Biographies & Memoirs


Casting Around

PROFESSOR YANG found Mao a job as a clerical worker in the Beijing University library. A major part of Mao’s duties was to register the names of all those who came into the library to read the magazines and newspapers. He was thus in the middle of everything, yet still somehow on the edge. The head of the library, Li Dazhao, only four years older than Mao, was already the center of an extraordinary galaxy of talented scholars. Li and five professors at Beijing University had formed a joint editorial board to run New Youth magazine. Their academic skills ranged easily across literary studies, philosophy, history, and music; several of them had studied in Japan, while others had advanced degrees from universities in the United States or Europe. The newly appointed Professor Yang shared their scholarly interests, and had published with them in other progressive journals even before New Youth was founded in 1915. By 1918, New Youth was publicly championing the cause of writing in the vernacular speech of China, rather than in the older classical norms, or the semi-simplified variants employed by the late Qing reformers. Already as a student in Changsha, Mao had switched his allegiance to the New Youth writers, but though he was now living in the midst of the New Youth ferment he was still nowhere near the inner circle, as the Yangs were.

New Youth magazine, along with the faculty and students of Beijing University, was at the literal and symbolic centers of the new China: the University buildings were just northeast of the Forbidden City, where the last emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty, “Henry” Puyi, still lived with his eunuchs and retainers under the favorable clauses of the abdication agreement of 1912. Nearby were the buildings of the new parliament and the modern government ministries, and the foreign diplomatic quarter. A small public park had been formed outside the southern gate of the Forbidden City, at Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, an area once home to Qing government officials. Students and townspeople gathered there under the trees to talk and debate the political issues of the day, which were legion: the president of the Republic, Yuan Shikai, had died in 1916, after a disastrous attempt to establish himself as the emperor of a new dynasty; in 1917 a pro-Manchu militarist attempted to restore the emperor Puyi but was foiled by an alliance of rival generals; the same year, Sun Yat-sen returned from exile in Japan to form a separatist regime in southeastern China, in Canton; also in 1917, the new premier of the Republic made a deal with the British and the French to send over a hundred thousand Chinese coolie laborers to the World War I battlefields in Europe to help unload and transport war materials, maintain the base camps, and remove the corpses from the battlefields. The payoff to China was meant to be recovery of the territory previously ceded to Germany in the late Qing, but through corruption by the Chinese politicians and special deals with the Western powers, most of these hoped-for gains had already been mortgaged to Japan. The parliament of China, with the Guomindang Nationalists still excluded, was a shadowy forum with little real power, where all votes were regarded as being for sale.

In the library, Mao saw many of the influential figures of the new intellectual elite, and his mind must have been filled with questions. As a contributor and devout reader of New Youth, he would have seen Li Dazhao’s essay describing the cycles of birth, decay, and regeneration within national histories, as well as Li’s essay on “The Victory of Bolshevism” for the October 1918 issue. Here Li did what few if any in China had yet done, he hailed the revolutionary new order of the Soviet Union, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and briefly discussed the Marxist social and economic theories on which it was based. That same year Li also started a group that met at intervals to discuss revolutionary theory, which he named the “Research Society for the Study of Marxism.” Such glimmers of interest in Marxism still had to compete with numerous other intellectual explorations in New Youth and within Beijing University at the same time. Li’s colleague, the philosopher and literary critic Hu Shi, for instance, published the first lengthy analysis of Ibsen and feminist theory to appear in China, following it up with a lengthy essay on the emancipation of American women. (Hu, only two years older than Mao, already had a bachelor’s degree from Cornell and had been a graduate student at Columbia). Elsewhere in New Youth, and in dozens of other new magazines in Beijing, Shanghai, and smaller provincial cities, students and their teachers were exploring themes ranging from Bertrand Russell’s mathematical logic and Ein stein’s ideas of relativity to Margaret Sanger’s birth-control advice and Rabindranath Tagore’s pacifist communalism. It was an unusually bewildering time to be young.

