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Mao Zedong was the ruler of mainland China from 1949 to 1976. Though trained from a young age in Confucian thought and philosophy, Mao broke with that, and forced China into rapid Western-style industrialization, while patterning the government loosely after the Marxist-Leninist model of the Soviet Union. He also attempted to rapidly collectivize and socialize China with the goal of turning it into a Communist state. Through the Cultural Revolution, he pushed the country to abandon Confucian thought and move to a more Western world view.
Looking back from our vantage point half a century later, it is clear that China has successfully industrialized. They are a world leader in technology and their manufacturing abilities are unsurpassed.
On the other hand, Mao's attempt at converting China to a Communist state was less successful. The Chinese economy today is mixed, with a large slice owned by the State. However, private ownership of businesses is a major factor in China, and they are apparently moving in the direction of less state ownership rather than more. Chinese businesses work closely with Western companies, and manufacture goods for profit for many Western firms. In the area of state-provided medical care, China today lags much of Europe, with state-provided funding typically covering only half of medical costs. Finally, collectivization of the farms has been largely reversed, with effective private ownership of land being restored in 2017. This is not a picture of either a Communist or a socialist state.
There was a major cost to the changes Mao wrought. The forced pace of industrialization, coupled with disruptions caused by the collectivization of the farms, followed by the Cultural Revolution in which existing institutions were intentionally destroyed, resulted in significant human suffering, though the real cost is difficult to pin down. We will discuss this further, below.
Mao was born on 26 December 1893 in Shaoshan, a small city in Hunan Province, China.
Mao Zedong's father, Mao Yichang, has been called "wealthy" but that may be misleading. He owned his own farm and had significant savings, but he worked the farm himself with the help of family members and two hired hands.
Mao Yichang had been left in debt by his father. His initial plot of farm land was purchased with money he saved from his salary while in the army, from which he also paid off his inherited debts. Yichang subsequently added to the land with money earned farming it. He eventually saved two or three thousand Chinese dollars, and bought mortgages on some other farms, and eventually, in addition to growing rice, he traded rice, buying it from nearby farmers and selling it at the county seat (some distance away). Financially, he would have been roughly the equivalent of a kulak in Russia at the time Stalin came to power. 
Zedong had an adversarial relationship with his father Yichang, who beat him for infractions such as causing embarrassment in front of guests.
Elementary school lessons consisted largely of having the students memorize classic Chinese writers, such as Confucius. Zedong professed to have hated Confucius from the age of 8, but he was apparently a good student, because he made good use of Confucian quotes and principles throughout his life, both in debating and writing.
Zedong's father Yichang wanted him to devote himself to the family business, but he wasn't interested. His father also arranged a marriage for him, which he went through with, but he refused to live with his "wife". Zedong and his mother, Wen Qumei, both eventually left Yichang and moved out of the house, which supports the claim that Yichang was tyrannical. Relations with his father were certainly not good. Despite this, his father agreed to pay for Zedong's further education at Donghshan Higher Primary School, and to support him while he was there.
Zedong left Donghshan Higher Primary School after seven or eight months and, after trying and rejecting several schools, enrolled at Changsha Middle School in the city of Changsha, which was a revolutionary hotbed at the time. Zedong eventually left that school as well, apparently due to the continuing emphasis on Confucianism, and instead spent his time studying on his own, much of it in the public library. During this time he read the works of Western philosophers and scientists, including Adam Smith and Charles Darwin.
After Zedong left school completely, his father stopped supporting him. He would have been about 18 years old at that point.
Financially on his own, Zedong decided to become a teacher, and enrolled at the Fourth Normal School of Changsha, which was a teacher training college, and which was inexpensive but high quality. He continued his political and philosophical studies while he was there. He graduated in 1919, ranked third in his class.
Mao joined the Party in 1921, and established a new branch of the Party in Changsha. 
Though Confucian philosophy teaches respect for elders and authority figures and teaches one to be content with ones place in the world, the revolutionary aspects of Communism struck a sympathetic chord among many Chinese in the countryside. The traditional system led to concentration of land ownership in relatively few hands, with the remainder of the populace scratching out a living on farms that were too small, with yields that were too dependent on the weather, and put many in the position of paying sometimes exorbitant rent in order to have enough land to farm to produce enough to survive. Northern China has a monsoon climate, but the monsoons are not completely reliable. If the rains come late, the crops may fail; if the rains are too heavy, rivers may flood. Either could lead to famines, which invariably fell far more heavily on the great mass of poor peasants than they did on the moderate or rich peasants. In short, the institutionalized unfairness, coupled with the hard life of the peasants, resulted in a society that was primed for the message of expropriation and collectivization that the Communists brought. 
Rise to Power
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Serving as a member of the Chinese Communist Party from 1921 to 1935, he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Comintern in in Moscow and remained in this position until it was disbanded in 1943.
The Great Leap Forward
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The First Five Year Plan was patterned roughly along the lines of the five year plans of the Soviet Union.
