Early revolutionary activity of Mao Zedong

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Mao Zedong
Mao in 1927.
Born26 December 1893 (1893-12-26)
Shaoshanchong, Shaoshan
DiedSeptember 9, 1976(1976-09-09) (aged 82)
OccupationCommunist revolutionary; politician; socio-political theorist

The early revolutionary activity of Chinese revolutionary and politician Mao Zedong lasted for eight years, from 1919 to 1927. At the start of this period, Mao had moved to Peking, where he became a librarian's assistant at Peking University, simultaneously exploring both anarchism and Marxism and converting to the latter. Returning to Hunan in the context of the May Fourth Movement, Mao co-founded the Hunanese Student Association who began to publish politically radical literature. His publications earned Mao growing fame within the Chinese revolutionary movement, but invoked the anger of Hunanese Governor Zhang Jinghui, who repeatedly shut Mao's operation down.

In 1921, the Communist Party of China was founded in Shanghai by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, with Mao becoming an early member and attending its first National Congress the following year. In 1923, Mao was elected to the Party's Committee, relocating to Shanghai. The Party agreed to a revolutionary alliance with the Kuomintang nationalist party, a move which gained Mao's enthusiastic support.

Peking and Marxism: 1917–19[edit]

A photograph of Karl Marx
Karl Marx

With his early life behind him, Mao moved from his home province of Hunan to the Chinese capital city of Peking, where his mentor Yang Changji had recently taken a job at the liberal-dominated Peking University.[1] Yang wrote in his journal that "it is truly difficult to imagine someone so intelligent and handsome" as Mao,[2] securing him a job as assistant to the university librarian Li Dazhao, an early Chinese communist.[3] Li authored a series of articles in New Youth on the October Revolution which had just occurred in Russia, during which the communist Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin had seized power. Lenin was an advocate of the socio-political theory of Marxism, first developed by the German sociologists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid-19th century, and Li's articles brought an understanding of Marxism to the Chinese revolutionary movement.[4]

Politically moving further toward the far left, Mao was influenced by the anarchist ideas of Russian activist Peter Kropotkin. He nevertheless developed closer to Marxism during the winter of 1919 under the influence of Li's Marxist study group, and sought to find ways to ensure that Marxist ideas regarding socialist revolution were applicable to modern China through fusing them with ancient Chinese philosophies.[5] Paid a low wage, Mao lived in a cramped room with seven other Hunanese students in the Third-Eyed Well district, but believed that Beijing's beauty offered "vivid and living compensation" for these poor living conditions.[6] A number of his friends took advantage of the anarchist-organised Mouvement Travail-Études to study in France, but Mao declined, perhaps because of an inability to learn languages.[7]

Remaining at the university, he tried to strike up conversations with senior academics, but most snubbed him because of his rural Hunanese accent and lowly position. By joining the university's philosophy and journalism societies, he attended lectures and seminars by the likes of Chen Duxiu, Hu Shih, and Qian Xuantong, but lecturers still treated him with contempt and refused to answer his questions.[8] Mao's time in Beijing ended in the spring of 1919, when he traveled to Shanghai with friends departing for France.[9] He proceeded to return to Shaoshan to visit his terminally ill mother, Wen Qimei; she died in October 1919, with Mao's father Mao Yichang dying several months later, in January 1920.[10]

Student rebellions: 1919–20[edit]

