Few if any 20th century historical figures have a more inflated military reputation than Mao Zedong. From the liberal halls of academia to the 1960s-era Special Forces officer’s course, Mao has long been considered a genius of guerrilla warfare. After all, didn’t he use guerrilla tactics to defeat the Chinese Nationalist armies and contribute greatly to the defeat of the Japanese empire with a guerrilla army? It may look that way at a glance, but a closer look, based upon comprehensive reading of sources in English and Chinese, tells a different story.

From a relatively young age, Mao had been politically active, primarily as a writer, organizer, and student activist. He started out as a member of the Nationalist Party (the Koumingtang, or KMT) and then, after the split between the nascent Chinese Communist Party and the KMT, moved to become a communist. In 1927, following directions from Moscow, army units under communist command pulled out of the Nationalist army and moved toward South China. There, they set up a base where they could receive arms and other support shipped in from Russia.

At the same time, peasant uprisings broke out in Mao’s native Hunan province and three other central Chinese provinces. On August 7, 1927, Mao told those in attendance at a party meeting, “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” This was the first of many famous Mao Zedong epigrams, and one of the few that may have actually been an original saying. At this time, Mao had no military authority and no soldiers, but he was determined to get both. He did this by convincing Chinese Communist Party headquarters in Shanghai to get the okay from Moscow for military units moving south to support the peasant rebels, and do so under Mao’s authority.

The peasant uprising in southern Hunan province had been instigated, at a safe distance, by Mao, but when communist military units began to arrive in the area, Mao betrayed the rebels by diverting the newly arrived units to an attack on the provincial capital of Changsha. Somehow, despite having only a few weeks of militia training, Mao was able to convince party officials to appoint him to head the “Front Committee.”

He now had an army of sorts, and with questionable authority from the Chinese Communist Party, he called off the attack on Changsha and diverted his small “army” of 600-or-so men toward a long-time bandit stronghold in the Jinggangshan mountain range. In Chinese communist mythology, this betrayal of the peasant uprisings and Mao’s personal appropriation of the military units has been portrayed as the glorious “Autumn Harvest Uprising.” It is the beginning of the legend of Mao Zedong, the guerrilla leader.

In Jinggangshan, Mao allied with two established bandit chiefs and their 500-man army. Together they began a reign of terror over the local population. Mao proved himself to be very adept at this sort of thing. He found showy public torture and executions of local “landlords” a useful tool for compelling obedience and, through fear, increasing his authority. Mao soon cowed and intimidated the bandit chiefs and set himself up as the “Mountain Lord” of the region.

By this time, Mao had already set his lifelong pattern of living in comparative luxury while those around him led lives of spartan severity. He was not liked, but he was feared. He and his forces were not liberating the local civilian population, but rather subjecting them to what one biographer describes as “classic bandit raids.” These raids drew plenty of attention, both from Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist government, which waged campaigns of encirclement against Mao’s aptly named “gung fei” (communist bandits), and from various other communist formations, which began to move into Jinggangshan.

Among them were thousands of the more highly trained and disciplined forces of a real soldier, the former warlord Zhu De (Chu Deh), who was fleeing both Nationalist forces and anti-communist uprisings brought on by a policy of killing all “class enemies” and burning their homes. “Class enemy” was becoming a term so loosely defined that communist leaders could, and did, apply it to anyone they chose.