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Heroes and Villains in the National Historiography of Modern China

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Koh, Yu Kyung
Term Paper, AP World History Class, June 2010

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Background information of Modern China
III. Modern Chinese Standards of Heroes and Villains
III.1 Heroes
III.2 Villains
IV. National Historiography of Heroes
IV.1 Sun Yat Sen
IV.2 Mao Zedong
IV.3 Deng Xiaoping
V. National Historiography of Villains
V.1 Yuan Shikai
V.2 Chiang Kai Shek
VI. How these heroes and villains were described differently in other sources
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            History of modern China did not flow smoothly. From its inception, modern China experienced the chaos caused by foreign powers, warlords and instable ideologies. A number of influential figures, who tried to control and to save the country, appeared in this chaotic period. Even though most of them had ambivalent aspects of both hero and villain, People¡¯s Republic of China's national evaluations on those figures are varying widely. Some of them are praised despite their fallacies, while some of them are condemned despite their great achievements.
            This paper focused on how today's People's Republic of China views five most influential modern figures : Sun Yat Sen, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Yuan Shikai, and Chiang Kai Shek. Moreover, to further investigate the controversial figures, this paper also dealt with the other perspectives toward the People¡¯s Republic of China¡¯s modern heroes and villains. By juxtaposing the different views on influential figures, this paper sought to fully describe those figures impartially and to understand the People's Republic of China's national bias on those figures.

II. Background information of Modern China
            Modern China has begun in 1912, as more than 2000 years of imperial rule came to an end. Frequent foreign invasions and civil unrest characterized the last days of Qing dynasty. Since lagged technology made China vulnerable to western powers, the demands for reform increased (1). However, Qing's court showed the reluctance to reform. Along with the increasing discontent toward Manchu rule, slow pace of reform had made Chinese people realize the necessity for revolution. By revolutionary groups inspired by Sun Yat Sen, Qing dynasty and the old order of China were finally collapsed. However, Xinhai revolution did not immediately bring idealistic, peaceful society. Sudden overthrow of old imperial rule caused even greater turbulence, since Chinese people were not yet ready for a new, democratic society. Modern China had to face tribulations, such as domination of warlords and fragmentation by foreign powers.
            Hence, early modern China had the conditions that enabled many influential figures to appear to seek dominance in the middle of chaos. Since China right after Qing dynasty did not have firm national ideology, notable figures emerged with new ideologies, such as nationalism, communism and totalitarianism. Most of these dominant figures had both characteristics of heroes and villains; even though they succeeded in taking the lead, they suppressed people severely in the process of actualizing their ideologies. Modern China had to suffer from growing pain after the revolution. The society was muddled with unstable ideologies, foreign pressures, and heroic, but oppressive figures.

III. Modern Chinese Standards of Heroes and Villains

III.1 Heroes
            Deciding whether a certain figure is a hero in modern China is mostly based on his contribution to formation of the republic and his ability to stabilize the society and economy. Republic of China, which overthrew the status system that had suppressed Chinese people for a long period, was established as a result of revolution. Figures like Sun Yat Sen, who led the revolution, are considered 'heroes' in China; they were the fathers of the nation. Stabilization and economic development are very important tasks in modern China; Republic of China was in a state of disorder with lagged economy and technology when it was first built. Hence, figures like Mao and Deng, who were able to set firm national philosophies and to make People's Republic of China develop economically, are also praised as 'heroes'.

III.2 Villains
            On the other hand, figures are evaluated as 'villains' in modern China if they betrayed the country or tried to nullify the achievements of the Xinhai revolution. Severe suppression can contribute to the notoriety of villains, but it cannot be the definite standard of villains; even so-called heroes like Mao and Deng had carried out suppression. Nationalistic spirit was very important in modern China, since foreign powers frequently intimidated China; if one lacked the spirit, he was suspected of being a traitor. For example, Chiang is widely blamed in People¡¯s Republic of China for betraying the country by not fighting hard enough against the Japanese. Moreover, since he suppressed the communists, who were the basis of People's Republic of China, Chiang is also considered to have betrayed national ideology. Yuan Shikai is also considered as 'a villain', since he tried to return to imperialism, therefore nullifying Xinhai revolution.

