Mao Through the Years

Máo Zédōng (毛泽东)  Dec 26, 1893 – Sept 9, 1976


From 1949 to his death on September 9, 1976, Mao Zedong stood as de facto leader of the newly formed People’s Republic of China. He has become one of the most controversial leaders in world history, with praise for him as a genius revolutionary who championed the proletariat equaled by condemnations of him as a ruthless tyrant who was callous to human suffering and death. To many, he is seen as the poster boy for personality cults, ascending to near godlike status during the later years of his reign, and still lauded today as the Father of Modern China and the Farmers’ Hero. Others point to his catastrophic policies, which led to great famine, unprecedented destruction of culture and art, vast human rights abuses and unequalled death tolls, arguing that his stubborn and delusional vision sought to gain absolute power and widespread fame more than to elevate the people.


One thing is certain, no matter how you roll the dice on Mao, he is one of the most mysterious and intriguing men in history. From his early years as an anti-imperialist writer, romantic poet, librarian, derided backwoods peasant and radical leftist, to his cult of personality and penchant for ousting his rivals and detractors, Mao’s life and rise to power is among the most extraordinary individual stories of the 20th century.


Though censorship still clouds his private life, much has slowly come to light through a cacophony of contradictory and mutually critical sources – including his personal physician Li Zhisui, his personal secretary Li Rui, and his bodyguard Wang Dongxing – all of whom agree on one particular word to describe Mao’s life: secretive.


While pictures of Mao at his most confidential are hard to come by, there are enough to patch together an intriguing look at the man who irreversibly changed China. It isn’t the whole story by any means, but this scrapbook reveals a fascinating peek at Mao from birth to death, his status on the world stage, his love of high-waisted pants, the molding of his image through propaganda, the recession of his hairline and the decline of his health in the ‘70s.


And now a look at Mao through the years.

Mao’s mother Wen Qimei (文七妹) and father Mao Shunsheng (毛顺生)


A 20-year-old Mao in Hunan Province

The oldest in a family of seven children hailing from the peasant village of Shaoshan in Hunan, Máo Zédōng  (毛泽东) was left with only two brothers, Máo Zémín (毛泽民) and Máo Zétán (毛泽覃), after two of his brothers and both sisters died when they were very young. Notice that all three boys have the same Zé (泽) in their given name. While Máo (毛) is the family name, it was customary to give a generational name as part of the given name for all the children of the same age group. In this case you see proliferation of Zé (泽) as the generational name.

From left: Mao Zetan, Mao Zemin, their mother Wen Qimei, and Mao Zedong in Hunan (1919)

From left: Mao Zetan, their uncle, their father and Mao Zedong in Changsha, Hunan (1919)


Mao’s mother was a devout Buddhist who had hoped that her son would follow a religious career. Though that never happened, their bond was very strong; her death in October of 1919 marked one of the most difficult times in Mao’s life. On the other hand, his tyrannical father, who had built himself into a successful landowner and grain dealer, saw no use in Mao’s intellectual pursuits in school, and later cut off funding for his son’s studies.

Young Mao in Changsha (1919)


Described as “exceptionally intelligent and handsome” by his mentor Yang Changji, Mao showed signs of superior charisma in writing and speaking from his early years in Hunan schools, including the province’s renowned First Normal School of Changsha. It was here that Mao met Yang Changji, who later brought him to Peking University, secured him a post as assistant to the university librarian Li Dazhao, and introduced him to the radical magazine New Youth (Xīn Qīngnián; 新青年). The periodical became the vehicle for the first of Mao’s many influential articles, helping him to begin carving out his niche as a powerful essayist and poet. An avid reader (Mao’s early influences were Rousseau, Adam Smith, Darwin and Herbert Spencer), his ideology evolved to the left in Beijing, where he would attend lectures by early revolutionaries and communists, including New Youth founder Chen Duxiu.


After a subsequent trip to Shanghai, Mao finally met Chen in person. Chen set the stage for history when in 1921 he co-founded the Chinese Communist Party with Mao’s old librarian boss, Li Dazhao. After a brief stint as the CCP’s Hunan branch party secretary, Mao moved to Shanghai in 1923 and was elected to the Party Committee (the elite of the CCP decision makers).

