The Apotheosis of Mao Zedong

During the late 1950s and early 1960s the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) became increasingly pragmatic-a heterodoxy that clashed with Mao Zedong's growing orthodoxy and which, combined with his own enormous auctoritas1 and personal insecurities, resulted in Mao's apotheosis during the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. While it is readily acknowledged that other factors, such as the ambitions of Jiang Qing and Lin Biao, contributed significantly to his radical elevation, the scope of this paper will be confined to the decisions and characteristics of Mao alone, for it was Mao that drove the Cultural Revolution (CR), and it was Mao's fears for the future of China and his own legacy that drove him to authorize the excesses of that Revolution. The methodology involved in examining Mao's apotheosis is both chronological and topical. Mao's evolving thought and the impact of his life's journey from youthful revolutionary to the man who unleashed the CR requires, of course, a degree of chronological approach, but it was three factors that would drive Mao to the god-like Leader status of the CR: 1) Mao's belief that he had developed a unique addition to the canons of Marxist-Leninism with his peasant-led revolution, which would harden into a new and rigid orthodoxy as he became the defender of the revolutionary ideology, 2) Mao's own auctoritas, which became so enormous during the struggle for supremacy that he became an iconic symbol of the revolutionary struggle, and 3) Mao's own psychology, which caused him to become increasingly suspicious of those around him and to fear the repudiation of both the Communist Revolution and his own role. All the sources for this paper are secondary ones, including a biography and several monographs.

Mao Zedong was born in a tiny village called Shaoshan, in Hunan Province. His father was a modestly successful farmer who had, by dint of hard work and heavy rationing of food to his family, become a small landowner.2 As Mao came of age, he had come to despise his distant and parsimonious father, whom he saw as dictatorial and unfair. His youthful revolt against his father played a powerful role in his revolutionary future,3 for he came to see the pater familias power as a symptom of all that was wrong with Chinese society. Moreover, Mao's rebellion against his father manifested itself in his desire to study, leading him to attend college, where he first encountered Marxism. Like many young men, Mao became enraptured by the ideals of reason, liberty, progress, and democracy that had exploded onto the scene during the May Fourth Movement.4 And he was deeply impressed by the concept that it was the power of the masses that would overcome both the warlords and the foreign imperialists that plagued the nation. Unlike Marx and Lenin, however, Mao immediately saw the masses as the peasantry, owing perhaps, to his own peasant roots.5

By 1918 Mao was fully opposed to both Chinese societal norms (founded in Confucianism) and the political rulers of his day.6 He would never lose this sense of opposition, which would only grow as he became more enmeshed in intellectual life. He was quickly attracted to Marxism and was a founder of the CCP in 1921.7 It is somewhat paradoxical that the deeper Mao advanced in his study of Marxism, the more individualistic the once rebellious youth became, resisting arranged marriages, familial power, and the conformist nature of Chinese society. Moreover, while Mao (as a peasant) was something of an outsider when he began his association with the socialist movement, it is quite possible that he was attracted to the movement by its early anarchist nature, particularly the anarchist call to destroy the state and traditional society as instruments of oppression.8 Certainly the socialist movement must have become more attractive to him after the May Fourth Movement brought together the forces of the intelligentsia and the working class,9 for Mao was the sole peasant in the membership of the early Chiangsha CCP.10 Mao's youth had well prepared him to assume the role of revolutionary, and had laid the ideological foundations for his unique brand of Marxist-Leninism.

Mao's focus on the peasantry as a revolutionary force is visible from an early age. In 1922 he organized a Cultural Book Society in order to teach literacy to peasants, and he wrote special revolutionary texts intended to simultaneously introduce them to Marxism.11 In 1925, convinced that the destruction of the warlords was the first step in the liberation of the peasants, he created the Peasant Movement Training Institute, which taught that "only by uniting behind the KMT forces could they [the peasantry] get rid of the warlords, win ownership of the land they tilled, and become masters of their own country."12 This "preoccupation" with the peasantry drew the ire of more traditional Marxist-Leninists even then, as when Li Li-san, an old comrade of Mao's from the Chiangsha CCP, and Ch'en Tu-hsiu, his old Marxist mentor, heavily criticized him for not placing his faith in the proletariat.13

