Visualizing the Ruthlessness of Mao

While it’s not a surprise to their victims, the two men most associated with mass murder in this bloodiest of mortal centuries, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, were not the greatest mass murderer of the twentieth century—Mao Zedong was.

Mao Zedong, a revolutionary, Marxist theorist, and the People’s Republic of China’s first chairman, is widely regarded as among the twentieth century’s most influential and divisive political figures in China and elsewhere. Mao eventually resorted to extremely authoritarian tactics to maintain primary control over his country’s trajectory, resulting in the deaths of millions.

Take a look at the ruthlessness of Mao Zedong visualized.

A Ruthless Chinese Uniter’s Beginnings and Rise to Power 

Mao was born into a low-income family on December 26, 1893, in the Hunan province village of Shaoshan. Mao’s father was a strict disciplinarian, and he frequently defied his authority.

Mao moved to Changsha, the provincial capital, in 1911 and briefly served as a soldier in the Republican army during the 1911 revolution that overran the Qing dynasty. Mao traveled to Beijing in 1918 after graduating from Changsha’s Hunan Teachers College and taking a job in the Beijing University library under Li Dazhao, the head librarian. Mao became an ardent fan of Marxist writings after joining Li’s study group that explored Marxist social and political thought.

Mao published articles criticizing Confucianism’s traditional values in the May 4 Movement of 1919, when intellectuals and students called for China’s modernization. He emphasized the importance of mental fortitude and physical strength in fighting against tradition.

Mao returned to Changsha in 1920, where his attempt to form a democratic system for Hunan province failed. In 1921, he visited Shanghai and attended the founding conference of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao also attended. [1]

Mao then established a CCP branch in Hunan and coordinated worker strikes across the province. Warlords ruled much of northern China at the time.

To defeat the warlords, Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang (KMT) party allied with the CCP in 1923. Mao entered the KMT and served on the Central Committee while remaining a member of the CCP.

Mao organized peasant unions in 1925 in his hometown of Shaoshan. He was appointed director of the KMT Peasant Commissions and CCP in 1926 due to his peasant background.

the members of the Third Plenum of the KMT Central Executive Committee in March 1927 with Mao being third from the right in the second row

Mao declared in a paper entitled “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” in 1927 that peasants would be the primary force in the revolution. The CCP rejected Mao’s ideas because they contradicted orthodox Marxism, which retained that workers were the foundation of revolution, and because peasant rebellion would alienate the KMT.

Mao led a small peasant army against the KMT, and local landlords in battles called the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan. His forces were defeated, and he retreated south to the mountainous Jiangxi province, where he established the Jiangxi Soviet in 1929. Mao experimented with rural land reform while there, and recruited troops for the Communist military called the Red Army.

Mao developed new guerrilla warfare tactics with Red Army general Zhu De that drew KMT forces into the thick of the hostile countryside, where they were destroyed by the Red Army and harassed by peasants. After his first wife, Yang Kaihui, was killed by KMT forces in Jiangxi, Mao married He Zizhen.

Chiang was resolved to eliminate the Communists and increased his extermination campaign in 1934, encircling the Jiangxi Soviet. Mao and his followers broke through Chiang’s blockade and started the 9,600-kilometer (6,000-mile) Long March to the remote northern Chinese village of Yan’an. [1]

The marchers stopped along the way at Zunyi, where top Communist officials gathered to discuss the CCP’s future. Those who opposed Mao’s Chinese military strategy and peasant revolt plan were chastised, while Mao and his supporters grew in prestige and power. The Zunyi Conference, as it became known, was a watershed moment in Mao’s rise to CCP leadership.

Mao led the Communist resistance to the Japanese, who invaded Manchuria (1931) and China (1937), from his base in Yan’an. Although the CCP briefly allied with the KMT to stop Japanese aggression, the Communists provided the majority of resistance to the Japanese in Northern China. The CCP skillfully managed the peasantry and grew the Red Army’s ranks.

a military parade on the occasion of the founding of a Chinese Soviet Republic in 1931

In 1942, Mao solidified his hold on the CCP by initiating a “Rectification” campaign against the CCP members who disagreed with him. Wang Ming, a “returned Bolshevik” who studied in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was among them, as were writers Ding Ling and Wang Shiwei. While in Yan’an, Mao Zedong divorced He Zizhen and married the actress Lan Ping, who became Jiang Qing and played an increasingly important role in the party after 1964.