Mao in Shanghai (1924)

Mao in Guangzhou (1925)

Mao in Guangzhou (1927)

By 1927 Mao had risen to a senior role in the Party and was put in charge of a large battalion of the CCP’s Red Army and, alongside general Zhu De, fought through sporadic victories and defeats, mirrored by the rise and fall of his own reputation within the Communist Party. In 1934, while fighting the KMT in Jiangxi Province, Mao found his troops surrounded. Eventually, they escaped at Xincheng, and the famed Long March began.

The disputed events of the Long March have undertaken a reexamination by historians, who maintain that there is evidence that much of the official CCP narrative is either false or highly embellished. What is not disputed, however, is the fact that soon into the March, Mao was elected as head of the Politburo (the coterie of 25 who run the CCP) and effectively became Commander in Chief of the Chinese Communist Party and the Red Army.


It’s said that Chairman Mao had long promoted the idea of the CCP and the KMT working together to fight the Japanese, whose invasion put the country through even more turmoil and terror. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the KMT, felt the Communists were a greater threat than the Japanese, but was forced to concede to a shaky alliance when he was arrested in Xi’an in 1936 by his own general, Zhang Xueliang.

Mao giving a speech in Fujian (June 26, 1933)

Mao in Shanbei (1936)

Mao at Yan’an airport (Apr 1937)


While relations with the United States and much of the West were icy at best, a handful of men gained enough trust from the Chinese Communists to spend some surprisingly intimate time with their leaders. One of the best known was American journalist Edgar Snow – pictured above with Mao in 1939 – who wrote Red Star Over China, a book originally published in 1937 detailing Mao’s Red Army, which to Westerners at the time was just a little-known guerilla insurgency. Snow published many articles during his decades-long tenure interviewing Mao and tracking the CCP, and though many articles were accused of misinterpretation of facts or blatant bias, his writing did much to sympathize those in the West to the CCP.


Mao pictured in Yan’an with American journalist Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China (1939)

With World War II in full swing by the 1940s, a special US envoy known as the Dixie Mission was sent to the Communists in order to engage mutual support against the Japanese. Though many of the United States’ officers informed their administration that the CCP was a stronger, more organized and relatively less corrupt force than they first thought, when the war ended Washington resumed its support for the faltering KMT.


Mao and Chiang Kai-shek (right) forcing smiles in a toast to their alliance in Chongqing (Aug 28, 1945)

After the siege of Changchun, in which the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) starved out the KMT and incidentally killed some 160,000 civilians, the last KMT stronghold left was Chengdu. With most of China under the CCP, and with Chiang and the Nationalists fleeing to Taiwan, Mao moved to Beijing to announce the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949 from atop Tiananmen Tower.


Chairman Mao proclaiming the founding of the People’s Republic of China (Oct 1, 1949)


Mao and new China were the talk of the world, and his face began to grace the front covers of news publications from Nanjing to New York.


Over the next decades, Mao would lead the country through immense turmoil and anguish. While millions were killed through the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries of the early ‘50s, starved to death during the Great Leap Forward, or were executed after being duped into criticizing the government, Mao consolidated his power and rooted out those in his administration that he felt posed a threat to his power. Vast propaganda campaigns were published, presenting Mao and the CCP leadership as a perfect beacon of light and progress, which championed them to the peasantry and masked the scale of atrocities across the country.

Propaganda picture of Mao and his cabinet atop Tiananmen Tower


During this time, his fourth wife Jiang Qing rose to prominence as well, eventually becoming one of the most notoriously oppressive figures in China’s tumultuous 20th century.


Mao’s tenure at the top of the CCP was also filled with servants and assistants, in a very similar manner to an emperor. His top assistant, Zhang Yufeng, was said to be in charge of nearly everything in his life, even to the point of accepting top officials to see Mao.

Jiang Qing (left) and Zhang Yufeng together in the 1960s


From the chaos of the 1950s, a new nightmare grew in China under the guise of the Cultural Revolution. From 1966 to the death of Mao ten years later, the country was turned upside down as intellectuals, artists, landowners, religious believers, businesspeople, and anyone branded a counterrevolutionary were eliminated.


