Biographies & Memoirs


Crafting the Image

AFTER SOME HUNTING AROUND in Shaanxi for the most practical and defensible location, by the fall of 1936 the Communists had decided to make their headquarters in Yan‘an, a fair-sized market town, with good shelter nearby in the cave dwellings that peasants for centuries had built into the soft loess hillsides. Such dwellings were cheap to build and gave good protection from the extremes of heat and cold that afflicted this arid region. And in a countryside almost barren of trees, the need for timber was reduced to some simple framing for a rough screen and door that would shelter the cave dwellers from wind, dust, and the gaze of the outside world.

The fact that Mao lived in such a cave struck visitors to Yan‘an as symbolic of his revolutionary simplicity and fervor. In fact, it was an adjustment to circumstances, of a kind he had made many times before in his life, and Mao settled at once into this strangely desolate new home. He had after all lived for most of his life with none of the amenities of the modernizing urban world, though he had tasted them in Shanghai and Canton. He had time, too, to enjoy the company of his new daughter and to relish the news that Communists in Shanghai had been able to track down two of the children he had had with Yang Kaihui long before—Anying, who was now fourteen, and Anqing, who was thirteen. However, their youngest brother had died some time in those bleak years, and Anqing’s health had been badly damaged by his privations. The boys would be sent to Yan’an as soon as it could be safely arranged.

Mao’s main preoccupation, inevitably, was preserving what was left of the Communist organization and deepening his own hold on Party power. The rhetoric of hostility to Japan was easy to construct, and sincere. Japan had brought untold problems to China since the war of 1894-95, and in the 1930s had been strengthening its grip over the whole of Manchuria by means of the puppet state “Manchukuo,” nominally controlled by the abdicated last emperor of the Qing dynasty, Henry Puyi, but in reality run by the Japanese army and the huge bureaucracy of the Japanese South Manchurian Railway and related businesses. But implementing an effective anti-Japanese policy was a far more difficult problem. Chiang Kai-shek, in a similar situation, had opted for wiping out the Communists before focusing his armies on defeat of the Japanese. The Communists accordingly developed the counterstrategy of urging the whole of China to unite in opposition to the Japanese, and to end the fratricidal civil war of Chinese against Chinese.

A heaven-sent opportunity for the Communists occurred in December 1936. Chiang Kai-shek flew in to Xian—the capital of Shaanxi province—in an attempt to coordinate a final all-out campaign of annihilation against Mao and the Communist survivors.. To accomplish this, Chiang needed the total support of the former warlord of Manchuria, Zhang Xueliang, who had been forced out of his homeland by the Japanese occupation in the northeast but still controlled a large and effective military force. In a startling move, instead of agreeing to fight alongside the Nationalists, General Zhang orchestrated a secret coup whereby Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped in the middle of the night of December 12 and held under arrest, pending the inauguration of some fully articulated program of unified Chinese resistance against Japan. The Communists had been wooing Zhang Xueliang for some time, trying to win him over to their cause, but there is no evidence that they were privy to all the details of the coup. Nevertheless the seizure of Chiang Kai-shek gave them a chance to size up their options: to have Chiang killed, on the grounds that he had long been their implacable enemy; to use him as a bargaining chip to buy time for themselves to push their social programs; to pressure him to withdraw all his troops from Shaanxi; to release him after obtaining agreement on a United Front against Japan.

Mao, who had just been elected to the crucial position of chairman of the Communist Military Council, in addition to his position on the Politburo, had a central role to play in this debate. After tense discussions within the Party Center, with General Zhang, and with Moscow, the Party decided on a modified form of the last option: to strengthen the United Front. Their statement, released on December 19, managed to combine a tone that was both formally polite and yet slightly mocking. Some of this tone recalls the earlier Mao of the pre-Jiangxi Soviet days, as it addressed the Guomindang leaders and their various warlord allies as “respected gentlemen,” and pointed out that in anti-Japanese actions, “the pace of the gentlemen from Nanjing has been rather slow.” But the brief heart of the document was all business: establish a cease-fire line between the Communists and the Nationalists; immediately convene a peace conference of “all parties, groups, social strata, and armies”—including the Communists—to meet in Nanjing; let a wide range of views be heard on “the issue of making arrangements for Mr. Chiang Kai-shek,” as long as the basic priorities of national unification and resistance to Japan were adhered to; and move fast, “so as to prevent the Japanese bandits from sneaking in at this time of national confusion!”

