On the Cusp from Ancient to Modern
(1893–1911 H age 1–17)
Mao tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader. He was born into a peasant family in a valley called Shaoshan, in the province of Hunan, in the heartland of China. The date was 26 December 1893. His ancestors had lived in the valley for five hundred years.
This was a world of ancient beauty, a temperate, humid region whose misty, undulating hills had been populated ever since the Neolithic age. Buddhist temples dating from the Tang dynasty (ad 618–906), when Buddhism first came here, were still in use. Forests where nearly 300 species of trees grew, including maples, camphor, metasequoia and the rare ginkgo, covered the area and sheltered the tigers, leopards and boar that still roamed the hills. (The last tiger was killed in 1957.) These hills, with neither roads nor navigable rivers, detached the village from the world at large. Even as late as the early twentieth century an event as momentous as the death of the emperor in 1908 did not percolate this far, and Mao found out only two years afterwards when he left Shaoshan.
The valley of Shaoshan measures about 5 by 3.5 km. The 600-odd families who lived there grew rice, tea and bamboo, harnessing buffalo to plough the rice paddies. Daily life revolved round these age-old activities. Mao’s father, Yi-chang, was born in 1870. At the age of ten he was engaged to a girl of thirteen from a village about 10 kilometres away, beyond a pass called Tiger Resting Pass, where tigers used to sun themselves. This short distance was long enough in those years for the two villages to speak dialects that were almost mutually unintelligible. Being merely a girl, Mao’s mother did not receive a name; as the seventh girl born in the Wen clan, she was just Seventh Sister Wen. In accordance with centuries of custom, her feet had been crushed and bound to produce the so-called three-inch golden lilies that epitomised beauty at the time.
Her engagement to Mao’s father followed time-honoured customs. It was arranged by their parents and was based on a practical consideration: the tomb of one of her grandfathers was in Shaoshan, and it had to be tended regularly with elaborate rituals, so having a relative there would prove useful. Seventh Sister Wen moved in with the Maos upon betrothal, and was married at the age of eighteen, in 1885, when Yi-chang was fifteen.
Shortly after the wedding, Yi-chang went off to be a soldier to earn money to pay off family debts, which he was able to do after several years. Chinese peasants were not serfs but free farmers, and joining the army for purely financial reasons was an established practice. Luckily he was not involved in any wars; instead he caught a glimpse of the world and picked up some business ideas. Unlike most of the villagers, Yi-chang could read and write, well enough to keep accounts. After his return, he raised pigs, and processed grain into top-quality rice to sell at a nearby market town. He bought back the land his father had pawned, then bought more land, and became one of the richest men in the village.
Though relatively well off, Yi-chang remained extremely hard- working and thrifty all his life. The family house consisted of half a dozen rooms, which occupied one wing of a large thatched property. Eventually Yi-chang replaced the thatch with tiles, a major improvement, but left the mud floor and mud walls. The windows had no glass—still a rare luxury—and were just square openings with wooden bars, blocked off at night by wooden boards (the temperature hardly ever fell below freezing). The furniture was simple: wooden beds, bare wooden tables and benches. It was in one of these rather spartan rooms, under a pale blue homespun cotton quilt, inside a blue mosquito net, that Mao was born.
Mao was the third son, but the first to survive beyond infancy. His Buddhist mother became even more devout to encourage Buddha to protect him. Mao was given the two-part name Tse-tung. Tse, which means “to shine on,” was the name given to all his generation, as preordained when the clan chronicle was first written in the eighteenth century; tung means “the East.” So his full given name meant “to shine on the East.” When two more boys were born, in 1896 and 1905, they were given the names Tse-min (min means “the people”) and Tse-t’an (tan possibly referred to the local region, Xiangtan).
These names reflected the inveterate aspiration of Chinese peasants for their sons to do well—and the expectation that they could. High positions were open to all through education, which for centuries meant studying Confucian classics. Excellence would enable young men of any background to pass imperial examinations and become mandarins—all the way up to becoming prime minister. Officialdom was the definition of achievement, and the names given to Mao and his brothers expressed the hopes placed on them.
But a grand name was also onerous and potentially tempted fate, so most children were given a pet name that was either lowly or tough, or both. Mao’s was “the Boy of Stone”—Shisan yazi. For this second “baptism” his mother took him to a rock about eight feet high, which was reputed to be enchanted, as there was a spring underneath. After Mao performed obeisance and kowtows, he was considered adopted by the rock. Mao was very fond of this name, and continued to use it as an adult. In 1959, when he returned to Shaoshan and met the villagers for the first—and only—time as supreme leader of China, he began the dinner for them with a quip: “So everyone is here, except my Stone Mother. Shall we wait for her?”
Mao loved his real mother, with an intensity he showed towards no one else. She was a gentle and tolerant person, who, as he remembered, never raised her voice to him. From her came his full face, sensual lips, and a calm self-possession in the eyes. Mao would talk about his mother with emotion all his life. It was in her footsteps that he became a Buddhist as a child. Years later he told his staff: “I worshipped my mother . . . Wherever my mother went, I would follow . . . going to temple fairs, burning incense and paper money, doing obeisance to Buddha . . . Because my mother believed in Buddha, so did I.” But he gave up Buddhism in his mid-teens.
Mao had a carefree childhood. Until he was eight he lived with his mother’s family, the Wens, in their village, as his mother preferred to live with her own family. There his maternal grandmother doted on him. His two uncles and their wives treated him like their own son, and one of them became his Adopted Father, the Chinese equivalent to godfather. Mao did a little light farm work, gathering fodder for pigs and taking the buffaloes out for a stroll in the tea-oil camellia groves by a pond shaded by banana leaves. In later years he would reminisce with fondness about this idyllic time. He started learning to read, while his aunts spun and sewed under an oil lamp.
Mao only came back to live in Shaoshan in spring 1902, at the age of eight, to receive an education, which took the form of study in a tutor’s home. Confucian classics, which made up most of the curriculum, were beyond the understanding of children and had to be learnt by heart. Mao was blessed with an exceptional memory, and did well. His fellow pupils remembered a diligent boy who managed not only to recite but also to write by rote these difficult texts. He also gained a foundation in Chinese language and history, and began to learn to write good prose, calligraphy and poetry, as writing poems was an essential part of Confucian education. Reading became a passion. Peasants generally turned in at sunset, to save on oil for lamps, but Mao would read deep into the night, with an oil lamp standing on a bench outside his mosquito net. Years later, when he was supreme ruler of China, half of his huge bed would be piled a foot high with Chinese classics, and he littered his speeches and writings with historical references. But his poems lost flair.
Mao clashed frequently with his tutors. He ran away from his first school at the age of ten, claiming that the teacher was a martinet. He was expelled from, or was “asked to leave,” at least three schools for being headstrong and disobedient. His mother indulged him but his father was not pleased, and Mao’s hopping from tutor to tutor was just one source of tension between father and son. Yi-chang paid for Mao’s education, hoping that his son could at least help keep the family accounts, but Mao disliked the task. All his life, he was vague about figures, and hopeless at economics. Nor did he take kindly to hard physical labour. He shunned it as soon as his peasant days were over.
Yi-chang could not stand Mao being idle. Having spent every minute of his waking hours working, he expected his son to do the same, and would strike him when he did not comply. Mao hated his father. In 1968, when he was taking revenge on his political foes on a vast scale, he told their tormentors that he would have liked his father to be treated just as brutally: “My father was bad. If he were alive today, he should be ‘jet-planed.’ ” This was an agonising position where the subject’s arms were wrenched behind his back and his head forced down.
Mao was not a mere victim of his father. He fought back, and was often the victor. He would tell his father that the father, being older, should do more manual labour than he, the younger—which was an unthinkably insolent argument by Chinese standards. One day, according to...
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