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The Doors of Chairman Mao (Commentary)

December 30, 2013

Like layers of haze and smog, Mao Zedong's ghost continues to linger over China today. Agnes Smedley (1892-1950),[1] Mao’s Western confidante, using her feminine intuition, noticed that there was a door of Mao's that was never open to anyone. As a matter of fact, Mao had more than one door. Let us then open these doors and take some time to have a good look inside.

The first door was in Germany. As a product of the 1919 May Fourth New Culture Movement, Mao haphazardly created a rudimentary synthesis of Eastern and Western cultures and histories. The jumble of 19th-century European ideological trends that were imported via Japan—Social Darwinism, Peter Kropotkin's anarchism, Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy of the will, Friedrich Nietszche's philosophy of the Übermensch, Thomas Huxley's evolutionary ethics, John Dewey's pragmatism, Henri Bergson's life philosophy, Bertrand Russell's empiricism, and Saneatsu Mushanokōji's New Village movement[2]—totally transformed the youthful mind of Mao, then filled with what he saw as “feudal dregs" such as the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism and the popular novels Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Journey to the West. Mao could especially identify with the ideas in A System of Ethics, a book by the German philosopher Friedrich Paulsen. Beijing University Professor Yang Changji used this book in his class at Hunan Province's First Teacher's Preparatory College. He certainly did not foresee where Mao, who would later become his son-in-law, would take China with the inspiration he received from this book.

A System of Ethics was nothing less than enlightenment for Mao. The notes he took on this book amounted to 12,000 words, more voluminous than those on any other book he ever read in his life. Paulsen’s thought practically molded Mao's worldview in one stroke. That worldview can be summarized in three essential points. 1. I am the sole center of the universe, and all living things exist because of me and for me—these are the ultimate principles of world ethics. 2. I can't know the world before or after me, which is therefore all false and not worth thinking about or taking responsibility for. 3. Destruction is the highest law; all old ethnic identities, nations, the world, and even the universe must be wiped out so that all can be rebuilt. For Mao, these three principles are not only the law of the universe but also the ultimate and highest ethical principle of humanity.

The following marginal notes made by Mao in A System of Ethics summarize the great principle Mao believed in all his life:

I am the only one in the universe who deserves respect and awe and who should be obeyed. I am only responsible for my own subjective and objective reality. I am not responsible for anything that is not my subjective or objective reality. Therefore I ignore the past and the future, for they are unrelated to my personal reality. I do not believe that a person is responsible for the past and future. I am only interested in my thoughts within and conducting enterprise without. All reach their target. After I die, when I'm placed in the context of history and evaluated by future generations, they will all know I perfected myself. Future generations, because of my self-actualization, will hold me in high repute of their own accord—but I take no pleasure in this, for it belongs to the future and not to my personal reality.

Paulsen was Mao's first and lifelong teacher, who opened the first door for him.    

History soon opened another door for Mao. This one was also in Germany: Marxism. For Mao, the mystery of the world could in fact be interpreted and explained by class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat. To Mao, the opening line of the Communist Manifesto— "A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism,” could not be lumped together with the clichés of the past several thousand years in China. The continuous revolutions that erupted in Europe, such as the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune (1871), and the First International (1864-1876), shocked Mao, even though Europe was thousands of miles away. When did Chinese rebellious heroes ever have this boldness of vision and ambition in the nation’s millennia of history?

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletariat has nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.[3]

The unlocking of the mysteries of the myriad and disorderly human world and of history has only to await the "final struggle." After Mao read The Communist Manifesto, Class Struggle,[4] and A History of Socialism,[5] he quickly became a Marxist and remained one for the rest of his life.

Mao's third and fourth doors were in Russia via Germany. For Russia, which had no knowledge of China for 1,000 years, its last memory of the Orient was the 240 years of cruel domination of the Tartar Mongols’ military despotism. Like reincarnated retribution, Russia gave back to China the modern heritage of Genghis Khan: Leninist-Stalinist Thought.

According to Maoist thinking, Marx defined for the Communist Party of China its view of world history and theory of social transformation. Lenin provided methodology and Stalin developed models of ruling and governing. For a party organized by professional revolutionaries who led and commanded the army, the iron-and-blood management of military communism needed a strategic retreat (the New Economic Policy), total collectivization, mandatory economic domination (five-year plans), and rapid industrial development (with an emphasis on heavy and military industries), and so on. Most important were these cardinal principles: ideological preeminence, constant suppression of the Russian people's thought and indoctrination; one-party rule; absolute intolerance of any challenge; creation of a police state; abolition of the rule of law; and one-man dictatorship. What must not be absent for even a moment was a steel-like cruelty, a granite-like will, a meat grinder in constant motion, and an ever-tightening reign of terror.

Although Mao suffered a cold and humiliating reception during his 1949-50 pilgrimage to Moscow, he only complained in private after Stalin's death. Lenin was the orthodox symbol of Marxism. Mao called Stalin the father and guide. Mao knew better than anyone that without Lenin and Stalin, his People's Republic would be a mirage. No matter how humiliated he felt, he still had to openly announce that China would "lean to one side" toward the Soviet Union and "obey our Soviet Big Brother," and that "the Soviet Union's today is China's tomorrow." More importantly, only with the Soviet model could Mao someday achieve his ideal of becoming a leader and guide of the world revolution.

