Mao Zedong

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

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Are these changes, these moves toward a new flexibility, somehow Mao's legacy? Despite the agony he caused, Mao was both a visionary and a realist. He learned as a youth not only how Shang Yang brought harsh laws to the Chinese people, even when they saw no need for them, but also how Shang Yang's rigors helped lay the foundation in 221 B.C. of the fearsome centralizing state of Qin. Mao knew too that the Qin rulers had been both hated and feared and that their dynasty was soon toppled, despite its monopoly of force and efficient use of terror. But in his final years, Mao seems to have welcomed the association of his own name with these distant Qin precursors. The Qin, after all, had established a united state from a universe in chaos. They represented, like Mao, not the best that China had to offer, but something ruthless yet canny, with the power briefly to impose a single will on the scattered emotions of the errant multitude. It is on that grimly structured foundation that Mao's successors have been able to build, even as they struggle, with obvious nervousness, to contain the social pressures that their own more open policies are generating. Surely Mao's simple words reverberate in their ears: As long as you are not afraid, you won't sink.

Jonathan Spence teaches at Yale and is the author of several acclaimed books on China

Sidebar

Ruling Style
More than an unsinkable statesman, Mao was also an unsinkable trendsetter. His signature high-collared jacket, which was reprised last year by Prada, endures as a couture icon. Some of fashion's other political muses:

Mad For Jackie
The pillbox hat was born in the 1930s, but it was Halston's rendition of the cap for First Lady Jackie Kennedy that became iconic. Will we ever forget the pink one she wore in Dallas?

Moda Eisenhower
Versions of the waist-length, belted battle jacket worn by General Dwight Eisenhower have flown down runways for 50 years. In 1945 it took the form of a ladies' blouse.

Prime Minister Chic
While it has become a staple in the closets of hipsters everywhere (male and female alike), the straight, slim, nearly collarless jacket popularized by Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru had its real heyday in the late 1960s, when even Johnny Carson donned one for TV.

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