Civil war erupted in 1945, shortly after Japan ceded in World War II, between CCP and KMT troops. The CCP defeated the KMT in 1949, thanks to widespread peasant support and a well-trained Red Army. Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Mao and the CCP inherited an impoverished country in political disarray and scarred by war. As Chairman of the CCP, Mao oversaw the reconstruction of the People’s Republic of China. Following the Soviet model for establishing a socialist society, Mao ordered the abolition of landlords in the countryside, land redistribution, and the institution of heavy industry in the cities.

During this time, Mao relied heavily on Soviet aid and expertise. The United States became Mao’s adversary, particularly during the Korean War (1950-1953), in which roughly one million Chinese soldiers, including Mao’s son, Mao Anying, died fighting for North Korea. Mao was concerned about enemy infiltration and looked to maintain China’s political unity.

Mao launched several mass campaigns, including the “Suppression of Counterrevolutionaries,” “Three-Anti,” and “Five-Anti” campaigns, to root out corruption and traitors. [1] Few Chinese citizens were unaffected by the campaigns, which involved an extensive investigation into the personal lives of individuals.

Mao urged intellectuals to criticize the CCP during the “Hundred Flowers” movement in 1957, believing that the criticism would be minor. When it wasn’t, he initiated the “Anti-Rightist” campaign, rapidly labeling those who had spoken out as rightists and imprisoning or exiling many of them.

Mao Zedong on the Supreme State Conference on May 2, 1956

Mao’s formative years with peasant revolutions convinced him of peasant strength’s enormous potential. He believed that if the Chinese people were inspired and properly organized, they could accomplish incredible things.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Mao advocated for the swift formation of agricultural communes, claiming that people’s energy could help China reach a high tide of Communist development. This ideology exploded during the 1958 Great Leap Forward.

Mao urged all Chinese to take part in zealous physical labor to transform the economy and, within a few years, overtake the West in agricultural and industrial production. Peasants counterfeited grain production figures out of fear of disappointing their leaders. Several poor harvests resulted in widespread famine and the death of millions of people across China. [1]

China Under Mao: The Worst Non-Genocidal Regime

Between 1949 and 1976, China under Mao Zedong appears to have had all of the ingredients for a genocidal setup. The number of mortalities is staggering: most likely between 44 and 72 million, if one will include the mass starvation caused by a brutally utopian Great Leap Forward, making Mao Zedong a greater mass murderer in absolute terms than Stalin or Hitler. [2] With the plausible exception of the Great Leap, those deaths were not due to unforeseen circumstances but a deliberate, well-planned murderous project.

Mao Zedong, the man who conceived, initiated, and strictly monitored that project, possessed all of the megalomania, pitilessness, cruelty, and contempt for humanity that make very good genocidal masterminds. The victims, in general, belonged (or were meant to belong) to specific social groups that were painstakingly defined and labeled, even if the principally targeted groups shifted from time to time, generally little by little: new victims were targeted, but the old ones also weren’t ignored.

a photo of Mao Zedong sitting

The eliminationist discourse was pervasive during the numerous “mass campaigns” and included animal analogies, freak accusations, and calls for bloodletting. Ultimately, the murderous process lasted a long time and covered a large area with no significant respite or area of refuge. [2]

Mao Zedong’s Legacy: Mass Murder

Based on the authoritative “Black Book of Communism,” Mao’s repeated, ruthless attempts to build a new “socialist” China killed an estimated 65 million Chinese. [3] Anyone who stood in his way was executed, imprisoned, or forced into famine.

The intellectual was Mao’s number one enemy. The so-called Great Helmsman relished his bloodletting, boasting that 46,000 scholars had been buried alive. Mao referred to a major “achievement” of the Great Cultural Revolution, which transformed China into a great House of Fear from 1966 to 1976. [3]

The most heinous manifestation of Mao’s contempt for human life occurred when he issued the agriculture of China’s collectivization under the ironic tagline, the “Great Leap Forward,” which we’ll discuss later. A lethal combination of grain production lies, detrimental farming methods (for example, profitable tea plantations were converted into rice fields), and food misdistribution resulted in the worst famine in human history.