Nineteen twenty-seven was a propitious year for Mao Zedong. It marked the year that his theory of peasant revolution became more formally developed, and it also marked the beginning of Mao's ascendancy in the leadership of the CCP. At the time, however, it appeared to be quite the opposite. In February of 1927, Mao returned to Hunan Province to "conduct an investigation on behalf of the Peasant Committee of the CCP."14 He spent five weeks in the company of revolutionary peasants and, upon return, published the Report of an Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan. In this report, Mao laid the foundation for his theory of peasant revolution, writing:

The present upsurge of the peasant movement is a colossal event. In a very short time….several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back.15

Mao, already sympathetic toward the plight of the peasantry, was invigorated by the time he spent in Hunan, and he realized that, unlike the European model for Marxism, the real force behind the revolutionary movement in China was the downtrodden peasantry. This being the case, the only rational course for the revolution to follow was an agrarian revolution-fueled by the peasantry.16 The party leaders not only failed to act on the recommendations in the report, they rejected them outright. The author, however, still as rebellious and headstrong as ever, returned to Hunan Province to place his theories into action. In September of the same year, Mao had organized the Hunan peasantry sufficiently to attack sections of the Canton-Hankow railway and to seize control of several small places in the province.17 The Autumn Harvest Uprising was quickly crushed, however, and the failure cost Mao his position on the Politburo.18 As Mao sought to recover from his defeat, the Comintern ordered the CCP to concentrate its efforts on doctrinally correct activities, specifically urban uprisings. The CCP seized control of Canton City for three days, but they too were crushed decisively.19 Mao's was not the only failure, and his had been the less costly.

Mao returned to the rural countryside and continued his efforts to build a peasant revolutionary force. Combining with Chu Teh, he established a people's soviet in Chiangkangshan, where their activities soon roused the ire of Chiang Kai-shek. This time, however, Chiang's forces were unable to defeat the Chu-Mao revolutionaries, which now practiced guerilla warfare with increasing proficiency. Over the next three years Chiang would launch four major campaigns against the Chu-Mao forces. Mao, allegedly inspired by his reading of Sun Tzu, practiced the art of pitting strength against weakness. Where the Nationalist forces were strong, he retreated. Where they were weak, he attacked. And always he utilized the local peasants for enemy intelligence and support. In sharp contrast to the Nationalist forces, the Chu-Mao troops treated the peasants with dignity and respect. Mao's comparison of the people as water and the guerillas as the fish who swim in it was born.20 With much of the CCP in a shambles, the Chu-Mao alliance became increasingly important and, although the heterodoxy of peasant uprising was rejected as a model of Chinese Communism, it was accepted by the Comintern as a legitimate effort at a people's revolution.21

Although the Chu-Mao area was recognized as a part of the revolution, this acceptance was not universal. For many in Moscow, including Trotsky, it was a form of heresy-a violation of the firm tenets of Marxist doctrine. Trotsky himself remarked that the rural soviets had not future, and even Stalin declared that, "The Chinese Communists are not real Communists. They are 'margarine' Communists."22 But if Mao's rural revolution deviated from the urban-based proletariat model of Marxist-Leninism, it was not a rejection of Marxism itself. Mao firmly shared "the Hegelian-Marxist faith in a redemptive historic process and the Leninist faith that the Communist Party [was] itself the sole agent of historic redemption."23 If anything, Mao was more orthodox than many of his comrades. But he was fully committed to his belief that the peasantry was the revolutionary vanguard in China.

This "peasant heterodoxy" would result in an ideological battle that was only resolved, albeit temporarily, by the Long March. Mao invited the desperate Politburo to the Chiangkangshan soviet, intending to reenter the power struggle within the CCP. He succeeded admirably, seizing the chairmanship from the 28 Bolsheviks and establishing himself as the new leader of the party.24 This proved a temporary victory, however, and in July of 1934 Mao was placed under house arrest, where he remained until the Long March began in October.