Chiang Kai-shek refused to make the formal public statement supporting a United Front and end to the civil war that the Communists had hoped for, but he did imply that he would change his current policies, and his release on Christmas Day, 1936, was heralded by the Chinese as evidence that the deadlock was over and that some kind of new anti-Japanese alliance would emerge. In January 1937, Mao and the Party Center debated the correct propaganda line that they should take, and decided to hammer away publicly at a few major issues: the Communist Party itself would deny all prior knowledge of the kidnapping and treat it as entirely “an internal matter of the Guomindang Nanjing government.” The Communist Party had always wanted a peaceful solution to the impasse and hence did not issue any formal endorsement of General Zhang Xueliang. It nevertheless hoped Zhang would be appointed to lead his own troops along with those of other western warlords—who of course threatened the frail Communist base area—into a major confrontation with Japan. If Chiang refused to do this, and civil war resumed, he would be “solely responsible.” This remained the basic Communist approach until Japanese provocations during the “Marco Polo Bridge incident” near Beijing, on July 7, 1937, induced Chiang Kai-shek at last to order a unified national resistance to Japan, in which the Communists would also join. In expressing total “enthusiasm” for this war, the Communists reminded the Chinese people—in language that might have drawn both sighs and sardonic smiles—that “our party has long since shown in word and deed an open, selfless attitude and a readiness to compromise for the common good, which has won the commendation of all.”

Mao in Yan‘an could hail the war with “enthusiasm,” partly because his base area was well insulated from the most desperate areas of the fighting. That took place between the Japanese army and the regular military forces of the Nationalists’ Guomindang armies on the north China plain, in Shanghai, and along the Yangtze River. Especially in protracted fighting around Shanghai, the Nationalists suffered immense losses. After the terrible “rape of Nanjing” by the Japanese on December 7,1937, brought a literal and symbolic end to any myths of Guomindang power in their own capital city, what was left of the main Nationalist forces retreated up the Yangtze River, first to Wuhan and then, when that fell in the summer of 1938, even deeper inland to Chongqing. Thereafter a good deal of the fighting in central China was waged by scattered units of those Communists who had been left behind at the time of the Long March, or the remnants of various other Soviet governments that had coexisted with the Jiangxi Soviet. In the major cities (including Shanghai) the Communist Party fought a clandestine underground war against the Japanese, often at the same time as Nationalist secret agents and their secret-society allies.

In northern China, after the Nationalist retreat, the main brunt of anti-Japanese action was borne by a sprawling Soviet region to the east of Mao’s Yan‘an base, which covered parts of the provinces of Shanxi, Chahar, and Hebei. This base was within the reach of aggressive Japanese commanders, and fighting there was vicious, with no quarter given by either side. In both north China and central China (as previously in Manchukuo) the Japanese set up puppet regimes under nominal Chinese control, with collaborationist troops and police to control the local population, hunt down Communists, and collect taxes. Hundreds of millions of Chinese had little choice but to live under one of the collaborationist regimes; of those who chose to leave their homes and jobs, a majority trekked south and west to join the Nationalists in Chongqing or in the new “United University” that had been formed in Yunnan province by the students and faculty of various prestigious Beijing and Shanghai colleges. Tens of thousands, however, made the equally arduous trek to the north, seeing Yan’an as a place where their talents would be most needed, and Mao as a leader who could focus China’s resistance to Japan more effectively than Chiang Kai-shek.

Mao’s completion of the Long March, and the factional battles he had fought there, had brought him a leadership position in the Party, but it was by no means unchallenged. His rivals within the Party were numerous and determined, and were constantly refighting the ideological battles of the past in an attempt to apportion blame for prior catastrophes. Mao himself had done this on the Long March, in Zunyi, but in Yan‘an the arguments became sharper and more formal. One of Mao’s rivals pointed out that though there had been successes in the development of the Red Army, and in the confiscation and redistribution of land, the negative side of the equation was far stronger: “In the white areas, in the cities, and among the workers, we have suffered great losses. Not only did we fail to build up our own forces or prepare for the uprising, but we were tremendously weakened organizationally. Hundreds of thousands of Party members lost their lives. Moreover, tens of thousands of our people are still imprisoned by the Guomindang.” Because of “the immaturity and low theoretical level of the Party,” the critic continued, the factional struggles within the Party were deeply damaging. Party behavior was “exactly like someone who, never having drunk before, downs a bottle of brandy the first time he touches liquor.... The popular term is overkill.” Such arguments were historical and technical, but they focused on many of the kinds of policies that Mao had followed in his more extreme moments. Only a few months later, in November, a large group of Russian-trained Chinese Communists returned to Yan’an, and Mao once again found himself involved in swirling levels of technical debate and analysis.

