Mao’s Life Experiences and Their Impact on His Personality


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

Mao’s life experiences greatly affected him and contributed in shaping his personality. While his early experience of an arranged marriage made him a bitter critic of the subjugation of women, his later marriage revealed his sentimental side. His interactions with intellectuals and his school life further affected his thoughts and attitude, impacting his political views and decisions later in life.

Photo of Mao Zedong with his children, Li Min, Li Ne, and Mao Yuanxin on August 9, 1952.
Some of Mao’s life experiences greatly affected his future political views. (Image: 新浪网/Public domain)

Mao’s Experience in Changsha

During the time Mao was living in Changsha, a young woman was forced by her parents to become the second wife of an elderly merchant. However, rather than submit to this arrangement, she cut her throat with a razor on her wedding day.

The event received considerable publicity in local newspapers, and it stirred Mao deeply. He participated in a public debate on the incident and published several articles in a local newspaper. In them, he bitterly denounced the “darkness of the social system” that had forced a young woman to marry an old man whom she did not love. This showed how strongly committed Mao was to sexual equality and how he was against women’s suppression. Like many young radical nationalists of his era, Mao viewed the subjugation of women as a repressive function of China’s patriarchal-Confucian legacy.

Shortly after Mao arrived in Changsha in the fall of 1911, the republican revolution broke out in Hankow, 180 miles to the west of the Yangzi River. The anti-Manchu feeling was widespread in Changsha. The young Mao was inspired to write a wall-poster, a broadside—his very first—calling for the overthrow of the Manchus and the formation of a new government with Sun Yat-sen as President. It was Mao’s first venture into radical political activism.

After the Manchu abdication of 1912, Mao resumed his studies; later, he taught school in Changsha for a while. But he was becoming restless. It was the beginning of the warlord era in China, and a patriotic wave of revulsion at the country’s worsening predicament was sweeping through China’s major cities.

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

Mao’s Deep Love for His Wife

Image of Yang Kaihui with her two sons.
Mao was deeply in love with his wife, Yang Kaihui. (Image: Huangdan2060/Public domain)

On the eve of the May 4th movement, in 1918, Mao left Changsha for Beijing. There, he courted and married Yang Kaihui, the daughter of his favorite teacher. They were deeply in love, and Yang Kaihui bore him two sons before she was arrested and brutally beheaded by the Guomindang in 1930.

At times during their marriage, Mao revealed himself to have a deeply romantic and sentimental side. And on one occasion, after he and Yang Kaihui had quarreled, he wrote:

A wave of the hand, and the moment of parting has come. Harder to bear is facing each other dolefully,

Bitter feelings voiced once more.

Wrath looks out from your eyes and brows, On the verge of tears you hold them back.

We know our misunderstandings sprang from [my] last letter. Let it roll away like clouds and mist.

For who in this world is as close as you and I…Let us once again be two birds flying side by side, Soaring high as the clouds.

Such tender emotions, expressed by Mao at the age of 30, are difficult to reconcile with the insensitive, autocratic Mao, who 40 years later would visit such pain and suffering upon comrades and country alike.

But Yang Kaihui was important in Mao’s life for another reason as well. For it was her father, Professor Yang Changji, who first introduced the 25-year-old Mao Zedong to Li Dazhao, head librarian at Peking University and later a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party.

Learn more about the Chinese Communist Party.

Mao Failed Interactions with Intellectuals

As a favor to Professor Yang, Li Dazhao hired Mao as a librarian’s assistant. It was menial work, and he was rudely treated by some of the distinguished nationalist leaders who came to the library to read newspapers.

On one occasion, Mao attended a lecture by the eminent May 4th intellectual, Dr. Hu Shi. After the lecture, Mao tried to ask a question, but when the “great man” discovered that he was merely a librarian’s assistant rather than a Beida student, he abruptly brushed aside Mao’s question.

One can only speculate about the impact of such incidents on Mao’s latent resentment of intellectuals.

A statue of Mao Zedong.
Mao had an intense dislike for intellectuals. (Image: Bill Perry/Shutterstock)

Learn more about the policies of ideological “thought reform”.

Mao’s Approach to Education

Mao’s hostility toward China’s formal educational system first took root during his middle school experience in Changsha, when he rebelled against the traditional pedagogy that emphasized rote memorization and mechanical recitation of the Confucian classics. Mao dismissed such studies as mind-numbing and meaningless.

For all Mao’s youthful love of adventure novels, he also developed a deep sense that the traditional Confucian worship of book learning was a wasteful conceit. While still in Changsha, at the age of 21, he wrote:

Of the little progress I have made over these last few years, only the smaller part was achieved through books. The larger part…was the result of questioning and seeking solutions to [practical] problems.

This insistence on practical solutions would color Mao’s approach to education throughout his adult life, revealing itself clearly in his sarcastic rejection of the traditional examination system and his insistence that education must be combined with menial productive labor.

Common Questions about Mao’s Life Experiences and Their Impact on His Personality

Q: What was Mao’s attitude toward the subjugation of women?

Mao was against women’s suppression and viewed the subjugation of women as a repressive function of China’s patriarchal-Confucian legacy.

Q: How do we know that Mao also had a more tender side to him in his early years?

Mao had courted and married Yang Kaihui, whom he loved dearly. He wrote poems for her, revealing his deeply romantic and sentimental side.

Q: How did Mao’s job experience as a librarian’s assistant work out for him?

While working as a librarian’s assistant, Mao was ignored and rudely treated by some of the distinguished nationalist leaders and intellectuals. This led to Mao later disliking intellectuals in general.

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