Without a doubt, Mao Zedong has been one of the most influential figures in contemporary Chinese politics. From the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, his influence and impact have surpassed traditional policies and have created a unique ideological concept: Maoism. In this article, Júlia Rovira Munté examines a contested outlook on Maoism; that of its religious nature. Despite Mao’s views on religion, his ideology was transformed into something greater than a series of policies: it became a political religion.
Image 1: Political poster depicting Mao Zedong being celebrated by the Chinese people. Translation: "Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts". Photo by Francisco Anzola (Wikimedia Commons).
Mao Zedong was the leader of China from 1949 until 1976. He established the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after winning the civil war against the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party that ruled at the time.
Born in 1893, Mao was part of the May Fourth generation - an anti-imperialist movement derived from the conclusions of the Treaty of Versailles. It was then that he became interested in Marxist and Leninist writing, and decided a similar revolution must happen in China. He founded the CCP in 1921, and in 1927 he wrote about the importance of peasants as key to the proletarian revolution, while relations with the Kuomintang worsened (Cheek, 2014, p.91). After being expelled from the South by the Kuomintang in 1934, Mao led the Red Army to the North of the country in what would be known as the Long March, establishing himself as the leader of the CCP. There was a ceasefire and minimal alliance during the Second Sino-Japanese War, but the Chinese Civil War continued following the Japanese defeat in the Second World War. Finally, after three more years of fighting, Mao’s efforts culminated in the proclamation of the PRC in 1949, while Kuomintang and its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan (Benton, 1992, pp.41-45).
Building a Common Thought
Maoism is often referred to as an ideology that aimed to break China’s national barriers and extend its influence internationally. What distinguished Mao from Marx or Lenin was that he considered peasants the main actors of the revolution, as China was majorly agrarian at the time. Over twenty years, he trained and educated a mass of rural workers until they were ready to battle the Kuomintang, and subsequently take over the country.
Economic and development policies were some of the first manifestations of Maoism, especially the first Five-Year Plan from 1953 to 1957. The results of the first Five-Year Plan were satisfactory due to a significant increase in industrial development (Smith, 2017), partially due to Soviet aid. This allowed the launching of the Great Leap Forward - a reform of what would have been the second Five-Year Plan (Smith, 2017). On the other hand, and perhaps a more visible expression of Maoism, were the cultural policies. The two most notable are the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the Cultural Revolution. The Hundred Flowers Campaign spanned from 1956 until 1959 and was designed to encourage the literary freedom of Chinese citizens - enabling them to express opinions of the Communist Party to foster China’s cultural sector (Smith, 2017, p.185). However, the policy backfired on Mao, as intellectuals expressed their concerns and criticism of the government without restrictions (Lew, 1975), resulting in daily public demonstrations. This led to the persecution of thousands of critics and even more censorship and restrictiveness (King, 2012). A few years later, following the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution from 1966 until 1976. This policy aimed at renewing the spirit of the Chinese Revolution and preserving Mao’s position as the leader of China (Smith, 2017, p.179). Concerned that capitalists had infiltrated his party and the government, Mao launched an oppressive campaign against party officials and intellectuals suspected to be dissidents. Hundreds of them died, either at the regime’s hands or due to suicide (Smith, 2017).
These policies helped shape a common ideology that grew stronger decade after decade, which was known as Maoism. As such, some argue that Maoism is a religion, others claim it is a religion-like ideology, while a few scholars consider it a doctrine that merely embodies traditional Chinese features (Yu, 1985, p.142). Nevertheless, as there is an unconscious historical legacy in Maoist thought that is made up of ideas about men or nature - which were for years confined to philosophical debates, but are now engraved in the minds of many (Yu, 1985, p.143) - there is a common consensus that Maoism has a religious component.
Maoism’s Religious Nature
American sociologist Robert Bellah defines religion as a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence (1964, p.359). As such, religion provides a general identity to individuals that helps them cope with questions or frustrations in their life. Civil religion, a term coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, refers to the religious dimension of polity (Coleman, 1970, p. 67), and stresses patriotism and the sanctity of the social contract and the laws (Kessler, 1994, p. 29). Émile Durkheim, a prominent sociologist, similarly alluded to civil religion - presenting social solidarity as a fundamental pillar of religion, which he believes is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things (Evans, 1977, p.31). Durkheim’s writings also reference the importance of patriotism, being an ardent defender of French nationalism (Wallace, 1977, p.289). Stemming from the research on civil religion, Christel Lane builds on the differences between civil and political religion. Lane (1981, p.42) distinguishes the types in two ways: the first is that in civil religion, there is a link between traditional religion and the state, whereas, in political religion, the religious element is contained in the sacralisation of the existing political order; and the second being that civil religion only concerns the political sphere of society, yet political religion affects all social life - as witnessed within Maoism.