To hold his own in such dangerous eddies, Mao had to sharpen his grasp of Communist dialectic. Though he had of necessity read some Marxist-Leninist literature, he had never received any formal training, either in Party schools or overseas. With his decision, first made in December 1935, to openly challenge the returnees from the Soviet Union, Mao would have to undertake systematic study. Visitors to his cave noted that he was using this post-Long March respite to read books on economics and philosophy. Mao also took other steps to increase his self-image within the Party. On June 22, 1937, for the first time in Mao’s life, a portrait of him was published; it appeared in the revolutionary Yan‘an newspaper Liberation. Mao was shown full face, with a background of troops marching under waving banners. Mao’s face, in the picture, was illuminated by the rays of the sun, while under the portrait was printed one of his “sayings,” calling for liberation of the Chinese nation and society. In the fall of 1937, young supporters of Mao began to compile a collection of Mao’s short works for publication, with an adulatory essay. No Chinese Communist leader’s works had ever been published in this way.

Also during that spring and summer of 1937, Mao gave a short series of lectures on dialectical materialism to students in the revolutionary university, though he admitted that he himself had only just begun to study the problem (and later scholars have shown the lectures were plagiarized from Chinese translations of some Soviet essays on Marxism). What is original about the lectures, however, is that they show Mao beginning to grope for a way to adjust Marxist philosophy to certain realities in the Chinese situation, just as Lenin had adjusted it to certain Russian realities. But this idea was presented only in a fragmentary and incomplete way.

If Mao was to become the accepted leader of his Party, he not only had to win on the battlefield and have successful policies for rural and urban revolution, he also had to be able to hold his own as a theorist. It was as a theorist that he most needed help, and this is where he got it. In the summer of 1937, slightly ahead of the main exodus of students fleeing after the Marco Polo Bridge disaster, a young lecturer named Chen Boda, from “China University” in Beijing, made his way to Yan‘an. Born in 1904, Chen was a decade younger than Mao, and was raised in an impoverished peasant family in Fujian province. But he later studied Marxist-Leninist philosophy in Moscow for several years and became fluent in the Russian language. Returning to China in 1931, Chen became a teacher of early Chinese history and philosophy before making his way to Yan’an. Since Chen wrote Chinese with great elegance and showed extraordinary ability to apply knowledge of dialectics to the study of the past, Mao made Chen his secretary, with responsibility for drafting his essays and speeches. Aware of Chen’s ideological skills and strong Russian background, Mao also named Chen head of research in the Communist Propaganda Bureau. This was followed by an appointment at the Yan‘an central Party school, to supervise research there into Chinese problems.

Chen Boda was to become an essential ideological ally and guide to Mao. The Soviet returnees’ intentions could be clearly gauged when they pushed for the rapid convocation of a Seventh Communist Party Congress in China. There had been no such assembly since the Sixth Communist Party Congress, held in Moscow in 1928. Decisions made at a new full congress would of course have power to override any further rapid and ad hoc decisions on Party leadership, such as those made at Zunyi on the Long March. Such a full congress could also prove a forum for reopening vindictive debates about Communist military policy, in which Mao had consistently argued for (and practiced when he could) a policy of guerrilla warfare in which the enemy would be lured deep into Communist-controlled terrain, forced to fragment their forces, and then attacked with overwhelming force in swift, isolated engagements. The convening of the congress was successfully (from Mao’s point of view) delayed, and in July 1938 Chen Boda published the first of many articles that gave careful ideological support and justification to Mao’s policies. By 1939, Chen was developing a series of intellectual arguments to show how Mao had successfully, in his writings, moved from the role of thinker and activist to the all-important sphere of “theorist.” In this sense, though of course not in that of overt ideological content, Chen presented Mao’s role as the new theorist of the Communist revolution as being parallel to the role of Confucius as the theorist for the “feudal” Zhou dynasty of the first millennium B.C.E. Just as Confucius caught the ideological heart of his age in his writings, said Chen, so did Mao in his Hunan report of 1927 catch the “essence” of an “entire historical period.”

