Mao Zedong

His ruthless vision united a fractured people and inspired revolutions far beyond China's borders

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Mao Zedong loved to swim. In his youth, he advocated swimming as a way of strengthening the bodies of Chinese citizens, and one of his earliest poems celebrated the joys of beating a wake through the waves. As a young man, he and his close friends would often swim in local streams before they debated together the myriad challenges that faced their nation. But especially after 1955, when he was in his early 60s and at the height of his political power as leader of the Chinese People's Republic, swimming became a central part of his life. He swam so often in the large pool constructed for the top party leaders in their closely guarded compound that the others eventually left him as the pool's sole user. He swam in the often stormy ocean off the north China coast, when the Communist Party leadership gathered there for its annual conferences. And, despite the pleadings of his security guards and his physician, he swam in the heavily polluted rivers of south China, drifting miles downstream with the current, head back, stomach in the air, hands and legs barely moving, unfazed by the globs of human waste gliding gently past. "Maybe you're afraid of sinking," he would chide his companions if they began to panic in the water. "Don't think about it. If you don't think about it, you won't sink. If you do, you will."

Mao was a genius at not sinking. His enemies were legion: militarists, who resented his journalistic barbs at their incompetence; party rivals, who found him too zealous a supporter of the united front with the Kuomintang nationalists; landlords, who hated his pro-peasant rhetoric and activism; Chiang Kai-shek, who attacked his rural strongholds with relentless tenacity; the Japanese, who tried to smash his northern base; the U.S., after the Chinese entered the Korean War; the Soviet Union, when he attacked Khrushchev's anti-Stalinist policies. Mao was equally unsinkable in the turmoil--much of which he personally instigated--that marked the last 20 years of his rule in China.

Mao was born in 1893, into a China that appeared to be falling apart. The fading Qin dynasty could not contain the spiraling social and economic unrest, and had mortgaged China's revenues and many of its natural resources to the apparently insatiable foreign powers. It was, Mao later told his biographer Edgar Snow, a time when "the dismemberment of China" seemed imminent, and only heroic actions by China's youth could save the day.

Mao's earliest surviving essay, written when he was 19, was on one of China's most celebrated early exponents of cynicism and realpolitik, the fearsome 4th century B.C. administrator Shang Yang. Mao took Shang Yang's experiences as emblematic of China's crisis. Shang Yang had instituted a set of ruthlessly enforced laws, designed "to punish the wicked and rebellious, in order to preserve the rights of the people." That the people continued to fear Shang Yang was proof to Mao they were "stupid." Mao attributed this fear and distrust not to Shang Yang's policies but to the perception of those policies: "At the beginning of anything out of the ordinary, the mass of the people always dislike it."

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