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.”