It was at this time, according to Mao’s later candid comment to Edgar Snow, that he “fell in love with Yang Kaihui,” the daughter of his former ethics teacher. She was just eighteen, and Mao was twenty-five. Mao recalled those winter months of early 1919 with unusual lyricism, perhaps because he still saw it with the aid of her eyes. It was, he said, “in the parks and the old palace grounds” of Beijing that he saw the willows bowed down by “the ice crystals hanging from them” and watched “the white plum blossoms flower while the ice still held solid over the North Lake.” Love might have been blossoming, but he had almost no money and Beijing was very expensive. Mao was used to the educational world of Changsha, where in five years of normal school he had spent a total of only 160 Chinese dollars. Now in Beijing, with a salary of eight dollars a month, and no hostel for Xiangxiang natives, Mao lived off a narrow lane in a poor district called “Three Eyes Well,” sharing three small rooms with seven other fellow students from Hunan. And he found the Beijing intellectuals aloof and self-important: “I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men. They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.” Mao did join at least two study groups, one on philosophy and the other on journalism, and sat in on some classes. It is possible, too, that Professor Yang, with his belief in late marriage, found Mao’s courtship of his only daughter premature. For whatever reasons, Mao was not at ease in Beijing, and when he received a letter from home telling him that his mother was seriously ill, he decided to leave. Borrowing money from friends, on March 12 he took a train to Shanghai, arriving on the fourteenth. There Mao lingered for twenty days while he said farewell to a number of his friends and former classmates who were setting off for France; after they had sailed, he borrowed more money and made his way back across the country to Changsha, reaching home on April 6.

To what extent was Mao the prodigal son returned? He told his family members that he had been “a staff member of Beijing University,” which left unclear exactly what he had done in the capital. But for now, with both his ill mother and his own future to think of, Mao took a job teaching history in a Changsha primary and middle school (it also had a teacher-training department) known as the “Study School.” He stayed there until December 1919. As well as teaching, Mao embarked on a burst of writing, clearly stimulated by his stay in the volatile intellectual world of Beijing. In his earlier school days, his classical literature teacher Yuan had mocked him for being a journalist overinfluenced by Liang Qichao. Forced to follow the great events of the May 4 students’ demonstrations in Beijing at a distance—the demonstrations, directed against the corrupt Beijing regime that had betrayed China to Japan, and against United States support for Japan’s position, led to the designation of this whole period of intellectual ferment as the “May Fourth Movement”—Mao decided to keep the students and citizens of Changsha up-to-date with the news. He did this through a journal he edited, the Xiang River Review, which he also wrote almost entirely himself, producing four issues at weekly intervals between July 14 and August 4, until the local warlord closed the magazine down.

In Mao’s “manifesto” for the new journal, dated July 14, 1919, he gave what we may assume to be an accurate summary of his political views that summer. It was an emotional voice, deeply influenced by the rhetoric of Li Dazhao, that attempted an overarching view of human destiny and world history. A movement for the “liberation of mankind” was under way, wrote Mao, and all old prejudices must be questioned. All old fears must be jettisoned too—fear of heaven, spirits, the dead, the bureaucrats, the warlords, the capitalists. The West had followed a route of “emancipation” that led through the Renaissance and the Reformation to the formation of representative governments with universal suffrage and the League of Nations. “Democracy,” however one chose to translate it into Chinese—Mao offered his readers four variants of acceptable Chinese renderings—was the central name for the movement against oppression in all its forms: religious, literary, political, social, educational, economic, and intellectual. But in fighting oppression one should not use the tools of oppression—that would be self-defeating. Instead, one should “accept the fact that the oppressors are people, are human beings like ourselves,” and that their oppressive acts are not so much willed by them, but are more like “an infection or hereditary disease passed on to them from the old society and old thought.” China was facing a revolution that cried out for bread, for freedom, and for equality; there was no need for a “revolution of bombs or a revolution of blood,” Mao wrote. Japan was the worst of the international oppressors, and he felt it should be dealt with by means of economic boycotts and student and worker strikes. To achieve this, the “popular masses” of China—“simple untutored folk”—should be educated and their minds broadened beyond the shores of their own Xiang River to grasp “the great world tides rolling in.... Those who ride with the current will live; those who go against it will die.” As part of his own contribution to this program, Mao wrote twenty-six articles on Chinese and world history for the first issue, and printed two thousand copies, which sold out in a day.

