Taoism and Mao Zedong

Written by You-Sheng Li

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(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 Soviet Union used to complain about the bellicose cock like China under the Communist rule. It was really the spirit of Mao himself, and it represented neither Chinese people nor all the party members. Mao turned his country, his government, and his family upside down many times over, and left no stone unturned. He certainly practiced those three phrases through his whole life. If we put what he said aside and study the way of his thinking, it is not surprising to find some strong elements of Chinese tradition, especially Taoism.

Mao was, of course, not a sincere and conscious Taoist thinker. But we can, nevertheless, understand Mao and his China much better if we adapt to a Taoist perspective. Karl Marx once said, I am not a Marxist myself.  What Marx meant is that he did not practice Marxism but he certainly believed in the system he had developed and promoted. Mao used to say he believed in Confucianism in his early years but changed to Marxism later. However, I think Mao's thought is far away from Marxism or Confucianism but close to Taoism. Marxism is often criticized for its economy-determinist view. The influence of economic determinism on human thought and behaviour became traceless in Mao's China. Mao stressed the importance of political ideology and carried out an ever-lasting battle against those who had a tendency to economy-determinism. In the Great Cultural Revolution, whoever had some connection with economy, or agricultural/industrial production was subjected to Mao's attacks. According to Marx, Proletarian revolution only occurs after the whole world has entered into highly developed capitalist society. Mao labelled his revolution of peasants with Marxism. If we dismiss the part Lenin and Mao creatively added to Marxism, namely, separate Marxism from Leninism and Maoism, there is nothing of Marxism but old Chinese tradition in Mao's thought.

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 China most people could not tell Buddhism from Taoism but few failed to notice the difference between Confucianism and Taoism/Buddhism. Ordinary people like Mao's father never went to a Confucian temple, which was apparently not a proper place for them. Buddhism is far away from politics but Taoism is quite different. There is a strong political element in Taoism, which advocates equality. Mao's hometown was within the reach of the Society of Brothers, a peasant organization influenced by Taoist ideology. Therefore, Mao's family was at the level where the ideology was Taoism. Mao was soaked with the spirit of Taoism through what he saw and heard during his early childhood.

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 rural China where the father struggled to increase his fortune while children and women doled out alms. Lao Tzu says, “Heaven and earth coalesce and it rains sweet dew. The people, no one ordering them, self balance to equality.” “The Tao of nature is to pare back abundance and add to the insufficient.”(Tao Te Ching, Chapters 32, 77) Thus according to Taoist theory, it is our nature to self balance to equality by helping the poor, and wealth-building comes from our culture. Children and women are less contaminated by modern culture in comparison to men.

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 China, peasants are traditionally said to be believers in ultra-equalitarianism, which is in fact the Taoist ideal. Since such an ideal is not compatible with modern society, authority labelled it as ultra-equalitarianism. Among the Chinese Communist leaders, Mao's thought was much closer to Taoist egalitarianism than the others. That's why he put most leaders aside and was headstrong in pursuing some ultra-leftist policies such as the Great Cultural Revolution.

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, China has progressed rapidly in economy, arts, ideology and so on, and even the landscape changes with each passing day and passing month. Under such a contrast, Mao's China was really chaotic non-action.

 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 Peking University, Mao's daughter was there too. It was said that the daughter could see him only on special occasions. During the Great Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing was once complaining with tears in front of an audience of more than ten thousands that class struggle had been carried out into her family. Her unusual remarks frightened Mao's daughter-in-law so much that she ran away hidden immediately.

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 the Imperial Park inside the Forbidden City where he grew vegetables instead of flowers in his garden. Once he said, “You may grow flowers in public places. It is no good to have flowers in private areas, where we should grow more useful plants such as vegetables and fruits.” After these remarks, thousands of potted plants were removed from private homes and left along the streets. Nearly three decades have passed since his death. His children have reached their later years but all of them lived as ordinary citizens, unlike later national leaders whose children either reached nationally prominent positions or became millionaires overnight. Mao's daughter's worn-out and patched clothes invited comments: You are the only one who wears such shabby clothes in the capital.

