In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mao Zedong

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Mao and his Colleagues
  • Personality and Leadership
  • Envisioning the Cult of Mao
  • Mao and Foreign Policy
  • Debates and Assessments

Chinese Studies Mao Zedong
Delia Davin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0037


Mao Zedong (b. 1893–d. 1976) was one of the most remarkable political leaders of the 20th century, an all-powerful leader in China, and a major world figure. His career as a Communist revolutionary lasted fifty-five years. Half this time was spent in revolutionary struggle, and half, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, in the struggle to build a revolutionary state. Mao’s rise to leadership was gradual: starting as an obscure Communist Party functionary, he was in turn a labor organizer, a guerrilla commander, and a leader in the Communist base areas before finally becoming chairman of the party in 1943. As the unchallenged leader of the new People’s Republic of China in 1949, with his colleagues Mao began the revolutionary transformation of China through land reform, collectivization, industrialization, and the comprehensive politicization of daily life. Under Mao’s leadership the country was unified and began a process of modernization and industrialization that would allow it to become a major power after his death. However, within a few years of taking power, Mao began to suspect his colleagues of backsliding and refusing to recognize the danger to socialism that he believed a new elite would pose. His disputes with them convulsed China and dominated the last twenty years of his life. His efforts to achieve his vision of a China that was both egalitarian and prosperous failed and ultimately visited enormous suffering on his people. Moreover, his ruthlessness toward his opponents and his cynical exploitation of his cult of personality during the Cultural Revolution disillusioned many of his followers. His successors reversed Mao’s policies, seeking a new legitimacy for the party state in improved standards of living, achieved through a return to a marketized economy. Mao’s life and record still spark great interest inside and outside China. The large and growing literature on Mao covered in this article includes biographies, monographs on almost every aspect of his life and work, assessments of his legacy, and multivolume editions of his writing. Mao scholars struggle to come to terms with his legacy. He has been portrayed by some as China’s redeemer and by others, as a monster. Chinese appraisals are inevitably affected by the official line that he was a great revolutionary leader who made very serious errors. Late-20th- and early-21st-century Western scholarship tends to insist on Mao’s complexity and his many dimensions.

General Overviews

There are a number of overviews of Mao’s life and work aimed at the general reader or the undergraduate market. Davin 2009, Lynch 2004, and Spence 1999 are conventional chronological biographies; Karl 2010 tends toward a history of the Chinese revolution with Mao as the major protagonist; and Cheek 2002 includes translations of key documents, with commentaries. Meisner 2007 gives greater attention to Mao as a political thinker. All the overviews wrestle with problems of selection in attempting to provide the historical background necessary to a general reader unfamiliar with Chinese history. Most use some primary sources but rely heavily on secondary ones.

  • Cheek, Timothy, ed. Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford Series in History and Culture. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.

    Excellent introductory text for students. Part biography, part historical overview, it traces Mao’s career up to the Communist victory in 1949 and through three decades of revolution, to Mao’s death in 1976. The second half of the volume offers a selection of key writings by and about Mao.

  • Davin, Delia. Mao Zedong. 2d ed. Pocket Biographies. Stroud, UK: History Press, 2009.

    A very brief overview in twenty-thousand words. Focus on Mao’s life and activities, with less on his ideas and writings.

  • Karl, Rebecca E. Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History. Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822393023

    An examination of Mao’s life and role in parallel with the 20th-century history of China and its relationships with the rest of the world. Aimed at the general reader.

  • Lynch, Michael. Mao. Routledge Historical Biographies. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

    Another introduction to Mao and Maoism that sets Mao’s life in the broader context of 20th-century Chinese history, discussing the development of the Chinese Communist Party, the creation of the People’s Republic of China, the Cultural Revolution, and Mao’s role in the Cold War and the Sino-Soviet dispute.

  • Meisner, Maurice. Mao Zedong: A Political and Intellectual Portrait. Political Profiles. Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA: Polity, 2007.

    Strong focus on Mao’s ideas and his “sinification of Marxism.” The first part covers Mao’s political formation, interest in liberal and anarchist ideas, acceptance of Marxism-Leninism, and growing belief in the revolutionary potential of the peasants. The second part discusses Mao’s success as a modernizer and unifier and his degeneration into autocracy.

  • Spence, Jonathan. Mao. Lives. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999.

    Short, highly readable study by one of the most distinguished historians of modern China. Conveys a sense of Mao’s contradictory character and the way he transformed China.

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