Increasing the print run to five thousand for the subsequent issues, Mao continued to write short essays and also a lengthy manifesto entitled “The Great Union of the Popular Masses,” which took up the majority of issues two through four. In this essay Mao laid forth a whole range of possible union organizations to give strength to those waging the struggle ahead—not just unions of workers, farmers, and students, but also of women, primary school teachers, policemen, and rickshaw pullers. To give a sense of the continuity of the struggle, Mao also published a detailed history of the various organizations of students in Hunan since the late Qing period, not neglecting to mention the role of major athletic meets as opportunities for student solidarity in the face of the oppressors. For the fifth issue, Mao promised his five thousand readers a detailed account of the “Hunan student army.”

In all these writings, Mao was either implicitly or overtly criticizing the ruling militarist in Hunan, General Zhang Jingyao, who seemed to represent everything against which Mao was now beginning to rebel. Like others in this period, Zhang had acquired his early knowledge of soldiering as a bandit, before transferring into a military academy and, after graduation, joining the coterie of a powerful northern Chinese politician. Through personal contacts and his control of a sizable body of troops he was appointed military governor of Hunan in 1918, after a savage war in which tens of thousands of Hunanese were killed, and even more homes and businesses were destroyed. Zhang brought with him into Hunan as senior administrators his three brothers, all as ruthless and corrupt as he was. It is not surprising that when Zhang heard of Mao’s fifth journal issue, with its provocative subject matter, he ordered all copies confiscated and destroyed. Unfazed, Mao got himself appointed as the editor of another journal, the New Hunan, for which he penned a new but far briefer manifesto. This journal, he declared, would have four guiding principles: to criticize society, to reform thought, to introduce new learning, and to discuss problems. All power or “authority”—Mao printed this word in English, which he was struggling to learn at this time— that might endeavor to silence them would be ignored. Mao might have believed that this journal would receive a measure of protection because it was the organ of the Yale-in-China association in Changsha (the American university’s offshoot in China), founded after the Boxer Uprisings of 1900 to bring Western medical education to China. If so, he was mistaken. This journal, too, was suppressed after one issue, by the same General Zhang.

Blocked from this new avenue, Mao became a regular contributor to Changsha’s largest newspaper, the Dagongbao. It was for this paper that he wrote a series of nine articles on the suicide of a local Changsha woman named Zhao Wuzhen, which attracted wide attention. Zhao had killed herself inside her enclosed bridal sedan chair, as she was being taken to an arranged marriage that she bitterly opposed. Mao used the opportunity to develop the ideas he had absorbed from Yang Changji, and other writers for New Youth,about the need to end old marriage customs, abolish matchmakers and their endless “cheap tricks,” and inaugurate an era of freedom of choice and economic opportunities for women in the new China.

During this period of the summer and fall of 1919, Mao continued to work on organizing the Hunan “United Students’ Association,” and in December he organized a widely supported student strike of thirteen thousand middle school students against Zhang Jingyao, who had further alienated all teachers and students by slashing the Hunan educational budget, cutting teachers’ merit raises, blocking teachers’ salaries, beating up those who protested, and billeting his unruly troops inside school buildings. All this was in addition to Zhang’s troops’ ongoing record of extraordinary cruelty to farmers’ families in the countryside, his seizure of banks’ assets, and his proven record of massive opium smuggling and the illegal selling of lead-mining rights to German and American businessmen. Zhang’s harsh repression of the student strike led Mao to consider his own future options with renewed care. Furthermore, Mao’s mother died that fall, on October 5, and, presiding at the funeral on October 8, he gave a loving oration in her memory. He was still unmarried and had become something of a marked figure in Changsha, as well as a definite thorn in the side of the dangerous General Zhang. So in December, Mao traveled once again to Beijing to see the Yangs, to attempt to deepen his contacts with Li Dazhao and other writers he admired, and to seek support for a national campaign to oust the corrupt general Zhang from Hunan Province.