Land reform, or the equal distribution of land ownership, was not very successful in other countries except China. The equal distribution of land and the limiting of landholding had occurred in Chinese history as a persistent policy, though Mao was the original promoter of this policy in a new era. When Mao launched his land reform campaign, China was a country of peasants with a few landlords and a few landless peasants. The majority of peasants had a piece of land of their own. This was strikingly different from the Middle Age Europe where landowners and serfs were the rule. The major reason for this difference was the influence of Taoist philosophy which praised a simple rural life of equality. With landless peasants, Europe eventually commercialized its agriculture while under Mao’s leadership, the Chinese peasant still abided by the piece of land, which became smaller and smaller with time passing, contemplating the same dream handed down through thousands of years.

In the first fifty years of the last century, there were numerous wars in China which eventually stirred up the peaceful peasants, far the majority of Chinese population. This let their demands enter the main political stage, and Mao emerged among rivals with their voice. Just think, every body stood up with a gun but did not have any bread, could it be anything else other than Communism? Mao read Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu when he was young, but his mind was active with the gathering heroes of the popular Chinese novel The Three Kingdoms. Taoism, in Mao’s view, advocates only non-action in politics. Some scholars have pointed out that Mao held a negative view over Lao Tzu until his late years. Those scholars drew their conclusions from Mao’s words, speeches and articles.  Psychological studies have clearly shown that we are still largely relying on our unconscious to make decisions in our daily life. One’s unconscious is often linked to his childhood memories. Mao’s childhood mind was no doubt dominated by Taoist ideology. Mao’s self-sufficiency, rural communes and so on are all reflections of the Taoist utopia deep in his mind and have nothing to do with Marxism.

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 China. Only ten years after the People's Republic was founded, Mao directed his spearhead of attack at his party officials, culminating in the Cultural Revolution's seizing over the power and setting up the Shanghai Commune. This was apparently a copy of the Paris Commune in the 1789 French Revolution. The society then split into two factions in a life-and-death struggle. Born in a family of old government officials, Chou En-Lai was familiar with such games. He called the two-faction-struggle tossing over the pancake. When this faction was in power, the other faction was the downside being baked by the hot pan, either tortured in prison or locked inside a cowshed. Once the other faction was out of prison and in power, it started to bake this faction with the hot pan. The final goal of such tossing-over-the-pancake revolution is to achieve an egalitarian secondary society, which was apparently impossible in Chinese history. Mao's senseless tossing about was only a miniature of such a Chinese history.

In the book A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy, I compared the Axial China with modern Europe and found amazing similarity between the two. But the French Revolution was the main driving force behind social reform in modern Europe while Chinese social reform was carried out by kings and their ministers. In fact Chinese peasant uprisings never aimed clearly at any social reform but only tossing-over-pancake like dynastic changes. Such changes of dynasties were aiming to a final egalitarian society.

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 Chu. Mao’s words, Battling with heaven, the joy is limitless; battling with Earth, the joy is limitless; battling with people, the joy is limitless,  sound as if he was very ambitious but still within the boundary of his childhood dream. His life struggle may become the last battle against the middle class in Chinese history.

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 China. The Communist Party had its conventional rules for electing its leaders. Mao put all those conventions aside to build his personal web of power. Nobody could challenge him whether he was right or wrong. Before him, leaders had changed every few years but Mao held that position for forty one years until he died without appointing a successor. His Taoist style of political trickery and manipulation became apparent in his last fifteen years or so. In a way he played hide and seek with his high ranking officials. He relied on his secretary, service people, guards, and even his dance partners for information. This also reflected his lacking of ability to deal with other people in equal terms but showing fully patriarchal behaviour. As a result, Chinese diplomatic relations with other countries once fell into embarrassing isolation.

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.

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