China had fallen victim to the expansionist policies of the Empire of Japan, who had conquered large areas of Chinese-controlled territory with the support of France, the UK and the US at the Treaty of Versailles. Under the control of the warlord Duan Qirui, the Chinese Beiyang Government had accepted Japanese dominance, agreeing to their Twenty-One Demands despite popular opposition.[11] In May 1919, the May Fourth Movement erupted in Beijing, with Chinese patriots rallying against the Japanese and Duan's government. Duan's troops were sent in to crush the protests, but unrest spread throughout China.[12] In Changsha, Mao had gained employment teaching history at the Xiuye Primary School.[13] He began organizing protests against the pro-Duan Governor of Hunan Province, Zhang Jinghui, popularly known as "Zhang the Venomous" due to his criminal activities.[14] In late May, Mao co-founded the Hunanese Student Association with He Shuheng and Deng Zhongxia, organizing a student strike for June and in July 1919 began production of a weekly radical magazine, Xiang River Review (Xiangjiang pinglun). Using vernacular language that would be understandable to the majority of China's populace, he advocated the need for a "Great Union of the Popular Masses", strengthened trade unions able to wage non-violent revolution; his ideas were not Marxist, but heavily influenced by Kropotkin's concept of mutual aid.[15]

Students in Beijing rallied during the May Fourth Movement.

Zhang ordered the Student Association and its associated weekly shut down, but Mao continued publishing after assuming editorship of liberal magazine New Hunan (Xin Hunan). When this too was shut down by Zhang, Mao began publishing in popular local newspaper Justice (Ta Kung Po). Several of these articles advocated feminist views, calling for the liberation of women in Chinese society; Mao was influenced by his experiences with forced arranged-marriage.[16] In December 1919, Mao helped organize a general strike in Hunan, securing some concessions, but Mao and other student leaders felt threatened by Zhang, and were sent as representatives to China's provincial centers; thus, Mao returned to Beijing, visiting the terminally ill Yang Changji.[17]

In Beijing, Mao found that his articles had achieved a level of fame among the revolutionary movement, and set about soliciting support in overthrowing Zhang.[18] Coming across newly translated Marxist literature by Thomas Kirkup, Karl Kautsky, and Marx and Engels—notably The Communist Manifesto—he came under their increasing influence, but was still eclectic in his views.[19] Going traveling, he visited Tianjin, Jinan, and Qufu,[20] before moving to Shanghai, where he worked as a laundryman and met Chen Duxiu, noting that Chen's adoption of Marxism "deeply impressed me at what was probably a critical period in my life". In Shanghai, Mao met an old teacher of his, Yi Peiji, a revolutionary and member of the Kuomintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Party, which was gaining increasing support and influence. Yi introduced Mao to General Tan Yankai, a senior KMT member who held the loyalty of troops stationed along the Hunanese border with Guangdong. Tan was plotting to overthrow Zhang, and Mao aided him by organizing the Changsha students. In June 1920, Tan led his troops into Changsha, while Zhang fled. In the subsequent reorganization of the provincial administration, Mao was appointed headmaster of the junior section of the First Normal School. Now receiving a large income, he married Yang Kaihui in the winter of 1920.[21]

Founding the Communist Party of China: 1921–22[edit]

Location of the first Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in July 1921, in Xintiandi, former French Concession, Shanghai.

The Communist Party of China was founded by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao in the French concession of Shanghai in 1921 as a study society and informal network. Mao set up a Changsha branch, also establishing a branch of the Socialist Youth Corps. Opening a bookstore under the control of his new Cultural Book Society, its purpose was to propagate revolutionary literature throughout Hunan.[22] Helping to organize workers' strikes in the winter of 1920–21,[23] he was involved in the movement for Hunan autonomy, hoping that a Hunanese constitution would increase civil liberties in the province, making his revolutionary activity easier; although the movement was successful, in later life, he denied any involvement.[24] By 1921, small Marxist groups existed in Shanghai, Beijing, Changsha, Wuhan, Guangzhou (Canton) and Jinan, and it was decided to hold a central meeting, which began in Shanghai on July 23, 1921. The first session of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China was attended by 13 delegates, Mao included, and met in a girls' school that was closed for the summer. After the authorities sent a police spy to the congress, the delegates moved to a boat on South Lake near Jiaxing to escape detection. Although Soviet and Comintern delegates attended, the first congress ignored Lenin's advice to accept a temporary alliance between the communists and the "bourgeois democrats" who also advocated national revolution; instead they stuck to the orthodox Marxist belief that only the urban proletariat could lead a socialist revolution.[25]