Mao arrived in Beijing to find Professor Yang Changji desperately ill. A gastric illness the previous summer had somehow led to massive swelling of his body and to collapse of his digestive system. Convalescence in the scenic western hills, and specialized care in the Beijing German hospital, had alike been unavailing. Yang’s colleagues ascribed the illness to overwork at Beijing University, where he was teaching a full load besides translating two books on Western ethics and writing educational surveys. Yang died at dawn on January 17, 1920, and on January 22, just a few months after giving the eulogy at his own mother’s funeral, Mao became the cosignatory of the funeral eulogy for his most influential teacher. One day later, on January 23, Mao’s father died at his home in Shaoshan.

Mao, however, stayed on in Beijing. There must have been family matters to attend to back in Hunan, but there was a lot to do in Beijing. There were the Yangs, mother and daughter, to see to. Most important to Mao’s political future was Li Dazhao, whom he now got to know better, for both were mourning the loss of a mutual friend. Li now had organized a more formal Marxist Study Society in Beijing, and a translation of the Communist Manifesto was under way (some of it already completed, for Mao to see) along with more technical works like Karl Kaut sky’s Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx. Yet if Mao was now getting a more specific knowledge of Marxist-socialist theories, he remained very eclectic in his own mind—his surviving letters to friends from this time show him dreaming of a wide range of options, including a work-study school in the verdant Yuelu hills outside Changsha, a dream he had harbored since 1918. The students and teachers would learn and work at farming in all its aspects—from tending vegetables and flowers to raising rice and cotton, growing mulberry trees, and breeding fish and poultry. (Mao noted that such work would be regarded as “sacred,” but if the “rough work” was too hard for the students, then “hired hands should be employed to assist them.”) If farming proved impractical, an alternate approach would be to found a “Self-Study University” in which the teachers and students “would practice a Communist life.” Income for this project would be derived from teaching, publishing essays and articles, and editing books, and expenses would be cut by having the community do its own cooking and laundry. All income would be held in common, for this would also be a “work-study mutual aid society.” Intellectual focus would come from an “Academic Symposium,” meeting two or three times a week. After two or three years of such training the students and teachers might be able to set off for Russia, which Mao was now defining as “the number one civilized country in the world.”

Mao, in other words, was restless. As he wrote in March 1920 to a friend whose own mother had also just died, there was now a whole category of “people like us, who are always away from home and are thereby unable to take care of our parents.” In a letter to his girlfriend, Tao Yi, who was teaching in Changsha but hoping to come to Beijing, Mao repeated that he would like to go to Russia. To make that dream a reality, once things were peaceful again in Hunan he would form a “Free Study Society” in Changsha, hoping “to master the outline of all fields of study, ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign.” Mao added, “Then I will form a work-study team to go to Russia.” He was confident, he told Tao Yi, that women going to Russia would “be particularly welcomed by the Russian women comrades.” He had been “consulting” Li Dazhao on this and other matters, he added. The reasons for not going abroad, however, were also considerable. Since one could read translations so much faster than the foreign-language originals, one could learn more and faster in China. “Oriental civilization,” wrote Mao, “constitutes one half of world civilization. Furthermore, Eastern civilization can be said to be Chinese civilization.” So why go anywhere?

When Mao did leave Beijing at last, on April 11, it was for Shanghai. This time he took twenty-five days for the trip, stopping off on the way at the north China sacred mountain of Taishan and at Confucius’s hometown of Qufu. In Shanghai he stayed with three other activists from the movement to expel Governor Zhang from Hunan. In early June, Mao was considering learning Russian—all three of his housemates wanted to go to Russia—and trying, he told a friend, “to find a Russian with whom to study the Russian language,” but he had trouble finding one. Mao was also trying to learn English, “reading one short lesson from the simplest primer every day.” Self-study was going to be his rule from now on: “I have always had an intense hatred for school, so I have decided never to go to school again.” As to philosophy, he was concentrating on Bergson, Russell, and Dewey. Mao also found the time and opportunity to meet with Chen Duxiu, one of the key radical faculty leaders of the May Fourth Movement, and the sponsor of the full translation of the Communist Manifesto, which was just being completed.

