The special corner of Shanghai that helped Mao form his ideas for creating a new China
CONFUCIUS once said that age 30 marks the beginning of a man’s mental independence.
This aphorism can be well applied to our revolutionary forebears. Many founders of the Communist Party of China were in their early 20s or 30s when they devoted themselves to the revolutionary cause.
Among them was Mao Zedong, who would lead his comrades in their quest to establish the People’s Republic.
Recently I visited Mao’s former residence on 120 Maoming Road N., about a block away from where I work.
Tucked away in what was originally known as Jiaxiuli, a traditional Shanghai shikumen (stone-gated) housing complex that reopened after a two-year facelift, it was where Mao, then 31, stayed for 6 months in 1924.
According to historical documents, from 1919 to 1926, the youthful revolutionary visited Shanghai 10 times, engaged in a variety of work and social activities.
But it was in 1924 that his stay was the longest.
Mao came to work for the Kuomintang Central Committee’s Executive Division in Shanghai. Since the CPC’s Third National Congress in 1923, Communists were allowed to join the KMT in their personal capacity.
And the KMT’s first national congress the following year further paved the way for bipartisan cooperation by legalizing dual party membership.
Mao was elected as one of the 17 alternate members of the KMT Central Committee at the conference. One month later, he was appointed, among other titles, acting chief of the secretariat, by the KMT’s authority.
Handwritten documents on display in the shikumen — now converted into a museum — are a reminder of how heavy and stressful Mao’s work was in Shanghai.
In addition to writing summaries of meetings, organizing meetings and recruiting new KMT members, he was given the thankless job of re-registering old KMT members.
It was a tricky task because the requirement that existing KMT members, or Nationalists re-register themselves — an edict passed at the party’s first national congress — was met with strong opposition from many KMT elders.
Spats and altercations were common, and they posed a major test for young Mao’s character and interpersonal skills.
One day in 1924, Xie Chi, a KMT elder, arrived at its Shanghai office and demanded exemption from what he considered “bureaucratic red tape”. Upon being refused, he thundered, banged his fist on the table, and left in a rage.
Unfazed by Xie’s outburst, Mao made no compromise, stressing the importance of revolutionary discipline. Fearful of losing his party membership, Xie finally signed his name on the application forms Mao sent him via an office clerk.
Mao’s insistence on principles also manifested itself in more subtle ways. In March 1924, he was put in charge of enrolling cadets from certain areas for the newly founded Whampoa Military Academy in southern China’s Guangdong Province.
One day, two applicants from Hunan, Mao’s hometown, met Mao in private, and in a typical attempt at oral bribery, they begged him for favoritism on grounds they were laoxiang, or people hailing from the same place.
Their pleas were rejected right away, with a stern-looking Mao warning that test scores were the sole criterion.
Apart from his work at the secretariat, Mao was also active in advocating civic education for the masses.
He not only played his role as a policy-maker in the KMT’s civic education commission, but also delegated his wife, Yang Kaihui, to teach at workers’ evening schools, in a bid to impart knowledge and enhance their political awareness.
Yang, eight years Mao’s junior, was his first wife and revolutionary partner. The arrival of Yang, together with their two sons and her mother, in Shanghai in June 1924 provided a great solace for Mao.
It should be noted that the six-month family reunion was especially rare for the revolutionary couple, who were often separated by work and tragically torn apart — this time for ever — in 1930, when Yang was arrested by KMT agents. She was executed for refusing to renounce her Communist belief and disown Mao.
Historians argue that Mao was stricken by bouts of headache resulting from neurasthenia in this period. The headache was so severe that he penned a letter to the civic education commission, offering to resign and recommending a colleague as his replacement.
A worse thing to grapple with than the headache was the mental stress from having to pacify the growing tensions between Nationalists and Communists.
Their relationship was increasingly precarious. Confrontations were many. And in a notorious melee in August, several right-wing KMT thugs barged into the party’s Shanghai office and beat up Shao Lizi, whom the thugs branded a “bipartisan element,” among other Communists and left-wing Nationalists.
Outraged, Mao and colleagues wrote to Sun Yat-sen, calling for punishment to the culprits. Whether punishment came or not was unknown, but the situation only got worse.
In November, in a signed letter to Sun, Mao and 13 others at the KMT Shanghai office complained that the KMT-CPC rivalry had left them without pay or the necessary financial means to sustain daily operations for three months.
While working for the KMT, Mao was also instrumental in helping Chen Duxiu, his long-time friend, mentor and comrade, with the CPC’s work. He was behind the drafting of many important documents and was an avid commentator on current affairs in newspapers and periodicals.
Young as he was, Mao was unusually precocious in his political views. For example, he wrote in 1924 that “we knew very early on that the crux of China’s problems lies in the manipulation and exploitation by imperial powers as well as disruption by warlords.
“Unless people rise up in revolution, fight off the imperial powers, and disarm the warlords, other methods are only wide of the mark, and therefore ineffectual,” he observed.
When Mao left the city in December 1924, it might be safe to conjecture that the 10 months he spent in Shanghai considerably honed his capability and leadership skills.
At the end of the visit, my attention was diverted toward an exhibition board bearing words that read, “after he left Shanghai, Mao kept searching for ways of national salvation; aware that peasants and armed struggles were two fundamental questions in China’s revolution, he was active in spearheading peasant movements, and blazed a revolutionary path characterized by the primacy of countryside over cities as well as the seizure of political power through armed struggles.”
Indeed, Mao returned to Hunan and led a series of peasants and workers’ uprisings there. He also authored a book that shed light on the abysmal conditions of peasants in Hunan.
All these efforts prepared him for the future transition of power within the Party itself, from the Soviet-educated leaders who believed that cities should come before rural areas in China’s revolution.