Jiping Zuo (1991, p. 102) explained his experience of Maoism’s religious nature, reminiscing about the glorification of Mao at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution: children sang songs which reminded one of the Western Christian hymns, and there were allusions to Mao as “the Red Sun” or “the Messiah of Working People'', amongst others. Zuo (1991, p.102) also revealed that those who saw Mao in person would jump, shout, cry out, and experience a sort of ecstasy, a sentiment that can be related to collective effervescence - the sociological concept coined by Durkheim that alludes to a social force in which embodied humans are transformed through an emotional structuring of their sensory and sensual being (Shilling & Mellor, 1998, p.196). Relating to this, Zuo (1991, p.104) argues that the role of ritual in the revolution was the same as that of traditional religion as it helped reduce anxieties and prove a sense of security and belonging at the individual level, and helped unify and control society at a communal level.
Similarly, Joseph M. Kitagawa (1974, p.127) describes Maoism as the continuation of the humanistic-religious culture of traditional China, but with a radical re-interpretation based on the guiding inspirations of Marx and Lenin. Kitagawa (1974, p.136) argues that Mao preached one central message: first, China belonged to the people. Second, if the CCP worked hard, they would be able to touch God’s heart, which according to Mao, was the people of China. Furthermore, Kitagawa affirms that China had a messianic role in the international system: leading the weaker and marginalised nations towards liberation from imperialist powers like the United States (1974, p.139).
However, it is also argued that Maoism did not have the all-encompassing nature of classic political religions, like those found in Benito Mussolini’s Italy or Adolf Hitler’s Germany (Mitter, 2008, p.163). A key aspect of this point of view is that Maoism’s legitimacy and discourse were justified through rationality, while Maoism never referred to itself or its leaders, as high priests, religious entities, or anything of that sort (Mitter, 2008, p.164). Yet, Mao did require absolute obedience to his monopolistic claims of truth - as other views were contested and persecuted - which is a common feature of religion (Apter, 2005, p.20) and is evocative of contemporary Western political religions of the twentieth century.
Furthermore, although it could be seen as an antithesis to classify Maoism as a political religion due to Communism and Marxism's general rejection of religion, Timothy Cheek (2018, p.100) points out that Mao has joined the host of popular tutelary gods in Chinese religious temples, which represents a syncretism of twentieth-century ideological politics and long-standing Chinese religious folkways. Moreover, Maoism has inherited some Chinese religious traditional elements, such as the political system structure, in which the ruler has the “mandate of Heaven'' and enjoys the official titles of Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Supreme Commander and Great Helmsman (Kitagawa, 1974, p. 130). Some scholars even go as far as arguing that even if Mao rejected the traditional Chinese Gods, he worshipped a foreign God: Marx (Wu, 1975, p.115). Secular objects like the Little Red Book similarly became sacralised during Mao’s rule and have been described as “the Bible '' of and during the Cultural Revolution (Luqiu, 2016, p. 291). In the event of the Cultural Revolution, new neo-religious images such as “the Red Sun'' began to be used alongside new rituals, like the procession of the Red Guards, which is described as a parade resembling a traditional peasant pattern of religion (Jochim, 1986, p.59).
Maoism has been a widely studied phenomenon, and although most scholars concede that it had a religious element in it, there is no clear answer to the debate about its nature.
However, Maoism, as its name indicates, is undoubtedly based on a cult of personality typically seen in political totalitarian regimes. It can even be argued that Mao was deified during that time if one reads the accounts of some Chinese scholars, as his image transformed over time into that of a prophet, isolating him from the masses - adding a mysterious aura to his character reminiscent of mystical figures throughout history (Zuo, 1991). Consequently, there are two notable conclusions: first, Maoism resembles more a religion than an ideology; second, Maoism fits best into the political religion category.
Although perhaps not as strong as it once was, Maoism is still very much relevant in today’s China. In fact, several reports highlight the fact that some of current President Xi Jinping’s policies and speeches are suggestive of Maoism (Ding & Javed, 2019; Bandow, 2021). As Li Yuan points out in ‘Who Are Our Enemies?’ China’s Bitter Youths Embrace Mao (2021), there has been a growing sentiment amongst young Chinese, who are disaffected and disappointed with their current economic and labour conditions as they witness a business class get increasingly richer, while their quality of life gets arguably worse. For now, Maoism appears to have an eternal legacy - it was never a circumstantial system of beliefs: the reality it built, along with the sacralisation, adoration, and deification of figures and secular objects, was tailored to Mao’s vision, who resembled more the figure of a divine leader than a mundane ruler.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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