The Long March was perhaps Mao's greatest achievement. During the march his inspired leadership and humble demeanor won him the hearts of the revolutionary movement, displaced the 28 Bolsheviks, and ensured that "Maoism" was the future path of the CCP. It is worth noting that Mao's demeanor during the period leading up to and through the Long March was always exemplified by the "common touch." He lived simply, ate the same food as his troops, wore the same clothes, and was treated as "a comrade who happened to have the job of running things."25 But at the same time, he began to evince a subtle shift in character as he ceased to see himself as merely fortunate and began to believe he was fated to lead China to Communism.26 Moreover, Mao became involved with the divorced movie actress Jiang Qing during this period, becoming so infatuated with her that he determined to dissolve his own marriage to Ho Tzu-chen and marry Jiang.27 This was seen as particularly egregious as Ho had been a faithful comrade for years, including making the Long March at considerable cost to herself. Lucian Pye believes this willingness to abandon his wives (Mao had four) and children is a sign of Mao's narcissism and borderline personality, and he notes that even Jiang Qing was "superseded by his 'private secretary,' Zhang Yugeng, who in turn lasted because she took over the recruiting of his 'dancing partners,' and instructed them on the choreography of their group performances in bed with him."28 Whether or not one believes Mao suffered from such disorders, which are not uncommon, it is certainly true that a certain theme of abandonment existed throughout his life.29

Mao's ideological struggle with Moscow continued throughout World War Two. In 1940 he wrote On the New Democracy, which asserted the uniqueness of the Chinese revolutionary movement. Moreover, he defied the traditional Marxist-Leninist theory of revolutionary stages by declaring that China was undergoing the overthrow of feudalism by capitalism and capitalism by socialism simultaneously.30 Stalin was not amused. As WWII drew to a close, the first signs of a Chinese Cult of the Leader began to develop when Liu Shao-chi praised Mao as "not only the greatest revolutionary and statesman in Chinese history, but also its greatest theoretician and scientist."31 Moreover, he called Mao the new intellectual leader of all Asia, announcing that "The thought of Mao Zedong will make great and useful contributions to the struggle for the emancipation of the people of all countries….of the East in particular."32 When Chiang Kai-shek was forced to flee to Taiwan, Mao could perhaps be forgiven for preening a bit, but he also showed signs of seeing his beliefs as incontrovertible dogma. Having been validated in his heterodoxy over the views of giants like Stalin and Lenin, he had begun to belief his heterodoxy was the new orthodoxy. In the immediate aftermath of the CCP's victory over the Nationalists, Mao's prestige was so high that there is little doubt that, if he had died at that point, he would have enjoyed an unassailable reputation as a virtually perfect man.33

If the revolutionary struggle had seen Mao at his best, the post war period bore witness to a slow decline. Following in the footsteps of dictators like Stalin, Mao conducted a series of purges against KMT officers and officials, as well as against landlords and "other enemies of the people."34 At the same time, however, he passed legislation establishing equal rights for women, fought corruption in the bureaucracy, stabilized the currency, and placed China on a remarkable road toward industrialization and progress. But these early successes saw a significant shift beginning in 1957, when Mao began a drift towards a particularly rigid ideological interpretation of Marxist-Leninism. He had concluded, in short, that ideology was more important than material progress.35 And orthodoxy was considerably more attractive to a reigning dictator than it had been to a young revolutionary. This trend toward orthodoxy was surely influenced by the Chinese tradition of state orthodoxy, and Mao had the examples of China's imperial past, as well as those of Lenin and Stalin, to draw upon.36 In Mao's new vision, social transformation was more important than economic, and the mobilized power of the masses could trump any obstacle.37 It was with this belief that Mao instituted the Great Leap Forward and the Communes.

