Mao Tse-tung became both the political and spiritual leader of China, and the Cult of Mao developed as he led the Chinese people first in the Chinese Revolution and then in building a new and different China after 1949. The Chinese have a history of mythologizing their heroes and of making them into near-gods, and Mao benefited from this tendency and used of it to solidify his position and to develop his power.
Mao's thought developed during the early years of the decade prior to 1920, a period of great turmoil, with growing conflict between traditional Chinese thought and new ideas from the West. Mao became an active local leader in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, and he retained his revolutionary fervor. However, he also became convinced that what was needed was more than mass enthusiasm, that what was also required was an organization of dedicated revolutionaries. The Russian revolution was a model, and Mao attended the founding of the CCP in Shanghai in 1921 and organized the Hunan branch. Two parties developed in the 1920s, the CCP and the KNT (Kuomintang). The KMT-CCP United Front had formed first and then divided into the two separate units. Mao had encouraged peasant activities against landlords, and this had hastened the split. The KIT was allied with the warlords and was thus stronger militarily than the CCP, leaving the CCP struggling in the rural areas. This was one of the reasons for Mao's developing his rural strategy for the Chinese revolution. This involved more than surrounding the cities from the countryside, and instead it became a complex and interdependent synthesis of military, political, and economic elements, utilizing techniques of guerrilla warfare (Townsend and Womack 11-12). One measure of the effectiveness of Mao's thought is the degree to which it served to resolve the intellectual conflict underlying it:
The importance of the May Fourth Movement should by now be apparent. Intellectually, the Chinese Revolution originated in the challenging of China's cultural heritage by Western civilization. May Fourth was the culmination of that challenge: the brutal, wholesale repudiation of Confucianism, the symbol of Chinese culture and Chinese history (Bianco 28).
Mao made use of the changes involved in this movement and built his own base of leadership on it.
J.E. Wills emphasizes that China was never a country that could be held together by force alone. Mao fulfilled a need:
By 1920 many were groping for new ways to control the military and reunite the country. Among the pieces of a solution were discipline of troops and their indoctrination in one form or another of nationalism and public spirit; mobilization of ordinary tradespeople, farmers, and workers as active participants in politics; and new ways of disciplining and indoctrinating a civil and bureaucratic elite. (Wills 335)
Mao's form of Communism was one of the answers offered, and his ideas mobilized the people as other doctrines had not.
Mao became the heart of the CCP at the Tsunyi Conference in 1935. This was the culmination of the split between the CCP and the KMT. The political structures of China developed after this time and in keeping with certain traditional Chinese ideas along with some imports from the Soviet model. The Chinese model as scholars have identified it is really a Maoist model with the following elements. First, the model aimed at national independence and self-reliance. Second, the model sought all around development with an emphasis on the agricultural sector, in keeping with the rural policies of Mao. It also favored decentralization to stimulate local growth and initiative and to direct the transferral of resources. Third, the model emphasized the use of mass mobilization and participation as techniques for achieving social, economic, and political goals, the "mass line" approach. Fourth, the model insists on continuing the revolution, arguing that repeated and possibly violent struggles are necessary to avoid restoration of capitalism. Such tendencies are seen as arising even within the Communist Party. The key to revolutionary success for Mao was absolute ideological commitment to the collectivist, egalitarian, participatory society, and it was to be practiced in daily life as well as through all the institutions of society (Townsend and Womack, 23).
The Long March was a key element in the rise to power of Mao and the Communists and in the mythologizing of Mao. Beginning in October 1935 Mao led what remained of his First Front Army, much depleted by fighting, into Shensi Province, a remote and sparsely settled area in the northwest where Communist revolutionaries from many provinces would find refuge. From here he could establish a new base to begin the revolution once more. Some 100,000 men and 50 women embarked with Mao from Kiangsi, and only about 8,000 survived to arrive in Shensi. This was the Long March, cited as a great human accomplishment and a major example of heroism and human drama. It was born out of political and military failure, but it did engender the survivors with a new sense of mission. The Long March had a strong psychological effect and so was the prelude to the victorious period of the Chinese Revolution. Politically, Mao achieved control of the Chinese Communist party so he could now follow his revolutionary impulse his own way. The Long March also bolstered Mao's faith in the idea that "men with the proper will, spirit, and revolutionary consciousness could conquer all material obstacles and mold historical reality in accordance with their spirit and ideals" (Meisner 34). The Long March and the legendary tales that came out of it provided a needed sense of hope and confidence. Those who survived the march experienced what became known as "the Yenan spirit": "The survivors' consciousness that they had lived while so many had perished lent a sacred character to their revolutionary mission and gave rise to an almost religious sense of dedication" (Meisner 35). Mao now had more reason to see himself as a man of destiny. The march had a psychological effect on both mao and his followers, serving as proof of the value of their mission and to the policies of their leader:
Indeed, the cult of Mae Tse-tung, it seems not improbable to suggest, was born out of the Long March, for Mao was the prophet who led the survivors through the wilderness. . . As early as 1937 Edgar Snow reported that Mao had acquired the reputation of "a charmed life." (Meisner 35)
Mao's method of rule at that time and after would be another reason why he succeeded and would also add to his cult. His role as Emperor was seen in the way he shaped his role as Chairman, for he worked not directly but through his lieutenants and molded them around his will. He would rule in this fashion throughout his career:
Mao continued to the end the indispensable Chairman, the manipulator of factions, the mediator of feuds, the anticipator of trouble. Always one step ahead of his friends and two steps ahead of his enemies, he showed a political durability unmatched in modern times. (Wilson 277)
Mao himself wrote about his methods of leadership and how they affected his position (Mao Tse-Tung, On Methods of Leadership). The reverence accorded Mao in later years is embodied in memoirs like that of Gao Yuan, who lived through the Cultural Revolution (in Born Red). The great power and reverence accorded to Mao as in keeping with Chinese tradition, The power of this precedent was stronger even than the ideology of the Communist party, which extolled the importance of collective leadership and democratic centralism, both made meaningless in a situation where no one dared to criticize the patriarch.
Mao contributed to the birth of his own legend through the poems he wrote, and a notable one was "The Long March," embodying his view of the…