Mao Zedong and the
Agony of China

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 2000, with new material added in 2008.

China was going mad. Mao Zedong was pleased.

The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao, was sweeping the land. Many people were killed by howling mobs – stoned, bludgeoned, torn to pieces. No one knows exactly how many Chinese died violently because of the events of 1965-76; the historians Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, writing in 2005, estimate three million.

Mao Zedong

One of the victims was Liu Shaoqi, president of the nation and second-in-command. Liu incurred Mao’s enmity in the early ’60s when the president traveled in the provinces and saw that Mao’s food policy was contributing to mass death. On January 27, 1962, Liu told party leaders the truth: “People do not have enough food.” The famine was halted but Liu was doomed. Mao, enraged at this questioning of his grand policy, plotted Liu’s demise for years, instigating the Cultural Revolution partly as a way to shove the president overboard (also because he believed that societal violence would be regenerating). Liu was put under house arrest in 1967 and kept barely alive for months, just short of starvation. He died on November 12, 1969.

As Liu slowly expired in the spring of 1968, another scene, rather more exuberant, was enacted half a world away in the streets of Paris. Giant art-deco posters of Mao, 10′ by 20′ in size, smiled benevolently down upon the city’s student protestors. Mao was a symbol to the young people of the idea that, given enough will and passion, they could create a new society from the ground up.

Mao had indeed accomplished that. But if the students had known the details of the Cultural Revolution they would have ripped down those posters. (Probably. On the other hand, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said in 1968, “We have to destroy culture.”)

Facts about Mao’s China were hard to come by in 1968 and for many years thereafter. We know more of the truth today. The scholarship of historians Chang and Halliday in “Mao: The Untold Story” (2005) gives weight to the idea that Mao Zedong was one of the cruelest men ever to control a vast population. Chang and Halliday believe that Mao was responsible for the deaths of more than 70 million Chinese in peacetime from violence and famine.

“Mao: The Untold Story” has caused an uproar among China watchers and has received varying reviews. The book was negatively reviewed by Andrew Nathan in The London Review of Books, by several scholars in a special issue of The China Journal, by David S.G. Goodman in The Pacific Review, and by Thomas Bernstein of Columbia University. It was praised by Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times, Simon Sebag Montefiore in the Times of London, Stuart Schram in The China Quarterly, Michael Yahuda in the Guardian, Perry Link in The Times Literary Supplement, and Richard Baum at China Digital Times (who called it “the most thoroughly researched and richly documented” scholarship on the rise of Mao, but also said the book is “frustratingly monochromatic in its dismissal of Mao as a ruthless, manipulative, backstabbing, blood-soaked bandit….”). The well-informed journalist and historian Jonathan Mirsky, writing in the Independent in Great Britian, describes the book’s achievement as “decisive” and “immense,” and comments, “Chang and Halliday have taken a wrecker’s ball to Mao, but they use the scalpel too. They have investigated every aspect of his personal life and his career, peeling back the layers of lies, myths, and what we used to think of as facts. Many of these facts were really lies….”

This article and its sidebar draw upon Chang & Halliday and several other sources including a biography by Ross Terrill and a memoir by Mao’s physician.


Mao Zedong was born on December 26, 1893. China was weak.

Starting a half century earlier with the first Opium War (1839-42), Western powers used superior military strength to dictate policy to the Ching dynasty, reducing one of the world’s proudest, oldest, and noblest civilizations to a supplier of manual labor and raw materials. Meanwhile, over the course of the 1800s, famine and armed conflict killed tens of millions of Chinese. Journalist Jennifer 8. Lee reports that, between 1850 and 1910, Taishan County in Guangdong Province suffered “fourteen great floods, seven typhoons, four earthquakes, two severe droughts, four epidemics, and five serious famines, plus a twelve-year ethnic war between locals and Hakka transplants.”

A paragraph from historians R.R. Palmer, Joel Colton, and Lloyd Kramer summarizes China’s condition at the time of Mao’s birth:

If the reader will imagine what the United States would be like if foreign warships patrolled the Mississippi as far as St. Louis, if foreigners came and went throughout the country without being under its laws, if New York, New Orleans, and other cities contained foreign settlements outside its jurisdiction, but in which all banking and management were concentrated, if foreigners determined the tariff policy, collected the proceeds, and remitted much of the money to their own governments, if the western part of the city of Washington D.C. had been burned (the Summer Palace), Long Island and California annexed to distant empires (Hong Kong and Indochina), and all New England were coveted by two immediate neighbors (Manchuria), if the national authorities were half in collusion with those foreigners and half victimized by them, and if large areas of the country were the prey to bandits, guerrillas, and revolutionary secret societies conspiring against the helpless government and occasionally murdering some of the foreigners – then the reader can understand how observant Chinese felt (at the end of the 19th century), and why the term ‘imperialism’ came to be held by so many of the world’s peoples in abomination.

