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Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward: Master or Monster?

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One of the greatest, oddest monuments of all time: the young, handsome, dynamic Mao Zedong, wart and all, on top of a mountain at Juzizhou, China. The statue is 32 metres high, a suitably huge monument to the leader of the revolution. (Author: 刻意; Source: here)

 

Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward: Master or Monster?

‘A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.’ Mao Zedong

The 1960s are famous as a time of radical change. As the generation that had been during the Second World War came to adulthood, technology developed and tastes changed so as to mark a step-change in the attitudes, values and goals of many, although not the majority of people. The changes of that decade usually focus on things like The Beatles, hippies, protests and the moon landings but there were also fascinating developments to be found in the many bookshops on Britain’s high streets. One of the ‘new’ books which caused more than a little controversy was ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by DH Lawrence (1885-1930), Nottingham’s  most famous literary son, which had originally been published in 1928 but only became available in the shops after the famous obscenity trial in 1961. It flew off the shelves after the trial which approved its publication. The trial itself attracted huge publicity and reflected a significant change in social values in Britain. One comment by the barrister who led the prosecution, Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC, showed how out of touch some members of the ‘establishment’ had become since the book had been written: ‘Is this the type of book that you would wish your wife or servants to read?’ However, while Lawrence’s work threatened and disturbed many people for its language (lots of swearing) and subject matter (lots of sex), it was not the most disturbing book of that decade for many people. For that ‘honour’, we have to delve into the murky world of ideology and politics, as it was ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’, better known as ‘The Little Red Book’, which really sent shock waves around Britain and the Western world.

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DH Lawrence (1885-1930), the slightly unlikely looking man behind the controversial ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He has probably not appeared in many articles about Chairman Mao before. (Author: Unknown; Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University here)

As it suggests, ‘Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung’ contains the sayings of the famous leader of China, Chairman Mao’. ‘Mao Tse-Tung’ was the old way of spelling his name and today it is usually spelt ‘Mao Zedong’, rather like ‘Peking’ has become ‘Beijing’. This was the most printed book of the 20th century with over 5 billion copies made and was at the forefront of a massive propaganda campaign which aimed to explain Mao’s policies and the values of Communism to the people of China. It also became a huge propaganda tool in the West where many copies appeared in the hands of, mostly, young people. The book itself came to prominence during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China in the mid-sixties and became hugely popular around the world, being seen as a part of the Eastern wisdom which was so potent amongst many young, wealthy Westerners at the time. This was an age when increasing numbers of people, especially the young, were disillusioned with traditional Western politics, lifestyle and philosophy and started to look to the East for hope and ‘salvation’. This embracing of Eastern values was seen in numerous ways at the time: the opening prayer at Woodstock in 1969 was offered by Yogi Bhajan; The Beatles, Mike Love of ‘The Beach Boys’, Mia Farrow, Donovan and other stars travelled to India seeking enlightenment; and many hippies simply dropped out and smoked their way from Marrakesh to Vietnam. On the back of this love-affair with the East, Mao was presented as an almost mystical figure, a god-like character who could inspire a new way of living which was beyond the imagination of traditional leaders in the West. His ‘wisdom’ was available in the ‘The Little Red Book’, a radical expression of those traditional Eastern values for modern times. While this might have been the interpretation, though, the reality of life behind the book was a somewhat different tale. Most people knew little or nothing of life in China so that Mao’s words were devoid of context and not supported by any evidence. Whereas Mao’s words seemed to speak of a gentle wisdom, the sort of thing a spiritual master might share with his disciples, the truth was that his methods led to death and suffering on an unimaginable scale in China itself. Perception might have presented Mao as a ‘Master’ but reality offers us a ‘Monster’.

