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Episode
113

Mao Zedong

Dec 8, 2020
History
-
22
minutes
China
Asia
Communism
Politics
The Cold War
Propaganda

He was the founding father of China, and ruled the country until his death until 1976.

Learn about his early life, his rise to power, his rule of China, and the complicated legacy he left behind.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Mao Zedong, Chairman Mao, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China and its leader until his death in 1976.

[00:00:37] Now, I should start by saying that trying to cram the entire life of Mao into 20 minutes is a difficult task, so this will evidently not be the conclusive guide to the life of Chairman Mao.

[00:00:52] But, what I do hope is that this will give you an idea about the man, his life, and his legacy, and by the end of this episode you will know a little bit more about him than you do now.

[00:01:05] I’ll also say that the pronunciation of Mao Zedong is more like Mao Zedong, but we’ll stick with the English version for this podcast - Mao Zedong - apologies to any Mandarin speakers that may be listening.

[00:01:20] So, without wasting one more minute, let’s get started.

[00:01:26] The name Mao Zedong probably conjures up all sorts of ideas in your mind. You might think of him as a great leader, a man who managed to unite China and fight off imperial forces.

[00:01:40] But unless you’re listening to this episode from within China, you probably have a different view of him.

[00:01:47] You might think of him as a dictator, you might think of the Cultural Revolution or of the millions of people who died under his leadership.

[00:01:58] One thing is for sure though, he is an interesting character, he had a fascinating life and changed the world forever.

[00:02:07] Mao Zedong was born in a village in Hunan province, in south central China, in 1893. 

[00:02:16] As a young boy he was a voracious reader, and a keen student of history.

[00:02:23] As he was growing up, at the turn of the 20th century, China was in a pretty poor position. 

[00:02:30] It had suffered humiliation during the Opium Wars, and the Qing dynasty, the ruling dynasty, was on its last legs, it was about to collapse.

[00:02:41] As a student, Mao developed an admiration for foreign revolutionary leaders, people such as George Washington and Napoleon, and developed a belief that China needed to be restored to its former glory. 

[00:02:58] When Mao was a young man, China grew more and more chaotic, overrun by foreign powers and a far cry from its previous position as a world power to be reckoned with

[00:03:11] Its last emperor was overthrown in 1911, and it became a republic, governed by a man called Sun Yat-Sen. 

[00:03:20] Sun Yat-Sen didn’t govern for long, handing over power to another man, Yuan Shikai, shortly after taking power. 

[00:03:28] Yuan Shikai promoted himself from President to Emperor of China, but only managed to hold onto power for 83 days before the country was plunged into a civil war that lasted for 10 years.

[00:03:44] Long story short, China was in crisis. This experience, and the view that China needed to regain its rightful place in the world defined the ideology of young Mao.

[00:03:59] Of course, it wasn’t just in China that empires were crumbling and new political systems were rising from the ashes.

[00:04:08] In neighbouring Russia, in 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks had overthrown the monarchy, the people had seized power from the out of touch Russian tsars.

[00:04:20] Encouraged by the success of the Bolsheviks, Communist sympathies started to develop in China.

[00:04:28] The Chinese Communist Party was formed in 1921, and Mao was a founding member.

[00:04:34] The communists didn’t have any real power at this time, though, and actually supported another political party, the Kuomintang, which in effect took over the rule of China in 1926.

[00:04:50] Now, I’m going to skip over quite a lot here, but the period between the Kuomintang taking power in 1926 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is full of power struggles, internal fighting, the war with Japan, and civil war in China.

[00:05:11] It was during this period that it’s believed that Mao started to develop his ideas about the power of the Chinese peasant class, that a Chinese revolution wouldn’t come from the cities, like it had in Russia, but rather from the countryside, from the peasants.

[00:05:31] Mao started to loathe, to hate, urban intellectuals and elites, believing them to be out of touch with the real people of China, the peasants

[00:05:44] And it was the peasants who would fight the revolution and transform China, not the urban proletariat, like in Russia. 

[00:05:53] Landowners, people who owned land, also became a target of Mao’s, and he believed that the peasant class had been exploited, both economically and politically by those who owned the land.

[00:06:08] After these internal struggles within the Communist party, turning on the Kuomintang and starting a civil war, then chasing the Kuomintang out of China and causing them to flee to Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party was the most powerful force in China, and Mao Zedong found himself at the head of it.

[00:06:30] So, on the 1st of October 1949, he proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China - China, as we know it today. 

[00:06:41] He was almost 55 at the time, so certainly no spring chicken, not a young man. 

[00:06:49] Now, we have sped through the first part of his life, but it really is after the formation of the PRC, of the People’s Republic of China, that things start to get even more interesting.

[00:07:02] Mao Zedong was the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, the only real party in China. 

[00:07:08] He was the ruler of the country, but his power was by no means secure. 

[00:07:15] The infighting of the previous 30 years had taught him that people can fall just as quickly as they can rise, and so he embarked on a series of campaigns to solidify his power, campaigns which never really stopped for the duration of his rule.

[00:07:35] These campaigns would target people in society that were considered to pose a threat to Mao and the communist party. 

[00:07:44] Initially the campaigns started by targeting previous Kuomintang members and anyone who had questioned the authority of the communist party, but they were later expanded to include everyone from public intellectuals to landowners.

[00:08:02] Not a huge amount of proof was required, and being accused of being a counter-revolutionary was often enough to be punished.

[00:08:12] During just the first one of these campaigns, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries of 1950, 2.6 million people were arrested, 1.3 million people were imprisoned, and 712,000  people were executed, they were killed. 