Hunger-related deaths reached more than 50% in some Chinese villages. Between 1959 and 1961, the total number of dead ranged between 30 and 40 million—roughly the population of California. [3]

Mao declared the Cultural Revolution five years after sensing China’s revolutionary spirit was waning. Red Guard gangs—young men and women aged 14 to 21—roamed the cities, hunting down revisionists and many other enemies of the state, particularly teachers.

Mao Zedong and Lin Biao surrounded by rallying Red Guards in Beijing

Professors wore grotesque outfits and dunce caps, their faces splattered with ink. They were then made to bark like dogs and crawl around on all fours. Some were even beaten to death, and some were eaten, all in the name of spreading Maoism.

When the marauding Red Guards began attacking Communist Party members, a reluctant Mao finally summoned the Red Army, but not before 1 million Chinese died.

Mao, meanwhile, continued to expand the laogai, a network of 1,000 forced labor camps spread across China. According to Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in labor camps, 50 million Chinese underwent the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet gulag from the 1950s to the 1980s. Twenty million people died due to 14-hour work days and substandard living conditions. [3]

The Great Leap Forward

The Chinese Communist Party implemented the Great Leap Forward, a five-year plan of forced rural industrialization and agricultural collectivization, in 1958, resulting in 30 to 45 million deaths and a sharp contraction of the Chinese economy. It was the world’s largest single non-wartime mass killing campaign. [4]

Mao Zedong led the initiative, whose official goal was to rapidly transform China from an agrarian economy to a modern, industrial one capable of competing with Western industrialized nations.

The Great Leap Forward was a cosmic failure. Millions died in just a few years due to starvation, overwork, exposure, and execution. It tore families apart, separating women, men, and children, and destroyed traditional ways of life and communities.

Illogical agricultural practices harmed farmland, and the landscape was cleared of trees to fuel steel furnaces. Thirty to forty percent of the housing stock was torn down to obtain raw materials for group projects. [4] Massive amounts of raw materials and capital goods were consumed in the industry for projects that produced no additional output of finished goods.

After three years of destruction and death, the Great Leap Forward was formally halted in January 1961. [4]

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

a poster from the Cultural Revolution featuring an image of Chairman Mao and other people

The Great Cultural Revolution was a decade-long era of social and political upheaval caused by Mao Zedong’s attempt to reassert his authority over the Communist Party through the use of the Chinese masses. Its perplexing complexity and almost incomprehensible brutality were such that historians still struggle to make sense of all that happened during the period. On the other hand, Mao’s decision to start the “revolution” in May 1966 is widely viewed as an effort to destroy his enemies by letting the people loose on the party and imploring them to purge its ranks.

When the mass mobilization began, party newspapers portrayed it as a defining struggle that would breathe new life into the socialist cause. The Cultural Revolution, in fact, ruined millions of lives, crippled the economy, and plunged China into a decade of turmoil, hunger, bloodshed, and stagnation.

It also represented, without a doubt, a deliberate attempt to oust those in the leadership who had dared to cross him over the years. The victims, who came from all levels of the party, suffered more than just political humiliation. All were publicly humiliated and detained for varying lengths of time, sometimes in extremely harsh conditions; many were tortured and beaten, and many were driven to suicide or killed.

Red Guards and students attacked people on the street wearing “bourgeois clothes,” “imperialist” signs were demolished, and party officials and intellectuals were murdered or pushed to suicide. After the bloodshed had ended, the country’s rulers admitted it had been a disaster that had brought nothing besides damage, grave disorder, and deterioration. [5]

How Many People Died During Mao Zedong’s Era?

During his reign, which began with the establishment of Communist China in 1949 and stopped with his death in 1976, Mao launched over a dozen campaigns. Some are well-known, while others, like a bloody campaign to “purify class ranks” involving army units in the late 1960s, have received little attention.

