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.

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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.

The encirclement campaigns of Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist armies eventually made the bandit areas of Jinggangshan untenable, and in 1934, communist forces under Mao and Zhu “broke out,” though it seemed clear to some observers that Chiang had allowed them to leave. Thus began the famous “Long March” from the mountains of central China west and north across rivers and ranges to the foothills of the Himalayas, and then eastward across the terrifying grassland marshes to the loess plains of northern Shaanxi province. The Long March is widely regarded as one of the greatest military feats in history. It is difficult to describe the Long March in just a few sentences. It truly was an epic military ordeal for the Red Army forces, the Nationalist and warlord forces opposing them, and the people of the areas the Red Army passed through.

A few things must be emphasized. Mao’s was not the only communist army in China, nor the only one in the rugged parts of Western China through which the Long March progressed. The leaders of the various communist elements were constantly plotting against each other. Being the most ruthless, and perhaps the wiliest and most charismatic, Mao, who spent far more time on political maneuvering than military affairs, usually prevailed.

The hardship was often beyond description. Starvation, disease, exposure, and accidents caused more casualties than combat. But while he was often sick and miserable and exposed to possible enemy attack, Mao did not exactly share the travails of his common soldiers and the civilians accompanying them. While his troops were often shoeless in the snow, Mao usually rode on horseback, or a donkey, or was carried on a litter or sedan chair. Many of the legendary actions on the march, such as the supposed crossing under fire of the Luding Bridge, were either wild exaggerations or outright fabrications.

Mao didn’t need to be a brilliant military commander because he had the likes of Zhu De, Peng Dehuai, and Lin Piao to handle those matters for him. And of course, there were many brave and talented soldiers of lower rank in the Red Army whose names are no longer remembered. But Mao is given credit for all that went the Red Army’s way, and blamed for none of the many mistakes and disasters.

The Youth Mao Zedong Statue is located in Orange Isle, Changsha, Hunan, China. The monument stands 32 m tall and depicts Mao Zedong's head.
The Youth Mao Zedong Statue is located in Orange Isle, Changsha, Hunan, China. It stands 32 meters tall.

Contrary to the official myths, the Red Army was not warmly welcomed wherever it passed, and perhaps the fiercest opposition they faced came from ethnic Tibetan guerrillas based out of heavily armed monasteries. The Red Army was not a guerrilla army. It was a tough, scruffy, badly depleted conventional force. Mao left Jinggangshan with approximately 100,000 troops and a thousand or so civilians. When he finally arrived at his “revolutionary base”in northern Shaanxi, he had between 7,000 and 8,000 survivors. This makes Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow almost look like a cakewalk.

Once established in northern Shaanxi, the Red Army recruited among the locals, who were apparently treated better than the locals around Jinggangshan had been. The Red Army did conduct some guerrilla operations against the Japanese, though not under Mao’s direct command. And despite an anti-Japanese united front that Mao had agreed to but refused to honor, communist forces occasionally waged both guerrilla and conventional war against their Nationalist allies.

This was far more common with Mao’s Eighth Route Army than it was the other, and separate, communist New Fourth Army. Mao pursued a policy of making propaganda out of “resisting Japan” while working to undermine the Nationalists. Although the standard narrative casts the communists as the main source of resistance against the Japanese, that simply is not the case.

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There was scant (but sometimes effective) communist guerrilla action against the Japanese, and although Mao was always in the rear area, living in comparative luxury and safety (while the temporary Nationalist capital, Chongqing, was subjected to massive daily bombing, Mao’s capital at Yannan was never attacked), he is usually given credit for these guerrilla operations, as if he had been out there leading from the front. Perhaps the most effective communist action against the Japanese was something called the “Hundred Regiment Offensive,” that utilized both conventional and guerrilla tactics. Mao opposed it and punished its field commanders, then took personal credit for its success. That was the pattern for his entire career.

There is some very good evidence that Mao actively collaborated with the Japanese, and in summer of 1943, in Shandong province, Red Army elements apparently colluded with Japanese forces in an attack on Nationalist forces.

The civil war that followed the defeat of Japan was almost exclusively a conventional war, with only marginal guerrilla action, and the same was true of Chinese involvement in the Korean War. As always, Mao was more concerned with crushing internal rivals than taking an active role in military action against external enemies. He did, however, allow his son to serve on General Peng Dehuai’s staff in Korea, where he was killed in an American airstrike. Mao did not even bother to inform his daughter-in-law that her husband had been killed.

How did Mao get a reputation as a guerrilla warfare genius? One obvious answer is that all the credit for any Red Army accomplishment went to the “Great Helmsman,” as those around him kissed up to him out of fear or hope of favor. Many of these accomplishments are merely mythical, but until recently were rarely, if ever, questioned.

Another factor is that Mao had a gift for words. Terms like “people’s war” carry well, even if they are merely new names for old realities. Mao’s famous military aphorisms are, almost without exception, based on ideas from such Chinese military classics as Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War” and the “36 Tactics.” This is apparent to any Chinese familiar with those other works, but who among them would dare to point out that the Red Emperor is wearing the clothes of long departed sages? And how many non-Chinese commentators were well enough versed in the classical Chinese military writings to notice when Mao was quoting (or plagiarizing) from the classics?

Another factor in the broad acceptance of the myth of Mao the great guerrilla will be familiar to Vietnam veterans. When one side, whether KMT or ARVN, is open to scrutiny by the world’s news media, its failures and shortcomings are widely trumpeted, and its successes often ignored. But the side that controls all information about itself and limits access is able to propagate whatever stories it wishes.

When journalistic access is limited, that access becomes so valuable that journalists are often unwilling to report anything negative about that side—shamefully eager to parrot the propaganda of that side. When American journalist Edgar Snow visited Mao at Yenan after the Long March, he put aside his journalistic skepticism and accepted almost everything he was told, then repeated most of it in his very readable and very influential but also very unreliable book, “Red Star Over China.”

But now there are a some very well-documented correctives out there. Two books I would recommend are Jung Chang’s and Jon Halliday’s “MAO: The Unknown Story,” and Sun Shuyun’s “The Long March.” Also worth reading for those who want to understand just how brutal and bloodthirsty Mao and his commanders could be is Frank Dikotter’s “The Tragedy of Liberation.” The best book about Mao’s personal character that’s available in English is “The Private Life of Chairman Mao” by Mao’s personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui. Dr. Li knew Mao as well as anybody ever did, and he gives us a portrait of a particularly vile and loathsome sociopath.

Mao is still an iconic figure in China. His potato face is on every denomination of the Chinese currency and his portrait still looks down on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. But the truth about this monster is out there, and the various myths and legends will eventually crumble. Mao was not a great guerrilla, but he was a great and terrible monster, and his survival to adulthood and great power is surely the worst natural disaster that the Chinese nation has ever endured.

(Featured image courtesy of thechinastory.org)