In this episode we look at Mao Zedong’s childhood, family background, and see what he was thinking in 1912.
Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 1: The Pre-Marxist Period, 1912-1920
Lee Feigon, Mao: A Reinterpretation
Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong: A Life
Some names from this episode:
Ba Jin, anarchist novelist who wrote The Family
Shang Yang, founder of the Legalist school
Sima Qian, author of Records of the Grand Historian
This is episode 12 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast, and this episode we’re going to check in on the young Mao, talk a little about his childhood, and look at what he was thinking as a young adult.
Mao was born on December 26, 1893 in Hunan Province, in the village of Shaoshan. Shaoshan was the ancestral home of the Mao clan, and so as the Mao clan village, just about everyone there was related to each other and had the family name Mao. Shaoshan was in a relatively prosperous farming region, with a range of hills that the young Mao would explore nearby. Mao’s father was a hard-working man who expanded the family’s farm and eventually hired a couple workers to do most of the farm labor, while focusing on selling grain and money lending himself.
According to the criteria that Mao laid out in “How to Differentiate Class Status in Rural Areas” in 1933, this would make his family a rich peasant family. This is how Mao defined rich peasants in that work:
“The rich peasant as a rule owns land. But some rich peasants own only part of their land and rent the remainder. Others have no land of their own at all and rent all their land. The rich peasant generally has rather more and better instruments of production and more liquid capital than the average and engages in labor himself, but always relies on exploitation for part or even the major part of his income. His main form of exploitation is the hiring of labor (long-term laborers). In addition, he may let part of his land and practice exploitation through land rent, or may lend money or engage in industry and commerce. Most rich peasants also engage in the administration of communal land. A person who owns a fair amount of good land, farms some of it himself without hiring labor, but exploits other peasants by means of land rent, loan interest or in other ways, shall also be treated as a rich peasant. Rich peasants regularly practice exploitation and many derive most of their income from this source.”
It is important to remember, when you hear the term ‘rich peasant,’ that the adjective rich is only relative to other peasants. For someone listening to this podcast in a city in the industrialized world and trying to imagine how rich peasant families like Mao’s family lived in late 19th and early 20th century China, the key word here is ‘peasant,’ not ‘rich.’ In the case of Mao’s family, they owned about three and a half to four acres. Mao himself began doing some work in the fields when he was about six years old, and when he got older one of his main tasks was to haul heavy baskets of manure out to the fields. One of the best ways to measure standard of living is diet. According to Mao’s account of his childhood he ate eggs once a month and meat only three or four times a year. So, again, while his family was prosperous, the key word here to keep in mind is ‘peasant,’ not ‘rich.’
At this point, all biographies of Mao have to deal with the question of Mao’s relationship with his father. After all, just as the family predates the origin of the state as an institution in the history of humanity, most rebels begin with some form of rebellion against patriarchal authority before they get older and move on to rebel against society more broadly. In the case of Mao, the main source we have on his childhood is his own account from an important book titled Red Star Over China. In Red Star Over China, an American journalist named Edgar Snow traveled to the Chinese Communist base area in northwestern China in 1936 and conducted a long series of interviews with Mao. This book was very important in spreading knowledge about and winning support for the Chinese Revolution as soon as it was published in 1937. Eventually, I’ll probably want to do an episode devoted to Red Star Over China, talking about how it was produced and how it was used and what effect it had over all. But for right now, what is important to us about it is that it is the main source available on Mao’s childhood, and what it contains is just what Mao said about his childhood, which was said in a highly politicized context in which Mao wanted this book to be useful for building support for his movement.
In Red Star Over China, Mao describes his father as a tyrant and says that he formed a ‘united front’ with his mother and brothers to defeat his father. He writes about his father as a severe taskmaster who would sometimes deprive him of food. But, what we also know, is that his father financially supported Mao through his studies later on and made sure that he got a good education, even though his father hoped Mao would carry on with the family farm and develop the family’s commercial enterprises. The evidence is that Mao was closer to his family than he lets on in his autobiographical account in Red Star Over China.
So, what’s going on there? There are two different, but similar, takes on this that I have found in the literature. In the more recent biographical takes on Mao, the interpretation that is usually given has to do with the fact that rebellion against familial authority was in vogue at the time. After all, radicals and intellectuals were rebelling against old Confucian ideas which championed family values, especially patriarchal authority. One popular expression of this was a novel published in the early 1930s by the anarchist writer Ba Jin, titled The Family. So in this interpretation, Mao exaggerated his conflict with his father in order to play to the trends popular with the audience who would read Red Star Over China (which, though it was written in English for an English-speaking audience, was immediately translated by the Communist Party into Chinese and used very effectively both within China and among overseas Chinese people around the world).