Mao's fifth door was right in China. Mao spent his whole life behind this door. That's the resource Mao used to seize China: peasant uprisings. When Mao started out using the traditional peasant rebellion tactics of acquiring political power with “the barrel of a gun" and "the countryside surrounding the city," and winning the party's greatest authority, he had to use Marxist-Leninist rhetoric to dress these up so they didn't violate classical communist theory and would receive Moscow's approval and support. In implementing and developing Paulsen and Marx's philosophy of destruction, Mao discovered the advanced nature of "hooligan movements." After 1949, Mao elevated this to a certain sacred height, and launched the Maoist "people's worship." Marx saw material and economic developments as the dynamic forces of history. Lenin made “the party" the highest tool of ruling. Stalin used one-man dictatorship to lord over the party and country. Mao incorporated all these wholesale and opened another path by creating "people fetishism." The hundreds of millions Chinese, when seduced into rising up, could indeed shake heaven and earth. Once Mao combined his absolute dictatorship with the power of the people, he had obtained invincible magic power. History's bitter logic is that this power came from the inspiration Mao took from Germany and Russia. The devastating destructive force of this unprecedented combination had never manifested itself before either in China or the West.

After the Anti-Rightist campaign, in 1958, Mao opened another door for himself, a door that Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and all other Westerners and Russians had never seen or visited: The legacy of the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (260-210 B.C.), the number one despot in ancient China. In the 1960s, when Mao contended with the Soviet Union over the orthodox position of international communism, he returned to the tradition of Chinese imperialism. Mao realized that even though the people had tremendous power, degeneration and split could happen among them, and that only one force, the central unified empire that had lasted for more than 2,000 years in China, could put the entire Chinese nation under firm control.

This empire possessed a special modern significance and universal value. Disregarding orthodox Marxist doctrines, Mao combined the Qin Empire with the uprising of peasants who were tired of the tyrannical rule of the emperors. The Qin Emperor became Mao’s last inspiration. In Mao’s late years, Marx, Lenin, and Stalin were no longer models in his mind. They were replaced by the Qin Emperor. Besides Mao, probably no single Chinese could understand Mao’s last poem:

I ask you to refrain from cursing the First Emperor of Qin,

His burning of books should be discussed.

Even though the ancestor is dead, his achievement remains,

Confucius’s high reputation is nothing but chaff.

Qin’s way of politics has been carried on for hundreds of generations . . . .[6]

The Qin Emperor created the one system for all ages. He burned books and killed scholars, implemented severe punishment and laws, and was obsessed with greatness and success. He unified the Chinese language system, built roads that reached all parts of the empire, and put all lands under one ruler and one heaven. The heritage of the Qin Emperor became Mao’s last door.

And so it goes. One after another, Mao entered two doors of Germany and two doors of Russia before returning to two doors of China, making himself an integrator of the most destructive forces and ruinous intentions of the East, West, antiquity, and modern times. Only in this way can we understand why Mao held such an aloof attitude toward misfortune, suffering, and death, that ordinary people find hard to understand, and can we understand his horrifying and demented poems and sayings such as “Feeling gratitude for the invasion of China by the Japanese Imperial Army,” "Even if three hundred million Chinese died . . . ,” "Wiping out all evil doers,” and “Making the whole world completely cold.”

China, which became super-rich from a combination of different factors but where danger lurks on all sides, seems to have started overnight to beckon the spirit of Mao. The recurrence of history that Marx long ago predicted seems to be replaying in China:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.[7]

The Auschwitz gas chambers and the Soviet Gulag Archipelago have irrevocably passed judgment on the two despots Hitler and Stalin. But Mao, who was worse, not only has not been put on trial, but appears to be enjoying a comeback. If Mao's dead spirit were resurrected, China would suffer a great calamity that could imperil the whole world.

What course to follow? Shall we allow Mao's ghost to ensnare us and wallow in the long night of Mao's era? Or shall we dismantle Mao's dark interiors, eliminate the putrid elements, and go toward a place where the sun shines brightly? History is waiting to see.

English translation by Human Rights in China except where otherwise noted.

Translator's notes

[1] Agnes Smedley was an American journalist and writer sympathetic to the Chinese communists. She was a correspondent in China from 1928 to 1941.

[2] A quasi-utopian community founded by the Japanese author, artist, and philosopher Saneatsu Mushanokōji (1885–1976).

[3] From Chapter 4 of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Excerpted from the translation by Samuel Moore in cooperation with Frederick Engels,1888,

[4] By Karl Johann Kautsky (1854-1938), a Czech-German philosopher, journalist, and Social Democrat theoretician.

[5] By the British writer Thomas Kirkup (1844–1912), founder of the Fabian Society.

[6] From Mao’s poem “For Guo Lao: on Reading ‘Feudalism’” (读(封建论)·呈郭老),

[7] From Chapter 1 of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx,translated by Saul K. Padover from the German edition of 1869,

Wang Kang

Wang Kang (王康), born in Chongqing in 1949, is a cultural scholar. After graduating from Southwest Normal University, Wang was on the government’s “most wanted” list for ten years (1989 – 1999), for his participation in the 1989 Democracy Movement. He is the founder of a cultural center in Chongqing, and produced many noted feature films on intellectual history, including "Avenue" (大道), "War Capital" (抗战陪都), and "Bombing of Chongqing" (重庆大轰炸).

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