Through all of the mayhem Mao made sure to present a smiling, “hero of the proletariat” face to China and the world. He loved swimming, and besides the pool that he commissioned to be built in his headquarters at Zhongnanhai, Mao made frequent swimming trips to the Yangtze River, the Beidaihe beach resort and the Lu Mountain reservoir.


Throughout the later years of Mao’s reign, top party officials came and went like the wind, a product of the Chairman’s growing paranoia that one would usurp his power. Zhou Enlai, one of Mao’s oldest comrades, managed to make it through his life as a constant fixture at Mao’s side, though he endured his own pain and hardships at the hands of Jiang Qing.


Mao with Zhou Enlai (right). Zhou was one of the few top officials to escape being purged in later years (1953)


Deng Xiaoping, who would later seize ultimate power without actually holding such a high position in the CCP, was ousted by Mao and his cabinet twice, and endured the Criticize Deng campaign of 1976. Deng Xiaoping managed to claw his way back into the CCP power rankings after successive evictions; his third and final time saw him outmaneuver the Gang of Four to become the Party’s paramount leader, just a year after Mao’s death.


Mao and Deng Xiaoping (right) (1950)

Mao casting a vote in 1953

Mao talking with a shepherd from Hebei (1954)

Mao talking to his guard soldiers (May 14, 1955)

Mao receiving Indonesian President Sukarno (Sept 30, 1956)

Mao inspecting a Tianjin factory in 1956
Mao delivering a speech in Moscow (Nov 6, 1957)

Mao applauding Chinese students studying in Moscow (Nov 7, 1957)

Mao in a Henan village (1958)

Mao with his marshal Chen Yi (陈毅) (1958)


Mao with students from a school in his hometown, Shaoshan (韶山) (1959)

Mao visiting a neighbor’s home in his hometown, Shaoshan (June 26, 1959)

Mao with some international communist friends (1959)

Mao with Vietnam President Ho Chi Minh (left) and Russian President Nikita Khrushchev (right) (Oct 1, 1959)

Mao welcoming Russian President Nikita Khrushchev in the Banquet Hall of the Great Hall of People (Oct 1, 1959)

Mao posing with relatives and work staff in Changsha (June 1959)

Some, such as Liu Shaoqi (Mao’s second in command), were less fortunate than Deng. Holding several top party rankings throughout his career, and publicly chosen as Mao’s successor in 1961, Liu Shaoqi later fell out of favor with Mao, who feared Liu was in a position to steal his power. Liu found himself on the harshest end of the political stick: after being arrested in 1967 he was regularly beaten at public denouncement meetings and denied medicine for his diabetes and pneumonia. His public beatings and torture continued for over a year until he was tortured to death by the Red Guards in 1969.


Mao talking with his marshal He Long (贺龙) (1960)


  Mao swimming in Lushan Reservoir, Jiangxi (1961)

Mao reading the People’s Daily in his study room (Apr 20, 1961)


Mao playing table tennis in Shanghai (1963)

Mao in Zhongnanhai, Beijing (1963)

Mao in Wuhan (1963)

Mao being greeted by Zhou Enlai (center) and Zhu De at Beijing Capital Airport (1964)

Mao receiving North Korean leader Kim Il-sung (Feb 29, 1964)

Mao and Zhou Enlai enjoying the performance “The East is Red” (Oct 6, 1964)

Mao in Hangzhou in the Spring (1965)


Mao relaxing in Wuchang, Wuhan (1965)

Mao strolling alongside East Lake (东湖) in Wuhan (1966)

Mao swimming across the Yangtze River (July 16, 1966)

Mao (center) and Zhou Enlai (far left) surrounded by Red Guards (Aug 18, 1966)


Mao waving to the Red Guards (Aug 18, 1966)

The Cult of Mao in action (Aug 18, 1966)


The frenzy for Mao (Aug 18, 1966)

Mao and Liu Shaoqi (right) on Tian’anmen Tower (Sept 15, 1966)

Mao signing an autograph for American civil rights leader Robert Franklin Williams on his English version of Quotations from Chairman Mao (Oct 1, 1966)


Mao (left) and Lin Biao inspecting the Red Guard from atop Tian’anmen Tower (Nov 3, 1966)


