Mao Zedong and the Making of Communist China

From the lecture series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Born in 1893 in the Hunan province of China, Mao Zedong was the son of a peasant landlord. He admired Napolean and started the transformation of communist China. He was determined to overtake the Soviet Union, China’s former ally and all the other capitalists. How did he go about it?

The photo shows Tiananmen Square with Mao Zedong's portrait.
On October 1, 1949, Mao stood above the Tiananmen Square in Beijing and proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. (Image: Atosan/Shutterstock)

China and the First World War

In 1912, the Manchu (or Qing) dynasty was overthrown by Chinese nationalists, and the Chinese republic was proclaimed. The revolutionary movement was led by Sun Yat-sen, who founded the new Kuomintang nationalist revolutionary party to modernize China. The aims of this party were to promote national independence, progress, and science.

Yet, even in the republic, unequal treaties with foreign powers remained in force, and China’s continuing inferior status internationally was made bitterly clear in the aftermath of the First World War. China had entered the war against Germany, but according to the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, Germany’s colonial holdings in China were not returned to China, those holdings were awarded to Japan.

This truly shocking news provoked a huge Chinese demonstration on May 4, 1919. Thousands of students from Beijing University gathered in masses at the Tiananmen Square to protest and denounce this international treatment of their country. This resulted in a larger movement which was called the May Fourth Movement. 

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Advent of Mao Zedong

In the midst of all this turbulence, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in the year 1921 by some radicals of Beijing University. A young assistant in the university library named Mao Zedong was among these radicals. For these communists, the answer to China’s problems was in another ideology that was imported from the west—Marxism. The so-called program of scientific socialism of Marxism promised to eradicate class exploitation by establishing an ultimate dictatorship of the working class. The Chinese Communists looked above all to the new Soviet Union which had been established by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the wreckage of the Russian empire.

During this period, China not only had to handle the conflict between the nationalist government and the communist but it also had to confront the invasion of Japanese imperialism. The Japanese-Chinese war continued from 1937 to 1945 and this was one of the starting points of the second world war.

An estimated 15 to 45 million Chinese people died in this war. Peace did not come to China even after the end of the war. Now, communists under Mao Zedong resumed the civil war with the nationalist government in full force. Ultimately, this conflict ended by 1949, when the nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan, where they claimed (and still claim) that they were the legitimate rulers of all of mainland China.

Learn more about the Treaty of Westphalia.

Establishment of People’s Republic of China

On October 1, 1949, Mao stood above the Tiananmen Square in Beijing and proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Mao said,
“We, the 475 people of China have stood up and our future is infinitely bright.” This commenced the making of a new nation that was based on the modern communist model, and it happened at a tremendous human cost.

China was to be shaped by some of Mao Zedong’s core convictions under his leadership. He praised turmoil and revolution in contrast to the Confucian thoughts that valued order, harmony, and stability. Mao thought that disorder gave him access to power. Mao called China, “A clean sheet of paper … [on which] the newest and most beautiful words can be written.” He was sure that the revolution would not only remake China, but would also put it at the center of the world again. Mao launched Communist China into this transformation, increasingly determined to overtake the capitalists, and China’s former ally, the Soviet Union.

The Cultural Revolution in China

In the name of future modern China, he launched a campaign against the old China. It was called the cultural revolution of 1966 to 1976. This campaign attacked even the Communist Party and the government itself, because they were accused of having strayed from the true revolutionary path. Mao was concerned that somehow the forward movement of the revolution had slowed down and had come to a point where he thought it needed to be accelerated.

The photo shows the Mao cap and the Red Book.
The members of the Red Guard wore Mao suits and carried Mao’s Little Red Book. (Image: Mapa Melvin/Shutterstock)

So, the organized Red Guard units comprising the young generation of Chinese were asked to attack the older generation including their teachers, local authorities, and even their parents. Very soon these Red Guard units numbered in millions and wore Mao suits and showed Mao’s Little Red Book comprising his sayings and aphorisms. A massive personality cult was built around Mao Zedong with 2.2 million badges bearing his picture being produced.

Simultaneously, they arrested, purged, or killed millions of Chinese or sent them to the reeducation camps called laogai. Public campaigns were aimed at erasing everything from the past as well as foreign influence. Architecture, temples, schools, and libraries were continuously destroyed affecting the rich Confucian culture in particular.

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The Need for New Allies

During this period, it seemed that China had shut itself from the rest of the world. Chinese ambassadors from the countries with which it had diplomatic relations were recalled to check their political loyalties. Amidst all this disturbance, Mao Zedong and his comrades were struck with another sudden fear.

They felt that China’s isolation was increasing and they felt threatened by their former ally, the Soviet Union because the relations between the two countries had become cold to the extent of becoming poisonous. By 1969, Soviet and Chinese troops were actually clashing at the Amur River, at China’s northern border. The apprehension was that the unofficial conflict could turn into an all-out war. By 1970, the Chinese leadership was gripped by a war scare.

Mao Zedong made a decision that China had to find new allies internationally and at the same time started to slow down the internal fury of the cultural revolution. Thus, started a new chapter in the Sino-American relationship with the visit of American president Richard Nixon to China in 1972.

Common Questions about Mao Zedong and the Making of Communist China

Q: What main goal did Mao Zedong have for China?

The main goal of Mao Zedong was to clear the remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society and to preserve communism as the dominant ideology.

Q: When did China become communist?

Mao Zedong, the Chinese communist leader declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China on 1st October, 1949.

Q: When did Mao Zedong launch the cultural revolution in China?

Mao Zedong launched the cultural revolution in China in 1966, and it continued till 1976.

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