Throughout the post war period, the Cult of the Leader continued to build momentum. In 1951 a book titled Songs to the Glory of Mao Zedong appeared, and new collections of his speeches and writings were published. Party members and students at all age groups were encouraged to study "Mao Zedong's thought."38 Mao was the Chinese Stalin, all but omniscient and very nearly all powerful-and this surely caused Mao to keenly feel the death of Stalin in 1953. When Khrushchev began his destalinization campaign in 1956, Mao was both shocked and enraged. The attacks on the personality cult were particularly egregious, as Mao shared many of the same practices. But while Mao quickly came to regard Khrushchev as a weakling and a coward, he also saw the death of Stalin as an opportunity to establish China as a competing center of Marxist ideology in the Communist International. Over the next few years he focused his efforts in this direction, successfully establishing China as a major player in the larger Communist community. His relations with Russia, however, remained chill. Mao declared Khrushchev and his successors as "revisionists" who had abandoned the revolutionary struggle. Mao saw revisionism as a counterrevolutionary force, as can be seen by his speech at a 1957 Party Conference:

Revisionism is one form of bourgeois ideology. The revisionists deny the difference between socialism and capitalism, between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. What they advocate is in fact not the socialist line but the capitalist line. In present circumstances, revisionism is more pernicious than dogmatism.39

By 1957 revisionism, in Mao's mind, represented the greatest danger to the revolution. Correct ideological thought, however rigidly enforced, was preferable to the danger of incorrect and revisionist experiments. This conclusion corresponded with the increasingly pessimism of Mao's own ideological outlook. Whereas Mao had once looked toward a time of perpetual peace and security, by 1957 he had concluded that the eventual triumph of Communism would not secure such a peace, but instead the forces of production would forever create new contradictions within society, thus requiring a permanent revolutionary state to ensure that reactionary forces did not return to power.40 The failure of the Hundred Flowers Campaign only confirmed Mao's pessimistic view of the state of revolutionary China, sure evidence that the people and the party had lost their ideological way and that China was in danger of falling prey to the same revisionist forces that now plagued the Soviet Union. Mao became increasingly determined that what had happened in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin would not happen in China after the death of Mao. This was the setting as the CR began.

The CR was therefore, for Mao, a holding action, intended to fight only one battle in a continuous revolutionary conflict.41 It was not a solution that would repair the economic woes that afflicted China, but instead a means to return the nation to a proper ideological perspective. Under such circumstances, no weapon was too harsh, and no measure to cruel, to employ in his crusade. More importantly, from the perspective of Mao's apotheosis, is that Mao himself was the obvious choice as the exemplar of correct thought. Mao became the model to which all other Chinese would aspire to.

Mao Thought combined "the controlling strategies of both Confucianism and Leninism, making everybody constantly aware of what constitutes correct behavior in accordance with the correct definition of one's role."42 Correct behavior would create correct thinking; therefore the models for correct behavior must be popularized and inculcated by the population. The all encompassing Dialectic functioned not only within societies, but within individuals. Confronted with a desirable model that contradicts the inner self, a struggle between the individual's values and those of the model would result, with the contradiction eventually resolved in the model's favor, provided it is both strong enough and sufficiently prevalent.43 During the CR Mao became that model, a ritual reenacted several times a day that had eerily Orwellian aspects. Mao's visage was seen everywhere, idealized and ageless, accompanied by the color red, which was now associated with "good." Where Mao was not seen, his symbols, like the Collected Works or the Little Red Book were.44 Peasants would begin and end each workday by reciting a Mao quote reverently, after the manner of a prayer. Each home held an iconic image of Mao, normally located where the ancestral or family altar had once been. The absence of the portrait, or the failure to carry the Little Red Book on one's person, was evidence of apostasy. As a form of excommunication, outcasts and the ideologically impure were not even allowed to associate with the signs of Mao's Thought.45 The Deification of Mao was complete.

The course of Mao's life story, his personal psychology, and the evolution of his Marxist-Leninist thought had brought him to this point. His deification was a far cry from his youthful idealism, but its course can be traced through his life story. The enormous auctoritas Mao gained from his peasant-centered revolution and the legendary Long March prepared the people of China to consider him in the traditional cultural setting of an emperor. Mao's own personal psychological foibles, including his narcissism and borderline personality, led him to not only accept this adulation as his due, but even amplify it. Most important of all was the evolution of Mao's ideological thought, which drove him from a vision of a Communist utopia on earth to a concept of an eternal revolutionary struggle against the reactionary forces of capitalism and feudalism. The fate of Stalin's memory left Mao with the certain knowledge that his legacy would not remain untouched, and he launched the CR in an attempt to purge the heterodox elements from his party. Mao's own concept of the dialectic struggle led, perhaps inevitably, to the use of iconic models to mold the people. Mao's own auctoritas and ideological purity all but ensured that he would be selected as the most powerful symbol available. The young iconoclast had come full circle, becoming the living embodiment of a hidebound orthodoxy that brooked no questions.