IV. National Historiography of Heroes

IV.1 Sun Yat Sen
            Sun Yat Sen is an influential revolutionary and political leader in modern China; he was the first provisional president of the Republic of China in 1912 and the cofounder of the Kuomintang (2). He played and significant role in opening the modern era of China in 1911 by overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. Unfortunately, his position as president was soon taken by ambitious Yuan Shi-kai, and Sun did not live to see unification of China. By the time Sun died, China was in the state of anarchy with the violence of competing warlords. Still, Sun is the heroic figure in post-Imperial China; he remains unique among twentieth-century leaders for having a high reputation not only in mainland China but also in Taiwan (3).
            In the People's Republic of China, Sun is regarded as the 'Forerunner of the Revolution', and also a Chinese nationalist and proto-socialist. His name appears in the preamble of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China: "The Revolution of 1911, led by Dr Sun Yat-sen, abolished the feudal monarchy and gave birth to the Republic of China." (4) His major legacy, the 'Three Principles of the People (nationalism, democracy, the People's livelihood)', is interpreted in Communist way in mainland China; mainland Chinese understood democracy and people's livelihood in Marxist terms, regarding that the way to achieve the latter two principles of Sun's philosophy was to make everybody get equal results. The Following is an excerpt from Concise of History of China, published by Peking press.

            "The Principle of People's Livelihood proposed the 'equalization of landownership' (later more explicitly defined as 'land to the tillers', and the 'regulation of capital' which was intended to ensure that no private capital could manipulate the people's means of livelibood. Sun Yat Sen is considered to have bolstered Chinese nationalism and communist economic reform in mainland China." (5)

            Here, it directly shows that People's Republic of China drew communistic values from Sun's philosophy.
            Sun Yat Sen's philosophies are flexible. Wikipedia describes that Sun 'presented himself as a strident nationalist to the nationalists, as a socialist to the socialists, and an anarchist to the anarchists, declaring at one point that "the goal of the Three Principles of the People is to create socialism and anarchism." (6) Hence, his philosophies could lead to different interpretations from People's Republic of China's; Taiwan¡¯s capitalistic view on Sun¡¯s philosophies is a major example. Sun Yat Sen's nationalistic spirit and philosophies still have lasting impact on People's Republic of China, and he is praised as the spiritual leader to Chinese.

IV.2 Mao Zedong
            Mao Zedong was not a completely blameless figure; his programs, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, caused millions of deaths and damaged Chinese society. Moreover, in order to eliminate suspected enemies, he purged nearly 70 million people during his time in power. Despite his brutality, Mao Zedong is largely considered as a symbolic, heroic figure in People's Republic of China; people in People's Republic of China regard Mao as a God-like figure, who led the ailing China onto the path of an independent and powerful nation (7). Tian An'men square is still visited by numerous Chinese tourists who come to show respect to the portrait of Mao Zedong.
            History article in the Chinese Government¡¯s Official Web Portal well represents how Chinese view Mao Zedong. The following is an excerpt from the article.

            "From the inception of the People's Republic of China in October 1949 to 1956, the new democracy to socialism, rapidly rehabilitating the country's economy, undertaking planned economic construction and in the main accomplishing the socialist transformation of the private ownership of the means of production in most of the country. The guidelines and basic policies defined by the Party in this historical period were correct and led to brilliant successes." (8)

            This part describes the results of Mao Zedong's policies after he had become a chairman of the Republic of China. It positively views Mao's policies, saying that China could be economically developed after his rule, and that his guidelines and basic policies were 'brilliantly successful.' Mentions on Mao's successful economic policies continue in the article, and throughout Mao Zedong's part, the article frequently uses the words like 'successful' and 'correct.' Mao¡¯s system was based on socialism, and this article praises socialist system, describing that transformation to state-owned socialist enterprises drove out "three evils" of corruption, waste and bureaucracy. It was also said that China's industrial and agricultural production had attained record levels by the end of 1952, and that First Five-Year Plan (1953-1957) caused fast economic growth and firm industrialization.
            Chinese government's history article acknowledges that the Great Leap Forward was Mao's mistake due to his impatience for quick results and excessive confidence due to his previous successes, but it mentions that fundamental aspect of the Great Leap Forward was correct. Moreover, the article focuses on Mao's ability to readjust the society after the economic setback; it also emphasizes that the blame cannot be laid on Mao Zedong alone. For example,

