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Taoism and Mao Zedong

I think the best words to describe Mao Zedong (1893-1976), the founder of Communist China, are those he said when he was young: Battling with heaven, the joy is limitless; battling with Earth, the joy is limitless; battling with people, the joy is limitless. As far as his life and his impact on the country he controlled from 1949 to 1976, Mao was as good as those words. The West and the former Soviet Union used to complain about the bellicose **** like China under the Communist rule. It was really the spirit of Mao himself, and it represented neither Chinese people nor all the party members. Mao turned his country, his government, and his family upside down many times over, and left no stone unturned. He certainly practiced those three phrases through his whole life. If we put what he said aside and study the way of his thinking, it is not surprising to find some strong elements of Chinese tradition, especially Taoism.

Mao was, of course, not a sincere and conscious Taoist thinker. But we can, nevertheless, understand Mao and his China much better if we adapt to a Taoist perspective. Karl Marx once said, I am not a Marxist myself. What Marx meant is that he did not practice Marxism but he certainly believed in the system he had developed and promoted. Mao used to say he believed in Confucianism in his early years but changed to Marxism later. However, I think Mao's thought is far away from Marxism or Confucianism but close to Taoism. Marxism is often criticized for its economy-determinist view. The influence of economic determinism on human thought and behaviour became traceless in Mao's China. Mao stressed the importance of political ideology and carried out an ever-lasting battle against those who had a tendency to economy-determinism. In the Great Cultural Revolution, whoever had some connection with economy, or agricultural/industrial production was subjected to Mao's attacks. According to Marx, Proletarian revolution only occurs after the whole world has entered into highly developed capitalist society. Mao labelled his revolution of peasants with Marxism. If we dismiss the part Lenin and Mao creatively added to Marxism, namely, separate Marxism from Leninism and Maoism, there is nothing of Marxism but old Chinese tradition in Mao's thought.

As to the Chinese traditional ideology, many authors have written on the influence of Confucianism on Mao. But I think Mao is closer to Taoism but farther away from Confucianism. In Chinese history, intellectuals were Confucians in the government office but Taoists at home. They relied on Taoist teachings to live an idle rural life, pursuing self-wellbeing. Both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu quoted the Chinese self-sufficient rural economy as their ideal society. As the result, the dominant ideology was not Confucianism but Taoism in Chinese countryside.

If there was still some trace of Confucian influence in the Chinese rural areas, it was confined in the intellectual households. What peasants were fond of were Buddhism and Taoism, and they regarded Confucianism as something for educated people. Mao's family was not an intellectual one: his father was an ordinary peasant who had been a soldier and a merchant. He was fiercely opposite to Mao's further education to become an intellectual. Mao's mother was a believer in Buddhism. Mao and his mother once discussed how to persuade Mao's father to believe in Buddhism. After running away from a tiger, his father did come to Buddhism and occasionally worshiped Buddha in the temples. In China most people could not tell Buddhism from Taoism but few failed to notice the difference between Confucianism and Taoism/Buddhism. Ordinary people like Mao's father never went to a Confucian temple, which was apparently not a proper place for them. Buddhism is far away from politics but Taoism is quite different. There is a strong political element in Taoism, which advocates equality. Mao's hometown was within the reach of the Society of Brothers, a peasant organization influenced by Taoist ideology. Therefore, Mao's family was at the level where the ideology was Taoism. Mao was soaked with the spirit of Taoism through what he saw and heard during his early childhood.

Chou En-lai's family was different, a traditional intellectual household. His lifestyle, graceful and poised, was close to the Confucius's golden mean, since he received a good Confucian education at home in his early years. Mao was also taught the five classics and the four books but during a period of cultural transition from the old to the new, it fell short of letting him surpass his family's influence.

Mao's many biographies mentioned how sympathy to the poor Mao was as a child: he worked with Mother against his father's will; he gave rice to those who needed; he even collaborated with the labourers against his father's interest. These are believable but common in rural China where the father struggled to increase his fortune while children and women doled

Re: Taoism and Mao Zedong

A full version of this essay is available at the following website, and the reader can read it by clicking the following title:

Taoism and Mao Zedong
By You-Sheng Li

Re: Taoism and Mao Zedong

A full version of this essay is available at the following website, and the reader can read it by clicking the following title:

Taoism and Mao Zedong

written by You-Sheng Li

Re: Taoism and Mao Zedong

Full of twists and surprises, and most interesting article.

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