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Mao’s Dynasty


Born to a peasant family Mao was attracted to communism in his youth, helping found the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. By 1934 the Party numbered about eighty thousand, and pursued by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army, they began what became known to history as the Long March. It stretched over six thousand miles and perhaps only ten percent survived it. In the village where it ended Mao emerged as the Communist leader, penned his philosophy, and forged the survivors into a tightly-knit group.

The Communists formed an uneasy alliance with the Nationalists against Japan during World War II, but that alliance crumbled by war’s end, resulting in a civil war won by Mao’s forces, as the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949. Proclaiming the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Mao swiftly solidified his rule over the country, removing his opposition to “re-education” camps and modeling his state after the Soviet Union, on whom he depended for assistance.

Within a year China found itself defending Communist North Korea against the United Nations. The Korean War ended in a stalemate in 1953, but its aftermath ensured the United States and China would be Cold War enemies. If the Soviet Union hid behind an iron curtain, China, many thought, now resided behind a bamboo curtain.

In Mao’s China, land was redistributed to peasant farmers, while the state dominated industry supply, production, and distribution. Mao purged the government of “rightist” intellectuals. Propaganda departments took over publishing houses, schools, and colleges. Yet by 1957 Mao grew disenchanted with China’s slow growth under the Soviet model. Harnessing its hundreds of millions of people, he set in motion what he called China’s “Great Leap Forward.” Lofty goals were set for industry, agriculture, and construction projects. The massive undertaking, however, was deemed a failure as millions died from the resulting famine.

Displeased with Mao’s brand of Communism, the Soviet Union withdrew its support from China. Mao then pumped precious resources into a new defense plan that included nuclear arms. But unrest at home was growing among millions who had seen the failure of the Great Leap. Facing this unrest, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, giving college students freedom to search out counter revolutionaries.

Eight million students, called the Red Guards, shouted slogans from Mao’s “little red book.” They spilled forth attacking things foreign, things old, and those they hated, clashing with the army and workers organizations. Thousands who had been deemed traitors by the Red Guard were executed. In May 1968 Mao disbanded the Guards fearing civil war.


Shang (1523-1027 BC)  
Chou (1027-221 BC)  
Ch'in (221-206 BC)  
Han (206 BC-AD 220)  
Three Kingdoms (220-581)  
Sui (581-618)  
T'ang (618-907)  
Sung (907-1279)  
Yüan (1279-1368)  
Ming (1368-1644)  
Ch'ing (1644-1912)  
Opening the Door (1844-1911)  
The Period of Revolution (1912-1949)  
Raising the Bamboo Curtain (1972-1979)  
Into the Next Millennium (1979-)  
photo:  Mao Tse-Tung
Mao Tse-Tung
c. 1944

Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration


Chou En-lai emerged as a moderate force after the purges. He feared the Soviet military posture and felt the time was right to improve relations with the West. In 1972, Zhou arranged a meeting between Mao and President Richard Nixon. The bamboo curtain began to rise as China now looked to the West for help modernizing its country. It was a change Mao set in motion but one he would not see fulfilled. He died in October 1976 having ruled China twenty-seven years.