[00:08:31] And these are the official statistics from the Chinese Communist Party, and it’s believed by many historians that the real numbers are a lot higher.

[00:08:42] With some of the more immediate threats to power out of the way, Mao sought to transform the country from an agricultural, peasant-based economy to a communist, centrally run, industrial economy.

[00:08:57] As the Russians did, Mao decided to implement a series of 5-year plans, plans for what the country needed to achieve in 5 years in order to reach the next level of its development.

[00:09:12] China at this time was still a pretty weak, poor country. 

[00:09:18] It was growing apart from its more powerful communist neighbour, Russia, and it also feared an attack from the west, which was not keen on the idea of a strong and powerful communist China.

[00:09:32] Mao sought to radically transform the country, improving its military capabilities, but also by industrialising the economy so that it no longer needed to rely on aid and protection from its communist big brother, the Soviet Union. 

[00:09:49] How this was to be achieved was by transforming peasant communities into something called state collectives, or communes, so that instead of peasants just farming their own smaller pieces of land, they would pool them together and production and distribution would be centrally controlled.

[00:10:10] In addition to this, Mao encouraged these communes to start making steel for industry, and small, makeshift steel furnaces were created, with peasants melting their metal agricultural tools to make steel.

[00:10:28] Unfortunately these plans did not turn out to be the resounding success that Mao had hoped for. And that’s a little bit of an understatement.

[00:10:39] You might have heard of The Great Leap Forward, which was the second of the five year plans, and started in 1958.

[00:10:49] The main objective of The Great Leap Forward was to increase agricultural and industrial production in these communes, and to transform the way in which China fed itself.

[00:11:02] Previously, as we said, the peasants had grown food for themselves. They might have sold some excess rice, some rice that they didn't need to eat themselves, but it was all pretty local.

[00:11:15] Mao’s idea for this new Chinese economy was centrally planned, so food would be produced in these large communes according to centrally set targets, then it would be redistributed based on where it was required.

[00:11:32] That all sounds ok in theory, but in practice these new communes, these new collectives, were under increasing pressure to report higher and higher numbers of food production.

[00:11:46] The more food that a commune reported producing, the better example it was that Mao’s ideas were working.

[00:11:54] Commune leaders, eager to please their superiors and not seem lazy or ‘counter-revolutionary’, would report that their communes had produced far more than they had done. 

[00:12:07] Because the economy was centrally planned,  and food was redistributed between communes, they would have to send their ‘excess food’ away to be redistributed.

[00:12:19] But the problem was that in many cases there wasn’t excess food, they had just reported excess food to not seem anti-revolutionary and to keep up with their neighbours.

[00:12:33] Whatsmore, in many communes the peasants had religiously followed the guidance of Chairman Mao and melted their metal tools to create steel, which would be sent away to create industrial equipment, so they had nothing left to actually farm with.

[00:12:52] So, not only did the peasants on these communes have to send away large amounts of their crops, of their rice, of their food, but they had destroyed large amounts of their tools that they would normally use to farm.

[00:13:08] The result of all of this chaos was horrific.

[00:13:12] Millions of people starved to death, and the Great Leap Forward is believed to have caused the deaths of anywhere from 18 million to 45 million Chinese, and making this the largest famine in human history.

[00:13:29] Although there aren’t many historians who would argue that this was actually Mao’s intention, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he became aware of the inefficiencies that this system caused, and the millions of deaths that were resulting from it, but accepted this as a necessary evil for the industrialisation of China.

[00:13:53] By 1962, thankfully, the Great Leap Forward was over. 

[00:13:58] It hadn’t industrialised China and turned it into a power to be reckoned with, and apart from some token self-criticism, some admitting of mistakes, nobody really took responsibility for what had gone wrong. 

[00:14:15] Indeed, there was only one minister, one senior party official, who did criticise the Great Leap Forward, and he was quickly dismissed, he was quickly sacked, and replaced by someone more loyal to the party, and more loyal to Mao.

[00:14:32] Mao had started cultivating a cult of personality from the early 1930s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s and early 1960s that it was really taken to the next level.

[00:14:47] Posters, big signs, with quotes from Chairman Mao started to be put up all around the country, the Little Red Book with quotations from Chairman Mao was published in 1964. 

[00:15:01] Saying anything other than complimentary things about the Chairman was a quick way to be labelled a rightist, to be called a rightist and counter-revolutionary, to probably be sent to do hard labour in the countryside, or worse.

[00:15:17] Then in 1966 Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, an all-out assault on any anti-communist elements

[00:15:27] He encouraged schoolchildren to report on their teachers and parents, to denounce each other, and to generally cause chaos.

[00:15:38] It was also during this time that there was huge damage done to lots of China’s cultural heritage, destroying temples, churches, and burning books. These were all considered part of China’s ancient history; they were part of the past and had no present in the future of China.

[00:15:59] The Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966 until 1976, and turned into something even beyond Mao’s control. 

[00:16:09] It became a way for old grievances to be settled, for old rivalries to be played out

[00:16:17] People would denounce their neighbours, schoolchildren would denounce teachers they didn’t like, and these people would be sent away for re-education at best, or in many cases, just beaten to death, killed.

[00:16:33] Within the upper echelons of the communist party, at the top of the party, it also became a way for people to jostle for power, to fight for power. 

[00:16:45] Mao’s fourth wife, a lady called Jiang Qing, formed a political faction called the Gang of Four, and they were considered responsible for really pushing the Cultural Revolution to its extreme.

[00:17:00] Then on September the 9th, 1976, at the ripe old age of 82, Mao Zedong died. 

