Portrait of Mao on the Gate of Heavenly Peace at Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The sign to the left reads “Long live the People’s Republic of China”; the sign on the right says “Long live the solidarity of the people of the world.” PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Evaluation of China’s revolutionary founder, Chairman Mao, began in 1981 when Deng Xiaoping presided over an official resolution declaring Mao Zedong “chiefly responsible” for the disastrous Cultural Revolution. The resolution set in stone a political formula defining Mao as 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. Outside of China, however, more comprehensive literature presents Mao in a less positive light.
On 27 June 1981 China’s Communist Party formally adopted a posthumous evaluation of Chairman Mao Zedong that included some stark admissions about Mao’s responsibility for the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), a ten-year-long social upheaval, and other grave errors. This official evaluation performed a delicate balancing act. It dimmed the luster of Mao by exposing his fallibility, and yet it preserved him on a pedestal as China’s most important revolutionary leader. Later the party’s official evaluation of Mao as mostly positive would come to be identified with the ratio 70 percent good, 30 percent bad.
Albeit a crude oversimplification, this 70:30 ratio reflected the bottom line of a hard-won consensus: China’s revolutionary founder was not to be debased, only demystified. The evaluation defined Mao’s “ultra-left excesses” as “errors” rather than “crimes.” His contribution to China’s revolutionary history, especially prior to 1956, was still assessed as glorious and indispensable. To underline the finality of this official evaluation, Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping informed a foreign journalist that Mao’s portrait would continue to occupy its customary place of honor in Tiananmen Square.
In issuing this partial rebuke of the deceased chairman, the post-Mao leadership indicated that it would not go so far as the Soviet Union had in renouncing its paramount leader. In 1956 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called Secret Speech criticized Russian leader Joseph Stalin unsparingly as a crude and callous dictator. Only Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin was left standing as the untarnished pillar of party legitimacy. To dramatize Stalin’s ejection from the revolutionary canon, the Soviet leadership removed Stalin’s corpse from its initial resting place in the Lenin Mausoleum in 1961. In China, however, Mao was both the accomplisher of the revolution and the guiding force of state socialism post-1949. Mao loomed so large in China’s Communist Revolution that he was the equivalent of Lenin and Stalin combined. To displace Mao from the mausoleum or to remove his portrait from Tiananmen Square would mean leaving Communist China without a founding father. Even characterizing Mao as equally good and bad (50:50) might fatally wound the legitimacy of China’s Communist Party. Thus the party’s official evaluation was a stop-gap measure to forestall a more complete, open-ended assessment endangering the party’s hold on power. Mao’s towering personality pervaded party history like a colossal Buddha carved into a mountain. To destroy the icon threatened the integrity of the revolution itself.
The “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” was adopted at the convening of the Sixth Plenum in June 1981 on the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding. This watershed document ratified by the eleventh Central Committee announced the party’s intention to shed the unwanted skin of radical Maoism. Henceforth China would become a postrevolutionary society under the pragmatic leadership of Deng Xiaoping. The government would avoid disorder at all costs. The painful experience of the Cultural Revolution had thoroughly discredited Mao’s advocacy of class struggle and revolutionary upheaval. The resolution sought to bury extremist thinking associated with Mao and to establish the theoretical foundation for China’s so-called Second Revolution. The resolution’s unanimous ratification consolidated Deng’s rise to power as a paramount leader just as an earlier resolution on party history in 1945 had signaled Mao Zedong’s triumph as a guiding theorist. Deng’s status as commander-in-chief was further consolidated by his election to the powerful position of chairman of the Military Commission of the Central Committee during the same session in which the 1981 resolution was adopted. Deng’s protégé, Hu Yaobang, was voted into the post of chairman of the Central Committee.
