Mao was the chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1934 until his death in 1976. Under his rule, the CPC expanded from the desolate backwater of Jiangxi province to control all of China.
Mao Zedong first emerged as a Communist leader in 1927 at the head of the Revolutionary Army of Workers and Peasants. This army clashed numerous times with Chinese government (Kuomintang) forces during the Autumn Harvest Uprising. Upon being defeated, Mao’s forces retreated to the mountainous Jiangxi province, where Mao reformed and expanded his army to become the Worker’s and Peasant’s Red Army of China. This Red Army of China, with Mao at its head, established the Soviet Republic of China in Jiangxi, where he was elected its Chairman in 1931.
While in control of the Republic, Mao began the first of his many political suppressions by targeting both reformers who went too far and conservatives who dragged their feet. It is estimated that upwards of 180,000 people died during Mao’s first instance of revolutionary (“red”) terrorism.
Despite the high death toll of his leadership, the Soviet Republic of China flourished under his rule. In fact, it was doing so well that Chiang Kai-shek, the chairman of the Kuomintang, was determined to stamp it out before his peasants got any ideas. Starting in 1931, the Kuomintang launched a series of massive invasions into Jiangxi province, with the goal of killing every Communist they could get their hands on. The only army opposing them was Mao’s Red Army, which, despite numbering just under fifty thousand men, successfully fought back. It wasn’t until 1934, after almost 4 years of war and thousands of deaths, that Mao’s troops were defeated and expelled from Jiangxi province in what is now called the Long March.
The Long March was the name given to the massive Communist withdrawal from Jianxi in the southeast of China to Shaanxi in the north. This 6,000 mile journey over rugged terrain is equivalent to hiking the Appalachian Trail end to end four times. Nevertheless, after 370 days of traveling, Mao’s army arrived more or less intact, and their leader now the head of the entire CPC.
From Shaanxi Province, Mao consolidated his power and watched tensions rise between the Kuomintang government and the Japanese in Manchuria. When those tensions exploded into war in 1937, Mao was ready for it. While the Japanese slaughtered the government forces in Northern China, Mao attacked from behind and seized key territories from both the Japanese and the Kuomintang. When the aggrieved forces counter-attacked, Mao merely fell back and turned the captured territories into a bloody, three-sided guerrilla war that lasted until the end of World War II.
Upon the end of the war, the Japanese pulled out their troops and ceded all of their Chinese territories to the Kuomintang. The government, though, lacked the troops to defend even the Chinese heartland. The Communists, due to Mao’s impressive guerrilla tactics, had a surplus. Mao immediately attacked the Kuomintang, and, by 1947, had forced Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his army to retreat to Taiwan. Mao seized control of all China, and changed history in a way still felt today.