While most scholars are hesitant to estimate the total count of “unnatural deaths” in China during Mao’s reign, evidence suggests he was accountable for at least 40 million deaths and possibly 80 million or more. This includes deaths for which he was directly responsible and deaths caused by disastrous policies he refused to change. [6]

According to one government document internally circulated and reviewed by a former Communist Party official already at Princeton University, 80 million people died unnatural deaths, most of whom died during the Great Leap Forward famine. [6] This figure comes from the System Reform Institute, or Tigaisuo, founded in the 1980s by the deposed Communist Party chief,  Zhao Ziyang, to research how to reform Chinese society. However, some sources can be ambiguous and conflicting regarding the periodization of these events and the body count.

people in the countryside working at night to produce steel during the Great Leap Forward

Here is a glimpse of the estimated number of deaths during Mao’s reign. [6]

Campaign/Movement

Date

Description

Estimated Number of Deaths

Land Reform Campaign

1949 to early 1950s

The first group to die violently after 1949 were the landowners killed during the early 1950s land reform campaign. The regime directed security forces to set up "people's tribunals," targeting at least one landlord in each village to undermine the power of the countryside's old landlord elite.

1-4 million

Drive to "Suppress Counterrevolutionaries"

1950

People were executed in the hunt for Nationalist Chinese sympathizers and potential counterrevolutionaries.

Tens of thousands at minimum and a maximum of more than a million

Anti-Christian Campaigns

1950s

The Communists waged a campaign against the Christian church and other religious organizations throughout this time.

no official estimate

Campaign to "Eliminate Counterrevolutionaries"

1953

Mao declared that "95% of the people are good," prompting the party to designate 5% of its members as "bad elements" who must be purged and repressed.

at least hundreds of thousands

The Great Famine

1959-61

The Great Famine, caused by Mao's misguided industrialization effort known as the Great Leap Forward, claimed the most lives.

20-43 million

The Cultural Revolution

1966-76

Mao's campaign to destroy his opponents, combat "bureaucracy," and establish a new society. Assessing the figure is difficult; fighting between Red Guard factions erupted in many places, and police and government authority crumbled. Many people were tortured or forced to commit suicide.

 more than 1 million

Occupation of Tibet

1950-present

Tibet's occupation continued throughout the many campaigns, exacting a terrible price on the land and the people. In 1950, China invaded. According to experts, after the 1959 uprising, the Chinese evacuated monasteries and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people. As claimed by the Tibetan government in exile, a million people died under Communist rule due to starvation, war, and repression.

more or less than 1.2 million people

Interesting and Fascinating Mao Zedong Facts

Check out the list below for fascinating facts about the ruthless Mao Zedong. [7] [8] [9]

