History of China, part 2: Last Emperors and Mao

Mao and modern China

The last two emperor dynasties preceding modern China, Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1636-1912), each lasted exactly 276 years, and then the country had had enough of emperors, and they went for communism instead, which had been dreamt up by a German Jew in London and first put into large-scale practice by the Russians, with brutal results. And whatever you feel about it, the Chinese have enjoyed seventy-five years of peace since then, although their economic successes came only decades after those of democratic systems in the west.

Mao Zedong was of course China’s Twentieth-Century Man. He was born in Hunan, where I am writing these words, on the second day of Christmas in the same year as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Hermann Göring, but I’m quite sure the three never met. He was a Renaissance Man: an accomplished poet, political thinker, super organiser, and military strategist. His portrait still adorns many buildings, dashboards, and living rooms today, as I’ve noticed during my evening walks and taxi rides. You can find his iconic features on sale at my local market, woven into carpets, slickly printed on gilded wood, and cast as busts.

His strict dad had made it from poor peasant to wealthy landowner, and beat him a lot as a child. The young Mao tried his mum’s Buddhism for a while but fell out of faith as a teenager. First, he admired George Washington and loved the idea of democracy for China. A regional famine caused hungry peasants to seize his father’s grain and, at 16, his loyalties were torn. By then, he’d already been married for four years in order to unite two landowning families. He hated his wife, who was four years older, but still a teenager, too, and left her, after which she died, disgraced. What respect Mao still had for the old ways of China, died then as well.

Soon he cut off his long, braided pig tail, the hairstyle that showed loyalty to the emperor. Sun Yat-sen, a local, British-educated Christian rebel thinker, became his idol and Mao joined a rebellious army, but before he got a chance to fight, they had won and the monarchy was abolished. Then 18 years old, Mao stumbled upon socialism and loved it even more than Buddha, democracy, and Christ.


He tried, and dropped out of, five schools in a row, but started reading the political section at his local library, devouring Spencer, Mill, Rousseau, and even Darwin, and toyed with the tenets of liberalism. His dad hated Mao’s reading appetite and cut his allowance so he had to move to the poorhouse, where he decided to become a teacher and writer, and his first article stressed how a person’s physical strength needed training to help China onward. He loved showing off his own strength, and finished the teachers’ academy at the age of 26 and very fit. In an interesting parallel with other nationalist leaders like Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler, Mao was bullied and snubbed by the elites and intellectuals at university for his rural accent, which surely helped to ally himself with the common people.

Mao went to Beijing to work as a library assistant, living in a single room-apartment with seven other men from his home province. His parents died a few months apart, but Mao did not go back home for the funerals, instead moving to Shanghai. The big spark under his revolutionary movement was, surprisingly, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which really has a lot to answer for, historically speaking. Under its provisions, the Chinese territories that Germany was forced to give up, were given to Japan. Mao blamed China’s social and cultural backwardness for this debacle, and his lifelong obsession with cultural reform had started in earnest.

Advocating trade unions, feminism, aid for the poor, and well-organised strikes: back in his old province Hunan, now as a teacher, Mao just couldn’t sit still. During a visit in Beijing, he discovered that his early writings had become quite famous there; he also picked up a fresh translation of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto and there was no stopping him from then on. In the post-dynastic power vacuum, many governors were really just warlords, so he had easy targets. Opening a revolutionary bookshop was the first step.

A nationalist Chinese group led by Chiang Kai Shek was now slowly taken over by communists like Mao, and this proved a potent cocktail for change, strengthened when he revisited his old home town and its peasantry. This resulted in his wonderfully-penned Regulations for the Repression of Local Bullies and Bad Gentry, where everybody who owned more than four acres of land was automatically the enemy of the revolution, and which encouraged farmers to stop paying rent altogether.

Chiang Kai Shek, a Japanese-educated leader, was in charge of China at the time and started to come down hard on the communists, executing tens of thousands of them. In desperation, Mao turned to poetry and penned his first famous verses, entitled Changsha:

I see a thousand hills

crimsoned through

By their serried woods deep-dyed

And a hundred barges vying

Over crystal blue waters.

Eagles cleave the air

Fish glide in the limpid deep

Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.

Brooding over this immensity

I ask, on this boundless land

Who rules over man’s destiny?

That would be Mao himself of course, that ruler, but not for a while. In 1930, his wife and his sister were beheaded by the nationalists, and he suffered from tuberculosis after several military setbacks.

He Zizhen

But Mao married a lovely, firy 18-year-old who gave him five children and he was clearly on the way up this time. The biggest battle dramas took place, as if by fate, in his home province of Hunan. From there, he fought himself slowly north, for years, in the marshes, crossing rivers and mountains with dwindling forces that succumbed to famine and disease, struggling against everything the Beijing powers could throw at him – things like Islamic cavalry militia. With barely 7,000 survivors, his Long March ended not far from Beijing. He Zizhen, his firebrand wife, got some shrapnel stuck in her head and travelled to Moscow for treatment, which must have been a welcome respite for Mao, because he divorced her immediately and replaced her with a younger one, an actress this time, before taking a well-deserved study break, living in a cave and tending his garden.

