Taoism and Mao Zedong
Written by You-Sheng Li
Click here to reach the homepage:taoism21cen.com
(Rewritten June 2007, edited 28 March 2009)
I think the best words to describe
Mao Zedong (1893-1976), the founder of Communist China, are those he said when
he was young: Battling with heaven, the joy is limitless; battling with Earth,
the joy is limitless; battling with people, the joy is limitless. As far as his
life and his impact on the country he controlled from 1949 to 1976, Mao was as
good as those words. The West and the former
Mao was, of course, not a sincere and
conscious Taoist thinker. But we can, nevertheless, understand Mao and his
As to the Chinese traditional ideology, many authors have written on the influence of Confucianism on Mao. But I think Mao is closer to Taoism but farther away from Confucianism. In Chinese history, intellectuals were Confucians in the government office but Taoists at home. They relied on Taoist teachings to live an idle rural life, pursuing self-wellbeing. Both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu quoted the Chinese self-sufficient rural economy as their ideal society. As the result, the dominant ideology was not Confucianism but Taoism in Chinese countryside.
If there was still some trace of
Confucian influence in the Chinese rural areas, it was confined in the
intellectual households. What peasants were fond of were Buddhism and Taoism,
and they regarded Confucianism as something for educated people. Mao's family
was not an intellectual one: his father was an ordinary peasant who had been a
soldier and a merchant. He was fiercely opposite to Mao's further education to
become an intellectual. Mao's mother was a believer in Buddhism. Mao and his
mother once discussed how to persuade Mao's father to believe in Buddhism.
After running away from a tiger, his father did come to Buddhism and
occasionally worshiped Buddha in the temples. In
Chou En-lai's family was different, a traditional intellectual household. His lifestyle, graceful and poised, was close to the Confucius's golden mean, since he received a good Confucian education at home in his early years. Mao was also taught the five classics and the four books but during a period of cultural transition from the old to the new, it fell short of letting him surpass his family's influence.
Mao's many biographies mentioned how
sympathy to the poor Mao was as a child: he worked with Mother against his
father's will; he gave rice to those who needed; he even collaborated with the
labourers against his father's interest. These are believable but common in
Modern society is secondary society, which is different from the ancient primary society. With the size averaging around 150, people interacted with each other by face in primary society such as tribes and bands. Primary society was the natural extension of human genetic nature, and there was no force to model human nature in a fixed direction. Thus it was peaceful and egalitarian. The human instincts were enough to keep the society in harmony. All members were linked psychologically and emotionally into a whole of which everybody was only a part. We, as individuals, cannot psychologically and emotionally link us to modern society. The wholeness of a secondary society is the result of shared belief and social structure. (For further reference, please visit the web site: http://taoism21cen.com)
Taoism has the egalitarian primary
society as its ideal. In comparison with cities, Chinese countryside is closer
to primary society. In the mainland
Some scholars say Chinese dynasties
all adapted to Huang Lao (Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu) at the core but dressed
up as Confucianism. We can also say Mao was Huang Lao at the core but put on a
face of Marxism. Mao led his country into an endless chaos, and people call it
sarcastically running cycles of malarial fever. When one is suffering from
malaria, he has a fever every two days but becomes normal between. Mao's
political movements were all like that, and achieving nothing except for
exhaustion. In the end, it was consisted with the Taoist principle: non-action
though not intentionally. After Mao died,
Marx saw capitalism as the final stage in the evolution of human society, like a man of advanced age suffering from incurable cancer, and he prescribed communism as the remedy. Mao mixed it up with his childhood dream, which was also the Chinese poor peasants' dream, a simple, peaceful life free of inequality and exploitation. It is amazing that Mao as the leader of the most populous country in the modern world did not envision any necessary changes in the new horizons brought up by various revolutions in the Western world since the Renaissance. On the contrary, Mao battled fiercely against those who had some new vision. He literally suffocated all progressive ideas.
Half of Mao's bed was piled up with
ancient Chinese books, from which one may speculate how his family life was.