[00:17:09] He was embalmed, and left lying in state in Beijing.

[00:17:15] Indeed, you can still visit him today. His mausoleum is in Tiananmen Square, a few hundred metres away from the balcony from which he declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

[00:17:29] Now, that is very much a whistlestop tour through the life and times of Chairman Mao. 

[00:17:36] What I want to talk about now is his legacy, which is certainly a complicated one.

[00:17:42] If you go to China now, you’ll find Mao’s face on every banknote, you’ll see his painting hanging over Tiananmen Gate, and you won’t find a person in China who doesn’t at least know who he is.

[00:17:56] It hasn’t even been 50 years since he died, and there are still hundreds of millions of people in China who lived under his rule. For them this isn’t history, as such, it was part of their life.

[00:18:11] And, unlike countries that lived under such a powerful, authoritarian leader, whether that’s the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy, there was never really a proper break with Maoism. 

[00:18:27] It’s the same country, the same party that is in power, and indeed Xi Jinping, the current president of China, is the son of a man called Xi Zhongxun, a famous communist revolutionary and close colleague of Mao’s.

[00:18:43] The official Chinese Communist Party's position is that overall Mao Zedong had a great, positive impact on China, but that he made some mistakes. 

[00:18:54] In my experience when talking to Chinese people when travelling around the country, this does seem to be the official line - The Cultural Revolution was a mistake, but Mao put China on the course back towards greatness and was overall a good thing for China. 

[00:19:13] The Chinese even quantify it, they put a number on this, saying that Mao was 70% good, 30% bad.

[00:19:23] Outside China, he has left a huge legacy. 

[00:19:27] Maoism, Mao Zedong thought, has created political groups all over the world, from the Shining Path in Peru to the Communist Party of Angola, who were all inspired to certain degrees by Mao Zedong.

[00:19:42] In the West, he is often simplified as a brutal dictator, someone who cared little for the Chinese people, killed tens of millions of people and is in a similar category to Hitler and Mussolini. 

[00:19:57] Although there’s no denying that tens of millions of people died and were persecuted under his rule, portraying him as a mere mad dictator is a bit of a simplification, and there are multiple successes that one can point to, several positive developments that happened under his rule.

[00:20:20] The levels of literacy, the amount of people who could read, improved drastically. When he took power 80% of the population was illiterate, they couldn't read, and by his death only 7% was. 

[00:20:36] Life expectancy in China doubled under his rule, and the country was dragged out of being an agrarian economy to something approaching an industrialised country.

[00:20:49] China remained a unified country, and the fact that the country has remained united to this day, when almost every other communist country has either collapsed or is in a pretty bad condition, is something that is often pointed at.

[00:21:05] But the question still stands: did this transformation require Mao? 

[00:21:12] Could all of this have been achieved without the deaths of tens, or hundreds of millions of people, and could China have actually developed more quickly and more sustainably with a different leader to Mao?

[00:21:26] This is of course a question that historians inside and outside of China have been grappling with for almost 50 years now, and I’m sure will grapple with for far more than 50 years to come.

[00:21:40] It’s a complicated legacy, and it’s certainly a little more complicated than just saying 70% good, 30% bad.

[00:21:49] OK then, that is it for this little look at the life and times of Mao Zedong. 

[00:21:57] I imagine there are podcasts in China that go on for hours, days and weeks about all the details of his life, and this has been a very quick trip through his life, his impact, and his legacy. But I hope it has given you a little bit of an idea about the man.

[00:22:15] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:22:19] I’ve had a request for more episodes about East Asian history, so if there is a particular part of the life of Mao Zedong, or Chinese history that you would like me to make, I’ll do it. 

[00:22:30] Luckily I spent many years reading about Mao Zedong, so it is a subject I’m quite knowledgeable about already.

[00:22:37] So, do let me know. 

[00:22:39] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds, and of course to me.

[00:22:49] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:54] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Mao Zedong, Chairman Mao, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China and its leader until his death in 1976.

[00:00:37] Now, I should start by saying that trying to cram the entire life of Mao into 20 minutes is a difficult task, so this will evidently not be the conclusive guide to the life of Chairman Mao.

[00:00:52] But, what I do hope is that this will give you an idea about the man, his life, and his legacy, and by the end of this episode you will know a little bit more about him than you do now.

[00:01:05] I’ll also say that the pronunciation of Mao Zedong is more like Mao Zedong, but we’ll stick with the English version for this podcast - Mao Zedong - apologies to any Mandarin speakers that may be listening.

[00:01:20] So, without wasting one more minute, let’s get started.

[00:01:26] The name Mao Zedong probably conjures up all sorts of ideas in your mind. You might think of him as a great leader, a man who managed to unite China and fight off imperial forces.

[00:01:40] But unless you’re listening to this episode from within China, you probably have a different view of him.

[00:01:47] You might think of him as a dictator, you might think of the Cultural Revolution or of the millions of people who died under his leadership.

[00:01:58] One thing is for sure though, he is an interesting character, he had a fascinating life and changed the world forever.

[00:02:07] Mao Zedong was born in a village in Hunan province, in south central China, in 1893. 

[00:02:16] As a young boy he was a voracious reader, and a keen student of history.

[00:02:23] As he was growing up, at the turn of the 20th century, China was in a pretty poor position. 

[00:02:30] It had suffered humiliation during the Opium Wars, and the Qing dynasty, the ruling dynasty, was on its last legs, it was about to collapse.

[00:02:41] As a student, Mao developed an admiration for foreign revolutionary leaders, people such as George Washington and Napoleon, and developed a belief that China needed to be restored to its former glory. 

