Biography of Chairman Mao Zedong

Get the facts on the controversial Chinese leader

Chairman Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse Tung) is not only remembered for his impact on Chinese society and culture but for his global influence, including on political revolutionaries in the United States and the Western world in the 1960s and '70s. He is widely considered one of the most prominent Communist theoreticians. He was also known as a great poet. 

Get the facts on the leader with this biography that chronicles Mao's birth, rise to prominence and his death.

Mao's Early Years

Mao was born on Dec. 26, 1893, to peasant parents in Hunan province. He studied to be a teacher and landed a job at the Beijing University library. This exposed him to Marxist writings and led to him co-founding the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. During the years that followed the party would fight other groups for power before settling in Northwest China after completing the 6,000 mile trip that Mao led there.  

After wresting control from rival group the Kuomintang, Mao founded the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949. Under Communist rule, the government controlled business in China, and dissension was squashed by any means.

This stands in contrast to Mao before 1949, when he was known to be a very practical person. Then, he conducted many thorough investigations about China and developed theories based on his studies. He was so successful in his early years that some people worshipped him.

A shift occurred after 1949. Although Mao was a great thinker, he had no respect for any existing laws. He behaved as if he were the law, and no one else could question him. He challenged and destroyed the traditional Chinese culture, good and bad. He gave women the same rights as men but destroyed traditional roles for women.

This made his political philosophy unrealistic in many ways. As Mao said in a poem, "Ten thousand years is too long, seize the day." His ill-fated program the Great Leap Forward (1958) was a direct result of such thinking.

The program was his attempt to introduce a more 'Chinese' form of communism aimed at mass mobilization to improve agricultural and industrial production. The result, instead, was a massive decline in agricultural output, which, together with poor harvests, led to famine and the deaths of millions. The policy was abandoned and Mao's position weakened.

The Cultural Revolution

In an attempt to re-assert his authority, Mao launched the 'Cultural Revolution' in 1966, aiming to purge the country of 'impure' elements and revive the revolutionary spirit. One-and-a-half million people died, and much of the country's cultural heritage was destroyed. In September 1967, with many cities on the verge of anarchy, Mao sent in the army to restore order.

Mao appeared victorious, but his health was deteriorating. His later years saw attempts to build bridges with the United States, Japan and Europe. In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China and met Mao.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), everything took a very long pause except constant class struggle and population growth. Inflation was zero and salaries froze for everyone. Education was badly damaged.

Mao developed his fighting (or struggling) philosophy in these years. He said, "Fighting with heaven, fighting with earth, and fighting with human being, what a great pleasure!" China, however, was isolated from the rest of the world, and the Chinese didn't know the outside world at all.

Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976.