Deng Xiaoping used the resolution as a tool not only to deflate the residual influence of Mao’s policies but also to dislodge Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, from his post as chairman. Hua Guofeng resigned as chairman of both the Central Committee and the Military Commission one day before the resolution was passed. Hua was not imprisoned, and he accepted the demotion peaceably. The resolution praised Hua for his help after Mao Zedong’s death in expelling the Gang of Four, the band of extreme leftists who worked with Mao to set the Cultural Revolution in motion, but reprimanded him for blindly following “whatever” the aging Mao told him to do. For example, Hua was accused of perpetuating Maoist injustices by obstructing the reinstatement of veteran cadres victimized during the Cultural Revolution. Hua was also said to have refused to reverse the false verdict against Deng Xiaoping in connection with the Tiananmen Incident of April 1976—a mass demonstration at Tiananmen Square expressing grief over the passing of China’s beloved premier, Zhou Enlai—because Hua did not wish to expose the fact that prior to Mao’s death he had collaborated with the Gang of Four to force Deng Xiaoping out of government.
Even before his complicity in purging Deng was publicized, Hua Guofeng’s credibility as Mao’s successor had been rapidly eroding. Hua found himself consistently upstaged by his skilled rival, who was both well respected by the military and a veteran party administrator. By 1981 Deng’s rise to paramount status was a foregone conclusion. The resolution’s portrayal of Mao as decrepit in his final years helped to explain why it was necessary for Hua to exit his leadership post. Hua had positioned himself as Mao’s double, even modeling his physical appearance so that he closely resembled Mao.
The resolution positioned Deng Xiaoping and his allies favorably as sponsors of political reform. It conceded the party’s own errors in succumbing to ultraleftism and promised to adopt a middle course in the future and to return to regularized procedures and collective decision making within the party. The resolution also broke with Hua Guofeng’s previous strategy of blaming the rash excesses of the Cultural Revolution entirely on Mao’s henchmen, the so-called Gang of Four. The resolution made the bold assertion that Mao was “chiefly responsible” for instigating the “catastrophe.” Furthermore, the resolution placed the Cultural Revolution in quotation marks whenever it appeared in the text. This deliberate editorial strategy conveyed a subtle message controversial at the time. It suggested that Mao’s vaunted movement to revolutionize culture, the Cultural Revolution, was not merely a good thing spun out of control but a bad idea from start to finish.
As a twice-purged victim of the Cu
ltural Revolution himself, Deng Xiaoping was able to persuasively differentiate himself from those who had spearheaded Cultural Revolution policies. He could use his affinity with those who had suffered as a political asset in his struggle to retire the remaining Maoists on the one hand and to quell rising social discontent on the other. The resolution proved popular with the Chinese public at a time when inhibitions were dissolving and anger at the party was mounting. The trial of the Gang of Four in 1980 had publicized atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution and opened the floodgates to political criticism. A Democracy Wall movement was gaining momentum in the nation’s capital. Deng Xiaoping made use of conspicuous public restlessness to press for bold reforms to regularize and institutionalize decision making within the party. Deng instigated new safeguards to prevent the egregious concentration of power at the top that Mao Zedong had proven able to accrue. However, Deng was determined to keep the groundswell of public opinion from threatening the party’s overall hold on power. The democracy movement was politically useful for him in his struggle against ideological conservatives, but he feared that spontaneous protest might snowball beyond the government’s control, as it had in Poland and other countries within the socialist bloc. The resolution was part of an official effort to define for the awakening public how much scrutiny of the past and criticism of the present would be tolerated.
Deng Xiaoping’s protégé, Hu Yaobang, chaired the committee charged with drafting the resolution, and Deng Xiaoping himself intervened repeatedly over the fifteen-month drafting of the document to shape its language and tone. The end product was kinder to Mao than originally conceived, softened as the drafting committee encountered opposition from entrenched Maoists in the party and military. Deng himself had served Mao as a loyal lieutenant for most of his career and would be inclined to take a mostly positive view out of deference for his predecessor’s indispensable role in spearheading the 1949 revolution. Deng also was aware of the destabilization caused by Khrushchev’s sweeping denunciation of Stalin in 1956.