[00:02:58] When Mao was a young man, China grew more and more chaotic, overrun by foreign powers and a far cry from its previous position as a world power to be reckoned with

[00:03:11] Its last emperor was overthrown in 1911, and it became a republic, governed by a man called Sun Yat-Sen. 

[00:03:20] Sun Yat-Sen didn’t govern for long, handing over power to another man, Yuan Shikai, shortly after taking power. 

[00:03:28] Yuan Shikai promoted himself from President to Emperor of China, but only managed to hold onto power for 83 days before the country was plunged into a civil war that lasted for 10 years.

[00:03:44] Long story short, China was in crisis. This experience, and the view that China needed to regain its rightful place in the world defined the ideology of young Mao.

[00:03:59] Of course, it wasn’t just in China that empires were crumbling and new political systems were rising from the ashes.

[00:04:08] In neighbouring Russia, in 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks had overthrown the monarchy, the people had seized power from the out of touch Russian tsars.

[00:04:20] Encouraged by the success of the Bolsheviks, Communist sympathies started to develop in China.

[00:04:28] The Chinese Communist Party was formed in 1921, and Mao was a founding member.

[00:04:34] The communists didn’t have any real power at this time, though, and actually supported another political party, the Kuomintang, which in effect took over the rule of China in 1926.

[00:04:50] Now, I’m going to skip over quite a lot here, but the period between the Kuomintang taking power in 1926 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is full of power struggles, internal fighting, the war with Japan, and civil war in China.

[00:05:11] It was during this period that it’s believed that Mao started to develop his ideas about the power of the Chinese peasant class, that a Chinese revolution wouldn’t come from the cities, like it had in Russia, but rather from the countryside, from the peasants.

[00:05:31] Mao started to loathe, to hate, urban intellectuals and elites, believing them to be out of touch with the real people of China, the peasants

[00:05:44] And it was the peasants who would fight the revolution and transform China, not the urban proletariat, like in Russia. 

[00:05:53] Landowners, people who owned land, also became a target of Mao’s, and he believed that the peasant class had been exploited, both economically and politically by those who owned the land.

[00:06:08] After these internal struggles within the Communist party, turning on the Kuomintang and starting a civil war, then chasing the Kuomintang out of China and causing them to flee to Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party was the most powerful force in China, and Mao Zedong found himself at the head of it.

[00:06:30] So, on the 1st of October 1949, he proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China - China, as we know it today. 

[00:06:41] He was almost 55 at the time, so certainly no spring chicken, not a young man. 

[00:06:49] Now, we have sped through the first part of his life, but it really is after the formation of the PRC, of the People’s Republic of China, that things start to get even more interesting.

[00:07:02] Mao Zedong was the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, the only real party in China. 

[00:07:08] He was the ruler of the country, but his power was by no means secure. 

[00:07:15] The infighting of the previous 30 years had taught him that people can fall just as quickly as they can rise, and so he embarked on a series of campaigns to solidify his power, campaigns which never really stopped for the duration of his rule.

[00:07:35] These campaigns would target people in society that were considered to pose a threat to Mao and the communist party. 

[00:07:44] Initially the campaigns started by targeting previous Kuomintang members and anyone who had questioned the authority of the communist party, but they were later expanded to include everyone from public intellectuals to landowners.

[00:08:02] Not a huge amount of proof was required, and being accused of being a counter-revolutionary was often enough to be punished.

[00:08:12] During just the first one of these campaigns, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries of 1950, 2.6 million people were arrested, 1.3 million people were imprisoned, and 712,000  people were executed, they were killed. 

[00:08:31] And these are the official statistics from the Chinese Communist Party, and it’s believed by many historians that the real numbers are a lot higher.

[00:08:42] With some of the more immediate threats to power out of the way, Mao sought to transform the country from an agricultural, peasant-based economy to a communist, centrally run, industrial economy.

[00:08:57] As the Russians did, Mao decided to implement a series of 5-year plans, plans for what the country needed to achieve in 5 years in order to reach the next level of its development.

[00:09:12] China at this time was still a pretty weak, poor country. 

[00:09:18] It was growing apart from its more powerful communist neighbour, Russia, and it also feared an attack from the west, which was not keen on the idea of a strong and powerful communist China.

[00:09:32] Mao sought to radically transform the country, improving its military capabilities, but also by industrialising the economy so that it no longer needed to rely on aid and protection from its communist big brother, the Soviet Union. 

[00:09:49] How this was to be achieved was by transforming peasant communities into something called state collectives, or communes, so that instead of peasants just farming their own smaller pieces of land, they would pool them together and production and distribution would be centrally controlled.

[00:10:10] In addition to this, Mao encouraged these communes to start making steel for industry, and small, makeshift steel furnaces were created, with peasants melting their metal agricultural tools to make steel.

[00:10:28] Unfortunately these plans did not turn out to be the resounding success that Mao had hoped for. And that’s a little bit of an understatement.

[00:10:39] You might have heard of The Great Leap Forward, which was the second of the five year plans, and started in 1958.

[00:10:49] The main objective of The Great Leap Forward was to increase agricultural and industrial production in these communes, and to transform the way in which China fed itself.

[00:11:02] Previously, as we said, the peasants had grown food for themselves. They might have sold some excess rice, some rice that they didn't need to eat themselves, but it was all pretty local.

[00:11:15] Mao’s idea for this new Chinese economy was centrally planned, so food would be produced in these large communes according to centrally set targets, then it would be redistributed based on where it was required.

