Mao Zedong Essay Questions

This collection of Chinese Revolution essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short-answer questions and other research or revision tasks. These questions are currently being updated. If you would like to contribute a question to this page, please contact Alpha History.

Imperial China

1. What was the Mandate of Heaven? By the end of the 1800s, why might some Chinese have believed that the Qing had lost this mandate?

2. Describe the ethnicity and culture of the Qing dynasty, its leaders and high officials. How did these factors shape the relationship between the Qing and other Chinese people?

3. How did the teachings of Confucius shape political and social views and values in 19th century imperial China?

4. What was the status of women in 19th century China? Explain how social structures and values excluded women and prevented their independence.

5. Discuss three significant problems faced by the Qing regime as it attempted to govern China in the 1800s.

6. Explain how the Qing regime was challenged by foreign imperialism and the actions of Westerners in China during the 1800s.

7. What was the Self-Strengthening Movement? Evaluate the success of this movement and the impact it had on China’s government, economy and society?

8. Discuss the role of Japan in contributing to rising nationalism and anti-Qing sentiment during the late 19th and early 20th century.

9. Summarise and discuss the Guangxu Emperor’s attempts at reform in the 1890s. What was the emperor seeking to achieve and how successful was he?

10. Explain how Dowager Empress Cixi was able to dominate Qing government, despite her nominally inferior status as a woman and a former concubine.

The last years of Qing rule

1. Discuss and evaluate three nationalist uprisings in China between 1895 and mid-1911. Who was responsible for these uprisings, what was their objective and why did they fail?

2. Who were the Fists of Righteous Harmony? Explain the conditions and factors that motivated this group and their ultimate objectives.

3. Why did Dowager Empress Cixi decide to support the rebellious Boxers? What were the implications of this decision?

4. What was the Boxer Protocol? What impact did it have on the Qing government and the rising Chinese nationalist movement?

5. Discuss the late Qing reforms and the extent to which they were successful. Did these reforms bolster Qing rule or weaken it?

6. Describe the ideas, values and objectives of groups like the Tongmenghui. Where and how did these groups acquire and develop their ideology?

7. The New Army was formed to bolster Qing rule but instead contributed to its downfall. Why was this? Discuss the role of the New Army in the last years of the Qing.

8. Identify three conditions, factors or events that contributed to outbreak of the Wuchang uprising in October 1911.

9. Discuss and evaluate the impact that Yuan Shikai had on the national government of China between 1898 and 1912.

10. Evaluate the political activities of Sun Yixian between 1905 and March 1912. To what extent was Sun Yixian responsible for the fall of the Qing?

Years of division: 1912 to 1927

1. How and why did Yuan Shikai became president of the Republic of China. What were the implications of this decision?

2. Explain how Yuan Shikai attempted to weaken and usurp the democratic national government between 1912 and 1916.

3. Sun Yixian’s mission was to reunify China and restore a republican national government. What steps did he take between 1912 and 1924 to achieve this?

4. Explain the events and factors that led to the Warlord Era of 1916-1927. Who were the warlords, what motivated them and how did they control their regions?

5. What was the Beiyang government that existed during the Warlord Era? To what extent did this constitute a ‘Chinese national government’?

6. What events or factors led to the May Fourth Movement of 1919? What ideas emerged from this movement and how did they shape future revolutionary groups?

7. How and why did the Soviet Union and Comintern support Sun Yixian and the Guomindang during the 1920s?

8. The Huangpu (or Whampoa) Military Academy was opened in 1924. Who operated the academy and why was it important for the restoration of a unified China?

9. To what extent was Jiang Jieshi the natural successor of Sun Yixian as the leader of the Guomindang? How did Jiang’s ideological position differ from Sun’s?

10. Explain how Jiang Jieshi and the Guomindang reduced the influence of warlords in 1926-27, leading to the restoration of an effective national government.

War and civil war: 1927 to 1949

1. Discuss the relationship between China and Japan between 1915 and 1945. What were Japan’s intentions and how did they impact on China’s national government?

2. What happened in Shanghai in April 1927? Why did this occur and how did it shape the next two decades in China’s history?

3. Discuss the policies of the Guomindang government between 1927 and 1937. To what extent did they build a republican society and improve the lives of ordinary people?

4. Explain the causes and participants in the Central Plains War. What did this conflict reveal about the Guomindang and the leadership of Jiang Jieshi?

5. What was the New Life Movement? Was this movement intended to achieve modernisation and reform – or an attempt to reinforce traditional Chinese values?

6. Evaluate the political and military leadership of Jiang Jieshi between 1927 and 1949. Was Jiang a victim of circumstance or a victim of his own misjudgements?

