Mao Zedong: Liberator or Oppressor of China? Michael Lynch Introduces the Controversial Career of a Gargantuan Figure in Chinese and Modern World History. (Profiles in power)(Cover Story)

By Lynch, Michael | History Review, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Mao Zedong: Liberator or Oppressor of China? Michael Lynch Introduces the Controversial Career of a Gargantuan Figure in Chinese and Modern World History. (Profiles in power)(Cover Story)


Lynch, Michael, History Review


The setting is Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the capital of China. The date is August 1966. The Square is packed with a vast throng of young people. In unison, their faces a picture of ecstasy, they wave their little red books of the sayings of Chairman Mao and repeatedly scream and chant his name. The object of their adoration, who stands on the balcony of the South Gate overlooking the Square, is a drug addicted 73-year-old womaniser. He is also the ruler of a quarter of the world's population.

Such scenes remain one of the most powerful images of twentieth-century China. The worship of Chairman Mao Zedong was extreme, but it was not wholly irrational. It was a recognition of what he had achieved for China. Those many millions of Chinese who ritualistically intoned `Mao, Mao, Mao Zedong' saw him as the supreme hero who had freed their country from a century of humiliation at the hands of the foreigner. One of the titles given him was `the red sun rising in the east', an apt metaphor for the man who, having led a momentous social and political revolution in China, went on to make his country a nuclear Superpower, defying the USA, displacing the Soviet Union as the leader of international socialism, and becoming the model for the struggle against colonialism.

Imperial China

The China into which Mao Zedong was born in 1893 was a deeply troubled land. For centuries it had believed itself to be superior to all other cultures and had deliberately avoided foreign contacts. But by the end of the nineteenth century its self-belief had been shattered. Since the 1840s a number of Western nations, principally Britain, Germany, France and the USA, had forced the Chinese to enter into a series of `unequal treaties' which obliged them to surrender sovereign territory and accept trade on Western terms. By 1900 over 50 Chinese `treaty ports' were in foreign possession. The people's bitterness at such humiliation created mounting dissatisfaction with the imperial government. The inability of the ruling Qing (Manchu) dynasty to protect China encouraged the growth of a revolutionary movement whose chief aim was to achieve `a revolution against the world to join the world', to end China's subjection to the West by adopting progressive Western political and economic ways.

Mao's Early Years

Mao was born into a relatively well-to-do landed family in Hunan province. He was what might be termed a `natural rebel'. Doted on by his mother, he fell out with his father and refused to show him the respect traditionally expected of Chinese sons. As a teenager, Mao played a small role as a volunteer soldier in Changsha in the Chinese Revolution of 1911, which saw the collapse and abdication of the Qings. He then moved to Beijing where he furthered his education and in 1919 took up a post as librarian in Beijing University. It was there that he was introduced to Marxist ideas and developed the conviction that if China was to be truly regenerated it would have to undergo a profound social and political revolution.

His belief was strengthened by his awareness that the 1911 revolution had brought China little benefit. Although a republican government had replaced the imperial system, it exercised only nominal power. Throughout China local warlords and factions struggled to assert authority. Mao recorded the savagery that became commonplace:

   During my student days in Hunan, the city was overrun by the forces of 
   rival warlords--not once but half a dozen times. Twice the school was 
   occupied by troops and all the school funds confiscated. The brutal 
   punishments inflicted on the peasants include such things as gouging out 
   eyes, ripping out tongues, disembowelling and decapitation, slashing with 
   knives and grinding with sand, burning with kerosene and branding with red 
   hot irons. The situation was appalling. People had nothing to eat; families 
   were split up. 

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Mao Zedong: Liberator or Oppressor of China? Michael Lynch Introduces the Controversial Career of a Gargantuan Figure in Chinese and Modern World History. (Profiles in power)(Cover Story)
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