What was to be the The Second Five Year Plan became the Great Leap Forward, as Mao decided to press ahead with crash industrialization of China simultaneously with the crash collectivization of the nation's farms. There were a number of problems to be confronted.
First, the steel industry was in poor condition, in part due to damage from World War II. Large scale industrialization requires steel in large quantities, and building or repairing steel plants is time consuming process, and if they were to proceed as Mao wanted, time was something they didn't have.
So Mao attempted to take a short cut. He pushed for so-called "back yard blast furnaces". Some 600,000 of them were produced and brought into service. They weren't really "back yard" furnaces -- not if what you're picturing is a typical American back yard -- but the actual furnaces were tiny, about the size of a good size water heater.
There were a number of problems with this approach. Perhaps the worst problem is a fundamental contradiction: The end goal of industrialization is to increase productivity of the workers, by substituting processes which require less human labor and hence free people up for other work. But "pocket blast furnaces" are extremely labor intensive to operate -- they take far more labor per ton of steel produced than industrial-scale furnaces. This isn't just a startup cost. Consequently, the push to produce large amounts of steel with pocket blast furnaces sucked up large amounts of labor, which was then not available for other things, like farming.
Meanwhile, the government was expropriating and collectivizing farmers on a massive scale. There is no evidence that the more successful farmers were being shot or deported as were many of the kulaks in the Soviet Union, but even without that, a massive dislocation of the bulk of the productive farm population would inevitably tend to result in a initial drop in farm output, which would persist at least until the inevitable problems which arise with such a large forced change are dealt with. Coming at the same time that large amounts of labor were being skimmed off for the crash industrialization effort, the result was an inevitable large drop in food production, even if nothing else went wrong.
Combined with poor weather in 1959, the result was a famine. The extent of the famine is difficult to assess, since the government was not at all transparent and nearly all the detailed information we have comes from partisans on one side or the other. However, the fact that Mao himself admitted to the problems, saying "The chaos caused was on a grand scale, and I take responsibility", shows conclusively that the plan had gone terribly wrong.
The Chinese Civil War
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Mao was married four times, and had a number of extramarital affairs. He was also said to have had relations with young women because, according to traditional beliefs, that would extend his life.
For most of his life he drank very little. However, while dealing with depression for a period of time in 1933, he drank heavily, and some have called him an alcoholic for that. He also followed what was a common peasant practice in China, and never used a toothbrush; instead, he washed his mouth with green tea and chewed the leaves; this left him with somewhat green teeth. He was also a heavy smoker, which may have contributed to his death.
Mao had multiple heart attacks in 1976. The final one was on 2 September, and he died a few days later. He was 82. He had also had a number of additional health problems which were largely concealed by the government. Consequently he was less actively involved in ruling China during his final years.
Footnotes and references
- Text on poster: "Sailing the seas depends on the helsman, waging revolution depends on Mao Zedong Thought" (translation from chineseposters.net, confirmed with Google Translate). Design by Zhejiang Worker-Peasant-Soldier Art Academy , January 1969
- Why China is still so far from a free market economy, Worldcrunch.com, 2012. The most important companies in China are still state-owned. In particular, this includes the banks.
- Wikipedia, Healthcare in China: "About 95% of the population has at least basic health insurance coverage. Despite this, public health insurance generally only covers about half of medical costs, with the proportion lower for serious or chronic illnesses."
- Has China restored private land ownership?, Foreign Affairs, 16 May 2017
- In The Black Book of Communism, by Courtois et al, it is claimed that Mao was responsible for the deaths of 65 million people in China. A summary and discussion of the Black Book is available on Wikipedia. However, due to the lack of transparency of the government, data to support such a conclusion can usually only be deduced indirectly. Furthermore, such direct sources as exist are not generally disinterested, and it can be difficult to verify them. Courtois's figures are strongly disputed; see, in particular, monthlyreview.org: Did Mao really kill millions in the great leap forward?
- The basic facts of Mao Zedong's childhood which are recorded in this section, which are generally not in dispute, were drawn largely from Wikipedia: Early Life of Mao Zedong
- Wikipedia: Early Life, which cites multiple authors in support of the claim.
- The author has not found the exact date at which Zedong lost his father's financial support.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Chinese Communist Party
- Council on Foreign Relations: The Chinese Communist Party
- Wikipedia: Mao Zedong
- Aspects of this are discussed in detail in Fanshen by Walter Hinton, 1966. He is a Marxist who lived in he village of Longbow for a number of years immediately after the Japanese occupation. The full text is available on Google Books.
The rise of the Communists in China is discussed in Red Star over China by Edgar Snow, 1937. The full text of the book is available (in a rather poor but legal scan) at the Internet Archive
- No evidence the author as seen yet, anyway
- The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Li Zhisui, 1994; excerpts and discussion are cited in an online article in the New York Times. Note, however, that Dr. Li's claims are not corroborated by anyone else, as there is nobody else in a position to do so.
- See the South African Medical Journal, vol. 99 #5, or Rational Wiki: Mao Zedong, which reports the same facts but spins them rather differently.
- Zhisui 1994
- So says Wikipedia, and they cite a number of sources for that detail.