In the other interpretation, and this I’ve found mainly in works written in the 1960s and 1970s, Mao’s differences with his father are also considered to have been exaggerated. But rather than seeing Mao as cynically trying to play to radical intellectual trends at the time in order to garner political support, Mao’s take on his father is seen as a reflection of a broader generation gap in China that was felt by Chinese who had their childhoods between the 1890s and 1920s, and was compared to the generation gap in western societies that was felt in the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, it’s not an accident that the works advancing a ‘generation gap’ approach to interpreting Mao’s harsh take on his dad were written when a similar generation gap was felt in Europe and North America, and that more recent works advance a more cynical motive on Mao’s part. I just noticed this different while reviewing the biographical literature on Mao for this podcast episode, and even though you always know that the way history is written reflects the time the writer is writing in, you don’t always get such clear examples of that as we do here.
In order to get to go to school, Mao had to raise funds from friends and family to cover not only his tuition, but also the cost of a replacement laborer to work in his family fields. But eventually Mao’s father did warm up to the idea of Mao attending school, and he began to support him. In 1911, at age 17, about six months before the insurrection in Wuhan broke out, Mao went to the provincial capital of Changsha to continue his schooling. Even though it was far inland, Changsha had a foreign military garrison, and British and American gunboats patrolled the Xiang River, on which Changsha sat.
When the revolution broke out, Mao decided to go and join it in Wuhan. Having heard that the streets were very wet there, he went and borrowed some rain shoes from a friend just outside of town. On the way back in to Changsha, the revolution had broken out there, and Mao went up to a high point in the city and watched the fighting, until the Qing flag was taken down and the new Han flag, a white banner with the character for Han in it (for the Han Chinese nationality) was raised over the city.
Mao then joined one of the rebel units of the New Army, and I want to read you his account of his time in the army:
[pp. 142-143 from Red Star Over China]
After leaving the army, Mao explored some different schools before settling into the Hunan normal school, where he stayed for five years. He developed more politically there, and we will revisit him there in the not too distant future. But for now I want to leave off on telling Mao’s life story, and look at where he was at in terms of his development in 1912. The first extant writing we have from Mao is a short class essay that dates from June 1912, and because it is nice and short, I think it’s a nice opportunity to read it out and use it as kind of a snapshot for where he was at in his thinking at the point just after he left the army and had enrolled in school, when he was 18 years old.
The title of the work is “Essay on How Shang Yang Established Confidence by Moving the Pole.” So, some context: Shang Yang was one of the founders of the Legalist school of thought, all the way back in the back in the 4th century BC. The Legalists implemented a bunch of administrative and legal reforms which made the state of Qin (that’s Q-I-N, not to be confused with the Qing Dynasty that we have been talking about in the past), which made the state of Qin strong and which ultimately led to Qin winning out at the end of the Warring States period in China in the 3rd century BC.
So, one of the issues apparently at the beginning of the reforms that Shang Yang advocated for the state of Qin was that he thought no one was going to trust in the reforms. That people might distrust whether they would really be carried out, or that the state would really do what it was saying it would do. One of the main reforms was to make a set of laws, publicize them, and then to strictly enforce them and apply them universally. So, it was pretty important to Shang Yang that people understand that the laws would be applied, and that Legalist policies would actually be carried out.
So, he did this thing where he put up a pole, and said anyone who moved the pole would get 10 gold pieces. Let me read you a translation of the passage:
[Translation by Creel in Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung]
So, by paying the guy 50 measures of gold, Shang Yang demonstrated that he would in fact do what he said he would do, so people knew to trust what he said, and they would believe in his reforms. That’s how the story goes, anyways. Keep in mind, this is from over almost 2300 years ago.
So, in this essay, Mao is giving his thoughts on reading about what Shang Yang did with the pole. He’s actually reading about it from a classic work by Sima Qian, the early Chinese historian, called the Records of the Grand Historian, which dates from about 94 BC.
[Mao’s essay on pp. 5-6 of Mao’s Road to Power volume one]
In 1912, we can see, Mao was pretty far from the iconoclastic rebel that he would become within a decade. It’s kind of funny, to see the 18-year-old Mao, whose most famous quote might be ‘It is Right to Rebel’ approving of the punishment of the rebellious by Shang Yang. And the contempt that Mao expresses in this essay for the masses of Chinese people is pretty far away from the Mao who pioneered the idea that communists needed to trust in the masses and who advocated the mass line method of political leadership, which is characterized by the method of gathering the ideas of the masses in order to distill them back to the masses at a higher level. We’ll talk about the idea of the mass line much more in the future, but suffice it to say for now that a key idea in that approach is that there is a deep understanding of the world inherent in the masses of people when taken as a group. So it will be an interesting question I hope to come back to in the future, to see how Mao’s understanding of the masses of Chinese people changes over time from being so pessimistic in 1912, to being so optimistic in the future.
If we look at Mao’s development during the period before he became a Communist, it can be divided into three different periods. The first period, here, when Mao was still just 18, Mao had the perspective of still supporting good rulers of a traditional type. This was followed up by an anarchist period, and then finally he went through a period of searching for a new, revolutionary politics and road to power, which ultimately led him to Marxism. We will take that process of development up in future episodes, although in our next few episodes we will be looking at some other thinkers who were a bit older than Mao, and who were more central to the initial development of Marxism in China, as well as the overall milieu in which radical politics developed in China during early Warlord Era.