Mao had reacted in anger to Khrushchev’s surprise assault on his predecessor’s memory because the pointed critique of Stalin as one who fostered a cult perverting party principles could be leveled at Mao himself. Mao considered Khrushchev’s treatment of his predecessor’s memory unbalanced, and he lodged a diplomatic protest suggesting that a 70 percent positive evaluation was more appropriate. With regard to his own record, Mao had requested that Deng as acting premier institute a similar retrospective evaluation of the Cultural Revolution (70 percent good, 30 percent bad), but Deng had demurred. These precedents may have swayed Deng’s decision to take a similar 70:30 approach to Mao’s own evaluation. Deng also recognized that even a deceased and diminished Mao continued to possess considerable charismatic appeal. For the Chinese people Mao’s personality was inseparable from the soul of the new nation. Deng could not extinguish residual love for Mao even if he had aspired to, so he might as well make use of it. But Mao’s popularity represented a double-edged sword for Deng and his allies because parts of Mao’s theoretical legacy were clearly at odds with the reformers’ plans for economic modernization. Indeed, Deng was pressing forward with the very market-based reforms, the notorious capitalist road, that Mao had famously denounced as “revisionist” during the Cultural Revolution.
Deng’s solution to this quandary was to downgrade the significance of ideology altogether. He scaled back the pervasiveness of revolutionary politics in Chinese life in general so that economic modernization and education could come to the fore. To justify this move ideologically, Deng elevated Mao’s early slogans “Seek Truth from Facts” and “Practice Is the Sole Criterion of Truth” to positions of prominence. The resolution celebrated Mao’s most pragmatic sayings and used the authority of Mao’s own words to make a critique of radical Maoism. Thus the aging Mao was said to have departed from the transcendent, uncorrupted body of thought called Mao Zedong Thought. This set of guiding principles was not merely the product of one man but rather “the crystallization of the collective wisdom of the Chinese Communist Party” (Resolution 1981, 29). The content of Mao Zedong Thought was defined vaguely as the “summary of the experiences that have been confirmed in the practice of the Chinese revolution” (Resolution 1981, 29). Thus Mao Zedong Thought was reconfigured to become something abiding but fluid, a spiritual resource for energizing society in whatever direction the current leadership felt was necessary. Deng and his allies attempted to transfer the charisma associated with Mao onto a streamlined set of Mao’s principles. Indeed, what the post-Mao leadership called Mao Zedong Thought was so narrowly construed that it should be distinguished from the more complete repertoire of what Mao said and did during his lifetime, a subject typically called “Maoism” or “Mao Studies” outside of China. The resolution’s redefinition of Mao Zedong Thought so negated Maoism’s radical core that some might say that the Deng regime performed a lobotomy on Mao’s ideological legacy. The critic of bureaucracy who called on the masses to rise up against the party during the Cultural Revolution had become something close to his opposite. Now Mao was a benign ancestor who presided over social order and safeguarded the Communist bureaucracy.
After decades of international isolation and political turmoil under Mao’s rule, the Chinese people in 1981 were understandably exhausted by revolutionary upheaval and yearned for a stable and prosperous society. Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic outlook on politics and his restoration of education and economic development as priorities for society promised a better future for China. The relatively candid nature of the resolution was applauded by many inside and outside of China as a welcome step toward more effective governance and greater public accountability. Indeed, the resolution was a more serious and forthright critical evaluation of party history than the Soviet Union had undertaken prior to the era of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that the resolution of 1981 was governed by the political necessities of Deng Xiaoping’s consolidation of power and should not be accepted as the final word on Mao’s legacy. While it confronted the Cultural Revolution tragedy fairly candidly, it did not remove all the troubling skeletons from the closet. For example, it tiptoed past two catastrophic failings with which Mao was closely associated—the Anti-Rightist Campaign, a devastating purge that sent an estimated 700,000 intellectuals to perform hard labor in the countryside, and the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s ill-conceived campaign to overwhelmingly increase economic productivity by reorganizing Chinese agriculture. It gently described the arbitrary and ruinous Anti-Rightist Campaign as “entirely correct” but “too broad in scope.”
With regard to Mao’s Great Leap Forward policies, retrospectively calculated to have caused 30 million deaths, the resolution merely refers obliquely to “serious difficulties” with the economy during the period from 1959 to 1961 and attributes much of the blame to “natural calamities and perfidious scrapping of contracts by the Soviet government” (Resolution 1981, 19). As suggested by these examples, the resolution’s evaluation of Mao contains many omissions and insufficiencies.