Mao (standing) receiving the Red Guards from all over the nation at Tian’anmen Square (Nov 26, 1966)

 Mao waving to the Beijing masses on May Day, 1967


Others met a more ironic fate. The most notable was Lin Biao, one of Mao’s top generals and later his designated successor. He fell out of favor with Mao, then boarded a plane to flee, but the plane “crashed” in Mongolia in 1971, killing Lin in the process. Lin Biao’s death remains one of the most mysterious incidents of the Cultural Revolution, and a large number of researchers and historians outside China contend the official explanation, arguing that the government has not accounted for all of the strange circumstances surrounding his death. One thing is for sure, Lin and Mao’s relationship had deteriorated rapidly preceding his sudden flight from the country that led to his death.


Mao, together with Lin Biao (right) chatting with American journalist Edgar Snow on the top of Tian’anmen Tower (Oct 1, 1970)


Mao, Lin Biao and the King-Father of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk (right) (May 21, 1970)

Mao, Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai celebrating May Day on Tian’anmen Tower with delegates from the PLA (1971)


Hua Guofeng, the surviving successor to Mao who took over the leadership role upon Mao’s death, held only a brief stint as the Party Chairmen before being outmaneuvered by Deng Xiaoping in the late ‘70s. Though during his brief reign he brought an end to the infamous Gang of Four, after Deng’s rise Hua fell to just an ordinary member of the CCP Central Committee, a position he lost in 2002. Distancing himself from contemporary Chinese politics, Hua was invited as a special delegate in 2007, and when he passed away on August 8 during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, his death took a backseat to the games and was allotted only a short paragraph on the front of the People’s Daily newspaper and a 30-second blip on CCTV’s Xinwen news program.

Mao wearing his nightdress at the funeral ceremony of his old comrade and general, Chen Yi (Jan 10, 1972)


As the prominence of Mao and his Red China grew throughout the world, leaders from around the globe found themselves hosted by the Chairman in Beijing, culminating in the historic visit of US President Richard Nixon in 1972.


Mao shaking hands with US President Richard Nixon (Feb 21, 1972)

Mao receiving President Richard Nixon in his study room (Feb 21, 1972)

Mao meeting Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (Sept 27, 1972)

Mao and Zhou Enlai meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Feb 17, 1973)

Mao and Hua Guofeng (right) in 1976, just months before Mao’s death


Though he allegedly began to show signs of Parkinson’s Disease or Lou Gehrig’s Disease (it’s unsure which he actually suffered from) during the last years of his life, it was during his last six months that his condition worsened in a particularly noticeable fashion. It was common during the mid ‘70s to see a team of assistants with him for nearly every aspect of his life. During his final six months, the bedridden Mao was in the care of a team of physicians who monitored Chairman Mao suffered a massive heart attack – the last of several through his last years – on September 2, 1976, prompting him to ask his doctors if he was going to die. His lung infection worsened and he went into critical condition three days later; his wife Jiang Qing returned to visit him for only a short while. Mao’s final breaths came in the early morning of September 9, 1976, when he fell into a massive coma from multiple organ failure, and was taken off life support at 12:10 am surrounded by family, CCP top officials and his wife. He was 82 years old.

Mao’s final minutes in the early morning of September 9. His nephew Mao Yuanxin stands second from left. Jiang Qing is in black, third from left (Sept 9, 1976)

Near-hysteria at the sight of Mao’s corpse (Sept 9, 1976)


The cabinet paying their final respects to their Red Star (Sept 11, 1976)


When the announcement of Mao’s death was made, the citizenry’s reaction was unprecedented. Tearful processions mobbed the streets throughout China, but none were as pronounced as in Beijing, where a million mourners took to the streets of Tian’anmen Square to say their goodbyes. One account by an American diplomat’s family living in Beijing at the time said, “the ground was wet with tears.”

A million-strong crowd filling the streets around Tian’anmen Square (Sept 18, 1976)

Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng (second from left) delivering a speech at the memorial ceremony (Sept 18, 1976)

Crowds mourning by the half-mast flag (Sept 18, 1976)

Reverence of Mao these days has lost a good deal of its frenzy since the 1980s, but state propaganda, school curriculums and regular celebrations ensure that the Great Helmsman – as he is often called – is still a very entrenched part of the national psyche. Some have called for a reduction of his influence in recent years (schools in Shanghai eliminated him from all but the middle school curriculum in 2006), others have used covert methods to criticize him and his most oppressive methods, while others still continue to venerate him to near deistic levels.