Now party secretary for Hunan, Mao was stationed in Changsha, from which he went on a Communist recruitment drive.[26] In August 1921, he founded the Self-Study University, through which readers could gain access to revolutionary literature, housed in the premises of the Society for the Study of Wang Fuzhi.[26] Taking part in the YMCA mass education movement to fight illiteracy, he opened a Changsha branch, though replaced the usual textbooks with revolutionary tracts in order to spread Marxism among the students.[27] He continued organizing the labor movement to strike against the administration of Hunan Governor Zhao Hengti, particularly following the execution of two anarchists.[28] In July 1922, the Second Congress of the Communist Party took place in Shanghai, though Mao lost the address and couldn't attend. Adopting Lenin's advice, the delegates agreed to an alliance with the "bourgeois democrats" of the KMT for the good of the "national revolution". Communist Party members joined the KMT, hoping to push its politics leftward.[29] Mao enthusiastically agreed with this decision, arguing for an alliance across China's socio-economic classes; a vocal anti-imperialist, in his writings he lambasted the governments of Japan, UK and US, describing the latter as "the most murderous of hangmen".[30] Mao's strategy for the successful and famous Anyuan coal mines strikes (contrary to later Party historians) depended on both "proletarian" and "bourgeois" strategies. The success depended on innovative organizing by Liu Shaoqi and Li Lisan who not only mobilized the miners, but formed schools and cooperatives. They also engaged local intellectuals, gentry, military officers, merchants, Red Gang dragon heads and church clergy in support.[31]

Collaboration with the Kuomintang: 1922–27[edit]

At the Third Congress of the Communist Party in Shanghai in June 1923, the delegates reaffirmed their commitment to working with the KMT against the Beiyang government and imperialists. Supporting this position, Mao was elected to the Party Committee, taking up residence in Shanghai. [32] Attending the First KMT Congress, held in Guangzhou in early 1924, Mao was elected an alternate member of the KMT Central Executive Committee, and put forward four resolutions to decentralize power to urban and rural bureaus. His enthusiastic support for the KMT earned him the suspicion of some communists.[33] In late 1924, Mao returned to Shaoshan to recuperate from an illness. Discovering that the peasantry were increasingly restless due to the upheaval of the past decade, some had seized land from wealthy landowners to found communes; this convinced him of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, an idea advocated by the KMT but not the communists.[34] As a result, he was appointed to run the KMT's Peasant Movement Training Institute, also becoming Director of its Propaganda Department and editing its Political Weekly (Zhengzhi zhoubao) newsletter.[35][36] Through the Peasant Movement Training Institute, Mao took an active role in organizing the revolutionary Hunanese peasants and preparing them for militant activity, taking them through military training exercises and getting them to study various left-wing texts.[37] In the winter of 1925, Mao fled to Canton after his revolutionary activities attracted the attention of Zhao's regional authorities.[38]

The communists dominated the left wing of the KMT, struggling for power with the party's right wing. When party leader Sun Yat-sen died in May 1925, he was succeeded by a rightist, Chiang Kai-shek, who initiated moves to marginalize the position of the communists.[39] Mao nevertheless supported Chiang's decision to overthrow the Beiyang government and their foreign imperialist allies using the National Revolutionary Army, who embarked on the Northern Expedition in 1926.[40] In the wake of this expedition, peasants rose up, appropriating the land of the wealthy landowners, whom were in many cases killed. Such uprisings angered senior KMT figures, who were themselves landowners, emphasizing the growing class and ideological divide within the revolutionary movement.[41]

"Revolution is not a dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another."