            "All the successes in these 10 years were achieved under the collective leadership of the Central Committee of the Party headed by Comrade Mao Zedong. Likewise, responsibility for the errors committed in the work of this period rested with the same collective leadership. Although Comrade Mao Zedong must be held chiefly responsible, the blame cannot be laid on him alone for all those errors. During this period, his theoretical and practical mistakes concerning class struggle in a socialist society became increasingly serious, his personal arbitrariness gradually undermined democratic centralism in Party life and the personality cult grew graver and graver. The Central Committee of the Party failed to rectify these mistakes in good time. Careerists like Lin Biao, Jiang Qing and Kang Sheng, harbouring ulterior motives, made use of these errors and inflated them. This led to the inauguration of the 'cultural revolution.'" (9)

            Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao Zedong, is treated as a most chaotic policy that caused heaviest losses since the founding of the People's Republic of China. Countless artifacts, historical sites and books were destroyed by the Red Guards, education was halted, and many intellectuals were persecuted. However, it is noticeable that Concise History of China, which was published in 1964, that is, before the Cultural Revolution, showed positive outlook on Cultural Revolution. By criticizing the bourgeois culture, the book mentioned that "Chinese cultural work under the leadership and loving care of Chairman Mao Tse-tung has unlimited possibilities of development." (10) However, decades have passed, and the Cultural Revolution has turned out to be a brutal, failed policy. Since the Communist Party had to make an appropriate historical judgment in this tragic incident, it recognizes that "Chief responsibility for the grave 'Left' error of the 'cultural revolution', an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration, does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong." (11) The government's article states that even though Comrade Mao Zedong paid constant attention to overcoming shortcomings in the life of the Party and State, in the later years, he confused right and wrong. Official Chinese view on Mao Zedong separated the personal actions of Mao during the Cultural Revolution from his earlier heroism, and Mao¡¯s personal mistakes from the correctness of the theory that he created. (12)
            General evaluation of Mao Zedong in Chinese historiography is positive. Mao Zedong is the eternal father of People's Republic of China, whose socialist construction made backward agricultural country into a world power. He is also considered as a great military leader, who successfully led guerrilla forces in anti-Japanese war and won the national dignity in the Korean War (13). Despite his wrongdoings, people in the People's Republic of China generally consider Mao as a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist, and the people's savior.

IV.3 Deng Xiaoping
            If Mao Zedong had established the people's republic with socialist system, Deng is considered to have made People's Republic of China the prosperous country; people in People's Republic of China regard Deng Xiaoping to have led the rise of People's Republic of China as an economic power. Deng Xiaoping was the core figure of second generation (1976-1992) of Chinese leadership, which turned the focus from class struggle and political movements to economic development (14). He was the one who introduced market economy in People's Republic of China in order to increase people's welfare. History article in the Chinese Government's Official Web Portal evaluates Deng Xiaoping as below.

            "Deng was an eminent leader who enjoyed high prestige among the whole Party, the Chinese armed forces and the people of all China's ethnic groups. He was a great Marxist, a proletarian revolutionist, a great statesman, a military strategist, a diplomat, a long-tested communist fighter, the chief architect of China's socialist reform and open-up drive and modernization construction, and the founder of the theory of building socialism with Chinese characteristics. The Chinese people of all nationalities, including the compatriots from Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and overseas Chinese felt deeply grieved for the death of Deng. Lots of foreign state leaders also lamented over Deng's death. The Chinese people were determined to turn grief into strength to push forward, under the leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Jiang Zemin at the core, the reform and opening to the outside world and the cause of socialist modernization, the endeavor which was initiated by Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese people will make efforts to turn China into a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and modern socialist country." (15)

