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Peggy Keener: Son of stone

As a young student, Mao was out of control. After being expelled from his fourth school, his father realized that the only power he had over Mao was the withholding of money. Thereupon Yi-chang stopped paying the school tuition and a 13 year-old Mao was forced into being a full-time peasant. He hated it. Before long, however, Mao figured out a way to get out of the drudgery of farm labor and back into the world of books.

Meanwhile, Yi-chang was keen on getting Mao married. He reasoned that if Mao were a husband, he would start behaving responsibly. Yi-chang’s niece was the perfect marriageable age, four years older than Mao. A betrothal was arranged to which Mao reluctantly agreed, if that is what it took to get him back in school.

They were married in 1908. The bride was 18. Mao, 14. His wife’s family name was Luo. She had no proper name, but was simply addressed as Woman Luo. Mao was strikingly dismissive of his new wife, even refusing to live with her as he did not consider her to be his wife. Only a year into their marriage, Woman Luo died, giving Mao an easy return to his sought after freedom. From then on he was a fierce life long opponent of arranged marriages.

Soon, thereafter, the 16 year-old widower demanded he be allowed to leave his father’s village. A disappointed Yi-chang had hopes of apprenticing Mao to a nearby rice store, while Mao had hopes of going to yet another school. By then all imperial examinations had been abolished. In their place were modern schools teaching subjects like science, world history, geography and foreign languages. It was these schools that would open up the world to Mao Tse-Tung, transforming him from a peasant into a scholar.

One particular school was in his mother’s county. The fees and accommodations were high, but Mao got her relatives to lobby his father to pay the cost for five months. One of his cousins sealed the deal when he replaced Mao’s blue homespun mosquito netting with one of white machine-made muslin in keeping with the school’s modernity.

But, within a few months Mao had again grown restless. He heard that in the provincial capital there was another school specially set up for young people from his mother’s county. He persuaded a teacher to enroll him even though he was not actually a resident of that county. In the spring of 1911, 17-year-old Mao arrived at his new school in Changsha. He never looked back.

It is interesting to note that there is no evidence that Mao, for the rest of his life, was ever motivated by his humble upbringing to have any sense of injustice or sympathy for the peasants. Gallionic in his disdain for them, he was in no way imbued with any concerns towards improving the lot of the poor.

In his new school, the young Mao became addicted to reading government newspapers, the start of a lifelong obsession. It was then that he also cut off his pigtail, his most obvious adherence to imperial rule. With a friend he then ambushed a dozen other students and forcibly removed their queues with scissors.

In October of 1911, the Manchu dynasty that had ruled China for over 260 years crumbled. Within sixty days a new republic was declared. The child emperor, Pu Yi, abdicated the following month. These tumultuous events opened up a myriad of dazzling career opportunities for Mao. He first enlisted in one of the new Republican armies, but soon left as he did not like the drilling routines. He also hated such chores as carrying water, which he soon hired a water vendor to do for him.

Free of the military, he decided to return again to school. Six new institutions drew his attention including a police college and a law college. One college even specialized in making soap. In the end he picked a general high school where he stayed for six months until boredom drove him out to study on his own in the local provincial library.

There, at last, Mao found something he loved. He spent all his days in the library devouring books, including translations of Western documents. More than anything, these readings helped free his mind from the old traditional constraints. He described his time there as a “buffalo charging into a vegetable garden and gobbling down everything that grew.”

But, Yi-chang roiled with discontent, threatening to cut Mao off from any more funding unless Mao enrolled in a proper college. Under these dire warnings, Mao entered a teacher-training college which offered cheap board and lodgings along with free tuition, a promotion by China to encourage the further education of its people.

By now Mao was 19. His new college embodied the open-mindedness of the time. Even its buildings were designed in a European style with classrooms sporting smart wooden floors and glass windows. There the pupils were exposed to new ideas that encouraged them to think freely and dream big dreams.

Mao’s head spun with possibilities.

(to be continued)