  1. Mao was a wealthy farmer’s son from Shaoshan, Hunan.
  2. Mao had such severe insomnia that he’d take up to ten times the normal sleeping pill dosage. Insomnia also caused the Chairman to become addicted to chloral hydrate and barbiturates.
  3. In 1972, Mao welcomed American President Richard Nixon to Beijing, kicking off a policy of opening China to the rest of the world.
  4. Bathing was also regarded as a “waste of time” by Mao. Instead, he would swim and be rubbed down with hot towels.
  5. Mao died at 82 after suffering a series of heart attacks after years of poor health.
  6. Chairman Mao offered to relocate 10 million women to the US three years before his death. The Chairman believed that his country was too poor to support an excessive number of women.
  7. His supporters credit him with pushing imperialism out of China, modernizing the country and transforming it into a world power, advancing women’s rights, improving health care and education, and increasing life expectancy as the population grew from about 550 million to more than 900 million under his governance.
  8. Mao’s father set up his marriage to a 17-year-old girl when he was 14 to bring the two families together. Mao refused the marriage, and his wife, Luo Yigu, died in 1910.
  9. His regime has also been labeled totalitarian, autocratic, and chastised for instilling fear and destroying cultural and religious artifacts and sites.
  10. After his death, Mao’s body was embalmed and displayed inside a crystal coffin. Visitors can still view his preserved body at the Mao Zedong Mausoleum in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
  11. Unable to land a job as a teacher, young Mao relocated to Beijing and worked as a university librarian’s assistant.
  12. Mao married four times and had ten children in his lifetime.
  13. During his early years in charge, some people thought he had the spirit to lead a revolution but could not run a country.
  14. According to the Chinese Central Government, Chairman Mao dipped into the Yangtze River at 73 and swam 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) in 65 minutes. This would imply that Chairman Mao swam a mile in less than 8 minutes when the record was one mile in 20 minutes.
  15. Mao began publishing poems in classical forms in his youth, and his skills as a poet helped shape his image in China after he rose to power in 1949.
  16. Changsha, Loushan Pass, The Double Ninth, The Long March, Snow, Reply to Li Shuyi, The PLA Captures Nanjing, and Ode to the Plum Blossom are some of Mao’s most well-known poems.
  17. During Chairman Mao’s civil war, he refused to utilize a toilet. Instead, he’d gather his bodyguards, go out into the fields, make a hole, and relieve himself.
  18. According to Dr. Li, Chairman Mao’s doctor, Chairman Mao was infertile, despite the pregnancy of at least one among his young mistresses.
  19. Hong shao rou, or braised cubes of pork belly glazed with Shaoxing rice wine and caramelized sugar, was Chairman Mao’s favorite dish. The province of Hunan, where Mao was born, standardized the meal to honor the hometown hero, mandating that it be made only with rare pigs.
  20. Chairman Mao neglected to brush his teeth. He instead rinsed his mouth with tea before chewing the leaves. Due to this, the Chairman was left with pus-oozing gums and green, rotting teeth.
  21. Chairman Mao was forced to leave school at 13 and return home to assist on the family farm.
  22. Mao Zedong was infected with a parasitic STD. He refused medical treatment for the infection, most likely spreading the STD to several female partners.

Mao is largely credited with killing millions of individuals (ranging from 49,000,000 to 78,000,000). All of this magnifies the sheer heinousness of these events and emphasizes how dreadful this chapter of history was.

References

[1] Microsoft Encyclopedia Editors. Mao Zedong. Microsoft Corporation Available at: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/shared/minitextlo/prof_maozedong.html [Accessed August 25, 2022]

[2] JL. Margolin, 2008. Mao’s China: The Worst Non-Genocidal Regime?. In: Stone, D. (eds) The Historiography of Genocide. Palgrave Macmillan, London. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230297784_18 [Accessed August 25, 2022]

[3] Lee Edwards, Ph.D., 2010. The Legacy of Mao Zedong is Mass Murder. Heritage.org. Available at: https://www.heritage.org/asia/commentary/the-legacy-mao-zedong-mass-murder [Accessed August 25, 2022]

[4] The Investopedia Team, 2021. What Was the Great Leap Forward?. investopedia.com. Available at: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/great-leap-forward.asp [Accessed August 25, 2022]

[5] Tom Phillips, 2016. The Cultural Revolution: all you need to know about China’s political convulsion. Theguardian.com. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/11/the-cultural-revolution-50-years-on-all-you-need-to-know-about-chinas-political-convulsion [Accessed August 25, 2022]

[6] Valerie Strauss and Daniel Souther, 1994. How Many Died? New Evidence Suggests Far Higher Numbers for the Victims of Mao Zedong’s Era. Washingtonpost.com. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1994/07/17/how-many-died-new-evidence-suggests-far-higher-numbers-for-the-victims-of-mao-zedongs-era/01044df5-03dd-49f4-a453-a033c5287bce/ [Accessed August 26, 2022]

[7] Tons of Facts Editors, 2018. 30 Fascinating And Interesting Facts About Mao Zedong. Tonsoffacts.com. Available at: http://tonsoffacts.com/30-fascinating-and-interesting-facts-about-mao-zedong/ [Accessed August 26, 2022]

[8] Mike Pelosi. 25 Strange But True Facts About Chairman Mao. Factinate.com. Available at: https://www.factinate.com/people/25-strange-true-facts-chairman-mao/ [Accessed August 26, 2022]

[9] Ayisha Farah, 2021. Top 21 Unknown & Interesting Facts About Mao Zedong. Businessupturn.com. Available at: https://www.businessupturn.com/features/top-21-unknown-interesting-facts-about-mao-zedong/ [Accessed August 26, 2022]