[00:11:32] That all sounds ok in theory, but in practice these new communes, these new collectives, were under increasing pressure to report higher and higher numbers of food production.

[00:11:46] The more food that a commune reported producing, the better example it was that Mao’s ideas were working.

[00:11:54] Commune leaders, eager to please their superiors and not seem lazy or ‘counter-revolutionary’, would report that their communes had produced far more than they had done. 

[00:12:07] Because the economy was centrally planned,  and food was redistributed between communes, they would have to send their ‘excess food’ away to be redistributed.

[00:12:19] But the problem was that in many cases there wasn’t excess food, they had just reported excess food to not seem anti-revolutionary and to keep up with their neighbours.

[00:12:33] Whatsmore, in many communes the peasants had religiously followed the guidance of Chairman Mao and melted their metal tools to create steel, which would be sent away to create industrial equipment, so they had nothing left to actually farm with.

[00:12:52] So, not only did the peasants on these communes have to send away large amounts of their crops, of their rice, of their food, but they had destroyed large amounts of their tools that they would normally use to farm.

[00:13:08] The result of all of this chaos was horrific.

[00:13:12] Millions of people starved to death, and the Great Leap Forward is believed to have caused the deaths of anywhere from 18 million to 45 million Chinese, and making this the largest famine in human history.

[00:13:29] Although there aren’t many historians who would argue that this was actually Mao’s intention, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he became aware of the inefficiencies that this system caused, and the millions of deaths that were resulting from it, but accepted this as a necessary evil for the industrialisation of China.

[00:13:53] By 1962, thankfully, the Great Leap Forward was over. 

[00:13:58] It hadn’t industrialised China and turned it into a power to be reckoned with, and apart from some token self-criticism, some admitting of mistakes, nobody really took responsibility for what had gone wrong. 

[00:14:15] Indeed, there was only one minister, one senior party official, who did criticise the Great Leap Forward, and he was quickly dismissed, he was quickly sacked, and replaced by someone more loyal to the party, and more loyal to Mao.

[00:14:32] Mao had started cultivating a cult of personality from the early 1930s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s and early 1960s that it was really taken to the next level.

[00:14:47] Posters, big signs, with quotes from Chairman Mao started to be put up all around the country, the Little Red Book with quotations from Chairman Mao was published in 1964. 

[00:15:01] Saying anything other than complimentary things about the Chairman was a quick way to be labelled a rightist, to be called a rightist and counter-revolutionary, to probably be sent to do hard labour in the countryside, or worse.

[00:15:17] Then in 1966 Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, an all-out assault on any anti-communist elements

[00:15:27] He encouraged schoolchildren to report on their teachers and parents, to denounce each other, and to generally cause chaos.

[00:15:38] It was also during this time that there was huge damage done to lots of China’s cultural heritage, destroying temples, churches, and burning books. These were all considered part of China’s ancient history; they were part of the past and had no present in the future of China.

[00:15:59] The Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966 until 1976, and turned into something even beyond Mao’s control. 

[00:16:09] It became a way for old grievances to be settled, for old rivalries to be played out

[00:16:17] People would denounce their neighbours, schoolchildren would denounce teachers they didn’t like, and these people would be sent away for re-education at best, or in many cases, just beaten to death, killed.

[00:16:33] Within the upper echelons of the communist party, at the top of the party, it also became a way for people to jostle for power, to fight for power. 

[00:16:45] Mao’s fourth wife, a lady called Jiang Qing, formed a political faction called the Gang of Four, and they were considered responsible for really pushing the Cultural Revolution to its extreme.

[00:17:00] Then on September the 9th, 1976, at the ripe old age of 82, Mao Zedong died. 

[00:17:09] He was embalmed, and left lying in state in Beijing.

[00:17:15] Indeed, you can still visit him today. His mausoleum is in Tiananmen Square, a few hundred metres away from the balcony from which he declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

[00:17:29] Now, that is very much a whistlestop tour through the life and times of Chairman Mao. 

[00:17:36] What I want to talk about now is his legacy, which is certainly a complicated one.

[00:17:42] If you go to China now, you’ll find Mao’s face on every banknote, you’ll see his painting hanging over Tiananmen Gate, and you won’t find a person in China who doesn’t at least know who he is.

[00:17:56] It hasn’t even been 50 years since he died, and there are still hundreds of millions of people in China who lived under his rule. For them this isn’t history, as such, it was part of their life.

[00:18:11] And, unlike countries that lived under such a powerful, authoritarian leader, whether that’s the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy, there was never really a proper break with Maoism. 

[00:18:27] It’s the same country, the same party that is in power, and indeed Xi Jinping, the current president of China, is the son of a man called Xi Zhongxun, a famous communist revolutionary and close colleague of Mao’s.

[00:18:43] The official Chinese Communist Party's position is that overall Mao Zedong had a great, positive impact on China, but that he made some mistakes. 

[00:18:54] In my experience when talking to Chinese people when travelling around the country, this does seem to be the official line - The Cultural Revolution was a mistake, but Mao put China on the course back towards greatness and was overall a good thing for China. 

[00:19:13] The Chinese even quantify it, they put a number on this, saying that Mao was 70% good, 30% bad.

[00:19:23] Outside China, he has left a huge legacy. 

[00:19:27] Maoism, Mao Zedong thought, has created political groups all over the world, from the Shining Path in Peru to the Communist Party of Angola, who were all inspired to certain degrees by Mao Zedong.

[00:19:42] In the West, he is often simplified as a brutal dictator, someone who cared little for the Chinese people, killed tens of millions of people and is in a similar category to Hitler and Mussolini. 