Fate solved Mao’s indecisiveness with startling suddenness when a rival coalition of political and military leaders unexpectedly attacked Changsha and drove out the hated General Zhang. It turned out that Mao had hitched his wagon to the right star after all: one of his former teachers with the requisite political contacts was named director of the Changsha normal school, and used his new influence to appoint Mao director of the attached primary school. On July 7, 1920, Mao was back in Changsha with a respected career opened up in front of him, and he moved swiftly to assert his presence. In just over three weeks after his return, on July 31, 1920, Mao announced to the local newspapers the formation of yet another new venture, one that would draw together at least some of his dreams of the previous years. It was to be called the “Cultural Book Society.”

Mao’s announcement started banteringly: How would one expect to find “new culture” in Hunan? Few of the thirty million Hunanese had received any schooling. Of those who had, only a few were “functionally literate.” And of the literate, how many knew what the new culture was? New culture was not just a matter of “having read or heard a few new terms.” Indeed most of the world, not just Hunan, had no knowledge of new culture. At this point Mao boldly inserted a phrase that showed the definite orientation of his thought: “A tiny blossom of New Culture has appeared in Russia, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.” The Cultural Book Society would try to ensure that this blossom would flower in Hunan. A bookstore would start the process, but a research wing, along with editorial and printing facilities, would soon be added. Through Chinese and foreign books, the new culture would reach across Hunan. The conclusion to the announcement had a special slant, emphasizing that this was no conventional capitalist enterprise. It had been founded “by a few of us who understand and trust each other completely.” None of the money that had been invested would be withdrawn by the investors. There would be no dividends. joint ownership would be perpetual. No one would take a penny of profit if it succeeded; “If it fails, and not a penny is left from the venture, we will not blame one another. We will be content to know that on this earth, in the city of Changsha, there was once a ‘collectively owned’ Book Society.”

Mao listed himself among the original investors when the Cultural Book Society issued its first report on October 22, 1920. So how had he raised the money for the shop? Had Mao received a sizable inheritance, in the form of land and the cash profits from his father’s trading ventures? This would explain why Mao in 1920 apparently had none of the financial problems living in Beijing and traveling by train to Shanghai that had plagued him in 1919. And even though Mao drew no wages as manager of the bookshop, he had his salary as director of the primary school. Furthermore, Mao began to push the cause of Hunan independence with extraordinary energy after he returned to Changsha in July, and this was a cause dear to the heart of many wealthy businessmen and to the new governor of the province, Tan Yankai. Mao’s backers certainly covered a wide spectrum: as well as local business leaders, Mao listed the Beijing Marxist Li Dazhao as one of the “credit references” who persuaded the local book and magazine distributors to waive their customary security deposits.

Then there was the curious fact that the store run by the Cultural Book Society itself was not located in a Chinese-owned site in Changsha, as the board had apparently planned, nor in the city education building as some had suggested, but was rented from the Hunan-Yale medical school, the offshoot of the original Yale-in-China mission in the city. The guarantor of this lease—which was publicly announced in the director’s report—was a well-known Hunanese cultural and educational leader, who also invested in the venture (as did Mao’s friend Tao Yi, who put up ten silver dollars, although she was always so desperately short of money). Certainly the business was well-run, despite its unusual character and structure. According to the figures prepared by Mao Zedong—it was not for nothing, his father’s insistence that he learn accounting—income from sales for the first announced financial period was 136 Chinese dollars, while expenses, including the rent and start-up equipment, were only 101 Chinese dollars. With a surplus of 35 dollars from its sales of New Youth, and authors such as Bertrand Russell, Hu Shi, and Kropotkin, the Cultural Book Society’s store was turning a profit of more than 30 percent.

Mao seemed to have found a new niche as a businessman, bookseller, and school principal, and it was time to think of the future. Certainly Tao Yi had been generous, and was an independent spirit. But Yang Kaihui had returned to Changsha after her father’s death, and also was regarded as a bold pioneer in women’s educational circles, with her own excellent range of contacts. At her father’s funeral back in January there had been a public appeal—cosigned by Mao Zedong—for funds to help Yang Kaihui and her younger brother, who it was alleged had been left with no “means of support.” But in fact her father had owned some land in or near Changsha, and the appeal stipulated that the money raised for the children “could either constitute savings or be used as capital for a business.” So now neither Mao nor his teacher’s daughter was destitute, and they obviously had a great deal in common. In late 1920, Mao Zedong and Yang Kaihui began living together.

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