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Mao Zedong looking very happy in about 1950 (Author: The People’s Republic of China Printing Office; Source: here)

As we have said, for Mao’s supporters, the ‘Little Red Book’ was full of wisdom and guidance for anyone wanting to reach a Communist utopia. For his enemies, on the other hand, these were the aggressive, confused, dishonest ramblings of an extreme dictator in the tradition of Joseph Stalin. Here are three examples of his writings which can range from the rather aggressive to the reasonable and thoughtful, at least as words on paper:

“People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs! People of the world, be courageous, dare to fight, defy difficulties and advance wave upon wave. Then the whole world will belong to the people. Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed.”

“Our comrades must understand that ideological remoulding involves long-term, patient and painstaking work, they must not attempt to change people’s ideology, which has been shaped over decades of life, by giving a few lectures or by holding a few meetings. Persuasion, not compulsion, is the only way to convince them. Compulsion will never result in convincing them. To try to convince them by force simply won’t work. This kind of method is permissible in dealing with the enemy, but absolutely impermissible in dealing with comrades or friends.”

“We should be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and rashness, and serve the Chinese people heart and soul. Our point of departure is to serve the people wholeheartedly and never for a moment divorce ourselves from the masses, to proceed in all cases from the interests of the people and not from one’s self-interest or from the interests of a small group, and to identify our responsibility to the people with our responsibility to the leading organs of the Party.”

To understand the ‘Little Red Book’, of course, it is necessary to know something about Mao himself, one of the most important figures of the Twentieth Century. Mao Zedong was born in Shaoshan, in the Hunan province of China in 1893, the son of a peasant farmer. At that time, China was still ruled by an Emperor, Guangxu (1871-1908), the penultimate Chinese Emperor of all time. This was a time of increasing unrest in the country, a time of trouble which would bring the end of the empire in 1911 and see the establishment of the Chinese Republic the following year. The story of that ‘Chinese Revolution’, in which Mao took part as a soldier, is, however, another story.

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Shaoshan railway station makes a lot of the fact that the ‘great man’ was born there. You might also like to know that this was the original home of the ‘Mao Family Restaurant’, which is now a chain found in many cities across China; it’s a strange world at times. (Author: Troy Parfitt; Source: here)

Another topic that will have to wait for another post is the fuller story of Mao Zedong’s life before he came to be leader of China and, indeed, so much of the other interesting stuff that surrounds his time in power. As you’ll see if you do any research of your own, the books on Mao are almost always very long simply because there is so much to cover and so much opinion on what he did and why he did it. If you want to pick up on a few points from those first 56 years of his life, you could focus on a few dates: 1911 and his involvement in the revolution to end the Chinese Empire; 1925 and his role in Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) alongside key figures such Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao and, his arch enemy of later years, Jiang Jieshi; 1935 and the extraordinary struggles of ‘The Long March’; 1937 and the Second World War with the struggle to overthrow the Japanese forces through carefully orchestrated guerilla warfare.

Mao became leader of China in 1949 when the Communist Revolution overthrew Jiang Jieshi (also known as ‘Chiang Kai-shek’, (1887-1975)) and his Nationalist forces, the Kuomintang. Victory had finally been won after Mao’s forces won the Chinese Civil War, a struggle which had raged on and off for more than a quarter of a century and where the Nationalists had been backed with aid from the West, especially the USA, which took a real interest in Chinese affairs. The China that Mao came to rule in the middle of the century had the largest population in the world, some 350 million people, but it was a poor, economically under-developed country in which most people worked as farmers and there was very little by way of a modern infrastructure or advanced technology. It faced similar challenges to those of the USSR in the 1920’s, so change in some form was needed if it were to survive in the increasingly competitive post-war world, a world dominated politically by the Cold War and economically by capitalism and the forces of globalisation.