The dimensions of the nation’s agony and humiliation would help shape Mao.

He grew up in Hunan Province, in the southeastern part of the country, in the village of Shaoshan, population 2,000. He loved his mother dearly; he fought bitterly with his father, a tough, stingy, wary peasant who clawed his way from poverty to modest affluence. “I learned to hate him,” said Mao later, an unusual sentiment in a culture steeped in filial respect.

A schoolmate recalled the young Mao as “arrogant, brutal, and stubborn.” He was also energetic, enthusiastic, intense, sensual, and poetic, interested in becoming a rebellious and romantic hero in common with the characters he read about in Chinese historical novels. He wasn’t much of a public speaker, but he had an innate ability to dominate gatherings of his peers.

He left home in 1910 at age 16 in search of better schooling. Around this time, he later said, he read a pamphlet that made him think carefully about societal change and how he might contribute to it. The pamphlet’s topic was foreign influence in China. Years later he recalled the opening sentence: “Alas, China will be subjugated!” As he read the words he likely felt a surge of pure nationalism, a duty to help his country become strong. (How could any young, energetic, intelligent, and patriotic Chinese citizen not feel such a thing?)

People who seek to perform such deeds, he said, need not be bound by ordinary moral constraints. He articulated this quasi-Nietzschean philosophy in his 20s. The elite, he wrote, should give “full play to their impulses….Everything outside their nature, such as restrictions and constraints, must be swept away by the great strength in their nature….When Great Heroes give full play to their impulses, they are magnificently powerful, stormy and invincible.” He added, “People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.”

Did this odious credo shape his entire adult life? Some scholars, including Chang and Halliday, say “yes”; others disagree.

During these formative years, Mao also decided that he was an expert on people’s reaction to upheaval: “Human nature loves sudden swift changes,” he wrote. “When we look at history, we adore the times of (war) when dramas happened one after another….Long-lasting peace is unendurable.”

In 1911 Chinese nationalists overthrew Emperor Pu Yi, ending 20 centuries of rule by royal dynasties. (See the 1987 film “The Last Emperor.”) Sun Yat-sen, leader of the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang) declared a republic on January 1, 1912; he was elected president, but he had no troops. The presidency fell into the lap of a man with an army, Gen. Yuan Shih-k’ai, but he died in 1916. The nation lacked central authority. Warlords controlled provinces. Foreign powers expanded their influence.

Meanwhile, China’s intellectuals debated what form of government would be best for the country. Some believed in liberal democracy. Others were anarchists. Still others looked to China’s traditions, such as Confucianism.

Many Chinese were excited by Marxism and Communism, which, in 1917, moved from abstract theory to real world application with the success of the Russian Revolution. Historian Margaret MacMillan writes,

The Russian Revolution offered (to many Chinese) an example of a traditional society, not unlike China’s, which had apparently skipped ahead to the future in one bold and glorious move. The disillusionment with the West, their own dismal experience wth Western-style democracy after 1911, and the clear alternative presented by Russia all came together to make communism seem the solution to China’s problems.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took shape in 1919-21; Mao Zedong became an early member. He supposedly made a prediction during this period: Communists could achieve power in “30 to 50 years’ time.” He saw himself, when he was 60 or 70, as supreme leader.

Mao served as a party organizer in the 1920s, traveling in the countryside, seeing firsthand that the peasantry (85 percent of China’s population) hated the landlord class and was lashing out at it violently. According to many historians, Mao, upon learning of this rural fury, decided that these country folk could be key instigators of a Communist revolution. This insight is an essential part of his legend – with it, he supposedly expanded the scope of Marxist thinking. Until then, Communist theory held that urban workers must generate revolution. Historians Chang and Halliday say that it was not Mao who got the Chinese Communist Party interested in the revolutionary potential of rural people but the dictates of Russian theoreticians. According to Chang and Halliday, Moscow dominated the CCP for many years, far longer and more extensively than many historians have thought.

Sun Yat-sen died in 1925. Two years later, Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, the new leader of Sun’s Nationalist Party, overcame the warlords and established a central government. Thus began a new phase in China’s trauma, a civil war between Nationalists and Communists that would rage for years.