7. Who were the parties involved in the Xi’an incident? How did this incident alter the political and military situation in China?

8. The Second United Front existed from early 1937 to the Japanese surrender in 1945. To what extent was it really ‘united’?

9. Using evidence and specific examples, explain why the Guomindang and Nationalist army were unable to gain support from the Chinese people.

10. Identify and discuss the three most important reasons for the CCP victory in the Chinese Civil War.

Chinese communists

1. Discuss the formation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. Which people, groups and ideas contributed to the CCP in its early years?

2. Describe Mao Zedong’s contribution to the CCP and Chinese communism during the first ten years of the party (1921 to 1931).

3. Explain how the CCP and its members responded to the Shanghai Massacre and the collapse of the First United Front.

4. Discuss the role of the Comintern and foreign agents in shaping the ideology, tactics and direction of the CCP from 1927 onwards.

5. What steps did the CCP and its leadership take to establish a working socialist system in Jiangxi between 1931 and 1934?

6. Explain how Mao Zedong, Zhu De and others organised and trained the Red Army so that it was an important political tool as well as a military force.

7. Why is the Zunyi conference considered an important turning point in the history of the CCP?

8. Critically evaluate Mao’s strategic and military leadership during the Long March, referring to difference sources or historians.

9. Why did Mao Zedong describe the Long March as “a propaganda force, a seeding machine”? How has the legacy of the Long March been exploited by the CCP?

10. According to propaganda, the Yan’an Soviet was a period of great success, unity and optimism in the CCP. To what extent is this true?

The CCP in power: 1949 to 1959

1. Evaluate power structures in the Chinese national government after October 1949. To what extent was the “People’s Republic” answerable to the people?

2. Describe the land reform policies implemented by the government after 1949. What were these policies intended to achieve?

3. What were ‘Speak Bitterness’ meetings? Why did Mao Zedong and other communist officials encourage these meetings?

4. Discuss China’s involvement in the Korean War. Why did Mao and his government risk war with the West?

5. Explain what was targeted during the ‘Three-Anti’ and ‘Five-Anti’ campaigns of the early 1950s. What methods were used during these campaigns?

6. Evaluate China’s economic growth and development – from October 1949 to the end of the First Five Year Plan.

7. Discuss Mao’s relationship with the Soviet Union and its leaders, Stalin and Khrushchev. How did this relationship evolve in the 1950s?

8. Was the Hundred Flowers Campaign an error of judgement on Mao’s behalf? Or a political device to identify and deal with critics?

9. Explain the economic objectives of the Great Leap Forward. What policies or methods were adopted to fulfil these objectives?

10. What were the outcomes and consequences of the Great Leap Forward, both for the Chinese people and for Mao Zedong?

The struggle for control: 1960 to 1976

1. Discuss Mao Zedong’s position in the Chinese Communist Party between 1960 and 1966. How did Mao restore his position in the party by 1966?

2. What were the objectives of the People’s Communes, established by Mao in the late 1950s? Did they fulfil these objectives?

3. Why were Chinese people taught to “live like Lei Feng” and “learn from the PLA”? How successful were these campaigns?

4. Explore the sources and causes of the Cultural Revolution. To what extent was it really a popular revolution?

5. Referring to three specific events, explain how the Cultural Revolution forced ordinary people into compliance, obedience and loyalty.

6. Discuss the fate of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping during the 1960s. How and why were they removed from positions of influence in the CCP?

7. What was the ‘Down to the Countryside’ movement and what was it intended to achieve? What impact did it have on its participants?

8. Evaluate the contribution of Lin Biao to the development of post-1949 China. How and why did Lin fall from grace?

9. How did China’s foreign policy evolve between 1960 and 1976, particularly with regard to Soviet Russia and the United States?

10. Who were the Gang of Four and what political, social and economic vision did they have for the People’s Republic of China?


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  May 16 marks 50 years of China’s Cultural Revolution. Here's what you should know about the political movement.  

1. What is the Cultural Revolution and its goal?

The Cultural Revolution (May 1966 – October 1976) was a political movement launched by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, with the express purpose of eradicating “the bourgeois headquarters” and seizing power from capitalist roaders, or people accused of favouring capitalism, according to the official Chinese narrative.

It plunged the country into chaos, with the economy paralysed and millions of Chinese persecuted in violent struggles.

Mao consolidated power after purging officials he deemed to be political rivals, notably State President Liu Shaoqi. The paramount leader rose to a god-like status amid a series of propaganda campaigns.

