Deciphering Mao: Forum on Mao Zedong and His Writings (to 1949) - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Deciphering Mao:

Forum on Mao Zedong and His Writings (to 1949)


Editorial Introduction

Few men have placed their stamp on an era as Mao Zedong did on 20th-century China. In this collection each author attempts to examine and decipher Mao’s reasoning during the days of his revolution through a dissection of his writings. The authors believe one may gain a fuller and balanced picture of Mao and his revolution through a detailed observation of his particular writings composed before 1949, the victory year of his military struggle. The collection starts with Mao’s famous article “Why Is It That Red Power Can Exist in China” written in the early days of his guerrilla war in Jinggang Mountain in 1928, continues with his 1934 speech “Be Concerned with the Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Works” delivered in the central base of the Red Army, and concludes with “On Tactics against Japanese Imperialism,” a work report written at Yan’an right before Anti-Japanese War started. As complex of a figure Mao is perceived to be, this collection demystifies generalizations attached to him and simply focuses on Mao’s views and responses pertaining to subjects such as revolution, the people, as well as national and international politics, all emanating from specific challenges and situations Mao had to tackle with in his tortuous revolutionary career. Readers should be fully aware that Mao’s theory and practice (his personality as well) were many-sided and sometime contradictory. Thus the brief discussions here cannot hope to embrace every aspect of this much-exposed yet still enigmatic historical figure.



The Existence of Red Power and Mao in 1928



Armstrong State University


In his well-known article “Why Is It That Red Power Can Exist in China” (1928), Mao Zedong offered his understanding of the political and social climate in China as well as how he saw the development of Communist revolution progressing. This short article, at the time it was written, probably gained little attention from within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or from anyone else. Yet in hindsight we can see the implications of this writing and the future it would entail. The article is a microcosm of Mao’s political ambitions and a detailed strategy guide of his military plans, which soon took a firm hold of Mao and became his driving force.



Mao in 1927. Source: Mao
Reference Archive

The article starts out with Mao taking note of the political situation of China. True to his nature, Mao held that the ills of China were brought about by the imperialist powers and their proxy warlords that served their bidding inside China. To Mao, as long as there was a foreign presence, China would never be free and the Chinese people would always be oppressed. In this small writing we can see Mao’s belief that the only victory would be a total conquest of the country. As he put it, “As long as China is divided among the imperialist powers, the various cliques of warlords cannot under any circumstances come to terms, and whatever compromises they may reach will only be temporary. A temporary compromise today engenders a bigger war tomorrow.”



Seeing as how Mao believed the warlords were imperialist puppets that cared little for China, Mao quickly came to embrace the idea of a nationwide revolution that would consolidate power into one ruling body. According to Mao, this revolution would have to accomplish two goals: first, the revolution would need to overthrow the  influence of the imperialist and warlords in China and second, the revolution should stop the oppression of the peasants by the landlords. Here, we can see, as with so many of Mao’s writings, the ideas of a united and independent China with a peasant class free of oppression. These two revolutionary goals were of the utmost importance for Mao, who devoted his life to ensuring that these revolutionary goals were never forgotten and the pursuit of these goals never waned.


While it is undeniable that Mao was a romantic visionary with noble ideas of what China should be in the future, he was also a realist who knew full well the situation he was in and the deadly repercussions of the endeavor he was on. To that end, Mao was also a brilliant military leader and his 1928 article betrays his military ideas and strategy.  Before diving into his military plans, Mao laid out the reasons why communism could flourish in China and why a military campaign could succeed. Mao praised China for its uniqueness in that it was under an indirect imperialistic rule. This means that China was not directly occupied by a foreign country. However, the warlords were nothing but shadows  of these foreign powers and through the warlords the imperialist had a direct hand in China’s internal affairs. Mao did not give much explanation as to why this would result in a favorable environment for the development of communism, but nonetheless, this served a nationalist ideology well, and with nationalism Mao could easily lead the country down a road to Communist revolution.



The 1st edition of "Red Power"
Source: Mao Reference Archive

Indeed, Mao seemed to think that the nationalistic tone he struck was so resonant with the people, and that his Communist ideas would naturally follow. He continued his article with a plan of military action for securing the country. Mao noted that the success of communism and the Red Army was due in part to the strife between the warlords. In fact, the fate of the CCP and Red Army were so dependant upon this internal conflict that Mao stated  if there was ever peace between the warlords, then the warlords would cooperate to attack the CCP and wipe out communism. Thus if the internal conflict ever came to an end then the CCP and Red Army would not survive. This gives rise to Mao’s military strategy, which he laid out next in his article.