The war nearly ended in the autumn of 1934 when Chiang’s army appeared to be closing in on the Communists, but starting in October, Mao led the Red Army on the “Long March” – about 80,000 men and women retreating through 11 provinces toward the northwest. This year-long trek is one of the major legitimizing events of the Communist movement in China. “It was for Mao’s China what the Exodus was for Israel,” writes historian Ross Terrill. Historians Chang and Halliday convincingly show that several aspects of the Long March transpired rather differently than scholars have believed. For example, a key battle, at Dadu Bridge, previously thought to have been a bloody affair that produced many martyrs, was apparently a cakewalk – Chang and Halliday show that the 22 Communist soldiers who led the bridge assault survived unscathed. Also, Mao didn’t do a lot of marching on the Long March – he was carried on a litter much of the way so that he could read.

Communists and Nationalists united, uneasily, to fight Japan from 1937 to 1945. Chiang Kai-shek’s influence peaked during these years. His wife, Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling), a graduate of Wellesley College, was described in 1937 by Life magazine as the “most powerful woman in the world.”

Mao and the Communists used the war years to do a fair bit of organizing and recruiting. With the surrender of Japan in 1945, the Chinese Civil War resumed, entering its final phase from 1946 to ’49. The U.S. supported Chiang financially but declined to send troops. Chiang’s position was untenable, as summarized by journalist and historian David Halberstam: “(Chiang’s) forces were corrupt, his generals held title on the basis of nepotism and loyalty, his best troops never fought; faced by mounting terrible pressures, he turned inward to listen to the gentle words of trusted family and sycophants. It was the sign of a dying order.” By contrast, writes Halberstam, the Communists under Mao were “powerfully motivated, almost prim and puritan in their attitudes to the world, their view of corruption.” The Communists won in 1949.

The U.S. supposedly “lost” China; this idea was promulgated by many American politicians, including Sen. Richard M. Nixon, who accused President Harry S. Truman of being “soft” on Chinese Communism. Sen. Joseph McCarthy found considerable fodder in the events of the late 1940s and early ’50s (Mao’s takeover, the Soviet atomic bomb, Alger Hiss, Korea) and spewed the most vicious demagoguery of 20th century American politics, significantly undermining the citizenry’s trust in its government, and laying some of the groundwork for belief today in conspiracy at the heart of American life. The “loss” of China had large consequences in the U.S. for decades to come, especially in Vietnam policy, with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations worried about the political consequences of another Asian state becoming Communist. (As late as 2008, 60 years after the fact, an article in U.S. News & World Report cited the “loss of China” as an element in how the public viewed the Democratic Party.)

China was not America’s to lose, of course. The U.S., writes Halberstam, looked for “scapegoats and conspiracies” in the complicated events of the late ’40s. This was “easier than admitting that there were things outside your control and that the world was an imperfect place in which to live.”

On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong, 55, founder of the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the central government council, stepped onto a podium overlooking Tiananmen Square and proclaimed, “The Chinese people have stood up.” This was quite true. After a century of kow-towing, these 600 million people – possessed of hundreds of language dialects, and as much diversity as Europe – stood as one. Mao made that happen. It’s a titanic achievement, the foundation for China’s explosive growth and vast potential in the 21st century.

Mao in 1949 wanted to quickly build a modern industrialized superpower from a backward state. And he wanted to create new human beings: committed, tireless, not interested in personal aggrandizement or material things, focused on Communist doctrine and Chinese greatness. His attempt to radically alter human nature would be one of history’s most ambitious such efforts, comparable to the quests of great religions.

Among the major events in China over the next quarter-century:

* The 1949-53 land reforms, during which Mao urged peasants to kill landlords and village leaders. Perhaps two million people died as a result.

* The “thought reform movement” that began in the early ’50s, which hoped to replace family loyalty (embedded in Chinese life for thousands of years) with fidelity to the state. Very little permanent change was wrought.

* The invasion of Tibet (1950-51). The Chinese termed the incursion a “peaceful liberation”; many people today disagree with that label.

* The Korean War of 1950-53, which killed one million Koreans, 250,000 Chinese, 34,000 Americans, and many non-U.S. soldiers serving in the United Nations force. With this conflict, Mao informed the world that China was a force to be reckoned with. (The best book on China’s entry into the conflict is “China’s Road to the Korean War” by Chen Jian [1996]. A complete historical reckoning of the war awaits the full opening of archives in China and North Korea.)

