Kuora: Mao Zedong and the archetype of the ruthless Chinese uniter

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on  August 20, 2010:

Do the Chinese people currently consider Mao Zedong to be evil or a hero?

“The Chinese people” are not of course of one mind on the legacy of Mao. There’s a range of viewpoints, from the unreconstructed Mao worshippers who’d like nothing more than to bring back the days of the Cultural Revolution and who believe unequivocally that Mao was a hero, to those who believe he was an unalloyed villain, a murderous monster.

Mao takes his place in Chinese history alongside characters like Ying Zheng 嬴政, better known as Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty (221-209 BCE), who unified China after the long centuries of internecine strife of the Warring States period. Like Mao, Qin Shi Huang was ruthless and monomaniacal, but he did unify the country. Mao saw himself very much in this role, and embraced the archetype. Other individuals who sought to unify China through force of will and an amoral, single-minded focus would include Cao Cao 曹操, the ruler of Wei during the Three Kingdoms period that followed the collapse of the Han Dynasty. All three — Qin Shi Huang, Cao Cao, and Mao — are viewed generally with the same mixture of admiration and contempt.

If I were forced to say there’s a dominant view of Mao among mainlanders, it would be that Mao was “good” up until the very early 1950s — before the Anti-Rightist Campaign got into full swing, and before he set China on a course toward collectivization. Whether or not these beliefs can be supported by fact, it’s widely believed among Chinese that Mao led the Communist Party and its Red Army in effective resistance against the Japanese invaders; that they represented a morally superior vision over that offered by the Guomindang (the Nationalist Party) — a vision that championed egalitarianism, feminism, anti-imperialism, anti-feudalism, nationalism; and that they allowed China to “stand up” after a century of abject humiliation beginning with the Opium War. After 1949, land redistribution and the Marriage Law (which was, by any measure, a very progressive piece of legislation) won them plaudits too.

But then, as this “common” view I’m positing would suggest, Mao became out of touch with reality, power-mad, and dictatorial. Collectivization, the calamity of the Great Leap Forward, the death of tens of millions of Chinese during the “Three Bad Years” resulting from the folly of the Great Leap Forward, the nearly suicidal break with the Soviet Union, and of course the insanity and crazed personality cult of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution all count on the opposite side of the ledger.

Officially — this was the formula handed down by Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 in the early 1980s — Mao was “70 percent good, 30 percent bad.” I think for most Chinese — and almost certainly for most urban, educated Chinese — the proportion of bad to good is probably higher than that, perhaps even the reverse.

Also see:

China’s Red Collectors

Kuora is a weekly column.