Mao Zedong 毛泽东 (Biographical details)

Mao Zedong 毛泽东 (scribe/calligrapher; politician/statesman; Chinese; Male; 1893 - 1976)

Also known as

Mao Zedong; Mao Tse Tung; Chairman Mao; Mao zhuxi (毛主席); The Great Helmsman; Weida duoshou (伟大舵手)


Mao Zedong's passion for calligraphy and the classics had its roots in the cultural values of his generation. In order to be regarded as educated and cultured, a man had to excel in both these subjects. For Mao, calligraphy was 'an active pastime, always a way of strenghtening the mind and body while attaining tranquillity'. During Mao's years on the Long March (1934-1935) and while he was in the Communist stronghold of Yanan (1935-1947), most of his calligraphy was written on drafts, reports and official letters that had to be produced in a legible hand. Mao followed the recently introduced fashion of writing from left to right, rather than from top to bottom, and this is the reason why his calligraphy began to give greater emphasis to the horizontal dimension of a character than to the traditional vertical one. Mao also broke from tradition by not adding a seal after his signature. Most of his calligraphy was done with a hard-tipped brush, which was ideally suited to write small characters quickly and clearly in running script (行书). When using a brush with a very thin tip, he liked to make elongated downward strokes that were like silken threads, but when working with a thicker brush, he emphasized diagonal strokes in a determined manner. As Mao came closer to victory over the Nationalist forces, the style of his calligraphy began to change. Not only did his running script become lighter and freer, but it was noticeable that he was beginning to juxtapose large characters with small ones. Although Mao loved calligraphy, he knew that the culture which had nurtured the art was a major impediment to his plans for bringing about a far-reaching socialist revolution in China. Publicly, he played down the significance of calligraphy, but at the same time he used it to cloak himself with an imperial aura and as a source of personal comfort. By the time Mao seized the control of China, he was already a rather lonely figure, a man who had colleagues but not friends. Calligraphy helped him to fill the emotional void. Within a few years in the 1950s, Mao's calligraphy was emblazoned on public buildings across Beijing, being the most prominent of them the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Revolution. By the late 1950s Mao had begun to take a serious interest in cursive script (草书), especially 'wild' cursive script, the mastery of which requires great talent and skill. As he studied calligraphy more intensively and practised ever harder to enhance his skills, he develop several different styles. After 1959, his calligraphy seems to have become even more self-consciously intimidating (baqi). Up to this point he had allowed his colleagues to introduce reforms that he disliked but accepted as necessary. However, as soon as he suspected that these reforms were leading towards the decollectivization of agriculture, he began his preparations to stop what he saw as the 'return to the capitalist road'. In the summer of 1966, Mao struck out at his unsuspecting colleagues by inaugurating the so-called 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution', opening the way for the Red Guards to attack those whom Mao saw as his rivals within the leadership, including president Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping, Secretary-General of the Party. Following Mao's death in 1976 and the ousting of the 'Gang of Four' a month later, the amount of Mao's calligraphy that was on public display declined rapidly.


Gordon S. Barrass (2002): "The Art of Calligraphy in Modern China".