fight alongside the North Koreans against the South Koreans and United Nations forces. The PVA saved Kim Il-Sung's army from being overrun, resulting in a stalemate that continues to this day.
By 1959, China's relationship with the Soviet Union had deteriorated markedly. The two communist powers disagreed on the wisdom of the Great Leap Forward, China's nuclear ambitions, and the brewing Sino-Indian War (1962). By 1962, China and the USSR had cut off relations with one another in the Sino-Soviet Split.
Mao Falls from Grace:
In January of 1962, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held a "Conference of the Seven Thousand" in Beijing. Conference chair Liu Shaoqi harshly criticized the Great Leap Forward, and by implication, Mao Zedong. Mao was pushed aside within the internal power structure of the CCP; moderate pragmatists Liu and Deng Xiaoping freed the peasants from communes and imported wheat from Australia and Canada to feed the famine survivors.
For several years, Mao served only as a figurehead in the Chinese government. He spent that time plotting a return to power, and revenge on Liu and Deng.
Mao would use the specter of capitalist tendencies among the powerful, as well as the might and credulity of young people, to take power once again.
The Cultural Revolution:
In August of 1966, the 73-year-old Mao made a speech at the Plenum of the Communist Central Committee. He called for the youth of the country to take back the revolution from the rightists. These young "Red Guards" would do the dirty work in Mao's Cultural Revolution, destroying the "Four Olds" - old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. Even a tea-room owner like President Hu Jintao's father could be targeted as a "capitalist."
While the nation's students were busily destroying ancient artwork and texts, burning temples and beating intellectuals to death, Mao managed to purge both Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping from the Party leadership. Liu died under horrific circumstances in prison; Deng was exiled to work in a rural tractor factory, and his son was thrown from a fourth-story window and paralyzed by Red Guards.
In 1969, Mao declared the Cultural Revolution complete, although it continued through his death in 1976. Later phases were directed by Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) and her cronies, known as the "Gang of Four."
Mao's Failing Health and Death:
Throughout the 1970s, Mao's health steadily deteriorated. He may have been suffering from Parkinson's disease or ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), in addition to heart and lung trouble brought on by a lifetime of smoking.
By July of 1976, when the country was in crisis due to the Great Tangshan Earthquake, the 82-year-old Mao was confined to a hospital bed in Beijing. He suffered two major heart attacks early in September, and died on September 9, 1976 after being removed from life support.
Mao Zedong's Legacy:
After Mao's death, the moderate pragmatist branch of the Chinese Communist Party took power and ousted the leftist revolutionaries. Deng Xiaoping, now thoroughly rehabilitated, led the country toward an economic policy of capitalist-style growth and export wealth. Madame Mao and the other Gang of Four members were arrested and tried, essentially for all of the crimes associated with the Cultural Revolution.
Mao's legacy today is a complicated one. He is known as the "Founding Father of Modern China," and serves to inspire 21st century rebellions like the Nepali and Indian Maoist movements. On the other hand, his leadership caused more deaths among his own people than that of Joseph Stalin or Adolph Hitler.
Within the Chinese Communist Party under Deng, Mao was declared to be "70% correct" in his policies. However, Deng also said that the Great Famine was "30% natural disaster, 70% human error." Nonetheless, Mao Thought continues to guide policies to this day.
Clements, Jonathan. Mao Zedong: Life and Times, London: Haus Publishing, 2006.
Short, Philip. Mao: A Life, New York: Macmillan, 2001.
Terrill, Ross. Mao: A Biography, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.