            As shown above, Chinese people credit the economic growth in late 20th century to Deng Xiaoping; he was a national hero whose death caused nationwide grief. His achievements can be categorized into two: the economic reform and diplomatic reform.
            Deng Xiaoping's goals of economic reform were the 'Four Modernizations'; they were in the fields of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. By stressing economic self-reliance and opening up the markets, People's Republic of China was able to speed up its economic development (16). Moreover, under Deng's control relations with the West and Japan improved significantly. He succeeded in making U.S. recognize People's Republic of China rather than Taiwan. Another remarkable achievement made by improvement of foreign relationship was the return of Hong Kong and Macau; Deng Xiaoping embodied the concept of 'one country, two systems' to successfully absorb capitalist Hong Kong into socialist People's Republic of China. (17)
            Deng Xiaoping Theory, which emphasized economic construction and stability, became a major policy guide in People's Republic of China. Chinese government's history article shows deep trust in this theory by stating that "the Congress unanimously agreed to take Deng Xiaoping Theory as the guiding ideology for the Party and write it into the CPC Constitution." (18) To Chinese people, Deng Xiaoping was considered to have given a way to prosperity.

V. National Historiography of Villains

V.1 Yuan Shikai
            "Regretably, the fruits of the 1911 Revolution were usurped by the warlord Yuan Shikai with the backing of imperialism." (19)

            The excerpt above is from Chinese government's article on its history. Here, Yuan Shikai is called 'warlord', and he is described as a villain who tried to nullify the free China by backing the imperialism. As the excerpt mentions, Chinese people consider Yuan's rule as 'regrettable'. Noticeably, Yuan's reputation before the establishment of Republic of China was fairly good; he was considered to have played influential role in abdication of the last Qing Emperor of China (20). However, his status started to fall down as he took power in the republic of China. The following is the excerpt from Concise History of China, published by Peking press.
            "Under the autocratic rule of Yuan Shih-kai the country continued to be governed by the big landlords and comprador bourgeoisie. Yuan Shih-kai flagrantly carried on the policy of selling out the country and, with the support of the imperialist powers, attempted to crown himself 'Emperor.'" (21)

            It shows that Yuan Shikai's evil reputation today in People's Republic of China is mostly due to his attempt to return to imperialism. His reactionism was even seen as the act of selling out the country to imperialistic powers. Yuan was elected as a provisional president of republic of China in 1912; revolutionaries had to reluctantly compromise with Yuan since they had poor military base (22). After taking the office, Yuan adhered to a strong central government. He cracked down the Kuomintang and tried to reinstate monarchy in China; he called himself the emperor. His establishment of the empire was a total failure that ended shortly. After his death, combating warlords muddled the society. Yuan Shikai is considered to have disordered the modern country even further. Chinese people view Yuan Shikai as a temporary dictator who might have annulled the Republic, which they had achieved from painful efforts.

V.2 Chiang Kai Shek
            Despite his achievements of driving out warlords and contributing to the unification of China, Chiang Kai Shek is a largely blamed figure in People's Republic of China. Negative view of Chinese toward Chiang Kai Shek began when he took Nanjing and halted his revolution campaign. The following excerpt is from Chinese government's history article.

            "In the following year, Chiang Kai-shek, Wang Jingwei and other Kuomintang right-wingers betrayed the revolution one after another. They set up in Nanjing a new regime that still went under the name of the 'Republic of China.' Under Chiang Kai-shek's rule, there emerged in China national monopoly capitalism of a comprador and feudal nature. The fascist rule he instituted plunged the Chinese people into misery." (23)

            It can be seen from the excerpt that people in People's Republic of China view Chiang as a betrayer and a fascist ruler. Chiang tried to eliminate the leftist elements that could threaten his control of Kuomintang, so he massacred thousands of suspected dissidents and communists in Shanghai. (24) These purges made Chiang seen as an anti-communist, and that angered the communist China. During his control, communists had to escape into areas where Kuomintang control was weaker. Moreover, Chiang was criticized for not endeavoring to fight Japanese during Second Sino-Japanese War; he focused on fighting the communists instead. (25)
            In People's Republic of China¡¯s government's article on history, Chiang was never described in a good way. Instead, the article focuses on his defeat and humiliating elopement to Taiwan. For example, "In 1946, Chiang Kai-shek launched an all-out attack against the resistance forces led by the Chinese Communist Party. Chiang was defeated, and the Kuomintang regime was toppled in 1949. Chiang fled to Taiwan Island with his remnant troops." (26) People's Republic of China considers Chiang as a defeated villain whose corrupt government caused sufferings of Chinese people.