* The Marriage Law of 1950, guaranteeing the rights of women, one of the most far-reaching women’s rights laws of history. (See the 1934 silent film “The Goddess” and the 1958 film “China Doll” for a sense of the bleak condition of Chinese women under the old regimes.)

* An ideological split with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.

* The explosion of China’s first atomic bomb in 1964.

* The visit in 1972 by U.S. President Richard Nixon, the first summit contact between China and the U.S. in many years.

Two events stand out from these years:

* The Great Leap Forward (1958-62). This was Mao’s plan to achieve pure Communism overnight – history’s “most concentrated expression of the utopian Maoist developmental model” writes scholar Alfred L. Chan.

* The Cultural Revolution of 1965-76 (also known as the Great Purge) – Mao’s attempt to punish his enemies, re-establish authority, and renew the nation’s radical fervor.

The Great Leap Forward significantly changed the economic and political life of 20 percent of the world’s population in the space of one year, 1958. Millions of people moved from small collectives into self-supporting “people’s communes” consisting of several thousand households, in which all private property was confiscated and incomes were leveled.

Food output quickly fell. New farming techniques harmed the soil. Management was lacking. People were overworked, undernourished, and exhausted, and became disillusioned and apathetic. The revolutionary energy of 1949 dissipated, trumped by empty bellies. Many people committed suicide as a result of an accompanying campaign to shame and humiliate “doubtful elements.”

Then came the floods. Water inundated millions of acres of farmland in 1959. The combination of man-made and natural disasters resulted in a poor harvest. People began to starve, and they continued to starve for three years. A photograph from the period shows desperately hungry people with bulging eyes and creased foreheads, clutching bowls, looking at someone off-camera who may have a bit of rice to give out. There’s no precise reckoning for how many people died from hunger and disease during these years, but many scholars accept a figure in the range of 20 to 40 million.

Historians divide sharply on how much culpability to assign to Mao for the mass death of the Great Leap. Chang and Halliday, among others, implicate him thoroughly. Given the breadth and depth of their research, their indictment must be treated with respect. They write,

Mao knowingly starved and worked these tens of millions of people to death. During the two critical years 1958-1959, grain exports alone, almost exactly 7 million tons, would have provided the equivalent of over 840 calories per day for 38 million people – the difference between life and death….Had this food not been exported (and instead distributed according to humane criteria) very probably not a single person in China would have had to die of hunger….Mao had actually allowed for many more deaths. Although slaughter was not his purpose with the Leap, he was more than ready for myriad deaths to result, and had hinted to his top echelon that they should not be too shocked if they happened. At the May 1958 congress that kicked off the Leap, he told his audience they should not only not fear, but should actively welcome, people dying as a result of their Party’s policy….Death, said Mao, “is indeed to be rejoiced over….We believe in dialectics, and so we can’t not be in favour of death.” This airy yet ghoulish “philosophy” was relayed down to grassroots officials. In Fengyang county in Anhui, when one cadre was shown the corpses of people who had died from starvation and overwork, he (said): “If people don’t die, the earth won’t be able to hold them! People live and people die. Who doesn’t die?” Mao saw practical advantages in mass death. “Deaths have benefits,” he told the top echelon on 9 December 1958. “They can fertilise the ground.”….We can now say with assurance how many people Mao was ready to dispense with. When he was in Moscow in 1957, he had said: “We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution.” Indeed, Mao told the Party congress on 17 May 1958: “Don’t make a fuss about a world war. At most, people die….Half the population wiped out – this happened quite a few times in Chinese history….It’s best if half the population is left, next best one-third….” (Editor’s Note: Journalist David Rennie of The Economist writes, “The willingness of Mao to risk a nuclear war that would kill half the world has been well recorded.”)

With the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao lost some of his authority in the councils of government, and retreated to his lavish quarters to ponder what had gone wrong. One of his conclusions was that the country had failed him. His 15 years of unrelenting effort had not been enough to undo thousands of years of history. He decided that Chinese culture, and the Communist Party, were too conservative, too ingrained with old habits, too enamored of decadent Western ideas such as materialism. “We must smash conventions,” he said. A major benefit of such smashing, he decided, would be re-establishment of his dominance in the country’s life, and the purging of his enemies, including Liu Shaoqi.

Thus began the Cultural Revolution. Mao got the army to support him, and enlisted the aid of his wife, Jiang Qing, who had been pining for years for something to do and now became a “cultural adviser.” Upheaval began in late 1965 with Maoist criticisms of writers and government officials; in March of 1966 he encouraged young people to revolt against their teachers. The first Red Guards surfaced in the late spring of 1966 (including many teenagers) waving the so-called “Little Red Book” of Mao’s pronouncements. Destruction commenced.