As Chen Boda was thus helping Mao construct an edifice of ideological dominance, Mao was also struggling with the task of keeping Yan‘an a viable economic and political base. Shaanxi was very different from anyplace Mao had lived in before, and its poverty, exacerbated by the Japanese war and also by a partial Guomindang blockade of the Yan’an region, stretched Communist ingenuity to the limits. Indeed, at times the Yan‘an leaders brought farmworkers into Yan’an from outlying areas to work on major irrigation projects and open up new lands, so that statistically the region could appear to be making swift strides forward. There was also the vast influx of new recruits to the Communist camp to be considered, and ideological techniques had to be devised to prove—and to develop—their loyalty.

Mao’s own personal proclivities exacerbated the tensions with members of his own Party, which were never far below the surface. The cave life with He Zizhen and their baby girl, which to some outside observers seemed idyllic, had grown tense. In 1937 He Zizhen found that she was pregnant again, for the sixth time, and told Mao she wished to go to a good Shanghai hospital, to abort the fetus and also to have the shrapnel fragments removed from her body. When the Japanese occupation of Shanghai made that impossible, she decided to go to the Soviet Union instead. At the same time, she suspected that Mao was growing interested in other women. Unable to prevent her leaving—or perhaps not wanting to prevent it—Mao acquiesced in her decision to travel to the Soviet Union for medical treatment. In Moscow, she reversed her earlier decision and decided to keep the child, who was born early in 1938 but died a few months later of pneumonia. It was at this stage that Mao sent their daughter, Li Min, now two, to be with her mother in the Soviet Union. Earlier, in 1936, Mao’s two sons from his marriage to Yang Kaihui also were sent to the Soviet Union, allegedly for their safety, and for a time at least He Zizhen looked after all three of the children. Now that she and the children were gone, Mao set up house with a tweny four-year-old actress from Shandong named Jiang Qing, who had been one of the young people who made their way to Yan‘an as the war began. Their liaison was resented by several Communist leaders, who had liked and admired He Zizhen. Mao and Jiang Qing had one child, a daughter named Li Na, born in 1940. Li Na was raised in Yan’an and grew to adulthood, being the last of Mao’s four surviving children from three different women. Six of his other children died young or disappeared.

Few people dared to criticize Mao directly for such behavior, but we can see how he was moving on a trajectory that was pushing him more in the direction of dominance and power. He seemed less flexible and more determined to make all those around him conform to his own whims and beliefs. From living the simple life because he had to, Mao had moved to choosing to live the simple life, thence to boasting about living the simple life, and now to forcing others to live the simple life. At the same time, the fascination with the more complex sides of Chinese culture that had informed Mao’s youth were being replaced by a bitterness and irritation toward the educated people and the aesthetic traditions in China. Part of the cause may have come from the more highly educated students recently returned from the Soviet Union who were still trying to seize power back from him. Or the roots may have gone back far earlier, to slights in the library at Beijing University, or to mocking students in the Changsha normal school, when Mao was so dejected for a while that he even advertised for friends. Maybe Chen Boda showed him how to use an intellectual against an intellectual, how to open fissures and explore the wounds. Maybe he met too many people without integrity, or felt the fugitives from the big cities now arriving lacked the dignity and courage of simple country folk. Certainly the deliberate cultivation of a coarse manner was something he was now eager for visitors to see. In Yan‘an, Mao flaunted his country ways, opening his belt to hunt for lice in his groin as he talked, or pulling off his trousers in the midst of an interview as he lay on the bed, to cool himself down. People began to comment on Mao’s “intense and withering fury,” and one young Chinese critic, braver than most, wrote of a kind of “desolation” of spirit that was beginning to spread in Yan’an, and of forces of darkness that seemed to be pushing back the light.

One thing that power brought to Mao in Yan‘an was the liberty to lecture others at will, as often or as long as he liked. Perhaps that is the true obverse of honest pedagogy, of the teacher’s life that Mao as a youth always said that he wanted to pursue. Nor did Mao any longer make his own detailed surveys of the countryside and its problems—he had others to do it for him, so that he could develop theory based on their results. The long years of war were indeed a triumph for the Communist Party, which emerged strengthened and more numerous, with powerfully effective techniques of mass mobilization in the rural settings and genuine skill at the manipulation of belief through well-conceptualized propaganda—something Mao had learned from his days with the Guomindang.