— Mao, February 1927.[42]

In March 1927, Mao appeared at the Third Plenum of the KMT Central Executive Committee in Wuhan, which sought to strip General Chiang of his power by appointing Wang Jingwei leader. There, Mao played an active role in the discussions regarding the peasant issue, defending a set of "Regulations for the Repression of Local Bullies and Bad Gentry", which advocated the death penalty or life imprisonment for anyone found guilty of counter-revolutionary activity, arguing that in a revolutionary situation, "peaceful methods cannot suffice".[43][44] In April 1927, Mao was appointed to the KMT's five-member Central Land Committee, urging peasants to refuse to pay rent. Mao led another group to put together a "Draft Resolution on the Land Question", which called for the confiscation of land belonging to "local bullies and bad gentry, corrupt officials, militarists and all counter-revolutionary elements in the villages". Proceeding to carry out a "Land Survey", he stated that anyone owning over 30 mou (four and a half acres), constituting 13% of the population, were uniformly counter-revolutionary. He accepted that there was great variation in revolutionary enthusiasm across the country, and that a flexible policy of land redistribution was necessary.[45] Presenting his conclusions at the Enlarged Land Committee meeting, many expressed reservations, some believing that it went too far, and others not far enough. Ultimately, his suggestions were only partially implemented.[46]



  1. ^ Schram 1966, p. 48; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 47, 56–57.
  2. ^ Feigon 2002, p. 18; Pantsov & Levine 2012, p. 39.
  3. ^ Schram 1966, p. 48; Pantsov & Levine 2012, p. 59.
  4. ^ Schram 1966, p. 47; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 59–62.
  5. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 48–49; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 62–64.
  6. ^ Schram 1966, p. 48; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 57–58.
  7. ^ Schram 1966, p. 51; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 53–55, 65.
  8. ^ Schram 1966, p. 48; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 62, 66.
  9. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 50–52; Pantsov & Levine 2012, p. 66.
  10. ^ Pantsov & Levine (2012), pp. 66–67.
  11. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 51–52; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 68–69.
  12. ^ Schram 1966, p. 52; Feigon 2002, pp. 21–22; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 69–70.
  13. ^ Pantsov & Levine 2012, p. 68.
  14. ^ Pantsov & Levine 2012, p. 76.
  15. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 53–54; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 71–76.
  16. ^ Schram 1966, p. 55; Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 76–77.
  17. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 55–56; Pantsov & Levine 2012, p. 79.
  18. ^ Pantsov & Levine 2012, p. 80.
  19. ^ Pantsov & Levine 2012, pp. 81–83.
  20. ^ Pantsov & Levine 2012, p. 84.
  21. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 56–57.
  22. ^ Schram 1966, p. 63; Feigon 2002, pp. 23, 28
  23. ^ Schram 1966, p. 64
  24. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 63–64; Feigon 2002, pp. 23–24, 28, 30
  25. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 64–66.
  26. ^ a b Schram 1966, p. 68
  27. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 68–69
  28. ^ Schram 1966, p. 69.
  29. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 69–70}.
  30. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 73–74; Feigon 2002, p. 33
  31. ^ Elizabeth J. Perry,"Anyuan: Mining China's Revolutionary Tradition," The Asia-Pacific Journal 11.1 (January 14, 2013), reprinting Ch 2 of Elizabeth J. Perry. Anyuan: Mining China's Revolutionary Tradition. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-520-27189-0.
  32. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 74–76
  33. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 76–82
  34. ^ Schram 1966, p. 78.
  35. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 85, 87;
  36. ^ Feigon 2002, p. 36
  37. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 82, 90–91
  38. ^ Schram 1966, p. 83
  39. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 84,89.
  40. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 87, 92–93; Feigon 2002, p. 39
  41. ^ Schram 1966, p. 95
  42. ^ "Mao Zedong on War and Revolution". Quotations from Mao Zedong on War and Revolution. Columbia University. Retrieved November 12, 2011.; Feigon 2002, p. 41
  43. ^ Schram 1966, p. 98
  44. ^ Feigon 2002, p. 42
  45. ^ Schram 1966, pp. 99–100
  46. ^ Schram 1966, p. 100


Further reading[edit]