Gangs of youths roamed the streets chanting slogans. Homes were ransacked. Restaurants and shops were shut down. Among the targets of Red Guard hatred: doctors, scientists, factory managers, teachers, school administrators, actors, master chefs, classical Chinese cuisine, silk, cosmetics, sunglasses, mah-jongg, rock music, neon signs, kite-flying, holding hands, and the Communist Party itself.

China descended once again into civil war as rival Red Guard factions battled each other with weaponry that had been earmarked for North Vietnam. Lynch mobs ran amok. Thousands of people died weekly.

(The film “The Last Emperor” makes an effort to show this period but is laughable in its effort to water things down. Did filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci make a deal with Chinese officials to downplay the horror in order to gain access to key Beijing locations?)

Mao became alarmed in the autumn of 1967 and called off the Red Guards. He ordered the army to restore order and suppress troublemakers, thus generating a new round of violence. He was restored to pre-eminence as his more moderate rivals were chased out of office, or killed, by the radical faction that surrounded him.

But his great energy was flagging. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1974 and also suffered from heart disease.

Vestiges of the Cultural Revolution continued in the last years of his life with his encouragement. Jiang Qing wielded considerable power and expected to succeed her husband as supreme leader, but when Mao died, on September 9, 1976, moderates arrested her as part of the “Gang of Four.” Jiang went on trial in 1981 for various crimes and was sentenced to death; the edict was commuted to life in prison. She committed suicide in 1991.

In the late ’70s and into the ’80s, the Chinese Communist Party rehabilitated many officials who had been thrown out during the previous years, including Deng Xiaoping, a canny politico who became the most powerful man in the nation. Some aspects of Mao’s reign remained in place – national unity, of course; certain of his land reforms; the rights of women – but large pieces of his thinking and policy were tossed onto the ash heap.


In his youth, Mao Zedong sincerely wanted to change China for the better. As he grew older, he saw himself as the best, perhaps the only, instrument for such change. Ego and love of power got mixed up in a poisonous stew. Lord Acton, the 19th century British historian, famously described the recipe: “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” Not corruption in the sense of taking bribes; corruption in the sense of coarsening the soul, straitjacketing empathy, diluting connection to others, and, in extreme cases, fostering madness.


China’s struggle continues even as the nation grows at a feverish pace. In 2008, as the country prepared for the Summer Olympic Games, Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote of the “yawning gap between the very attractive face that Beijing presents to the world and the much uglier political reality at home.” Journalist David Rennie wrote in 2008, “Beneath the Olympic glitz, there are still hundreds of millions of Chinese whose interests are ignored, whether as migrant workers or peasants without healthcare, or as victims of slave labour or low safety standards.”

Hundreds of millions. The phrase haunts China’s history. ●

Mao Sidebar:
Hot Peppers, Bad Teeth,
Lots of Sex

By Harold Frost

* Mao stood 5’ 10” tall and weighed, in the 1950s, around 190 pounds. He had broad shoulders, a big belly, and large feet; he reminded one visitor of “a sea elephant.” The food he most loved was spicy fare from his native Hunan province; his particular favorite was pork with hot peppers. He drank a little wine on occasion. He virtually never brushed his teeth – instead, he rinsed his mouth out with tea. His teeth developed a heavy green film and later loosened, turned black, and fell out.

* Mao’s sex life was unrestrained, according to his personal physician, Li Zhisui, whose memoir, “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” was published in 1994 to respectful reviews from China experts. Mao had sexual relations with a large number of women, most of whom were young and in awe of him. During his regular “dance parties” he would escort an eager young lady to “rest” in a private room. This had the double benefit of getting himself laid and showing his minions that he was still the Alpha Male, the cock of the walk, so to speak. He liked sexual variety – several young women at once, and, according to Li, young men on occasion. In old age Mao used ancient Chinese sexual practices that supposedly prolong life.

* He loved to be briefed. He had a gift for charming nervous visitors and getting them to open up and tell him what was really happening out in the world.

* An extremely energetic man, he was capable of working for up to 30 hours without interruption. But he was also prone to stress-related illnesses. If worried or unhappy he would take to his bed, sometimes for weeks, reading and napping (the bed was extra-size to accommodate his books and his young friends). He suffered from insomnia and took sleeping pills.

* Mao was married four times and had several children, evincing little interest in them.