Mao Zedong was born on 26 December 1893 into relative prosperity in a village in Hunan province. His father, a poor peasant and former soldier, had risen to the level of grain merchant and owned two and a half acres of land.
The young Mao disliked his bullying father, later remarking that acting meekly did little to ameliorate his father’s anger, and thus he was encouraged towards rebellion early on. A similar dislike of his teacher instilled a lifelong disregard for intellectuals, whom he would later consign to the ‘ninth stinking category’ of counter-revolutionary.
Mao’s father arranged his marriage to a local girl, but Mao ignored her. He had to quit elementary school, but spent time in a higher primary and middle school.
His first political act came in 1911, as the Manchu Dynasty crumbled and rebellion broke out in Changsha town. Mao enlisted in Dr Sun Yat-sen’s army, but spent just six months as an orderly. He would later claim to have spent six months in the Changsha library, absorbing Chinese translations of Western classics.
In 1913, Mao entered a teacher training college in Changsha, where he established several student organisations. Over the next couple of years, touring Hunan province on foot, he became highly critical of China’s past governance: the way forward, he believed, would involve amalgamating aspects of Western and Chinese thought.
By September 1918, he had qualified as a teacher, but instead of remaining in Changsha, he went to Beijing, where he became an assistant in the university library.
News of the Bolsheviks overthrowing the Russian Tsar had filtered east, and Mao came under the influence of Dr Li Dazhao and the university’s dean of literature Chen Duxiu, both Marxists and founder members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The Paris Peace Conference also influenced Mao. After 4 May 1919, Chinese students took to the streets, protesting terms that gave German concessions to the Japanese. Caught up in student activism, he gravitated even more towards Marxism.
In 1920, Mao returned to Changsha and became principal of a primary school. He also helped set up the Changsha branch of the newly formed CCP. The following year, he became General Secretary for Hunan and was one of 12 delegates to the First Party Congress. At the time, the national membership was less than 60 people; 28 years later, organised and indoctrinated by Mao, the Chinese Communist Party would conquer the largest nation on earth.
This is an extract from Tom Farrell’s two-part article titled ‘Mao’s Red Army’, featured in issue 75 of Military History Monthly.