Mao envied other Chinese leaders' happy families and complaining his was an
exception. He spent his last birthday with a group of young women, nurses and
secretaries. His wife, Jiang Qing,
cooked his favourite fish soup as a birthday present in order to ask for a
chance to see him. He asked one of those girls to deliver his message: “Leave
the soup and do not come in!” When I was
a student at
According to his private physician,
Mao lived a very simple life: He often wore pajamas
all day and only dressed up for receiving guests. Even then he wore only shorts
to show his scorn for world powers when he received Khrushchev at his swimming
pool. He never brushed his teeth, and never took a bath or shower. Mao lived in
Land reform, or the equal
distribution of land ownership, was not very successful in other countries
In the first fifty years of the last
century, there were numerous wars in
Mao often quoted from Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu but it was often superficially coherent in context. For example, Mao wrote “Lao Tzu says no move is the first importance” in his article On Physical Education published in 1917 but Lao Tzu never said such words. Mao apparently quoted only from his vague memories and impression since Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were so deeply rooted in Chinese culture and language and no one can avoid them. When Mao was overexcited over his victory in 1949 after millions lost their lives, Mao wrote in his article Goodbye, John Leighton Stuart : “ Lao Tzu says People are not afraid of death, how can you use death to make them fear?” Mao’s mood and thought expressed in that article were only the opposite to Lao Tzu who advocates to celebrate victory with funeral. The Comments Mao wrote on Chuang Lu’s Biography, however, reveal the Taoist ideology in the depth of Mao’s mind. From the following quotation, one can see clearly Mao had put Marxism aside and linked himself to those peasant leaders in Chinese history:
The mass health care movement described in Chuang Lu's Biography is like our People's Commune's free health care…free meals at the roadside shops are most interesting…it was the pioneer of our public canteens in the People's Communes. That's about 1600 years ago …but it remains the same through those years that massive poor peasants dream of equality, freedom, out of poverty, enough food and clothes…they showed the trend of primitive socialism without full awareness...our People's Communes are rooted far in Chinese history…
Among the so-called hundred schools of thought, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are the only ones who ignored all authorities from both heaven and earth, and who acted independently on what they deem proper. Chuang Tzu is noted by his bold and unconstrained remarks: “I, heaven, and earth were born together, and I share the same body with the universe.” Modern scholars classify Chuang Tzu as one of those recluses and hermits, whose words, how heroic and boundless they may be, only affect their own lives. Mao once used the post-pause expression, popular in Northern Chinese rural areas, telling the American reporter Edgar P. Snow (1905-1972), “I am a monk holding an umbrella.” The literal translation of those words caused serious misunderstanding: Mao was lonely, holding an umbrella in a gloomy rainy day. In fact, Mao meant through those words, “I respect neither God nor law.” This Godless/lawless figure Mao was unfortunately a living God over his land and his people. The tragic results have been known to all.
Mao rebelled against his father when he was Child. He first rose to the top in the party in the 1930s when he acted against orders from the Communist International. He later refused a peace proposal by Stalin and attacked the Soviet leaders publicly soon after Stalin’s death. In spite of strong resistance inside the party, Mao pushed forward the agricultural collectivization, and eventually led to the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign. Millions died of starvation, and Mao was left isolated in front of the popular opposition force inside the government. Mao had mastered the Huang Lao arts of political trickery hiding his intentions and biding the time. Several years later, he single-handedly launched the Great Cultural Revolution to condemn all government officials in the name of a new revolution. To Mao’s dismay, the revolutionary cadres became bureaucrats once they were in the government office. Thus there was a need for another revolution to remove them. The revolution became continuous since one required another. No matter how many revolutions were there, Mao himself was the only exception, and no revolution could touch him.
In modern society, we all have several roles to play: we are husband and wife, parent and child at home, employees or workers in the company, and citizens in a country. Society uses those roles to organize all people into a social network. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao once said gangju muzhang, once you pull up the head rope of a network such as a fishing net, all its meshes open. In his view among the complex network of millions of Chinese people there is a head rope which he pulls will move all Chinese people. This seemingly simple mechanism shows how our society works. In contrast to the money-based Western society, Chinese society was said to be official-rank-based. If this was the case, the official ranking system should be highly developed with noticeable differences between different ranks. But this was contradicting to Mao’s egalitarian ideology. As a result Mao launched the Four Clean-up Movement followed by the Cultural Revolution, which smashed the newly set up bureaucratic system. Thus the ranking system was no longer enough to motivate the officials, let alone the ordinary people. It was inevitable to fall back on violence and terror which Mao and his colleagues were fond of through their experience in the warring era.