[00:19:57] Although there’s no denying that tens of millions of people died and were persecuted under his rule, portraying him as a mere mad dictator is a bit of a simplification, and there are multiple successes that one can point to, several positive developments that happened under his rule.

[00:20:20] The levels of literacy, the amount of people who could read, improved drastically. When he took power 80% of the population was illiterate, they couldn't read, and by his death only 7% was. 

[00:20:36] Life expectancy in China doubled under his rule, and the country was dragged out of being an agrarian economy to something approaching an industrialised country.

[00:20:49] China remained a unified country, and the fact that the country has remained united to this day, when almost every other communist country has either collapsed or is in a pretty bad condition, is something that is often pointed at.

[00:21:05] But the question still stands: did this transformation require Mao? 

[00:21:12] Could all of this have been achieved without the deaths of tens, or hundreds of millions of people, and could China have actually developed more quickly and more sustainably with a different leader to Mao?

[00:21:26] This is of course a question that historians inside and outside of China have been grappling with for almost 50 years now, and I’m sure will grapple with for far more than 50 years to come.

[00:21:40] It’s a complicated legacy, and it’s certainly a little more complicated than just saying 70% good, 30% bad.

[00:21:49] OK then, that is it for this little look at the life and times of Mao Zedong. 

[00:21:57] I imagine there are podcasts in China that go on for hours, days and weeks about all the details of his life, and this has been a very quick trip through his life, his impact, and his legacy. But I hope it has given you a little bit of an idea about the man.

[00:22:15] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:22:19] I’ve had a request for more episodes about East Asian history, so if there is a particular part of the life of Mao Zedong, or Chinese history that you would like me to make, I’ll do it. 

[00:22:30] Luckily I spent many years reading about Mao Zedong, so it is a subject I’m quite knowledgeable about already.

[00:22:37] So, do let me know. 

[00:22:39] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds, and of course to me.

[00:22:49] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:54] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Mao Zedong, Chairman Mao, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China and its leader until his death in 1976.

[00:00:37] Now, I should start by saying that trying to cram the entire life of Mao into 20 minutes is a difficult task, so this will evidently not be the conclusive guide to the life of Chairman Mao.

[00:00:52] But, what I do hope is that this will give you an idea about the man, his life, and his legacy, and by the end of this episode you will know a little bit more about him than you do now.

[00:01:05] I’ll also say that the pronunciation of Mao Zedong is more like Mao Zedong, but we’ll stick with the English version for this podcast - Mao Zedong - apologies to any Mandarin speakers that may be listening.

[00:01:20] So, without wasting one more minute, let’s get started.

[00:01:26] The name Mao Zedong probably conjures up all sorts of ideas in your mind. You might think of him as a great leader, a man who managed to unite China and fight off imperial forces.

[00:01:40] But unless you’re listening to this episode from within China, you probably have a different view of him.

[00:01:47] You might think of him as a dictator, you might think of the Cultural Revolution or of the millions of people who died under his leadership.

[00:01:58] One thing is for sure though, he is an interesting character, he had a fascinating life and changed the world forever.

[00:02:07] Mao Zedong was born in a village in Hunan province, in south central China, in 1893. 

[00:02:16] As a young boy he was a voracious reader, and a keen student of history.

[00:02:23] As he was growing up, at the turn of the 20th century, China was in a pretty poor position. 

[00:02:30] It had suffered humiliation during the Opium Wars, and the Qing dynasty, the ruling dynasty, was on its last legs, it was about to collapse.

[00:02:41] As a student, Mao developed an admiration for foreign revolutionary leaders, people such as George Washington and Napoleon, and developed a belief that China needed to be restored to its former glory. 

[00:02:58] When Mao was a young man, China grew more and more chaotic, overrun by foreign powers and a far cry from its previous position as a world power to be reckoned with

[00:03:11] Its last emperor was overthrown in 1911, and it became a republic, governed by a man called Sun Yat-Sen. 

[00:03:20] Sun Yat-Sen didn’t govern for long, handing over power to another man, Yuan Shikai, shortly after taking power. 

[00:03:28] Yuan Shikai promoted himself from President to Emperor of China, but only managed to hold onto power for 83 days before the country was plunged into a civil war that lasted for 10 years.

[00:03:44] Long story short, China was in crisis. This experience, and the view that China needed to regain its rightful place in the world defined the ideology of young Mao.

[00:03:59] Of course, it wasn’t just in China that empires were crumbling and new political systems were rising from the ashes.

[00:04:08] In neighbouring Russia, in 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks had overthrown the monarchy, the people had seized power from the out of touch Russian tsars.

[00:04:20] Encouraged by the success of the Bolsheviks, Communist sympathies started to develop in China.

[00:04:28] The Chinese Communist Party was formed in 1921, and Mao was a founding member.

[00:04:34] The communists didn’t have any real power at this time, though, and actually supported another political party, the Kuomintang, which in effect took over the rule of China in 1926.

[00:04:50] Now, I’m going to skip over quite a lot here, but the period between the Kuomintang taking power in 1926 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is full of power struggles, internal fighting, the war with Japan, and civil war in China.

[00:05:11] It was during this period that it’s believed that Mao started to develop his ideas about the power of the Chinese peasant class, that a Chinese revolution wouldn’t come from the cities, like it had in Russia, but rather from the countryside, from the peasants.

[00:05:31] Mao started to loathe, to hate, urban intellectuals and elites, believing them to be out of touch with the real people of China, the peasants

[00:05:44] And it was the peasants who would fight the revolution and transform China, not the urban proletariat, like in Russia. 