Mao Zedong was a huge admirer of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR from 1928 to 1953, and he was been horrified when Nikita Khrushchev attacked Stalin in his ‘Secret Speech’ at the XXth Party Congress in 1956. Mao had actually visited Moscow in 1950 to seek Stalin’s approval and guidance for the country, and was always willing to defer to the man he recognised as the leader of ‘world Communism’. Mao trusted Stalin, believing in his strong style of leadership which made him happy to play second-fiddle to the USSR, and giving the Kremlin leader precedence within Communism as the ‘older brother’. But when Stalin was attacked and his legacy threatened by Khrushchev, it was too much for Mao, who became increasingly wary of Moscow and started to offer an alternative model of leadership and support to other Communist states. For Mao, Khrushchev was effectively a traitor to the Communist cause and their relationship became increasingly tense and awkward. While the West, and especially Washington, saw Communism as one family controlled by Moscow, the reality was always different, something no US president fully understood until Richard Nixon came to power in 1968. The strength of Mao’s commitment to Stalin’s style and methods were seen in two major events: the extraordinary ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the late 1950s and the bizarre and tragic ‘Cultural Revolution’ which started in 1966.

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Front cover of a school textbook in 1971 showing Chinese Red Guards fighting with a pen and announcing the message from ‘The Little Red Book’; a wonderful example of propaganda. (Author: Giulia Villa; Source: here)

Let’s start with a look at ‘The Great Leap Forward’. Karl Marx had believed that Communism would first be established in one of the advanced industrial economies of Europe, such as Germany, France or Britain. He would have been shocked to see it first appear in Russia and then imposed by force in Eastern Europe before taking control of China. Russia and China were predominantly agricultural economies which had little by way of a complex capitalist structure with the mass exploitation of workers, while the use of force to impose control on the population of eastern Europe went against any idea of the the uprising of the people to overthrow oppressive rulers. The lack of economic development was an essential problem in the USSR where Stalin recognised the country’s industrial fragility and so forced industrialisation on what was an agricultural society through the ‘Five Year Plans’ after 1928. The cost was huge in terms of human suffering but the progress achieved had effectively driven the Soviet Union to victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45 and established the country as a ‘Superpower’. In twenty years, the USSR went from being a peasant economy where many ploughs were pulled by people, to one which had produced its own Atom Bomb. Mao faced a similar situation in China, where the vast majority of the people lived in the countryside and worked as peasant farmers. In homage to Stalin and in direct opposition to advice from Khrushchev, Mao decided to impose his own version of the Five Year Plans on China. This was to be the ‘Great Leap Forward’, the massive and rapid industrialisation of the country.

The ‘Great Leap Forward’ began in 1958. It echoed not only Stalin’s goals from thirty years before but also his methods. The people and culture of the country had clearly not produced the ‘desired’ system so force had to be used. The majority of farms, which were small and independent, were to be taken over by the State and the land would become part of a huge industrial farming structure, under a system of ‘collectivisation’. This was a direct echo of what had happened in the USSR in the 1930s and played such a key role in the Ukrainian famine, an appalling tragedy which had killed some seven million people. New technology was to be used to replace the peasant farmers who would then be moved to urban areas, which would become the focus for huge industrial developments. Fertile rice paddies were ploughed up and replaced by factories in what turned into one of the greatest disasters of all time. However, the new farming methods did not work as people did not know how to use them, schedules were changed too dramatically and there was a huge loss of experience and skills. Everything happened too quickly and was chaotic; and no one was able to challenge it under fear of death.

The ‘Great Leap Forward’ was an almost total disaster, a situation which was epitomised by the thousands of small furnaces which were set up across the country. In backyards and on streets, the people made their own furnaces in an attempt to make steel, the goal being to overtake Britain for its level of steel production. The use of quotas and targets was another thing which echoed Stalin’s ‘plans’ and the people responded with a mix of fervour and fear. Pots and pans, door handles and old tools were amongst the things melted down in an attempt to increase production of steel for massive projects, such as factories, transport, mining and power. The energy and resources poured into the whole project of industrialisation was so wasteful that overall production of key resources failed to reach anything like the planned levels. And it was all a waste of time as the quality of the steel produced was so poor as to be useless; as Ian Dury and the Blockheads once sang: ‘What a waste’.