For Mao, the best course of action that the Red Army could take was to attack the warlords while the warlords were either busy fighting each other, or when the warlords had exhausted themselves from fighting each other and were in a weakened state. Based on his previous account of the disastrous attack on a warlord during a time of peace, Mao clearly felt that guerrilla warfare was the only hope for the CCP. In order for communism to survive and grow, a standing Red Army is necessary. For Mao, it was not good enough to have a few battalions scattered throughout the land at the local level. Mao believed that a standing, national army was necessary for the people to understand the impact of the movement as well as the power  they had. Without a standing army Mao stated that communism would die out and the movement would not survive. To that end Mao further discusses how to fortify army bases and prepare for the upcoming battle that he thought was coming (as history soon proved). Mao notes that the Red Army was in possession of several key bases that had strategic locations well designed for defense and insurrections into surrounding provinces. Here, Mao’s advice is practical and obvious. These fortifications should be built  with a surplus of grain and adequate medical supplies so they could sustain a long conflict.


At this time, the united front between the CCP and the Nationalist Party (GMD) had already dissolved and the purge on the CCP escalated to the extent that the CCP membership was severely cut down. Yet Mao makes no mention of this hindrance to Red power or the party. Instead, he was very optimistic about the future with a set of practical strategies of guerrilla warfare. Clearly, the strategies he developed later on in life had already taken root as early as 1928.



The "People" and Mao’s Revolution in 1930s



Armstrong State University


Within China’s rich and extensive history, the twentieth century highlights one of China’s most prominent figures, Mao Zedong. Many different perceptions of Mao are riddled throughout the world, so uncovering certain truths about Mao seems rather difficult. Perhaps a focus on a certain event in Mao’s life may prove useful in acquiring a small yet accurate depiction of Mao. For example, a few insights may be learned from Mao’s speech, “Be Concerned with the Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work,” delivered at the Second National Congress of Workers’ and Peasants Representatives in January of 1934 during the Red Army period. Thanks to Mao’s straightforward approach, one finds Mao’s beliefs easy to analyze, leaving the observer grateful for the painless dissection: his speech displays his general concern for the people and the issue of how to execute a task (the revolution).



Mao in 1931. Source: Mao
Reference Archive

Out of Mao’s two topics he addressed, the first was “the well-being of the masses.”  Even though Mao’s central goal was for the people to engage “in the revolutionary war, overthrow imperialism and the Kuomintang…spread the revolution throughout the country, and drive imperialism out of China,” he expressed concern that the overall health of the masses must be first and foremost to achieve a successful revolution. Mao understood that “if the practical problems in the masses’ everyday life” were tended to and their needs thus met, then “they will truly rally round us and give us their warm support.” Mao continued to stress the importance of the people throughout his speech, condemning the Tingchow Municipal Government, a local government built by the Red Army, for only focusing on bureaucratic issues while substantial needs of the people were neglected. Mao’s logic was simple, once the masses are cared for they will be happy; therefore, obliged to give support to the government, “and regard the revolution as their most glorious banner.”  The reason why the people, the masses, were so important to Mao may be most easily expressed in his statement: “What is a true bastion of iron? It is the masses…which no force can smash, no force whatsoever.”



The second issue Mao asserted was the “methods of work,” which was fundamentally linked to the first topic he discussed, the people. Mao was concerned with making clear that how “to organize the revolutionary war and to improve the life of the masses,” should be understood, because “unless the problem of method is solved, talk about the task is useless.”  Mao reprimanded the solely bureaucratic approach and praised the practical approach of certain townships that were successful by “solving problems with minute care and shouldering their revolutionary responsibilities.”  Mao reiterated the importance of the masses because of their necessary, unforced participation for a revolution by means of “the method of patient persuasion.”  Mao’s second issue tied in with the first issue; because he highlighted that the way the leadership was acting to achieve a revolution had to be altered, because neglecting the masses will never lead to a successful revolution. Therefore, once the leadership understands that their revolutionary goals will be simultaneously met as they are fulfilling the needs of the people, revolution is inevitable, since the people will happily adhere to the leadership.


Mao’s two issues that he proposed in his speech and how he tackled them show one that he did indeed care about the people during his early career of revolution. However, a critic of Mao may assume that Mao was simply using the masses, so his intentions were not pure. In the sense that he wished to take care of the people only to achieve what he actually wanted— revolution. Nevertheless, even if that was the case, Mao did want to improve the lives of the people, observed in the fact that he dedicated a speech to their well-being. Furthermore, from this speech one can learn that Mao really valued people and he desired to fulfill their needs. He rebuked those leaders that disregarded the people and only focused on their goals in theory, yet lacked accomplishments in reality. Mao desperately craved the support of the people and knew the only way to attain that support was to promote equality. Even if Mao believed the people were just a tool for him, this speech suggests that Mao valued the durability of his tool. Perhaps the best thing one can attain from this speech is that Mao embraced the idea that the only way for a leader to be successful and achieve their plans for the future, is to attend to the needs of the present.



