4 Facts You Didn't Know about Life under Chairman Mao's Rule

Rachel Peat

When he formally established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared, ‘the Chinese people have stood up!’ But what did this mean for the ordinary peasant, student, or urban worker? From mangoes and rats tails to typewriters and atomic bombs, we look at some of the more unusual objects which reveal the foibles of day-to-day life in 1950s and 60s China.

Mao Zedong proclaims the People’s Republic of China, 1 October 1949

From 1949 until his death in 1976, Chairman Mao set out to transform China. He dreamed of a modern socialist economy, infused by folk culture and leading the Communist revolution abroad. The highs and lows of the regime’s journey have since been well-documented, ranging from rapid industrialization to catastrophic famine and the political purges of the Cultural Revolution. Now however, historians are increasingly studying the impact of these changes on ordinary life. Here we look at some of the more fascinating – and bizarre – accounts of how people at grassroots level experienced and responded to Mao’s policies.

Holy Mangoes

Predictive Text Typewriters

A key principle of Mao’s transformation of science and the economy was its democratization. Innovation, he believed, should be in the hands of the common people, whose natural ingenuity and hard-work had untold potential. Ordinary workers were consequently encouraged to experiment with new ways of doing things – and rewarded when it went well. In this environment, a brilliant typesetter, Zhang Jiying, rearranged the keys on his typewriter so that instead of appearing in dictionary-order, commonly combined characters were placed next to each other. Following this principle, he even prepared frequent phrases from current political campaigns – like ‘Resist America’. The result was an early form of predictive text – and a new typing record of almost 80 characters per minute.

Coal miners reading from Mao’s Little Red Book

Rat Tails

Public hygiene was a central concern of the Communist regime. In many regions, disease was rife and crops were plagued by pests – no basis for a healthy population who might increase production and resist foreign imperialism. During the 1950s, Mao ordered a series of mass mobilization campaigns to tackle these conditions, encouraging hand-washing, street-cleaning and the extermination of the ‘Four Pests’: flies, mosquitoes, sparrows and rats. As proof of their efforts, families in Shanghai were required to present one rat’s tail per week to the authorities. In Guangdong, meanwhile, a quota of 50,000 rats tails per province was imposed in 1952. The political pressure to comply led to a thriving black market – and a drop in production, as workers devoted their time to hunting out, or even breeding, rats for collection.

A tunic suit design

The Real Atom Bomb

As the Cold War intensified in the 1960s, the threat of nuclear attack loomed large in the minds of China’s leaders. Mao nevertheless resolutely dismissed US atomic weapons as mere ‘paper tigers’. For him, material strength was no match for the ‘spiritual’ force of his own brand of philosophy, known as ‘Mao Zedong Thought’. Equipped with these ideas, he said, the people of China would be filled with a revolutionary zeal so great that their courage and self-sacrifice would outlast any military opposition. This doctrine was collected in the so-called ‘Little Red Book’ – a selection of his speeches and writings which became the most printed work of the period. Found in homes and schools, and memorized by devoted followers, its 1966 foreword declared that this was the real ‘spiritual atomic bomb’.

Tunic Suits

1950s China saw no policies specifically regulating fashion choice. Yet poet Ai Qing couldn’t help but remark, ‘Look along the street and all you can see is a great stretch of blue and black.’ This uniformity of clothing was partly due to the increasing state control of businesses, including tailors. From 1949, entrepreneurs had to apply for licenses from the state and over time were absorbed into nationalized industries, with raw materials and production centrally controlled. The state prioritized uniforms for workers and soldiers fighting in the Korean War, and was reluctant to grant permission for tailors to produce the luxury garments they once specialized in. The result was the ubiquity of the zhifu – the standard jacket and trouser combinations known as ‘boiler suits’ in the West and popularized by Mao and other Communist leaders. Workers were free to choose what they wore, but the options were limited.

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article