Revolutionary China

Mao Zedong 1893-1976

Revolutionary China

Written at the time of the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, this article by SACU's founder Joseph Needham puts the details of his life aside and considers the life of Mao Zedong in philosophical terms against the backdrop of Chinese history. It was not until some years after that a lot of we now know as the darker side of Mao's leadership came to be known. This article stands as a refreshingly different perspective on what Mao sought to achieve.

The news of the death of Mao Zedong is something which (although the world has been expecting it) means that a great figure of universal significance has passed from this life into history. His success in inspiring the vast majority of some eight hundred million people, perhaps the most populous cultural unit in the world of mankind today, with a great ideal - that of the classless society - has been an unparalleled achievement.

I think that in order to understand the work of Mao Zedong, it is necessary to know a little about the history of China over the past two thousand years or so, and to realise that it was what is often called a 'feudal-bureaucratic' empire. It was not aristocratic military feudalism as in the Western world, but rather a bureaucratic system with a vast civil service collecting taxes, and state power under a single emperor. But this pattern of comparative peace was continually broken by peasant rebellions throughout the ages - one after another. When a dynasty became effete, with excessive oppression and intemperate corruption, some peasant leader would arise and organise a tremendous rebellion which would change the situation, but only to the extent of instituting a new dynasty; like, for example, Liu Bang at the end of the Qin, commanding the uprising which led to the Han dynasty. Or again, much later on, in the 14th century, Zhu Yuanzhang leading the rebellion that led to the Ming.

Mao lying in state
People's representatives file past Mao's body lying in state in Beijing.

You could view Mao Zedong as yet another in the line of historical succession of leaders of peasant rebellions. You could imagine it if that were a valid analogy. But in fact it isn't. The reason it isn't is because in the modern world the ideology of social life in China had utterly and completely changed. The Guomindang - that is to say, the regime which preceded the Communist government in China, and took over after the successful rebellion against the Manchu or Qing dynasty in 1911 - the Guomindang was also different, but in the sense that it wanted to introduce capitalism to China; and what most people don't understand is that capitalism was a fundamentally Western, European invention. It was not invented in China; it was totally unsuitable for the Chinese people and their traditions; it was only imposed on them for a limited time during the period of the unequal treaties; and the more they saw of it, the less they liked it. So that the struggle came between those who wanted to introduce modern capitalism to China and produce a country like Japan (which, incidentally, did not have that feudal bureaucratic system I spoke of before), and those who, on the other hand, said, 'on the contrary, we can go straight to socialism. It's much more in agreement with our own age-old traditions, and the best sort of socialism is communism, scientific socialism, so therefore let us form a Communist Party,' and they did. Mao Zedong himself turned out, after many vicissitudes, to be the outstanding leader of that group. There were a number of others who perished by the way at various times - by which I mean not merely that some of them were caught and killed by the Guomindang, in violent repressions of the Communists - but that they went off on various deviant lines.

I think one cannot understand the Chinese revolution of our time unless one realises two things. First, that China has absolutely rejected as a model Western capitalism, and secondly, that it is her determination to press forward to a society in which social classes have become entirely a thing of the past, and everyone - intellectuals, industrial workers, scientists, doctors, peasant-farmers - everyone is on the same social level. This is an extremely difficult thing to do, but in my belief, as one who has been there a number of times since the revolution, the Chinese have made long strides towards it.

Coming back to the personality of Mao Zedong himself, I think one can consider him under a number of headings, for example, what was he like as a sociologist, or an economist, a military strategist and so on.

If one starts by asking what he did in sociology, I think one of his most remarkable achievements was his hard-headed analysis of Chinese society into the very few educated people on the one hand, and on the other into the classification of peasant-farmers as rich, poor and middle peasants, with all that that implied for the collectivisation and re-organisation of rural society in China. His ideal of the classless society already referred to, was not really entirely new in China, and it needs to be looked at in the context of the class structure of society in mediaeval and traditional China. The idea is very ancient indeed; you find slogans like 'the whole world should be one united brotherhood', which come down to us from ancient times and the early Middle Ages.

Still speaking of Mao as a sociologist, there's no doubt that his insistence that the revolution could rely on the peasant farmers and not simply on an industrial proletariat, was something which was quite unorthodox from the prevalent Marxist point of view. He had great difficulty in persuading the leaders of the Communist Party to agree with this theory which turned out to be absolutely right. China didn't have a vast industrial proletariat, and Mao believed that if he could give the peasant-farmers fundamental land reform and then get them to see the advantages of farming co-operatives and ultimately communes, they would be able to build a wonderful revolution and completely change the face of Chinese society. And they did.

Another thing you could say about Mao as a sociologist was his insistence on the importance of the class struggle; everywhere, even in homes; everything should be interpreted in terms of class struggle. Perhaps it has been carried too far sometimes in China, but I believe that there is very great truth in it.

As a military strategist, Mao was a very interesting man because, although basically he believed in leaving army affairs to the military commanders among whom, of course, Zhou Enlai was outstanding, and Zhu De (who died even more recently), nevertheless he was able to give them brilliant guidance. Of course, he was fully familiar with the Chinese military classics, especially the Sun Cu Bing Fa, the greatest of the strategic and tactical military classics, written probably in the 4th century BC. He knew most of the classics almost by heart, and his attitude towards the use of military force was 'to put politics in command'. Of course everyone knows about his saying 'power grows from the barrel of a gun', but whose power, and power in relation to what? Power in relation to politics, of course. 'Put politics in command' was essential here. In a way it makes him much like Oliver Cromwell at an early period. That famous Cromwellian order 'Trust in God, and keep your powder dry' could be paralleled in China, though it was Christian democracy in one case and Marxist socialism in the other, three centuries later. The Chinese revolutionary armies were certainly to keep their powder dry, but they were to trust in the great ideals of the revolution and put politics first.

