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11 May 2021

From the NS archive: Mao Tse-tung

15 January 1949: The outside world is just beginning to understand the struggles between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao’s Communist Party.

By Dorothy Woodman

In this analytical history of the rise to power of Mao Zedong (then Romanised as Mao Tse-tung), the New Statesman’s then-Asia correspondent Dorothy Woodman writes that the future Chinese leader “has never known any other life than that of patient, confident struggle”. By January 1949, the communists in China were victorious over Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist followers, a struggle that had run since 1927. Only 22 years later was “the outside world”, Woodman writes, beginning to understand how complex that struggle was. She determines that Mao’s success as a revolutionary leader was thanks to two main qualities: his understanding of peasant communities, from his own farm upbringing, and his gifts as an intellectual, having spent time studying Marxist principles. “The revolution which began in 1911 enters on its second phase in 1949,” writes Woodman. The founding of the People’s Republic of China was formerly proclaimed on 1 October 1949.


The future historian will assign to Mao Tse-tung a place in Chinese history parallel to that of Lenin in the Soviet Union. The communist victories bring to a successful end the struggle with Chiang Kai-shek which has lasted since 1927 with a brief interval during the United Front period from 1937 to 1942. The history of that struggle forms the pattern of modern Chinese history. The outside world is just beginning to understand that the war with Japan was only a thread woven through it.

Mao Tse-tung has never known any other life than that of patient, confident struggle. His life began in 1893 on a farm in Hunan province. At the age of six he worked for his father who began life as a poor peasant and gradually became a rich peasant, buying grain from his neighbours and selling it at a higher price to the city merchants. During his five years at school – from eight to 13 – Mao always preferred stories of rebellion to the classics and when the local peasants organised revolts they inspired him to study the history of progressive thought, Western as well as Chinese. In 1911 he joined Li Yuan-hung’s revolutionary party and served in it for six months until Sun Yat-sen and Yuan Shih-kai made an agreement following the overthrow of the Manchus. Those six months proved to be Mao’s introduction to the ideas of socialism. He wanted no more formal education. In the provincial library in Hunan he studied world geography and history. “There for the first time I saw and studied with great interest a map of the world,” he told Edgar Snow, who first introduced him to a wide public in Red Star over China. He read The Wealth of Nations, The Origin of Species, Rousseau and Herbert Spencer. He “mixed poetry and romances, and the tales of Ancient Greece with serious study of the history and geography of Russia, America, England, France and other countries”. He summed up his ideas at that time (about 1912) a, “a curious mixture of ideas of liberalism, democratic reformism, and utopian socialism”, but he was “definitely anti-militarist and anti-imperialist”.

When the Russian Revolution happened in 1917, he was already a political leader. By the original method of inserting an advertisement in a Changsha paper asking young men interested in patriotic work to make contact with him, he formed a group called the “Hsin Min Hsueh Hui” (New People’s Study Society). These young men were greatly impressed and stimulated by the events in Russia, and most of them subsequently joined the Chinese Communist Party when it was founded in 1921. Mao was present at the inaugural meeting. “The point is that the masses are beginning to rise up to the fight,” he explained at that time. “These masses need a real revolutionary organisation. The party must go to the masses now and organise them.” For the next quarter of a century this was Mao’s work. He knew the lives of the peasants from his own personal experience. He knew that any successful revolutionary movement must be based on their support. Events have proved the correctness of his communist theory.

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Mao was gifted as an intellectual as well as a practical worker. His first publication, An Analysis of the Different Classes of Chinese Society, applied Marxist principles to Chinese conditions. It put forward a radical land policy and the organisation of the peasants under Communist leadership. In the 1920s, when Borodin was in China, at the invitation of the Kuomintang, Mao maintained this thesis against Borodin whose line was then one of making concessions to the bourgeoisie; in fact the Chinese Communist Party was almost split on this issue. Mao’s line was subsequently accepted by the Comintern at the Sixth Congress in Moscow in 1928, although in the meantime he had been dismissed from the politbureau of the Chinese Party.

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By this time the Kuomintang had made open war on the Chinese Communists. Mao, who was editor, administrator, theoretician and Peasant Union organiser, now became a Political Commissar in the 4th Red Army. Chu Teh, the military genius of the Chinese Communist Party, was its commander. When their forces were driven into Kiangsi province they formed the first Chinese Soviets, and Mao became the first Chairman of the Kiangsi Provincial Soviet Government. Its achievements included the confiscation of the landowners’ estates; the abolition of taxes extracted by the militarists and the introduction of a single progressive tax; the eight-hour working day, free education and state assistance to the peasants in the form of grain, cattle and implements. This was similar to the policy subsequently carried out in the Border Regions.