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This propaganda poster calls on Chinese people to produce more steel: “Take steel as the key link, leap forward in all fields.” It’s hardly the snappiest slogan of all time but it’s a clear message and a classic image. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The problems caused in the towns were terrible but those in the countryside were even worse. Unrealistic targets, attacks on those who challenged the system and the loss of experienced workers combined to create harvest failures on a massive scale. One of the worst famines of modern times was the result and at least 20 million people died. Some estimates actually put the death toll at over 40 million, which would make it the worst recorded ‘natural’ disaster of all time. And the blame for what happened lies sully on the shoulders of Chairman Mao Zedong, making him a serious contender for the title of the ‘greatest killer of all time’. But the full details of the tragedy did not emerge for many years because Mao made sure that there was a total suppression of information. No one was allowed to mention the famine, deaths and problems associated with the failed experiment so that no resources were diverted to help those in need. The ‘Great Leap Forward’ came to an abrupt end in 1961 and was a disaster on an unprecedented scale.

One footnote to the tragedy of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ was the fate of Tree Sparrows in China, one of those sad, simple stories which show human beings at their worst. As part of the campaign for industrialisation, Mao launched an attack on what were known as the ‘Four Great Pests’, namely, rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows. Regarding the sparrows, Mao believed that they were eating grain and so disrupting agricultural production – and they had to go. No one knows quite how many birds died but it was in their many millions that these small birds fell to the ground. The usual plan was for people to make as much noise as possible so that the sparrows would not settle in the trees to rest and so fall to the ground exhausted. This was done by banging pots and pans, waving flags or simply shouting. Birds were shot, traps were set, nests were torn down, stones were thrown and eggs were broken in an attempt to wipe out the Tree Sparrows. The campaign was a part of the disaster, though, as too many sparrows died which allowed a plague of locusts and grasshoppers to attack the harvest. It was a tragic ecological footnote to an horrific human disaster.

Mao was less secure in his position as Chairman following the disaster of the ‘Great Leap Forward’. His behaviour became increasingly eccentric and he withdrew from public view more and more, adopting an approach similar to one of the old Emperors rather than that of the ‘Father of the Nation’. In an attempt to re-assert control over the Communist Party and the country, Mao launched the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966. One feature of this plan to re-gain control of the state was the publication of the ‘Little Red Book’. Red Army soldiers, children at school, students at university and ordinary people in the street were expected to have their copy and to read it. It was seen at rally after rally and it was read out at meetings, on the street and over the radio. For a person to read the works of other authors or to question Mao’s ideas in any way was enough to unleash the most severe consequences. This period saw a ban on the publication of new books or the presentation of new ideas on just about any topic. Journals on the arts were banned and art schools were closed. Old monuments and temples were attacked and the works of Confucius were amongst those burnt; only the books of Lu Xun were allowed. Lu Xun (1881-1936) was the one author Mao admired and saw as completely acceptable with regard to Communism, although the author himself never joined the Chinese Communist Party.

The ‘Cultural Revolution’ was a drastic and devastating attempt to ‘purify’ Chinese society of all opposition, rather in the style of Stalin in the ‘Great Purges’ and the ‘Show Trials’ of the 1930s. It was a classic example of what extreme dictators do: they dictate in extreme ways. Mao aimed to re-establish his control over the Communist Party and thousands of people were removed as a part of this process, including former allies, leaders and critics. The most high profile casualty was the man who appeared to be Mao’s heir, Lin Biao, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1969, shades of Stalin’s removal of Trotsky perhaps. The ‘Cultural Revolution’ had clear echoes of Stalinism, as it involved attacks on any form of opposition to Mao, especially focusing on landowners and ‘intellectuals’. In reality, this was all an attempt to expose and remove any officials who questioned Mao’s methods or showed any support for the Soviet model of Communism. It set back any hope of political and economic progress in China by a generation.

In echoes of Stalin’s use of propaganda, this most dark episode had to be ‘sold’ as a triumph and there was a widespread use of posters, songs and badges carrying Mao’s image. Here is a translation of one song from those days but you will have to work out any tune for yourselves:

Ten hundred million people unite in fighting; our red state power stands firm.

A new generation is growing to maturity,

Going against the wind and breaking the waves, they are the heroes.

