Where does a rebellious spirit come from? What makes one renounce the status quo and become a revolutionary leader? For Mao Zedong, who went on to become chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and head of the People’s Republic of China, it was reading widely in the library.
According to a 1976 American Libraries article by the librarian Stephanie Kirkes, the six months in 1912 that young Mao spent reading in the Hunan Provincial Library after he left secondary school “gave him the knowledge and skills to undertake the task of organizing a new China and creating a new Chinese culture.” Mao spoke wistfully of this time with his biographer Edgar Snow:
During this period of self-education I read many books, studied world geography and world history. There for the first time I saw, and studied with great interest, a map of the world. I read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and Darwin’s Origin of Species, and a book on ethics by John Stuart Mill. I read the works of Rousseau, Spencer’s Logic, and a book on law by Montesquieu. I mixed poetry and romances, and the tales of ancient Greece, with serious study of history and geography of Russia.
When his father would no longer pay for his independent study, Mao enrolled in teacher’s college at the Changsha Normal College in the city of Hunan, where he quickly became a student leader, “considered a troublemaking dissenter by some, a righter of wrongs by others.”
According to Kirkes, “In these five years his political ideas took shape. He was able to relate what he had been reading [in the library] to the national problem of altering and renewing Chinese society. He believed in the need to start a “cultural revolution,” put an end to feudalism, and restore military virtues, individual initiative, and conscious action.”
With the help of his mentor, Professor Yang, he formed the New People’s Study Society, “transforming a group of friends into an organization of some sixty or seventy students from many towns.” This was his first experience organizing people around shared goals, and it was a great success. When Yang moved to Peking (Beijing) in 1918 to teach at the University, Mao followed, hoping to meet and engage with the intellectual elites.
His reality was far from what he’d imagined. Mao needed money, so Yang got him a job as library assistant at the Peking University Library. He was stationed at a desk in the basement where he read books on the job and retrieved newspapers for the university students. At first he was excited by the access this position would afford him to the scholars at the school. He’d come to Peking thinking he might become a classical Chinese scholar, but he instead found himself in such a lowly position that the famous professors treated him with contempt. Meanwhile, his salary was so inadequate that he couldn’t easily cover the cost of food or shelter. He lived in a small house with other colleagues from Hunan, where they shared one overcoat and rotated sleeping on the one available bed.
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Mao quickly realized that something was wrong, that the “scholars had moved away from the people.” This exposure to what Kirkes calls the “vanity and egotism of the intellectual who talked of humanism and socialism, yet cut himself off from the wretched masses of the poor,” primed him for Marxism. When his boss at the library, Director Li Ta-chao, helped form the Society for the Study of Marxism, Mao joined the group and read Marx’s The Communist Manifesto for the first time. It had a profound impact on the young autodidact, who only questioned why Marx focused on urban workers and ignored the peasants. The writing and ideas of the library director were also influential. According to Kirkes, “Li Ta-chao imparted to Mao two of his convictions: a belief in the surplus raw energy of the broad masses, however backward they might be; and faith in the immense potential of the peasantry of China still waiting to be tapped.”