[00:05:53] Landowners, people who owned land, also became a target of Mao’s, and he believed that the peasant class had been exploited, both economically and politically by those who owned the land.

[00:06:08] After these internal struggles within the Communist party, turning on the Kuomintang and starting a civil war, then chasing the Kuomintang out of China and causing them to flee to Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party was the most powerful force in China, and Mao Zedong found himself at the head of it.

[00:06:30] So, on the 1st of October 1949, he proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China - China, as we know it today. 

[00:06:41] He was almost 55 at the time, so certainly no spring chicken, not a young man. 

[00:06:49] Now, we have sped through the first part of his life, but it really is after the formation of the PRC, of the People’s Republic of China, that things start to get even more interesting.

[00:07:02] Mao Zedong was the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, the only real party in China. 

[00:07:08] He was the ruler of the country, but his power was by no means secure. 

[00:07:15] The infighting of the previous 30 years had taught him that people can fall just as quickly as they can rise, and so he embarked on a series of campaigns to solidify his power, campaigns which never really stopped for the duration of his rule.

[00:07:35] These campaigns would target people in society that were considered to pose a threat to Mao and the communist party. 

[00:07:44] Initially the campaigns started by targeting previous Kuomintang members and anyone who had questioned the authority of the communist party, but they were later expanded to include everyone from public intellectuals to landowners.

[00:08:02] Not a huge amount of proof was required, and being accused of being a counter-revolutionary was often enough to be punished.

[00:08:12] During just the first one of these campaigns, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries of 1950, 2.6 million people were arrested, 1.3 million people were imprisoned, and 712,000  people were executed, they were killed. 

[00:08:31] And these are the official statistics from the Chinese Communist Party, and it’s believed by many historians that the real numbers are a lot higher.

[00:08:42] With some of the more immediate threats to power out of the way, Mao sought to transform the country from an agricultural, peasant-based economy to a communist, centrally run, industrial economy.

[00:08:57] As the Russians did, Mao decided to implement a series of 5-year plans, plans for what the country needed to achieve in 5 years in order to reach the next level of its development.

[00:09:12] China at this time was still a pretty weak, poor country. 

[00:09:18] It was growing apart from its more powerful communist neighbour, Russia, and it also feared an attack from the west, which was not keen on the idea of a strong and powerful communist China.

[00:09:32] Mao sought to radically transform the country, improving its military capabilities, but also by industrialising the economy so that it no longer needed to rely on aid and protection from its communist big brother, the Soviet Union. 

[00:09:49] How this was to be achieved was by transforming peasant communities into something called state collectives, or communes, so that instead of peasants just farming their own smaller pieces of land, they would pool them together and production and distribution would be centrally controlled.

[00:10:10] In addition to this, Mao encouraged these communes to start making steel for industry, and small, makeshift steel furnaces were created, with peasants melting their metal agricultural tools to make steel.

[00:10:28] Unfortunately these plans did not turn out to be the resounding success that Mao had hoped for. And that’s a little bit of an understatement.

[00:10:39] You might have heard of The Great Leap Forward, which was the second of the five year plans, and started in 1958.

[00:10:49] The main objective of The Great Leap Forward was to increase agricultural and industrial production in these communes, and to transform the way in which China fed itself.

[00:11:02] Previously, as we said, the peasants had grown food for themselves. They might have sold some excess rice, some rice that they didn't need to eat themselves, but it was all pretty local.

[00:11:15] Mao’s idea for this new Chinese economy was centrally planned, so food would be produced in these large communes according to centrally set targets, then it would be redistributed based on where it was required.

[00:11:32] That all sounds ok in theory, but in practice these new communes, these new collectives, were under increasing pressure to report higher and higher numbers of food production.

[00:11:46] The more food that a commune reported producing, the better example it was that Mao’s ideas were working.

[00:11:54] Commune leaders, eager to please their superiors and not seem lazy or ‘counter-revolutionary’, would report that their communes had produced far more than they had done. 

[00:12:07] Because the economy was centrally planned,  and food was redistributed between communes, they would have to send their ‘excess food’ away to be redistributed.

[00:12:19] But the problem was that in many cases there wasn’t excess food, they had just reported excess food to not seem anti-revolutionary and to keep up with their neighbours.

[00:12:33] Whatsmore, in many communes the peasants had religiously followed the guidance of Chairman Mao and melted their metal tools to create steel, which would be sent away to create industrial equipment, so they had nothing left to actually farm with.

[00:12:52] So, not only did the peasants on these communes have to send away large amounts of their crops, of their rice, of their food, but they had destroyed large amounts of their tools that they would normally use to farm.

[00:13:08] The result of all of this chaos was horrific.

[00:13:12] Millions of people starved to death, and the Great Leap Forward is believed to have caused the deaths of anywhere from 18 million to 45 million Chinese, and making this the largest famine in human history.

[00:13:29] Although there aren’t many historians who would argue that this was actually Mao’s intention, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he became aware of the inefficiencies that this system caused, and the millions of deaths that were resulting from it, but accepted this as a necessary evil for the industrialisation of China.

[00:13:53] By 1962, thankfully, the Great Leap Forward was over. 

[00:13:58] It hadn’t industrialised China and turned it into a power to be reckoned with, and apart from some token self-criticism, some admitting of mistakes, nobody really took responsibility for what had gone wrong. 

[00:14:15] Indeed, there was only one minister, one senior party official, who did criticise the Great Leap Forward, and he was quickly dismissed, he was quickly sacked, and replaced by someone more loyal to the party, and more loyal to Mao.