Since the rebellion of the citizens
in the capital during the rein of King Zhoulie (841
BC), Chinese peasant uprisings were particularly common. The dynasties of Han
and Ming were established by massive uprising with upper classes changing their
places with the lower ones, like tossing over a pancake, which was never seen
in the West. In modern Chinese history, the Nationalists overthrew the Ching dynasty and had not stabilized their ruling yet while
Communist uprising succeeded in driving the Nationalists out of the mainland
In the book A New Interpretation
of Chinese Taoist Philosophy, I compared the Axial China with modern
In the early 1950s, Chinese peasants called themselves the self existence king, which means they were leisurely and carefree but content with oneself like a king happy in their own world. Except when there was war or disaster, Chinese rural life was peaceful and stable like Lao Tzu says: Enjoy the tastiness of your food, admire the beauty of your clothing, delight yourself with your home and its environment, and be happy with your culture. There was plenty of spare time and at least nothing to do in the whole winter. There were numerous festivals each year with all entertaining activities between, let alone the grand ceremonies at weddings and funerals when often than not farming work was put aside and all villagers joined in. In compared to modern urban life, Chinese rural life is much closer to Taoist ideal lifestyle.
To organize the spare time of those
peasants into new developments, either economic or artistic, at high levels, a
social structure of secondary society is essential. Without such a social
structure readily available, peasants have to spend their spare time in their
traditional way. Under the influence of Taoism, Chinese history was one to wipe
out the middle class of vassals and lords and put peasants directly under the
emperor and his court. According to some scholars, the class of vassals and
lords finally collapsed in Song dynasty (960-1279). As not much room left for
intellectuals to actualize their ambitions, they turned into their inner world
to develop the New Confucianism headed by Cheng and
In the Taoist traditions, there is no place for democracy. Taoism advocates equality, frugality, kindness, and modesty which may have similar social functions in creating a feeling of fairness. The water course way of thinking in Taoism, however, developed into the so-called art of political trickery, and the godless view developed into ruthlessness in power struggles in the hands of ancient Chinese politicians. Mao showed those characteristics once he was in the leadership position of the party after 1935.
When Mao joined the Chinese Communist
Party, ideas of social reform, freedom, and democracy had spread to
Chuang Tzu was one of Mao’s favourite books and Li Po, a Taoist, was his favorite poet. Chuang Tzu’s carefree boundless style was also seen in Mao’s speeches and writings. Li Po’s romantic unconstrained style was also seen in Mao’s poetry.
Yin and Yang are important concepts of Taoism, seeing the opposite complementary forces inside all things and entities which lead everything to change toward its opposite: The weak becomes strong, and the strong becomes weak. That’s what it means in Chapter 40, Tao Te Ching:
That which is converse is the action of Tao;
That which is weak is the use of Tao.
Tao Te Ching is short but elaborates this Yin/Yang principle repeatedly in different verses. By different names such as two point or two side methods or dialectics, this Taoist principle became Mao’s favourite topic and appears everywhere in his works and speeches. This principle of course also applies to Mao himself: Such a glorious revolutionary life and such a super powerful figure ended his days in his isolated bedroom observing the keenly impatient desire of his colleagues to see his death. His voice was so a weak and tiny whisper when he begged, would you please lift your lordly hands and let them go after my death! The Chinese official interpretation says the word “them” in those Mao’s words refers to the rebels who reached high positions through the Cultural Revolution. From the context and circumstances, it is crystal clear that Mao worried about his wife and her friends, the Gang of Four. Did they let them go? No, and they didn’t. Fifteen years after Mao’s death, people celebrated again over the death of Mao’s wife who committed suicide in prison.Click here to read previous essays
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