Pragmatically, Mao teamed up with his foe, Chiang Kai Shek, but they could not prevent the atrocities of the Nanking Massacre, of which Mao never spoke a word in his lifetime. However, that Japanese barbarity caused an outrage that made the Chinese resistance army swell tenfold in size, and together they won some impressive battles against the Japanese. Although the Americans were much more impressed with Mao’s faction because of his tight organisation’s relative lack of corruption, they sided with Chiang Kai Shek’s forces because, well, these weren’t communist.

Nevertheless, Mao won out after another ten bloody years of civil war and Chiang Kai Shek fled to Taiwan, causing a split that is still playing out today.

It is hard for a later generations to hold nuanced views of their national uniter hero, as can be seen with the myth-building around brilliant yet flawed strongmen such as Augustus, Napoleon, Atatürk, Bolívar, Piłsudski, and Lenin. The first sixty years of Mao were really rather mythically glorious. But during the next twenty-two, he often lost the plot with nightmarish results.

Mao took up residence next door to the Forbidden City and conducted his office either from his bed, or poolside, and in leisurewear if possible. This business included organising the execution of millions of landowners and rich peasants during mass beatings all over rural China. Some policies, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, initiated waves of several million suicides, when many people realised what was coming and took the merciful way out. In 1950s Shanghai, so many people would jump from tall buildings that pedestrians avoided the pavements near skyscrapers for fear of being hit by a jumper.

Unquestionably, Mao’s darkest hour was his industrial revolution programme that pulled millions of farmers into steel factories, the Great Leap Forward, which saw agricultural production plummet, resulting in the starvation of 52 million Chinese in the late 1950s, a trauma still felt and remembered by older residents all over the country.

Many lower-level bureaucrats had wildly exaggerated the amount of farm produce in their areas to raise their personal profiles, and now it turned out that the food wasn’t there. Amazingly, Mao’s government kept exporting foods during the famine. He was not told the extent of the disaster – nobody close to him was brave enough to own up to the truth. When he finally found out, he stopped eating meat. The programme also failed its primary objective because the scrap metal, often melted down from household items, was of such low quality that much steel proved useless.

Some of his enduring achievements included the eradication of opium use (by forcing cold turkey and counselling on ten million addicts), and ceasing all poppy production in the 1950s. He pushed simplified Chinese writing and later Pinyin, (which is Chinese written in the Latin alphabet). Literacy more than tripled during his reign, education became mandatory for all, satellites were sent into space as early as 1970, healthcare was free, and Mao wildly propagated the mango as the wonderful fruit that it clearly is. And if you survived his programmes, life expectancy was twice what it was before, so that despite the many avoidable deaths, China’s population doubled during Mao’s time in power. Also, he was the first Chinese leader in three millennia who did not want his son to take over, instead opting for a system of merit that has definitely worked for China since then.


Finally, we cannot leave out his eponymous hairstyle, the telephone receiver sitting askance the skull. He’d already tried mullets and quiffs in all sizes by the time he’d purged his own hairdresser, when his fourth wife came up with the idea of the ill-fitting headphones, and it stuck.

Mao only left China twice, both times to Russia, and the world may have been grateful for that. He felt looked down upon by his hosts, first Stalin and then Khrushchev, and planned his sweet revenge by hosting the latter in Beijing for high-level strategic talks in his swimming pool. Short, clumsy Nikita could not swim and had to enter the water with inflatable water wings around his arms, flapping about nervously for hours while Mao confidently whizzed through the water, extrapolating his doctrine.

mao-swim copy

At 68, he took in a 14-year-old concubine and stayed with her for 10 years. All in all, he fathered ten kids with four wives. He loved pork belly with caramel sugar and he never brushed his teeth, because, as he asked, “does a tiger brush his teeth?” No, but tigers don’t eat caramelised pork either, and the chain-smoking didn’t help, so he was a smelly chairman indeed. His long-time doctor published brutal memoirs in the 1990s, stating that Mao downed dozens of sleeping pills every day, suffered from horrendous constipation all his life, and relished in his personality cult. Mao still lived into his eighties and now lies in quartz crystal coffin in his mausoleum, looking just like he did when he died in 1976, all preserved and waxed up – even though he wanted to be cremated. By far his coolest widow, He Zizhen, was only allowed to see him there once, after she promised not to cry or speak.


His last smart move had been to throw his support behind Deng Xiaoping, with whom he’d disagreed for decades, but somehow always respected, and who would lead China out of communism, economically speaking.

Will modern China also last 276 years, like the previous two dynasties? History proves that it will always be a force to be reckoned with. For the next few decades, it does not take a clairvoyant to see that the growing middle classes, and the world-savvy youngsters, travelling and working abroad, will expect more of a say in how their country is run. Several big cities already publish their budgets online for all to see and judge. Here in Yueyang, the city invites 100 people every year to contribute ideas on how to improve their city. Having a stake in one’s society can only be a force for the good, and it is already happening. Soon, China will be the leader of the world once more.