Works Cited

1. The use of the term "auctoritas" is perhaps questionable, but no single word in English so aptly describes the Roman concept of "spiritual authority" and social standing built over time through experience, piety, and industriousness. This concept, it seems to me, best describes the manner in which many Chinese viewed Mao at his height, and to a large degree continue to do so today.
2. Archer, Mao Tse-tung (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1972), 4.
3. Thomas Gale, Mao Zedong. Historic World Leaders (Gale Research, 1994). Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005. Stable URL:, 2.
4. Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution: 1915-1949 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971), 49.
5. Archer, 23.
6. Ibid., 24.
7. Gale, 4.
8. Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 77.
9. Ibid., 59.
10. Archer, 27.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid., 31.
13. Ibid., 31-32.
14. Bianco, 62.
15. Gale, 4.
16. Bianco, 63.
17. Immanuel Hsu, The Rise of Modern China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). 553.
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.
20. Archer, 91-92.
21. Bianco, 70.
22. Ibid., 76.
23. Ibid., 77.
24. Hsu, 558.
25. Archer, 83.
26. Ibid., 99.
27. Ibid., 89.
28. Lucian W. Pye, Rethinking the Man in the Leader. The China Journal, No. 35. (Jan., 1996), pp. 107-112. Stable URL:, 110.
29. Ibid, 109.
30. Archer, 93.
31. Ibid., 106.
32. Ibid.
33. Gale, 6.
34. Archer, 126.
35. Brantly Womack, Mao Zedong: Ten Years After; Where Mao Went Wrong: Epistemology and Ideology in Mao's Leftist Politics. The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 16. (Jul., 1986), pp. 23-40. Stable URL:, 29.
36. Womack, 35.
37. Ibid., 30.
38. Archer, 131.
39. Womack, 33.
40. Nick Knight, From Harmony to Struggle, from Perpetual Peace to Cultural Revolution: Changing Futures in Mao Zedong's Thought. China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives. Edited by Woei Lien Chong (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 76.
41. Ibid., 84.
42. Stefan R. Landsberger, The Deification of Mao: Religious Imagery and Practices during the Cultural Revolution and Beyond. China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives. Edited by Woei Lien Chong (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 147.
43. Ibid., 147.
44. Ibid., 154-155.
45. Ibid., 158.

Works Consulted

Archer, Jules. Mao Tse-tung. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1972.

Bianco, Lucien. Origins of the Chinese Revolution: 1915-1949. trans. Muriel Bell. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971.

Ch'en, Jerome. Mao: Great Lives Observed. Editor: Jerome Ch'en.Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1969.

Cheng, Chu-yuan. Behind the Tianamen Massacre: Social, Political, and Economic Ferment in China. Oxford: Westview Press, 1990.

Dirlik, Arif. The Origins of Chinese Communism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Gale, Thomas. Mao Zedong. Historic World Leaders. Gale Research, 1994. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005. Stable URL:

Hsu, Immanuel. The Rise of Modern China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Knight, Nick. From Harmony to Struggle, from Perpetual Peace to Cultural Revolution: Changing Futures in Mao Zedong's Thought. China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives. Edited by Woei Lien Chong. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Landsberger, Stefan R. The Deification of Mao: Religious Imagery and Practices during the Cultural Revolution and Beyond. China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives. Edited by Woei Lien Chong (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Pye, Lucian W. Rethinking the Man in the Leader. The China Journal, No. 35. Jan., 1996, pp. 107-112. Stable URL:

Witke, Roxane. Comrade Chiang Ch'ing. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1977.

Womack, Brantly. Mao Zedong: Ten Years After; Where Mao Went Wrong: Epistemology and Ideology in Mao's Leftist Politics. The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 16. Jul., 1986, pp. 23-40. Stable URL: