The autobiography of Mao Zedong – Part 1 (Childhood)

Mao ZeDong is without doubt the central figure in the 20th century China. 
In the West, Mao is caricatured as a monster, a mass killer, a serial womaniser and very much despised, due to biased reporting and highly questionable accounts written by those with axe to grind against Mao
In China, there are people who  loathe him. However, he is still admired by majority of people from all walks of live.
Mao is certaintly a complex figure. His autobiography, as written by Edgar Snow can give further insight into this important historical figure.

My father’s name was Mao Jen-sheng ( 毛仁生Mao Rensheng [in his gravestone
it was written as Mao Shunsheng 毛順生]), and my mother’s maiden name was
Wen Chimei (文其美 Wen Qimei).

My father was a poor peasant and while still young was obliged to join the
army because of heavy debts. He was a soldier for many years. Later on he
returned to the village where I was born, and by saving carefully and gathering
together a little money through small trading and other enterprise he managed
to buy back his land.

As middle peasant then my family owned fifteen mu (畝 about 2-5 acres or
one hectare) of land. On this they could raise sixty tan (one tan is a picul,
or 133 1/3 pounds) of rice a year. The five members of the family consumed
a total of thirty-five tan – that is, about seven each – which left an annual
surplus of twenty-five tan. Using this surplus, my father accumulated a
little capital and in time purchased seven more mu, which gave the family
the status of "rich" peasants. We could then raise eighty-four tan of rice
a year.

When I was ten years of age and the family owned only fifteen mu of land,
the five members of the family consisted of my father, mother, grandfather,
younger brother, and myself. After we had acquired the additional seven
mu, my grandfather died, but there came another younger brother. However,
we still had a surplus of forty-nine tan of rice each year, and on this
my father steadily prospered.

At the time my father was a middle peasant he began to deal in grain transport
and selling, by which he made a little money. After he became a "rich" peasant,
he devoted most of his time to that business. He hired a full-time farm
labourer, and put his children to work on the farm, as well as his wife.
I began to work at farming tasks when I was six year old. My father had
no shop for his business. He simply purchase grain from the poor farmers
and then transported it to the city merchants, where he got a higher price.
In the winter, when the rice was being ground, he hired an extra labourer
to work on the farm, so that at that time there were seven mouths to feed.
My family ate frugally, but had enough always.

I began studying in a local primary school when I was eight and remained
there until I was thirteen years old. In the early morning and at night
I worked on the farm. During the day I read the Confucian Analects and the
Four Classics. My Chinese teacher belonged to the stern-treatment school.
He was harsh and severe, frequently beating his student. Because of the
I ran away from the school when I was ten. I was afraid to return home for
fear of receiving a beating there, and set out in the general direction
of the city, which I believed to be in a valley somewhere. I wandered for
three days before I was finally found by my family. Then I learned that
I had circled round and round in my travels, and in all my walking had got
about eight li (two and two-thirds miles) from my home.

After my return to the family, however, to my surprise conditions somewhat
improved. My father was slightly more considerate and the teacher was more
inclined to moderation. The result of my act of protest impressed me very
much. It was a successful "strike".

My father wanted me to begin keeping the family books as soon as I had learned
a few characters. He wanted me to learn to use the abacus. As my father
insisted upon this I began to work at those accounts at night. He was a
severe taskmaster. He hated to see me idle, and if there were no books to
be kept he put me to work at farm tasks. He was a hot-tempered man and frequently
beat both me and my brothers. He gave us no money whatever, and the most
meagre food. On the fifteenth of every month he made a concession to his
labourers and gave them eggs with their rice, but never meat. To me he gave
neither eggs nor meat.

My mother was a kind woman, generous and sympathetic, and ever ready to
share what he had. She pitied the poor and often gave them rice when they
came to ask for it during famines. But she could not do so when my father
was present. He disapproved of charity. We had many quarrels in my home
over this question.

There were two "parties" in the family. One was my father, the Ruling Power.
The Opposition was made up of myself, my mother, my brother, and sometimes
even the labourer. In the "united front" of the Opposition, however, there
was a difference of opinion. My mother advocated a policy of indirect attack.
She criticized any overt display of emotion and attempts at open rebellion
against the Ruling Power. She said it was not the Chinese way.

But when I was thirteen I discovered a powerful argument of my own for debating
with my father on his own ground, by quoting the Classics. My father’s favourite
accusations against me were of unfilial conduct and laziness. I quoted,
in exchange, passages from the Classics saying that the elder must be kind
and affectionate. Against his charge that I was lazy I used the rebuttal
that older people should do more work than younger, that my father was over
three times as old as myself, and therefore should do more work. And I declared
that when I was his age I would be much more energetic.

The old man continued to "amass wealth", or what was considered to be a
great fortune in that little village. He did not buy more land himself,
but he bought many mortgages on other people’s land. His capital grew to
two or three thousand dollars (Mao used the Chinese term yuan, which was
often translated as "Chinese dollars’s; 3.000 yuan in cash in 1900 was an
impressive sum in rural China.)

My dissatisfaction increased. The dialectical struggle in our family was
constantly developing (Mao used all these political terms humorously in
his explanations, laughing as he recalled such incidents). One incident
I especially remember. When I was about thirteen my father invited many
guests to his home, and while they were present a dispute arose between
the two of us. My father denounced me before the whole group, calling me
lazy and useless. This infuriated me. I cursed him and left the house. My
mother ran after me and tried to persuade me to return. My father also pursued
me, cursing at the same time that he commanded me to come back. I reached
the edge of a pond and threatened to jump in if he came any nearer. In this
situation demands and counter demands were presented for cessation of the
civil war. My father insisted that I apologize and kou-tou (kowtow:- to
strike one’s head to the floor or earth was expected of son to father and
subject to emperor, in token of filial obedience) as a sign of submission.
I agreed to give a one-knee kou-tou if he would promise not to beat me.
Thus the war ended, and from it I learned that when I defended my rights
by open rebellion my father relented, but when I remained meek and submissive
he only cursed and beat me the more.

Reflecting on this, I think that in the end the strictness of my father
defeated him. I learned to hate him, and we created a real united front
against him. At the same time it probably benefited me. It made me most
diligent in my work; it made me keep my books carefully, so that he should
have no basis for criticizing me.

My father had had two years of schooling and he could read enough to keep
books. My mother was wholly illiterate. Both were from peasant families.
I was the family "scholar". I knew the Classics, but disliked them. What
I enjoyed were the romances of Old China, and especially stories of the
rebellions. I read the Yo Fei Chuan (Yue Fei Chuan 岳飛傳), Shui Hu Chuan
(水滸傳 The Water Margin), Fan Tang (反唐 Revolt Against the Tang), San
Kuo (The Three Kingdoms), and Hsi Yu Chi (西遊記 Travels in the West, the
story of Hsuan Tsang’s seventh-century semi-legendary pilgrimage to India)
while still very young, and despite the vigilance of my old teacher, who
hated these outlawed books and called them wicked. I used to read them in
school, covering them up with a Classic when the teacher walked past, So
also did most of my schoolmates. We learned many of the stories almost by
heart, and discussed and re-discussed them many times. We knew more of them
than the old men of the village, who also loved them and used to exchange
stories with us. I believe that perhaps I was much influenced by such books,
read at an impressionable age.

I finally left the primary school when I was thirteen and began to work
long hours on the farm, helping the hired labourer, doing the full labour
of a man during the day and at night keeping books for my father. Nevertheless,
I succeeded in continuing my reading, devouring everything I could find
except the Classics. This annoyed my father, who wanted me to master the
Classics, especially after he was defeated in a lawsuit because of an apt
Classical quotation used by his adversary in the Chinese court. I used to
cover up the window of my room late at night so that my father would not
see the light. In this way I read a book called Sheng-Shih Wei Yen (盛世危
言 Sheng Shi wei Yan by 鄭觀應 Zheng Guanying or Words of Warning)[1A] which
I liked very much. The author, one of a number of old reformist scholars,
thought that the weakness of China lay in her lack of Western appliances
– railways, telephones, telegraphs, and steamships – and wanted to have
them introduced into the country. My father considered such books a waste
of time. He wanted me to read something practical like the Classics, which
could help him in winning lawsuits.

I continued to read the old romances and tales of Chinese literature. It
occurred to me one day that there was one thing peculiar about such stories,
and that was the absence of peasants who tilled the land. All the characters
were warriors, officials, or scholars; there was never a peasant hero. I
wondered about this for two years, and then I analyzed the content of the
stories. I found that they all gloried men of arms, rulers of the people,
who did not have to work the land, because they owned and controlled it
and evidently made the peasants work it for them.

My father was in his early days, and in middle age, a sceptic, but my mother
devoutly worshipped Buddha. She gave her children religious instruction,
and we were all saddened that our father was an unbeliever. When I was nine
years old I seriously discussed the problem of my father’s lack of piety
with my mother. We made many attempts then and later on to convert him,
but without success. He only cursed us, and, overwhelmed by his attacks,
we withdrew to devise new plans. But he would have nothing to do with the

My reading gradually began to influence me, however; I myself became more
and more skeptical. My mother became concerned about me, and scolded me
for my indifference to the requirements of the faith, but my father made
no comment. Then one day he went out on the road to collect some money,
and on his way he met a tiger. The tiger was surprised at the encounter
and fled at once, but my father was even more astonished and afterwards
reflected a good deal on his miraculous escape. He began to wonder if he
had not offended gods. From then on he showed more respect to Buddhism and
burned incense now and then. Yet when my own backsliding grew worse, the
old man did not interfere. He prayed to the gods only when he was in difficulties.

Sheng-Shih wei-yen (Words of Warning) stimulated in me a desire to resume
my studies. I had also become disgusted with my labour on the farm. My father
naturally opposed me. We quarreled about it, and finally I ran away from
home. I went to the home of an unemployed law student, and there I studied
for half a year. After that I studied more of the Classics under an old
Chinese scholar, and also read many contemporary articles and a few books.

At this time an incident occurred in Hunan which influenced my whole life.
Outside the little Chinese school where I was studying, we students noticed
many bean merchants coming back from Changsha. We asked them why they were
all leaving. They told us about a big uprising in the city.

There had been a severe famine that year, and in Changsha thousands were
without food. The starving sent a delegation to the civil governor to beg
for relief, but he replied to them haughtily,
"Why haven’t you food? There is plenty in the city. I always have enough."
When the people were told the governor’s reply, they became very angry.
They attacked the Manchu (Manzhou) yamen, cut down the flagpole, the symbol
of office, and drove out the governor. Following this the Commissioner of
Internal Affairs, a man named Chang (Zhang), came out on his horse and told
the people that the government would take measures to help them. Chang was
evidently sincere in his promise, but the Emperor disliked him and accused
him of having intimate connections with "the mob". He was removed. A new
governor arrived, and at once ordered the arrest of the leader of the uprising.
Many of them were beheaded and their heads displayed on poles as a warning
to future "rebels".

This incident was discussed in my school for many days. It made a deep impression
on me. Most of the other students sympathized with the "insurrectionists:,
but only from an observer’s point of view. They did not understand that
it had any relation to their own lives. They were merely interested in it
as an exciting incident. I never forgot it. I felt that there with the rebels
were ordinary people like my own family and I deeply resented the injustice
of the treatment given to them.

Not long afterwards, in Shao Shan, there was a conflict between members
of the Ke Lao Hui (Ge Lao Hui – the same society to which Ho Lung [He Long]
belonged), a secret society, and a local landlord. He sued them in court,
and as he was a powerful landlord he easily bought a decision favourable
to himself. The Ke Lao Hui members were defeated. But instead of submitting,
they rebelled against the landlord and the government and withdrew to a
local mountain called Liu Shan, where they built a stronghold. Troops were
sent against them and the landlord spread a story that they had sacrificed
a child when they raised the banner of revolt. The leader of the rebels
was called Pang the Millstone Maker. They were finally suppressed and Pang
was forced to flee. He was eventually captured and beheaded. In the eyes
of the students, however, he was a hero, for all sympathized with the revolt.

