Chinese History FAQs: What was Mao's Deal?

Perhaps the most commonly asked question in my classes after “Will this be on the exam?” and “Have we passed the deadline to drop?” is: “What was Mao’s deal?”

It’s a tough question to answer, even for folks from China. If you were to approach ten people in a Beijing park and ask them about Mao, you should be prepared to get ten wildly different answers.

For foreign visitors to China, it is also difficult. “Mao the Monster” is hard-wired into many people’s assumptions about modern Chinese history. Popular books like Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story and Dr. Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao do little to counter this prevailing attitude.

This week, the Global Times released a video in which they asked foreign visitors in Tiananmen Square for their views of Mao, ostensibly in honor of the Chairman’s birthday (December 26). One supposes that this was the editorial staff's way of introducing a little nuance to the discussion on Mao. (You can see the video here.)

Two things come to mind. The Global Times editors do not do nuance well. “Nuance” is usually something the editors keep locked in their basement and insist that it puts on the lotion or it gets the hose again. Second, a foreign news bureau would have just as much luck shooting necrophiliac porn using Mao’s desiccated corpse as they would trying to film person-in-the-street interviews about Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square. I just don’t see either happening.


Nevertheless, how I deal with the question of Mao, whether in class or in conversation, depends on the context, the audience, and the length of time I have to give my answer. The shortest — and politest — response I will give is that Mao was a good revolutionary leader but that the list of revolutionary leaders who made a successful transition to “good head of state” is a short one. The methods Mao used to lead the Communist Party as a guerrilla outfit did not serve him — or China — very well after the CCP took power.

It might be charitable to call Mao a “great revolutionary leader,” but I think it’s important to remember that those people who still respect and revere Mao do so for a reason, they have a belief that the revolution was fundamentally a good thing and that Mao played a significant public part in that revolution.

Personally, and perhaps less politely, I might also add that Mao really should have stepped aside in the early 1950s and let the grown-ups run things.

Or as I suggested once in a post from a few years back:

The Mao years were, politically speaking, kind of like being strapped in the passenger seat of a stolen Lexus at 3:00 a.m. with your good friend Gary Busey at the wheel huffing paint and sucking down his third bottle of Goldschläger.  Under such conditions your life will change, but probably not for the better. Any memories you might have – should you survive at all – will be of the highly weird and ultra-violent variety.  Not good times, very bad times.

Mao was an idealist but over time there were fewer and fewer people around him willing to stand up and tell him his ideas were bad. Sometimes an idealist without a check on his power can be worse than the most maniacal homicidal tyrant. Mao had a vision for China, and he wasn’t going to let little things like details or human lives get in the way.

He took China into his pudgy hands like a souvenir snow globe. Every time the snow settled imperfectly he would shake it up again with another political campaign. It didn’t matter that inside his little globe there wasn’t snow but a billion lives being turned upside down with each new shake.


The trouble with talking about Mao is that with so many different opinions on his legacy, no matter what you say somebody is going to disagree. Vehemently. Party ideologues on the lookout for examples of “Historical Nihilism” have little patience for descriptions of the horrors perpetrated by the Party and its supporters during the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Dragon Slayer hardliners consider any statement regarding Mao not phrased as an absolute denunciation to be an act of moral cowardice.

The biggest problem may be that we may never have a truly great Mao biography or documentary. The kind of textual evidence needed to craft a work like that, if it still exists, is hardly a matter of public record. Absent an opening of the archives; we will need to rely on people’s experiences, memoirs, and public accounts and statements. We may never know what the old man thought when he made the decisions he did. Until then, the question remains: “What was Mao’s deal?"