Mao’s Childhood and His Hatred of the Bourgeoisie


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

Mao’s hatred of the bourgeoisie was well-known. However, the cruel, brutal Mao is something of a stereotype. For if he were simply an evil and bloodthirsty tyrant, how could he have successfully led the largest revolution in the history of the world? How could he have inspired such legendary adoration and reverence among so many and for so long?

An illustration of Mao Zedong.
The stereotype of Mao being a cruel and brutal thug is not exactly true. (Image: Daderot/Public domain)

Thank God for Wax Figures

Mao died on September 9, 1976, at the age of 82. The cause of death was listed as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). As his corpse lay on the embalming table, a team of morticians and medical pathologists argued over the best method for permanently preserving the chairman’s remains. There were no precedents in modern China for permanent preservation of a corpse, so the team members were flying blind—and they were very, very nervous, lest they make any mistakes. 

Unfortunately, they ruined the job. Mao’s body was pumped so full of embalming fluid that the body swelled up to the point of grotesqueness. Here is how Mao’s personal physician [Dr. Li Zhisui] described the scene in his 1994 memoir, The Private Life of Chairman Mao:

We injected a total of 22 litres. The results were shocking. Mao’s face was bloated, as round as a ball, and his neck was now the width of his head. His skin was shiny, and the formaldehyde oozed from his pores like sweat. His ears were swollen too, sticking out from his head at right angles.

By the time the morticians finished draining off the excess formaldehyde and applying cosmetic touches, Mao appeared shriveled, slack-jawed, and slightly greenish. He looked just terrible.

However, fortunately, on the eve of Mao’s death, a paraffin doppelganger, a life-sized wax copy of the chairman, had been prepared just in case his corpse could not be adequately preserved.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Two Maos

Portrait of Mao at Tiananmen Square
Unlike the image created in CCP history books, Mao was a deeply flawed human being. (Image: Bergmann/Public domain)

This tale of two Maos is fascinating; partly because of the deception involved, but also because, in death as in life, it seems that there was more than one Mao Zedong.

As featured in CCP history books, the officially licensed Mao was a brilliant poet and a great statesman, a philosopher, a warrior-king, a master military strategist, and an organizational genius. 

In the words of his official biographer, Mao’s most significant contribution lay in “integrating the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism with the concrete practice of the Chinese Revolution”; linking theory and practice was Mao’s forte. 

But to a significant extent, this officially authorized Mao, like the wax figure lying encased in glass in Tiananmen Square, is a heroic caricature. Artificially embellished, its features have been cosmetically enhanced to create a grossly idealized version of the real flesh and blood Mao Zedong.

The real Mao, the unofficial Mao, was a deeply flawed human being. His cold-blooded manipulations, conspiratorial fantasies, and cruel whims had inflicted enormous damage upon his countrymen. While he, himself, remained, it seemed, appallingly indifferent to the suffering he caused.

Learn more about Mao’s deterioration and death.

Mao’s Early Childhood

To realistically assess Mao’s legacy, we must consider his formative years, which he spent in Shaoshan village in rural Hunan. Born in 1893, Mao was the eldest son of a hot-tempered, self-made father, who had risen from peasant status to become a successful, if rather tight-fisted, businessman. His father was abusive, and when he would mistreat Mao’s mother or their hired hands, as happened rather frequently, Mao would identify with the victims. For this, he received periodic beatings from his father.

Photo of the former residence of Mao Zedong, where he was born and spent his childhood.
As a child, Mao often sided with the victims of his abusive father. (Image: Huangdan2060/Public domain)

Most biographers reckon that Mao’s early inclination to side with the victims of patriarchal abuse played a significant role in shaping his adult identity when he became a champion of China’s poor, downtrodden masses and a sworn enemy of all landlords, capitalists, and rich peasants. Mao’s adolescent rebelliousness was well described in an account of a tiff with his father when he was only 13. Here is what Mao wrote:

My father invited guests to his home, and while they were present…my father denounced me before the whole group, calling me lazy and useless. This infuriated me. I cursed him and left the house. My mother ran after me and tried to persuade me to return. My father also pursued me, cursing…I reached the edge of a pond and threatened to jump in if he came any closer…My father insisted that I apologize and kow-tow as a sign of submission. I agreed to give a [modified] one-knee kow-tow if he would promise not to beat me.

More interesting than the incident itself was the lesson Mao drew from it:

I learned that when I defended my rights by open rebellion, my father relented, but when I remained weak and submissive, he only beat me more.

Learn more about Mao’s confrontations.

Shaping of Mao’s Personality 

In his later years, however, Mao had become quite obstinate. Rather than capitulate to a higher authority, he drew up a petition to the town’s mayor demanding that the headmaster be replaced, and he browbeat several of his classmates into signing it.

This incident made Mao’s life increasingly difficult at school. After just one year, he left Xiang Xiang for the urban hustle and bustle of Changsha. A friendly introduction from one of his former teachers got him accepted into an elite private middle school.

Mao was not yet 18 years old. At his new school in Changsha, Mao was looked down upon by his fellow students, most of whom were well-heeled sons of upper-class families. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to see in such rejection a foreshadowing of Mao’s well-known resentment of bourgeois intellectuals, which emerged full-blown only later in his life.

Common Questions about Mao’s Childhood and His Hatred of the Bourgeoisie

Q: What is deemed wrong with the thought of Mao merely as a cruel dictator?

Cruel Mao is more of a stereotype. Mao was a complicated figure and one could trace his hatred of the bourgeoisie to his experiences in childhood and adolescence.

Q: What effect did Mao’s abusive father have on his character as an adult?

Mao was a champion of the lower classes and favored them. Mao’s hatred of the bourgeoisie and his sympathy towards the oppressed could be because of the patriarchal abuse he experienced as a child.

Q: How did Mao’s school in Changsha affect him?

Mao’s hatred of the bourgeoisie could have been fueled in this school. He was looked down upon by his classmates, who were of upper-class families, and who saw him as a peasant kid and not a fellow intellectual.

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