Next year, when the new rice was not yet harvested and the winter rice was
exhausted, there was a food shortage in our district. The poor demanded
help from the rich farmers and they began a movement called "Eat Rice Without
Charge" (Literally ‘Let’s eat at the Big House’, that is, at the landlord’s
granary). My father was a rice merchant and was exporting much grain to
the city from our district, despite the shortage. One of his consignments
was seized by the poor villagers and his wrath was boundless. I did not
sympathize with him. At the same time I thought the villagers’ method was
wrong also.

Another influence on me at this time was the presence in a local primary
school of a "radical" teacher. He was "radical" because he was opposed to
Buddhism and wanted to get rid of the gods. He urged people to convert their
temples into schools. He was a widely discussed personality. I admired him
and agreed with his views.

These incidents, occurring close together, made lasting impressions on my
young mind, already rebellious. In this period also I began to have a certain
amount of political consciousness, especially after I read a pamphlet telling
of the dismemberment of China. I remember even now that this pamphlet opened
with the sentence:
"Alas, China will be subjugated!"
It told of Japan’s occupation of Korea and Taiwan, of the loss of suzerainty
in Indochina, Burma, and elsewhere. After I read this I felt depressed about
the future of my country and began to realize that it was the duty of all
the people to help save it.

My father had decided to apprentice me to a rice shop in Hsiang Tan (Xiang
Tan 湘潭), with which he had connections. I was not opposed to it at first,
thinking it might be interesting. But about this time I heard of an unusual
new school and made up my mind to go there, despite my father’s opposition.
This school was in Hsiang Hsiang hsien (Xiang Xiang xian 湘鄉縣), where
my mother’s family lived. A cousin of mine was a student there and he told
me of the new school and of the changing conditions in "modern education".
There was less emphasis on the Classics, and more was taught of the "new
knowledge" of the West. The education methods, also, were quite "Radical".

I went to the school with my cousin and registered. I claimed to be a Hsiang
Hsiang (Xiang Xiang 湘鄉) man, because I understood that the school was
open only to natives of Hsiang Hsiang. Later on I took my true status as
a Hsiang Tan (Xiang Tan 湘潭) native when I discovered that the place was
open to all. I paid 1,400 coppers here for five months’ board, lodging,
and all materials necessary for study. My father finally agreed to let me
enter, after friends had argued to him that this "advanced" education would
increase my earning powers. This was the first time I had been as far away
from home as fifty li. I was sixteen years old.

In the new school I could study natural science and new subjects of Western
learning. Another notable thing was that one of the teachers was a returned
student from Japan, and he wore a false queue. It was quite easy to tell
that his queue was false. Everyone laughed at him and called him the "False
Foreign Devil".

I had never before seen so many children together. Most of them were sons
of landlords, wearing expensive clothes; very few peasants could afford
to send their children to such a school. I was more poorly dressed than
the others. I owned only one decent coat-and-trousers suit. Gowns were not
worn by students, but only by the teachers, and none but "foreign devils"
wore foreign clothes. Many of the richer students despised me because usually
I was wearing my ragged coat and trousers. However, among them I had friends,
and two especially were my good comrades. One of them is now a writer,
living in soviet Russia (Xiao San 蕭三 or Emi Xiao, the younger brother
of Xiao Yu 蕭瑜, who was later became Mao’s schoolmate and wrote the book
"Mao Tse-Tung and I were Beggars". Emi Xiao who married a Russian wife,
was same age as Mao Zedong.

I was also disliked because I was not a native of Hsiang Hsiang. It was
very important to be a native of Hsiang Hsiang. There was an upper, lower,
and middle district, and lower and upper were continually fighting, purely
on a regional basis. Neither could become reconciled to the existence of
the other. I took a neutral position in this war, because I was not a native
at all. Consequently all three factions despised me. I felt spiritually
very depressed.

