From the time of the establishment of the first united empire in China by the Han Dynasty in the second century BC, China had, in spite of dynastic changes, been an exceptionally stable society. With very little influence from the outside, China constituted a self-sufficient, fertile landmass bounded by desert, mountains and oceans, and nurturing a self-centred,independent, civilisation. The economy was dominated by inefficient agriculture and rural handicrafts, and the official philosophy of Confucianism sanctioned a hierarchical society which viewed change as degeneration. During the nineteenth century, however, this economic, political and doctrinal self-sufficiency was shattered when the Manchu dynasty,who had imposed their rule on China from the North in the seventeenth century, proved incapable of resisting Western encroachment. Events from the Opium War of 1840 to the defeat by the previously despised Japanese in 1895,and the suppression of the Boxer rebellion in 1900, revealed China to be almost completely defenceless in the face of economic and military pressure from the West.
In the face of these incursions, opinion inside China was divided between those who thought that the only salvation for their country lay in a wholesale adoption of Western culture, those who thought only Western technology was needed while Chinese culture and institions could be preserved, and those who were opposed to any sort of importation from the West. The modernisers won to the extent that a Republic was proclaimed in 1912 but, while the Western powers continued to carve out for themselves lucrative trading concessions on the East China coast, any idea that a Western-type democracy could rejuvenate China proved misplaced. With no emperor to unify the country, only different centres of military remained, controlled by various warlords whose irregular troops battened on the peasantry, destroyed the economic equilibrium of the countryside, and swept aside for ever the imperial bureaucracy. It was during this chaotic period of 'warlord rule' from 1915 to 1925 that Mao Tse-tung formed his political opinions.
Mao Tse-tung was born in 1893 in Shaoshan in the Hunan province of South Central China. His father was a poor peasant who became relatively rich from trading in grain. Mao left school at the age of 13, and worked for his father, but in spite of family opposition enrolled in a nearby secondary school in 1909. Two years later he moved to the provincial capital at Changsha to continue his studies. When the Republic was proclaimed, Mao served in the Republican army for six months, before returning to his studies when the warlords gained control. The extent to which his upbringing and schooling left its mark on Mao's thought is obviously a matter of conjecture. The fact that Chinese thought is basically more empirical and pragmatic than its Western counterpart may well have influenced Mao's Marxism. There were also dialectical elements in Buddhism and Taoism, both of which tended to think in terms of opposites - everything being imbued by the contradiction of Yin and Yang. On a more immediate level, Mao was undoubtedly influenced by his reading of classical Chinese novels such as the Water Margin with their glorification of peasant revolts and military exploits. Mao entered the First Normal School in Changsha inj 1913 and studied there until graduation five years later, by which time he had become a radical nationalist, though not yet a Marxist.
Mao encountered Marxism in Peking, where he obtained a job as an assistant librarian in 1918. Although Marxism was almost unknown in China before 1917 (very little of Marx or Lenin had been translated) into Chinese), the success of the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the Russian autocracy persuaded many Chinese intellectuals that they could follow suit. Nationalism emerged as a real force in 1919 with the May Fourth Movement, in which there were widescale demonstrations and rioting when it was learned that the corrupt government had agreed to hand over to the Japanese the important province of Shantung (previously held by the Germans) in spite of the promises by the Western powers that it should revert to China. The general disillulsion with Western ideals led the Chinese intelligentsia to turn increasingly to Marxism. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in Shanghai in 1921 and Mao was one of thirteen members present.
From the start, the Chinese Communist Party was confronted with: the traditional problem of what policies to adopt in what seemed to be a nationalist, republican, 'bourgeois' revolution. In early 1920, most revolutionary nationalist forces supported the Kuomintang (KMT) of Dr Sun Yat-sen which had succeeded in establishing itself with Russian aid, in South China based on Canton. In early 1926, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, who had succeeded Sun, the Kuomintangmounted the Northern Expedition to drive out the warlords and the Western imperialists who abetted them. What should be the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party to the Kuomintang? The basic principles of Leninism absorbed by the tiny CCP indicated distrust of bourgeois parties, separate and independent organisation, and the reliance on the revolutionary potential of the working class in an uninterrupted movement of international dimension. At the Second congress of the Comintern in 1920, Lenin had advocated that 'the Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in colonial and backward countries, but must not merge with it, and must unconditionally preserve the independence of the proletarian movement even in its most rudimentary form'. This, however, left open the question of the precise nature of the KMT which Trotsky considered a bourgeois party, whilst Stalin thought it a coalition of different classes. The latter view prevailed and, under Russian pressure, the CCP formed a United Front with the KMT in 1923. The Communists joined KMT to form a block within it as its left wing.
Prior to the Northern Expedition Mao had been a bureaucrat in Shanghai, charged with coordinating the work of the CCP and the KMT. Given his antipathy to intellectuals and the ignorance of urban life, it is not surprising that he was not very successful. Before returning to Hunan in 1926, Mao had adopted an 'orthodox' Marxist position. In his article entitled Analysis of Classes in Chinese Society, remarkable for its lack of enthusiasm for the peasantry, he wrote:
To sum up, it can be seen that our enemies are all those in league with imperialism - the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big landlord class, and the reactionary section of the intel- ligentsia attached to them. The leading force to our revolution is the industrial proletariat. Our closest friends are the entire semi- proletariat and petty-bourgeoisie. As for the vacillating middle bourgeoisie, their right wing may become our enemy and their left wing become our friend - but we must be constantly on our guard and not let them create confusion within our ranks.
However, by September 1926, Mao had become convinced that the central role in the revolutionary movement would be played by the peasantry and that, at least for the moment, they were more progressive than the workers as they had political as well as economic aim Recognised as the Party's expert on peasantry, he returned to Hunan in 1926 in the wake of the Northern Expedition which had begun well and overrun the whole of central China by the summer of 1926. The nine months he spent there from August 1926 to May 1927 were crucial to the development of his Marxist thinking. The peasants among whom Mao was working were, for the most part and in an increasing number, tenants. Their plots were very small and landowners took 50 per cent of the crop. The burden of debt was increased by inflation and the heavy taxation imposed by the warlords, often in advance. Those who became bankrupt provided ready recruits for the warlord army. It is therefore not surprising that there was a rapid growth in the peasant revolutionary movement following the success of the Northern Expedition. Prior to the activities of Mao, the Communists had had no clear agrarian programme, and the KMT's proposals were very moderate, involving simply rent reduction and no land confiscation.
The central role of the peasantry was brought out in Mao's famous Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, in which he explained and defended the anti-landlord measures taken by theHunan Peasant Association.