A more penetrating and complete evaluation of Mao and his legacy can be found in the large body of uncensored archival materials and critical literature devoted to Mao Studies outside of China. Recent scholarship based on party records and memoirs by those who had extensive contact with Mao, such as his private physician, Dr. Li, have knocked Mao further off his pedestal. Evaluations of Mao outside China are typically less favorable than the 70 percent good, 30 percent bad benchmark established by the 1981 resolution. Mao is now reckoned by some analysts to have brought about the deaths of more of his own people than any other leader in history. Stalin’s gulag claimed 15 million lives; Hitler’s extermination camps destroyed roughly half that number. But Mao’s repeated persecution campaigns to weed out bad social elements exceeded both in number, estimated to have caused as many as 70 million deaths. Khrushchev said of Mao that the Chinese leader treated people like “pieces of furniture.” Mao’s defenders would say that he was married to an ideal vision and that he steeled himself to defend revolution regardless of the human cost. Although his policies are controversial, Mao’s intellectual contributions continue to be admired, particularly among leftist thinkers. His main innovations to Marxist-Leninist theory and practice include his insistence on “study and investigation,” the need for frequent consultations between the leaders and the masses, and his flexibility in adapting theory to China’s specific local conditions, including his insight that farmers could be the agents of the Communist Revolution in China.
One Great Man
Most Chinese raised in the People’s Republic of China still reflexively view Mao as a hero and would not think it appropriate to compare their nation’s founder with so brutal a dictator as Stalin. (Ironically, Mao himself evaluated Stalin favorably as a firm and decisive leader.) The typical Chinese holds stubbornly to the memory of what Mao was in his heyday, a charismatic and unifying leader, rather than the detached and reckless instigator of destruction he became near the end of his life. Over time historical investigation may reveal that many of the contributions for which he is commonly credited were the work of others. Certainly Mao did not accomplish the rise of China completely on his own, as is sometimes implied. His ideas would have gone nowhere without the highly skilled implementation of administrators such as Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping or the strong work ethic and resilience of the Chinese people. Yet, Mao’s familiar countenance remains ubiquitous in China’s capital city today, conspicuously heralded as the One Great Man of New China on money, T-shirts, and key chains. Critical discussion of Mao remains politically sensitive and subject to censorship.
Momentous and Tragic
Like the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, whose vast tomb was discovered in 1974 and whose iron-fisted, autocratic approach Mao came to admire, Mao’s impact on China was both momentous and tragic. Like Czar Peter the Great of Russia, Mao sought to drive a backward nation forward in the space of a single generation. He achieved rapid industrialization of China in several decades and fought two wars to defend neighboring countries from the military action of the United States (the Korean War and indirectly, the Vietnam War). While his actions resulted in some benefits to the Chinese state, what progress he made was clearly at the expense of China’s natural environment. His policies imposed a massive burden on the people of his generation. Mao’s ideological goals were just as ambitious as his modernization efforts. He sought to instill revolutionary consciousness in every person through systematic and repeated ideological education. Unlike Lenin, who emphasized the importance of party organization and the authority of an elite corps of professional revolutionaries to steer the masses, Mao charged entire social groups (whether peasants or student youth) to stage revolution for themselves and to derive energy and insight from the revolutionary experience itself. Mao pursued a foreign policy independent of the Soviet Union after 1960 and aspired to make China the exemplary model of state socialism within the international socialist bloc during the Cultural Revolution. His idea to make revolution participatory inspired fanatical devotion and gave him a godlike status to rule as he wished. Thus the personality and policies of Mao Zedong left a deep imprint on the political culture of modern China, one that is both difficult to appraise and impossible to erase.
Mao Zedong on Learning
“It is often not a matter of the first learning and then doing, but of doing and then learning, for doing is itself learning.” —Mao Zedong
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A 1976 newspaper headline about the death of Mao, who lived to be eighty-two.
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