With so much controversy and disagreement among historians, detractors and supporters of Mao, discovering the true story of his life is an unlikely endeavor. While he laid the groundwork for China’s eventual prosperity, saw the population almost double during his tenure, and brought China from a backwoods civilization into the modern world, the darkest aspects of his administration and personality – their existence further suggested by the propaganda that sought to hide them – are impossible to overlook. Mao will likely always foster some degree of division throughout the world, but anyone who looks into his improbable rise from Hunan peasant to one of the most influential and iconic leaders in recent times can agree that the life of Mao Zedong is superbly interesting.


Mao’s Wives

Yang Kaihui holding her son Mao Anqing with elder son Mao Anying at her elbow


In all, Mao Zedong ran through four wives during his tenure, even marrying two of them before ending previous marriages. His first wife, Luo Yigu was part of an arranged marriage that Mao despised. After never consummating the marriage or living with her, she died of dysentery in 1910, lonely and disgraced.


Mao’s second wife, Yang Kaihui (杨开慧) is pictured left with their oldest son Mao Anqing (毛岸青; right) and holding their other son Mao Anying (毛岸英). She would later be executed by the KMT in 1930. Anying was set to succeed Mao as the CCP chairman, but was killed in action by an American airstrike during the Korean War, leaving the world only to speculate on what China might be today had he succeeded Mao.


Mao married his third wife, He Zizhen (贺子珍), in May of 1930, before then-estranged and forlorn Yang had been arrested by the KMT. No divorce papers had been written or thought of, and it’s unclear when the last time Mao spoke to Yang was.  First introduced in 1928, the couple had six children together, though all but their daughter Li Min died or were separated from the family. Zizhen was a dutiful member of the Communist Party and accompanied Mao on the Long March before he left her for his fourth and final wife in 1938.

Mao Zedong and his third wife He Zizhen (right) in Yan’an, two years after the Long March (1937)

Li Yunhe, otherwise known by her most famous alias, Jiang Qing (江青), was Mao Zedong’s last and by far most influential wife. Before she met Mao, she was a well-known film actress under the stage name Lan Ping (蓝平) and was married to actor and director Tang Na. She became a member of the Communist Party when her film career began to unfold, but fled to Yan’an – where she met and seduced Mao – when the Japanese took over Shanghai and the Chinese film industry.


From left: Mao’s nephew Mao Yuanxin (毛远新), Mao, Jiang Qing and their daughter Li Ne(李讷)
Mao reading a newspaper with Jiang Qing

Jiang swam quickly into the world of Chinese politics, being appointed deputy director of the Central Cultural Revolution Group in 1966 by Mao himself, and used her political leverage to persecute those whom she saw as “enemies” (those whom she felt had wronged her during political rise or those who might be a threat to her power). It seemed no one was safe from her maniacal accusations and oppression. Among her most heinous alleged acts were inciting Maoist Red Guards to torture and murder Zhou’s adopted daughter Sun Weishi (with whom she had a rivalry), directing an attack on the woman who married her ex-husband (which resulted in the woman’s death), confining Mao’s third wife He Zizhen to a mental institution for decades and forcing her daughter with Mao to divorce her farmer husband. All of her actions were approved by her husband, and in the West she became infamously known as Madame Mao.


In 1976 Mao lay upon his deathbed as Jiang repeatedly overruled his physicians’ orders, commanding aides or doctors to roll him into dangerous positions, at one time maneuvering him in a way that cut off his breathing enough to turn him blue. Evidence began to surface of her intent to usurp the power of the Chairman for herself in the wake of Mao’s death, and soon she and the rest of the notorious Gang of Four were arrested by Hua Guofeng, Mao’s designated successor. Historians still debate her role in the Gang of Four, but her vindictive persona and malicious track record certainly suggest a horrendous part in the Gang’s activities, the worst of which include murders and the execution of hundreds of thousands of people during the Cultural Revolution.



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