Chiang Kai-shek recognised the challenge embodied in the Kiangsi Soviet Government. Although threatened by Japan he decided that the communists were his greatest enemy. When the Japanese struck in 1931, the communists formally declared war and called for a United Front in face of the common enemy. This was ignored by Chiang Kai-shek, and as soon as the Tangku Truce was signed in 1933, he set on foot the biggest of his so-called “extermination campaigns” against the Chinese soviet areas. This was the fifth; it mobilised nearly a million men. The Red Army was forced to withdraw. It could have made an alliance with the famous 19th Route Army, then also fighting Nanking, but its offer of a joint anti-Japanese front was turned down as the result of Comintern opposition. And so the most famous march in Chinese history began.

None in the Red Army feared the distresses of the Long March.
We looked lightly on the thousand peaks and the ten thousand rivers.
The five mountains rose and fell like rippling waves.
The Wuliang mountains were no more than small green pebbles.

So wrote Mao Tse-tung in one of his published poems (translated by Robert Payne). By the time the communists had marched the 6,000 miles to Yenan, the Communist International had passed its United Front Resolution. In China, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and of the Central Soviet Government addressed an appeal to the Chinese people proposing joint political and military organisation against Japanese imperialism. During the winter of 1936-7, the Japanese strengthened their positions in Suiyan. But Chiang Kai-shek still regarded the Communists as his chief enemy and concentrated his armies in Shensi and Kansu for yet another extermination campaign. Whilst he was in the North planning this campaign, part of his army mutined and he himself was taken prisoner at Sian. Chou En-lai, the third in the communist triumvirate intervened and saved his life, with the result that instead of again fighting the communists, Chiang made with them a precarious National Front which bravely resisted when Japan struck six months later. In July, 1938, when the National People’s Political Council was formed, the civil war seemed at an end. Mao Tse-tung described the main slogan of his party as “the two-fold goal of driving Japanese imperialism out of China and of establishing a new democratic republic based on Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles”.

The beginning of the Second World War was hailed by Mao Tse-tung as an imperialist war and the capitalists as “mad dogs threatened by their own system”. Stalin’s pact with Hitler he described to Edgar Snow, who revisited Yenan at that time, “as Stalin’s way of playing for time, a strategic military necessity”, a method of safeguarding the U.S.S.R. against Chamberlain’s efforts to make an anti-soviet alliance with Hitler. He also forecast that any Munich in the Far East would be followed fly a pact between Stalin and the Japanese “on condition that it would not interfere with Soviet support for China”. The British government closed the Burma Road in 1940. Mr Matsuoka signed a Pact of Friendship and non-aggression with Stalin in April 1941.

But the Chinese Communists still maintained that their most important problem was to resist Japanese imperialism. “Anti-feudal tasks may for a while be subordinated to the major anti-Japanese issue.” Mao said to Edgar Snow in the same interview: “The problem is now to change that political system (without endangering resistance) for unless it is changed, and unless democracy is realised, there can be no victory… we are always social revolutionaries, and we are never reformists.” And simultaneously with the fight against Japan, the communists carried out a social revolution in the Border Regions. Once more Chiang regarded them as enemies. Kuomintang armies and equipment, ostensibly planned to fight Japan, were used to cut off the communist areas from the rest of China. This blockade lasted from the spring of 1942 until August, 1944, when the government in Chung-king, acting under pressure, allowed a party of 21 journalists to go to Yenan. The consensus of opinion among these observers, most of whom were far from being communists, was that the Border Regions had a progressive government, a bureaucracy which ruled with an integrity in striking contrast to that in Kuomintang China, and that a new peasant democracy was in existence. This progress was achieved without any outside help, the Kuomintang even refusing to allow Madame Sun Yat-sen’s “China Defence League” to send bandages and badly needed drugs through the blockade. As the truth became known about the Border Regions – now known as the Liberated Areas – the first cracks appeared in Chiang Kai-shek’s reputation as the hero of the Chinese people. If the truth were known, the first cracks were also made in his self-confidence.

Chiang Kai-shek gambled successfully in his calculations that the Allies would defeat Japan. He reserved his strength to fight the communists and again gambled on American assistance. To the Chinese people today he is linked with America, which communist political warfare has succeeded in identifying with the most reactionary form of imperialism. But Mao Tse-tung leads a party which has fought unaided during the blockade, and the communists can claim that their victories have been won without foreign arsenals or foreign loans. This is an appeal, not only to the peasants whose one concern is to keep his land free from taxes, but to the professional classes which still play an important part in China. Mao Tse-tung himself recognises the share that technicians must have in building up a new China; it was to them that he addressed one of his earliest appeals when the communist offensive first gathered momentum. The argument is made that communist experience has only been tested in the poor areas of the Border Regions. But given an end to the civil war and a few years of peace, Mao Tse-tung and his party will bring a new spirit of creative energy into Chinese life. The revolution which began in 1911 enters on its second phase in 1949.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)