Much of what we know about Mao Zedong lies in legend: an abusive father, a beaten son and mother, brothers loved more than himself, a poor laborer whose mother gave him all the benefits she believed she never had; a sworn nihilist, learned and angry, angry at a world that never offered him what was offered others and which he took by force. Mao is a complicated subject, but less able to be completed in the breadth of this short space. A man by whose hand millions perished, who believed that might ruled over light, except when the light when preparing for the darkness. Mao was a man who by his own pen, claimed that the only path to the future lay in the ruins of the past, no matter how many perished in that dream. A lover and a tyrant, a reformer and a dreamer, he was hated, scorned, mocked, feared, and loved madly during his life. He was a model of transformation, but perhaps not the transformation where the people who emerge from the pool are the same who entered.
Mao ran away from his homeland nightmares to the metropolis of Beijing, where for his first job he took the lowly position of a librarian at Beijing University. He loved books. Mao was known to sleep on a literal bed of books, with such prodigious notes that even today scholars are riddling out his messages in the margins to discover the man beneath the monster. He was Plato’s Philosopher King, a man who believed that only through ideological purification and struggle could a classless society emerge from the madness of the battle between the capitalists and the proletariat. He was a conceptual demagogue who was not afraid of giving violence in order to reach a greater end. But above all, he loved power; the power over his colleagues, the power over his lovers, and the power over his people. His weakness, if we could choose one, was that he spoke two languages: the language of polity in which he used conflict as a vehicle to transform his society, and the language of narcissism in which he used conflict as a vehicle to secure personal power. He knowingly fashioned conflict to crush his rivals, to halt emergent opposition, and to maintain power until his last breath. Even at his death, many considered him to be a god. Yet by his hand, perhaps more than any other ruler in China’s history, a country was transformed and yanked through time by at least two or three hundred years, ripped through the portal of sacrifice until all she could do was lay on the side of the road, crying and bandaging her own wounds while the rest of the world looked down upon her, amazed but unmoved.
Mao was an inconstant lover of Marx. He believed that only by being refined in the fire could a better civilization emerge. He believed that by destroying the relics of the past, by killing the heroes in the hearts of his people, and by the annihilation of the old world could the new world be born anew. Many of us would look down upon his work, the lasting legacy of his politic, with scorn; yet how many of us would repeat what he did on a smaller scale were we to restructure an organization? The Hundred Flowers movement was a government sponsored catharsis of free thinking, in which intellectuals spoke out for the first time in years about their beliefs, yearnings, and hopes for China’s future; at the end of the Hundred Flowers movement, Mao took a pair of shears and cut the heads off the flowers. He organized raids, imprisoned people for what they had said, and brutalized the people he had sworn to protect. Were he to be asked why he did this, he might reply that only through struggle would the classless society, free from the landlords, free from the old thinking, emerge. While we as leaders may not take just drastic measures or go to such lengths, how many times have leaders taken power only to cut down the heads of the old regime? For Mao, the inconsequential held incredible weight and power, and every little petal had to be taken into account.
I write this short meditation from my relative’s home in the countryside of northern China. I am here solely because of Mao Zedong. After the Hundred Flowers movement and his horrifying experiment where he canceled all school, gave high-school students weapons and badges and told them to question, arrest, and beat any intellectual they could find, and then sent them on a government sponsored field trip to every village in China to cleanse wrong thinking, an entire generation changed. This wasn’t a subtle change, like what happened to American youth when the news was allowed to carry an opinion; the change in China rocked the world of an entire generation, uprooting them from their families, charging them with a sacred quest, and turning the streets of China into a bloody sponsored rampage the likes we have not seen since young striplings took up muskets during the American Civil War.
During that serendipitous time, my father-in-law, the son of an intellectual and landowner, was sent to the frozen wastes of China’s north to work in a mine, barely seventeen years old. He married the mine boss’s daughter, they had a daughter, and later he moved his family back to the city of Tianjin where my wife grew up. There is not one person in this entire village (where I am writing from) who does not have emotions about Mao Zedong. It was his ideals that established this village, and everyone from my grandmother, to my three uncles, to my many, many cousins, have been affected by the singular political philosophy of a man who desired to transform his country. Does China exist in a classless society today? Has the old world of Confucius, the Imperial Throne, and long queues braided behind silky and wind-blown robes been destroyed?
The answer is yes to some, and no to others. Such is transformation. Transformation is not perfect, and carries the struggle and sacrifice by those who were forced through it willingly (or unwillingly). The scars of the past remain on the faces of my loved ones, and their triumphs and failures remain etched into the hillsides and broken villas of Qidaogou. To claim that transformation is without refinement is to claim that a caterpillar can become a butterfly without being wrapped in a slimy cocoon for weeks at a time. To claim that transformation can occur without the blood of the innocent or the tears of the rejected is to hope that a country or organization can persuade the old regime to gently give up their livelihoods.
I am not defending Mao Zedong. He was a man who believed in terror to achieve his ends. He was a pirate, a lord of thieves, and a master of manipulation. He loved his country, and he also loved the power she could give him. He loved books, reading, and writing poetry, and he loved old churches. But he brought his country from a feudal state in which the king was the son of God, a country that even creeping into the 20th century made eunuchs of men who would enter into the imperial government, and a country where the Dowager Empress made a boat out of stone just so she could spite the poor. Perhaps there were other ways of transforming and carrying China into the future, but we shall never know.
My child plays in the next room, dancing on a bed heated by the fires that cooked our dinner. Trees comb the mountains outside the house like a military buzz-cut, and my grandmother is gazing at my son in the kind of love that tragedy has no power over, not even transformational tragedy.