If one should ask about Mao's attitude to science, I think there can be no doubt that he gave it all the backing he could. From the first days of the People's Government in China, science, pure and applied, received far more support, financial and moral, than had ever been dreamed of by the Guomindang. The national academy (Academia Sinica) grew very rapidly, with dozens of new research institutes, and young people were strongly encouraged to study the sciences, engineering, agriculture and medicine in the universities. Of course the accent was always on service to the people, and even after the Cultural Revolution I found that scientists were urged to tackle problems where useful results might be expected within ten years rather than those where no application could be seen for a hundred years. In another direction, science was brought to the masses, and they were encouraged to participate in it, so that not only did magazines of popular science reach circulations unimaginably large to us, but also countryfolk were taught how to make valuable measurements and observations (in meteorology, plant physiology, pedology, etc. etc.). So also the revolution demanded that medical care should be available to everyone, even in the most remote parts of the country, hence the successful 'barefoot doctor' movement, where medical workers of working-class or peasant origin have enough training to enable them to carry on much medical care, recognising when more skilled care than they can provide or hospitalisation are necessary. The principle has been brilliantly extended to other fields, so that there are now perhaps 25,000 'barefoot seismologists' all over the country measuring radon in deep wells, listening for rock slips and always on the watch for premonitory tremors. As for the vast expansion of the engineering industries that is a matter of common knowledge, and China is more than self sufficient in oil and petroleum products.

Mao's calligraphy
Mao's poem on the Long March written October 1935.

Finally, we come to some aspects of Mao Zedong less well known, perhaps. Not everybody realises that he was a remarkable poet. The poems are greatly admired in China; they have been published in many editions, and they are very good poems in classical Chinese style. Furthermore, he was a calligrapher, he wrote most beautiful Chinese characters; and this is something which the Chinese have always greatly admired. I don't think people realise enough how learned, how literary in a way, with what good taste even the most unlettered peasant-farmer approaches things, and the respect for writing, for instance, has always been great in China. For example, I love the story of the man in the Middle Ages who bought a governorship, and then on the way he met a fearsome warrior who invited him into a tent and asked him to write an epigram and sign his name, after which he said 'Well, this is quite shocking - you can't possibly have got your governorship by examination. With writing like that, no one could possibly be fitted to be governor of a province.' So he chased him away and sent him home. The warrior was in fact Guan Yu, the God of War, who was protecting the literary standards of provincial governors.

Mao Zedong's knowledge of the classics undoubtedly endeared him from the beginning to the Chinese people; they gave him the respect due to all scholars who leave the camp of privilege and place their learning and their genius in the service of the people. I have hanging on my wall one of his poems I greatly admire, translatable as follows:

One watches the unyielding pines in the vast azure sunset
And the fleeting clouds below in seeming chaos yet majestically moving.
Here beside the cave of the Taoist Immortals one sees that boundless beauty
is to be found only among the most dangerous peaks.

Last of all, I would like to mention his position as a philosopher. If Plato's idea that philosophers ought to be kings was ever implemented, I think there would be much to be said for regarding Mao Zedong as its embodiment. One mustn't think of philosophy in the narrow sense as used in the Western world; for example, linguistic philosophers or mathematical logicians, or metaphysicians in the old sense. Mao's thinking wasn't like that; his was of a much broader character. He was primarily influenced, of course, by Marxist philosophy which includes dialectical materialism, and here it's important and interesting that there was a great deal to build upon in Chinese tradition. Because the philosophical thought of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries AD was congruent in its world outlook with dialectical materialism, Mao could acclimatise this traditional dialectical materialism easily enough in the Chinese world outlook. Yet one of his greatest achievements, it could certainly be said, was that he was able to put Marxist philosophy into understandable Chinese. In many ways he carried it further, for instance, in his studies on contradiction in society, among organisations and groups of people, nations and so forth.

I suspect there may have been other lesser influences on him besides Marxism. It's worth pointing out that both Bertrand Russell and R.H. Tawney, as also John Dewey from America, were lecturing in Beijing at the time when Mao Zedong was a young librarian in Beijing University, and it's quite possible that he picked up some ideas from what was going round and being talked about at that time.

I think finally the last thing I should like to say is that the emphasis of the Chairman, Mao Zedong, on non-material incentives was a very important thing, and is embodied in the saying heard all over China - wei ren min fu wu - everything that you do, do it for others, do it for the people. And in a way, this gives what I would rather like to call a certain religious timbre to the socialism of China. It isn't directly related to Christianity; it hardly could be since organised Christianity never really succeeded in China; after thirteen centuries it had been accepted only by some three or four out of the 800 millions. But some ideas almost certainly came through, in line with the saying that 'Christianity was the grandmother of Bolshevism'.

There was also plenty of inspiration from indigenous Chinese sources - the forbearance and affectionate mutual help in the extended family, the solidarity of some of the secret societies working against the oppression of the imperial bureaucracy, the responsibilities of the clan heads and village chiefs, and the fraternal support of the merchant guilds. Chinese society had a built-in co-operativeness; although one of its failures (as Sun Yatsen saw) was excessive family loyalty. This is what Mao's China has broken through, returning to the conception of the ancient Chinese thinker, Mo Zi, that all the world should be one family, in which people disdain to work for pecuniary rewards but rather out of neighbourly loving-kindness and concern, letting honour and regard come out of that selflessness.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 : an extract from SACU's magazine China Now 65, Page 2, October 1976

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
If you have any comments, updates or corrections please let us know via our Contact page.