[00:14:32] Mao had started cultivating a cult of personality from the early 1930s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s and early 1960s that it was really taken to the next level.

[00:14:47] Posters, big signs, with quotes from Chairman Mao started to be put up all around the country, the Little Red Book with quotations from Chairman Mao was published in 1964. 

[00:15:01] Saying anything other than complimentary things about the Chairman was a quick way to be labelled a rightist, to be called a rightist and counter-revolutionary, to probably be sent to do hard labour in the countryside, or worse.

[00:15:17] Then in 1966 Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, an all-out assault on any anti-communist elements

[00:15:27] He encouraged schoolchildren to report on their teachers and parents, to denounce each other, and to generally cause chaos.

[00:15:38] It was also during this time that there was huge damage done to lots of China’s cultural heritage, destroying temples, churches, and burning books. These were all considered part of China’s ancient history; they were part of the past and had no present in the future of China.

[00:15:59] The Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966 until 1976, and turned into something even beyond Mao’s control. 

[00:16:09] It became a way for old grievances to be settled, for old rivalries to be played out

[00:16:17] People would denounce their neighbours, schoolchildren would denounce teachers they didn’t like, and these people would be sent away for re-education at best, or in many cases, just beaten to death, killed.

[00:16:33] Within the upper echelons of the communist party, at the top of the party, it also became a way for people to jostle for power, to fight for power. 

[00:16:45] Mao’s fourth wife, a lady called Jiang Qing, formed a political faction called the Gang of Four, and they were considered responsible for really pushing the Cultural Revolution to its extreme.

[00:17:00] Then on September the 9th, 1976, at the ripe old age of 82, Mao Zedong died. 

[00:17:09] He was embalmed, and left lying in state in Beijing.

[00:17:15] Indeed, you can still visit him today. His mausoleum is in Tiananmen Square, a few hundred metres away from the balcony from which he declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

[00:17:29] Now, that is very much a whistlestop tour through the life and times of Chairman Mao. 

[00:17:36] What I want to talk about now is his legacy, which is certainly a complicated one.

[00:17:42] If you go to China now, you’ll find Mao’s face on every banknote, you’ll see his painting hanging over Tiananmen Gate, and you won’t find a person in China who doesn’t at least know who he is.

[00:17:56] It hasn’t even been 50 years since he died, and there are still hundreds of millions of people in China who lived under his rule. For them this isn’t history, as such, it was part of their life.

[00:18:11] And, unlike countries that lived under such a powerful, authoritarian leader, whether that’s the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy, there was never really a proper break with Maoism. 

[00:18:27] It’s the same country, the same party that is in power, and indeed Xi Jinping, the current president of China, is the son of a man called Xi Zhongxun, a famous communist revolutionary and close colleague of Mao’s.

[00:18:43] The official Chinese Communist Party's position is that overall Mao Zedong had a great, positive impact on China, but that he made some mistakes. 

[00:18:54] In my experience when talking to Chinese people when travelling around the country, this does seem to be the official line - The Cultural Revolution was a mistake, but Mao put China on the course back towards greatness and was overall a good thing for China. 

[00:19:13] The Chinese even quantify it, they put a number on this, saying that Mao was 70% good, 30% bad.

[00:19:23] Outside China, he has left a huge legacy. 

[00:19:27] Maoism, Mao Zedong thought, has created political groups all over the world, from the Shining Path in Peru to the Communist Party of Angola, who were all inspired to certain degrees by Mao Zedong.

[00:19:42] In the West, he is often simplified as a brutal dictator, someone who cared little for the Chinese people, killed tens of millions of people and is in a similar category to Hitler and Mussolini. 

[00:19:57] Although there’s no denying that tens of millions of people died and were persecuted under his rule, portraying him as a mere mad dictator is a bit of a simplification, and there are multiple successes that one can point to, several positive developments that happened under his rule.

[00:20:20] The levels of literacy, the amount of people who could read, improved drastically. When he took power 80% of the population was illiterate, they couldn't read, and by his death only 7% was. 

[00:20:36] Life expectancy in China doubled under his rule, and the country was dragged out of being an agrarian economy to something approaching an industrialised country.

[00:20:49] China remained a unified country, and the fact that the country has remained united to this day, when almost every other communist country has either collapsed or is in a pretty bad condition, is something that is often pointed at.

[00:21:05] But the question still stands: did this transformation require Mao? 

[00:21:12] Could all of this have been achieved without the deaths of tens, or hundreds of millions of people, and could China have actually developed more quickly and more sustainably with a different leader to Mao?

[00:21:26] This is of course a question that historians inside and outside of China have been grappling with for almost 50 years now, and I’m sure will grapple with for far more than 50 years to come.

[00:21:40] It’s a complicated legacy, and it’s certainly a little more complicated than just saying 70% good, 30% bad.

[00:21:49] OK then, that is it for this little look at the life and times of Mao Zedong. 

[00:21:57] I imagine there are podcasts in China that go on for hours, days and weeks about all the details of his life, and this has been a very quick trip through his life, his impact, and his legacy. But I hope it has given you a little bit of an idea about the man.

[00:22:15] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:22:19] I’ve had a request for more episodes about East Asian history, so if there is a particular part of the life of Mao Zedong, or Chinese history that you would like me to make, I’ll do it. 

[00:22:30] Luckily I spent many years reading about Mao Zedong, so it is a subject I’m quite knowledgeable about already.

[00:22:37] So, do let me know. 

[00:22:39] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds, and of course to me.

[00:22:49] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:54] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]