National Front and Anti-Japanese Imperialism



Armstrong State University


When one country invades another country, there is always a reaction. The reaction may be in the form of surrender, retreat, counterattack, or any of several other possible options, but whatever the reaction is, it tends to have a significant political and military impact. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of imperialist Japan’s slow invasion of China in the 1930s. On December 27, 1935, while still in the midst of a civil war, Mao Zedong gave a report entitled “On Tactics against Japanese Imperialism” in northern Shaanxi, the new base acquired after Long March. This report, which served to advise the CCP as to how it should react to the Japanese invasion of northeastern China, shows that the Japanese invasion was critical to the strengthening of the CCP’s political and military status within China.


The main point of Mao’s report is that the CCP and the Red Army must “boldly discard all closed-doorism, form a broad united front and guard against adventurism.” Essentially, Mao and his fellow Party activists lobbied for the transformation of their government into a people’s republic that would include “all other classes who are willing to take part in the national revolution” with its basic task being “to oppose the annexation of China by Japanese imperialism.” Unfortunately, while the military practicality of his policy during a period of such desperation was obvious, it is far more difficult to rationalize it within the political framework of the CCP’s Marxist-Leninist ideology. This means that Mao had to reach his conclusion by a rather peculiar method.



Mao in 1936. Source: Mao
Reference Archive

His method was both political and literary. Mao, facing the argument that “the forces of the revolution must be pure, absolutely pure, and the road of the revolution must be straight, absolutely straight,” had to pose that the national bourgeoisie was, in fact, revolutionary rather than “eternally counter-revolutionary.” Thus, Mao had to redefine the revolution itself such that it could include the national bourgeoisie rather than be in opposition to it. Mao’s report is clear that “the agrarian revolution which we have led since 1927 is ... a bourgeois-democratic revolution, because it is directed not against capitalism, but against imperialism and feudalism.” Mao even embraces certain aspects of capitalist industry as beneficial to their revolutionary goals. Therefore, since the Chinese revolution was not yet in its nature a proletarian socialist revolution, the nationalist bourgeoisie was not  eternally counter-revolutionary.



With this revolutionary situation in mind, Mao’s literary prowess was then able to create an interesting anthropomorphic antagonist that helped to negate the threat of the Chinese nationalist government. He called his rival Chiang Kai-shek the leader of a “pack of traitors” that “maintain, as they have done all along, that revolution of whatever kind is worse than imperialism” and are therefore “the running dogs of imperialism.” Mao continued using the dog imagery in reference to the Chinese nationalist government throughout his report, and by dehumanizing them he tended to reduce the threat they posed to the unification of workers, peasants, and the national bourgeoisie to a vanishing point.


With the political ideology of Marxist-Leninist revolution set squarely on defeating imperialist invaders rather than local opponents and the threat of Chiang Kai-shek relegated to that of a running dog, Mao, in his report, is able to propose an alliance that appears destined rather than a mere consideration. He created a reality in which the creation of a united front was an obvious choice, even within the CCP’s ideology. Having made unity the CCP’s only answer, the Japanese invasion served to create a situation in which Mao and the CCP gained an enormous amount of moral and political prestige that they likely could not have gained otherwise.




Mao Zedong. “Why Is It That Red Power Can Exist in China.” Marxists Internet Archive. (accessed March 18, 2012).

Mao Zedong. “Be Concerned With The Well-Being Of The Masses, Pay Attention To Methods Of Work.” Marxists Internet Archive. (accessed March 18, 2012).

Mao Zedong. “On Tactics against Japanese Imperialism.” Marxists Internet Archive. selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_11.htm (accessed March 18, 2012).


About the authors

Dwayne Crispell graduated from Armstrong State University in May 2012 with a B.A. in Law and Society and Political Science. He plans to attend Law School to study Constitutional Law. Both Halton Thomson and Robert Nix majored in History and graduated with honor in May 2012. Robert will pursue his master degree in history at Georgia State University, and Halton will continue working for the journal as a senior editor.


Recommended citation

Dwayne Crispell, Charles Halton Thomson, and Robert J. Nix, “Deciphering Mao: Forum on Mao Zedong and His Writings (to 1949),” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no.2 (Aug. 2012).

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