When Mao lectured the intellectuals now, it was on their own history and culture from the conceptual insights of his revolutionary experiences. In a lecture to inaugurate the new Yan‘an Party school, given on February 1, 1942, Mao addressed the assembled cadres and intellectuals on the meaning of learning and knowledge. But his opening premise hardly encouraged frank debate: “It is a fact that the Party’s General Line is correct and unquestionable,” said Mao. From the Marxist-Leninist standpoint, said Mao, “a great many so-called intellectuals are actually exceedingly unlearned” and they must come to understand that “the knowledge of the workers and peasants is sometimes greater than theirs.” It was a sense of humility, Mao urged, that all his educated listeners must now cultivate. They had to understand that book knowledge in and for itself was worthless, and that only words born out of the world of experience had meaning. They should never forget that “books cannot walk, and you can open and close a book at will; this is the easiest thing in the world to do, a great deal easier than it is for the cook to prepare a meal, and much easier than it is for him to slaughter a pig.”

Mao was himself becoming fully confident that he knew what was “correct.” The Soviet returnees and his other intellectual opponents had been almost routed, and now it was time to complete the job. In another talk to the intellectuals in May 1942, Mao offered to “exchange opinions” with his listeners, but his was the dominant voice, as he instructed the intellectuals to identify themselves fully with the proletariat and the masses rather than—as in his own youth had been his goal—to instruct and uplift them. Turning away from his youthful writings and insights, Mao spoke now against those who believed in “love” being separable from class reality, and against those questing for some kind of “love in the abstract,” or those who felt “everything should proceed from love.” As love was tied to class, so was “popular life” alone the “sole source” for literature and art, and the “songs sung by the masses” the true source for professional musicians. The distance from the false to the true, from the old to the new, was at once as small and as vast as the distance from the “garrets of Shanghai” to the “revolutionary base areas” that so many of the listeners had just traveled. In the months following the talk, intellectuals were divided up into small groups, where they were compelled to criticize themselves and their shortcomings, to learn to understand the past in “Maoist” terms, and to follow the correct lines in the future. Those who balked were punished. Random violence became common, and the “struggles” became deadly for many in what was euphemistically known as the “rescue campaign,” supervised by Mao’s growing teams of security personnel.

Mao stayed in Yan‘an throughout the war, where he was sheltered from the direct force of the fighting. In the border region to the east, terrible conflicts raged, with whole swaths of countryside laid waste by the Japanese. The Communists there had to wage a constant struggle to protect the recruited peasantry from terrible reprisals. Other battles raged in the Yangtze valley, where the Communist armies were almost eliminated, not by the Japanese but by the Guomindang. When American advisory groups came to Yan’an and began to explore the possibilities of using the Communists more systematically against the Japanese, Mao was able to charm a new constituency with his earthy ways and his easy laugh. He also knew how to lobby skillfully for supplies and aid, posing his “democratic” peasant society against the landlord tyrannies of Chongqing. And always his reach and his mandate spread.

By 1943 there was emerging, in Yan‘an, what can for the first time be called a “cult” of Mao. It was in May that year that Mao received two new titles that no one had held before: he was to be “chairman” of the Communist Central Committee, and chairman of the Politburo at the same time. China had now, in Mao, a true leader who “has stood the test as a strong and great revolutionary,” announced the secretary-general of the Party. It could be seen that Mao stood “as the center” of all revolutionary history. In future, the people of China “should arm themselves with Comrade Mao Zedong’s thought, and use Comrade Mao Zedong’s system to liquidate [erroneous] thought in the Party.” Every Party leader followed with similar praise—it was as if all moderating voices had been stilled. The man who had most opposed Mao at Zunyi now called him “the helmsman of the Chinese revolution.” The new unanimity was matched by a concerted verbal assault on Chiang Kai-shek and any pretensions he might have to speak for China’s people, a critique guided and often written by Chen Boda. In late 1943, an inner core of Mao’s senior colleagues began to rewrite Chinese Party history so that Mao would be forever at the center. One by one the other rivals of the present and the past were denigrated, their “incorrect lines” exposed, and Mao’s own wisdom pushed ever further back in time.

The long-delayed Seventh Party Congress met at last in Yan‘an, from late April to mid-June 1945, as the war was moving to its close. Mao made a speech in which he spoke of the future for China, though he did also express regret for the violence to individual Party members, many of whom had been killed or driven to suicide. But his triumph was acknowledged in the new preamble to the Constitution of the Communist Party, presented at the congress. Totally new in all its senses and its language, it stated with absolute directness: “The Chinese Communist Party takes Mao Zedong’s thought—the thought that unites Marxist-Leninist theory and the practice of the Chinese revolution—as the guide for all its work, and opposes all dogmatic or empiricist deviations.” Marxism was now sinified: the leader was the sage.

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