2.  Who were the Red Guards?

The Red Guards often refer to the fanatical armband-wearing students who pledged allegiance to Mao and vowed to act in line with his instructions during the Cultural Revolution. As the political movement gained momentum, young workers and peasants also joined the Red Guards.

Mao gave the Red Guards free rein to confiscate private property, destroy national treasures and torture whoever they labelled “counter-revolutionaries”. Official record shows they murdered 1,772 people in Beijing alone in August and September 1966.

The violence soon spun out of control after the Red Guards started to storm government and party buildings. The group was also plagued by factionalism that led to armed clashes.

The central government decided to restore order from early 1967, with the People’s Liberation Army deployed to crack down on armed factions. Members of the main Red Guard units were subsequently dispersed after Mao launched the “Up To the Mountain, Down To the Village” movement, which saw millions of jobless youth sent to villages for re-education.

3. What were the Four Olds?

The Four Olds – a concept proposed in 1966 by Marshal Lin Biao, Mao’s then heir apparent – referred to the “old ideas, culture, customs and habit of the exploiting classes” that need to be destroyed.

Lin did not elaborate on the definitions, so the Red Guards took it upon themselves to smash things and torture people they thought are representative of the Four Olds.

The radicals started a reign of red terror by confiscating private property belonging to teachers and former businessmen. They evicted some 77,000 “monsters and freaks” from Beijing, and publicly humiliated and attacked “counter-revolutionaries” including officials, intellectuals and monks in the so-called struggle sessions.

Also, the Red Guards desecrated thousands of historical sites in Beijing. In what may be the worst case of destruction, they smashed 6,618 registered cultural artefacts in the Confucius Temple in Shangdong province.

They also renamed people, streets and schools to remove “feudal” overtones. Personal names like Wei Dong (Protect Mao) and Xiang Hong (Follow Red) gained popularity. In Beijing, the Chang’an Avenue, named after the capital of the Han and Tang dynasties, was changed to “East is Red Avenue”. Some even proposed to rename Beijing the “East is Red City”, but it was rejected by Premier Zhou Enlai.

4. What is the Little Red Book?

The Little Red Book, or Quotations from Chairman Mao, was the bible of the Red Guards, who often waved it while chanting the quotes as part of the ritual to show loyalty. Some people even started their daily conversations with a Mao-quote.

The book, first launched in 1964, came with different editions, but the compact ones that could fit into a pocket were the most popular. Billions of copies were believed to have been printed during the Cultural Revolution.

Marshal Lin promoted the book to the Red Guards during Mao’s first rally with the students in 1966. He reportedly called on the students to “say Long Live in your months, hold the Quotations in your hands”.

Here are some oft-used quotes from the Little Red Book:

Study well, and make progress every day.
A revolution is not a dinner party.
Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
We should support whatever our enemies oppose and oppose whatever our enemies support.
All reactionaries are paper tigers.

5. Who were the sent-down youth?

The sent-down youth, also known as “educated youth”, were the young people who left cities to work and live in the rural areas between 1950s and 1970s. Many of them lost the opportunity to go to university.

The authorities began to glorify labour in the countryside as early as 1953, but mass migration of the young started in late 1960s when Chairman Mao launched the “Up To the Mountain, Down To the Village” movement.

More than 16 million people, mostly students, were sent to the countryside between 1967 and 1976 for re-education, which historians say was a means to disperse the Red Guards. Another reason for the movement could be a lack of urban employment opportunities, with more than four million idle high school graduates in 1968.

6. How many people died as a result of the Cultural Revolution?

China did not release official data on the number of victims, but various estimates put the death toll at between hundreds of thousands and several million.

An article published in 2003 by The China Quarterly claims that between 750,000 and 1.5 million of people died in the countryside, with a similar number permanently injured. About 36 million suffered some form of political persecution, the article adds.

Professor John Fairbank, a prominent American historian of China, says the number of victims “hover around a million”.

Hong Kong’s Cheng Ming magazine, citing China’s undisclosed “internal investigation”, says 1.72 million people suffered from unnatural death, and another 237,000 died in “armed struggle”.

7. How did the Cultural Revolution end?

The capture of the Gang of Four on Oct 6, 1976, is often seen as marking the end of the Cultural Revolution.

As Mao’s health declined in the later stages of the Cultural Revolution, the clique wielded tremendous power and took aim at moderates like Premier Zhou, raising the ire of the party’s influential elders.

Shortly after Mao’s death, his designated political heir Hua Guofeng won the support of the army and party elders, and staged a coup against the Gang of Four. Hua later said crushing the clique symbolises the end of the Cultural Revolution.

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