Mao was born on 26 December 1893 into a peasant family in Shaoshan, in Hunan province, central China. After training as a teacher, he travelled to Beijing where he worked in the University Library. It was during this time that he began to read Marxist literature. In 1921, he became a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and set up a branch in Hunan. In 1923, the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist party had allied with the CCP to defeat the warlords who controlled much of northern China. Then in 1927, the KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek launched an anti-communist purge.
Mao and other communists retreated to south east China. In 1934, after the KMT surrounded them, Mao led his followers on the ‘Long March’, a 6,000 mile journey to northwest China to establish a new base.
The Communists and KMT were again temporarily allied during eight years of war with Japan (1937-1945), but shortly after the end of World War Two, civil war broke out between them. The Communists were victorious, and on 1 October 1949 Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island of Taiwan.
Mao and other Communist leaders set out to reshape Chinese society. Industry came under state ownership and China’s farmers began to be organised into collectives. All opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. The Chinese initially received significant help from the Soviet Union, but relations soon began to cool.
In 1958, in an attempt to introduce a more ‘Chinese’ form of communism, Mao launched the ‘Great Leap Forward’. This aimed at mass mobilization of labor to improve agricultural and industrial production. The result, instead, was a massive decline in agricultural output, which, together with poor harvests, led to famine and the deaths of millions. The policy was abandoned and Mao’s position weakened.
In an attempt to re-assert his authority, Mao launched the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966, aiming to purge the country of ‘impure’ elements and revive the revolutionary spirit. One-and-a-half million people died and much of the country’s cultural heritage was destroyed. In September 1967, with many cities on the verge of anarchy, Mao sent in the army to restore order.
Mao appeared victorious, but his health was deteriorating. His later years saw attempts to build bridges with the United States, Japan and Europe. In 1972, US President Richard Nixon visited China and met Mao.
Mao died on 9 September 1976.