I made good progress at this school. The teachers liked me, especially those
who taught the Classics, because I wrote good essays in the Classical manner.
But my mind was not on the Classics. I was reading two books sent to me
by my cousin, telling of the reform movement of Kang Yu-wei (Kang Youwei
康有為). One was Liang Chichao (Liang Qichao 梁啟超, a talented essayist
at the end of the Manchu Dynasty 清朝, was the leader of a reform movement
which resulted in his exile. Kang Youwei and he were the ‘intellectual godfathers’
of the first revolution, in 1911.) editor of the Hsin-min Tsung-pao (Xin
Min Cong Bao 新民叢報 or New People’s miscellany), I read and reread those
books until I knew them by heart. I worshipped Kang Youwe and Liang Qichao,
and was very grateful to my cousin, whom I then thought very progressive,
but who later became a counter-revolutionary, a member of the gentry, and
joined the reactionaries in the period of the Great Revolution of 1925 –

Many of the students disliked the False Devil because of his inhuman queue,
but I like hearing him talk about Japan. He taught music and English. One
of his songs was Japanese and was called "The Battle on the Yellow Sea".
I still remember some charming words from it:

The sparrow sings,
The nightingale dances,
And the green fields are lovely in the spring.

The pomegranate flowers crimson,
The willows are green leaved.
And there is a new picture.

At that time I knew and felt the beauty of Japan, and felt something of
her pride and might, in this song of her victory over Russia (The poem evidently
referred to the spring festival and tremendous rejoicing in Japan following
the Treaty of Portsmouth and the end of the Russo-Japanese War). I did not
think there was also barbarous Japan – the Japan we know today.

This is all I learned from the False Foreign Devil. I recall also that at
about this time I first heard the Emperor and Tzu Hsi (Ci Xi 慈禧), the
Empress Dowager, were both dead, although the new Emperor, Hsuan Tung (宣
統 Xuan Tong (Pu Yi 溥儀), had already been ruling for two years. I was
not yet an anti-monarchist; indeed, I considered the Emperor as well as
most officials to be honest, good, and clever men. They only needed the
help of Kang Youwei’s reforms. I was fascinated by accounts of the rulers
of ancient China: Yao (堯), Shun (舜), Chin Shih Huang Ti (秦始皇帝 Qin
Shi Huang Di), and Han Wu Ti (漢武帝 Han Wu Di), read many books about them
[2A]. I also learned something of foreign history at this time, and of geography.
I had heard of America in an article which told of the America Revolution
and contained a sentence like this:
"After eight years of difficult war, Washington won victory and built up
his nation."
In a book called Great Heroes of the World, I read also of Napoleon, Catherine
of Sussia, Peter the Great, Wellington, Gladstone, Rousseau, Montesquieu,
and Lincoln.

盛世危言 Sheng Shi Wei Yan
It book was written and edited by Chung Kuan-ying (鄭觀應), who advocated
many democratic reforms, including parliamentary government and modern methods
of education and communications. His book had a wide influence when published
in 1898, the year of the ill-fated Hundred Days Reform.

Yao (堯) and Shun (舜) were semi-legendary first emperors (3,000BC – 2205BC),
credited with forming Chinese society in the Wei (渭) and Yellow River
(黃河) valleys, and taming the floods (with dikes, canals); Qin Shi Huang
Di (秦始皇帝 221BC to 210BC) unified China and completed the Great Wall
(長城); Han Wu Di (漢武帝 140BC – 87BC) solidified the foundations of the
Han Dynasty (漢朝 202BC to 220AD), which followed Qin Dynasty (秦朝 221BC
– 207BC) and lasted 426 years.

The Red Star Over China
By Edgar Snow

Posted to
By CHUNG Yoon-Ngan


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
This entry was posted in Chairman Mao. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The autobiography of Mao Zedong – Part 1 (Childhood)

  1. Afroman says:

    This site was so useful for my history project. Thank you!

  2. pro&con says:

    Language errors in your introductory remarks:

    1. In the West, Mao is caricatured as a monster, a mass killer, a serial womaniser and very much despised, due to biased reporting and highly questionable accounts written by those with [an] axe to grind against Mao

    2. However, he is still admired by [determiner?] majority of [determiner?] people [Or: Do you mean “most poeple”? ] from all walks of live [life].

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