The industries learn from Daqing,

And the agricultural sector learns from Dazhai.

News of victory is reported all around the country.

Seven hundred million people follow Chairman Mao,

To continue revolution and walk forward.

 

The Cultural Revolution is good!

The Cultural Revolution is good!

The Proletarian Cultural Revolution is indeed good,

Oh, indeed good, indeed good and indeed, indeed good!

 

There were so many horror stories from these days that they are impossible to list. Anyone who was wealthy could see their house taken from them and the whole family forced to live in one room. Red Guards could enter a house and simply destroy anything they chose to see as a sign of being one of the ‘bourgeoisie’, such as a painting, a chair or having meat in the house when others didn’t. Wearing western clothes or having a foreign book or music in your house could bring the most severe punishment. To forget a saying from the ‘Little Red Book’ could bring a beating or imprisonment, as well as the loss of a job. Certain foreign nationals faced particular dangers, such as the Tibetans, a situation which has echoes today in the plight of that nation. The children of the rich were sometimes simply murdered for their privileged background, the bodies being thrown onto rubbish tips. And while all this was happening, rather like in the French revolution, no one was able to question what was happening for fear of their own death.

The Cultural Revolution resulted in the deaths of an estimated 7 million people between 1966 and 1976. It’s the sort of number that doesn’t sound too bad if you say it quickly but that is pretty much the same as the deaths in the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 and the equivalent of, say, twice the population of modern Berlin, although all such comparisons are pretty meaningless in the end; it is a number beyond comprehension for most of us. At the forefront of the atrocities carried out were the ‘Red Guard’, usually young, zealous, fanatical members of the Party. The horrors of those tragic days also had echoes of the Holocaust as party officials competed with each other by identifying and removing more ‘enemies’, so showing their ‘greater’ loyalty to Mao. In the cities, party officials were forced into humiliating public admissions of guilt; in the countryside it was reported that wearing glasses was enough to mark someone as an intellectual. Everywhere, the bodies piled higher as a sign of the purification of the country. Despite these horrors, the ‘Cultural Revolution’ did not mark the darkest days of Mao’s regime, though, thanks to the earlier tragedy of the ‘Great Leap Forward’.

Mao Zedong died in 1976. He was 82 years old and had ruled China for 27 years. As he got older, he was increasingly paranoid so that he rarely washed and refused to clean his teeth for many years, fearing this would be a way in which he might be poisoned. His private life became increasingly secretive and, according to his personal doctor, morally corrupt. He used heavy barbiturates but generally enjoyed reasonable health until his death. Of the many words he said and wrote, his final ones were, apparently, ‘I feel ill; get the doctors’, something he denied to many millions.

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On Mao’s death, there was an enormous outpouring of grief in a manner which was very similar to that for Joseph Stalin, as the photo shows. The people lined up in their thousands to pay their respects and his body is still preserved and honoured; his mausoleum stands at the east of Tienanmen  Square and is a popular place for both tourists and local people to visit. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

‘The Little Red Book’ might have claimed to offer wisdom and guidance for a new world and a ‘heaven on earth’, but one hell of a lot of it was written in blood. His final ‘death toll’ was put at more than 70 million, a number well in excess of either Hitler or Stalin, and he has to stand alongside them when it comes to any contest for the title of ‘Most Evil Man of the Twentieth Century’.

 

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book’ (www.bnpublishing.com); ‘Private Life of Chairman Mao’ by Zhisui Li (Arrow, 1996); ‘Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962’ by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011); ‘The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1949-1957′ by Frank Dikotter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013); ‘Tombstone: the Untold Story of Mao’s Great famine’  by Yang Jisheng (Allen lane, 2012); ‘The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’ by Richard Curt Kraus (OUP); ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang (HarperPress, 2012) and ‘Friends and Enemies: Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party in China’ by Kerry Brown (Anthem Press, 2009)

TV/DVD: ‘The Cold War’ (CNN), especially episode 15, ‘China, 1949-76′ although interesting background can be found throughout.