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Cold War Files: All Units: People: Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
b. December 26, 1893 - d. September 9, 1976
Co-founder, Chinese Communist Party, 1921; Leader, People's Republic of China, 1949-1976

Mao Zedong, Chinese Communist leader, was born in Hsiang-t’an, Hunan province, China on December 26, 1893. Mao grew up in a peasant family of sufficient means. From eight to thirteen he was educated in the Chinese classics. For the next two years he helped his father in the fields. In 1910, he left home to attend school. Next year, when an anti-Ch’ing Dynasty revolution broke out, Mao joined a revolutionary group but soon quit to continue his education. He took part in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, and in 1921, was one of the creators of the Chinese Communist Party.

In the Nationalist-Communist coalition against warlords formed in 1924, Mao soon became known as an effective peasant organizer. When the Nationalists and the Communists split in 1927, Mao started the Autumn Harvest Uprising and set up a “Soviet Republic” in Kiangsi province.

Under persistent Nationalist attacks, in 1934, Mao’s Red Army had to abandon its base area. One year later, after what is known as the “Long March,” Mao and his followers reached Shensi province in northwestern China. Here, in the coming ten years, Mao refined his revolutionary theories, consolidated his leadership in the party, and while fighting in an alliance with the Nationalists against the Japanese invaders, dramatically expanded the Communist force. During this period Mao also developed his military theories which had a strong influence on the Chinese Communist Army. In the war with the Nationalists that followed the Japanese surrender, Mao’s army cleared mainland China of the Nationalists by 1949, and Mao became the head of the newly founded People's Republic of China (PRC).

In early October 1950, when U.N. Forces reversed the course of the Korean War, Mao decided to intervene in spite of differing opinions from some of his more wary colleagues. Although it is unknown what Mao’s original plan was—to unite Korea or just to drive the U.N. Forces out of North Korea—by early 1951, he had become prudent. At this time he instructed Peng Dehuai, the commander in chief of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA): “Win a quick victory if you can; if you can’t, win a slow one.” According to Mao, a Chinese victory would prove of enormous strategic and psychological value, but even the more likely stalemate between backward China and the mighty U.S.A. would still amount to something like a victory. In defeat, China would simply abandon its coastal provinces, as in World War II, and fight on from the interior a “protracted war.”

The outcome of the war certainly enhanced the prestige of Mao as a Communist leader, though he paid a high price. Among other things, he lost his elder son, who died during an American air raid in Korea; he may also have missed a chance to complete China’s unity—a separate Taiwan remained one of his major concerns for the rest of his life.

In 1972, Mao received President Richard M. Nixon in Beijing, symbolizing the opening of a new U.S. PRC relationship.
Mao died in Beijing Sept. 9, 1976, in the position of chairman of the Chinese Communist Party.


Son of a prosperous peasant, Mao was born in Hunan province on December 26, 1893. Although he worked in the fields from an early age, Mao also received enough schooling to develop an interest in learning. This drew him back to school at age 16. Next, he worked at various teaching jobs and became active in radical student groups. In 1921 he was a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party. Soon afterward, he began to develop his theory of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, which deviated from the traditional Marxist-Leninist emphasis on the industrial proletariat.

After the bloody communist fallout with Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, Mao established a base in the southern Kiangsi province. He began to put into practice his ideas about a revolutionary peasantry by way of a guerrilla war against the government. In 1934, Chiang's armies closed in, but the communist forces escaped for their "Long March" to the northwestern Shenshi province. When the Chinese civil war resumed after 1945, Mao and his movement were able to use their rural foundation to outmaneuver and eventually overwhelm the Nationalists. Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949.

In 1950, China concluded a mutual defense pact with Stalin's Soviet Union, and together Moscow and Beijing supported North Korea in its attack on South Korea. Soviet-Chinese relations deteriorated during the 1950s, when both sides competed for pre-eminence in the world communist movement, particularly in the Third World. Relations during the 1960s were outright tense, and in 1969 the sides even fought a brief border war. The Sino-Soviet split helped Mao's regime accept a normalization of relations with the United States. Although Beijing continued to resent Washington's support for Taiwan, in 1972 Mao welcomed U.S. President Richard Nixon in Beijing.

Domestically, Mao's record is dominated by two disastrous initiatives: the "Great Leap Forward," a broad campaign to organize peasants into communes during the late 1950s that resulted in mass starvation and repression; and the "Cultural Revolution," a youth- and army-driven nationwide campaign for ideological purity, again resulting in widespread repression and death. The Cultural Revolution was still sputtering under the leadership of Mao's wife, Chiang Ch'ing, when Mao died on September 9, 1976, at age 82.

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