VI. V. How heroes and villains were described differently in other sources
            Sun Yat-sen is criticized by some to have his role in Chinese Revolution exaggerated. Some insist that Sun did not do actual work of overthrowing Qing dynasty since the revolution of finished by the time he reached China; however, this view is criticized, because even though Sun was away when Wuchang rising broke out, still he was the one who spread the revolutionary idea before the incident. Some people also criticized Sun for being too idealistic and vulnerable to new ideas.
            Mao Zedong is sometimes viewed as a dictator and a mass murderer comparable to Hitler and Stalin (27). His ruthless policies made some people believe that Mao put no value on human lives. He is considered to be responsible for deaths of 20 million by starvation when he carried out "The Great Leap Forward". (28) Moreover, his Cultural Revolution murdered numerous people. In Mao: the unknown story, authors claim that Mao Zedong was aware that the Great Leap Forward could cause a huge number of deaths; he himself mentioned that "half of China may well have to die." (29) It was believed that Mao carried out purges on those who opposed him and that around 43 million people died under Mao's rule.
            Deng Xiaoping is accused by some of suppressing any signs of political freedom that would undermine the direction of his economic reforms (30). Tian'anmen massacre was an example. Since Deng considered the demonstrations were a threat to the political stability of People's Republic of China, he used military forces to suppress the demonstrators. Over 7000 civilians were tortured and killed in the process. Deng's government then conducted further arrest of supporters of the movement and controlled the press. Deng Xiaoping was considered to have dictatorial aspects that limited freedom of Chinese people.
            Some people believe that Yuan Shikai had positive impact on military. Yuan Shikai created and reformed the modern army based on the Japanese model. His understanding of military settled the Chinese modern military organization (31). Some evaluate Yuan as an important Chinese general who had considerable influence during the late Qing Dynasty; Yuan had the best trained and most effective army of the period. Moreover, Yuan Shikai is believed to have put an end to Chinese imperial rule by forcing the abdication of the child emperor with his strong military force.
            Lastly, national villain of China, Chiang Kai Shek is nonetheless praised by some as a man of noble ideals who loved his people and lived his life seeking for a better homeland for them, though his ideals ultimately failed (33). He was considered as the leader of the anti-Communists who pursued the modernization of China; he eventually laid the foundation for Taiwan's prosperity. For some, Chiang was a heroic figure who successfully overthrew warlords through northern expedition and contributed to unify China. Furthermore, his unsuccessful attempts for a powerful nation were excused by some since Chiang had to simultaneously fight communists, Japanese and warlords. (34)

VII. Conclusion
            National historiography does not provide the absolute, unbiased evaluations of historical figures. As the national historiography of People's Republic of China shows, its people tend to overlook the fallacies of heroes and feats of villains. It has to be remembered that every Chinese figure discussed in this paper has controversial aspects; all of them are neither completely heroic nor completely evil. Decades ago, it was very dangerous for Chinese to refute the government's assessment on history; people had to believe that Mao was an absolute hero and Chiang was an absolute villain. However, as the government became less oppressive and people became more liberal, new perspectives on national heroes and villains are rising up in 21st century People's Republic of China. Now, attempts to make unbiased evaluation on historical figures are being carried out.
            However, even though the national historiography of People's Republic of China is not impartial, it is still important in that it shows the values and ideologies of people in People's Republic of China. For example, it can be understood from historiography of People's Republic of China that its people esteem nationalistic spirit and communism; these are the main standards in deciding heroes. Moreover, the historiography also shows that people in People's Republic of China value economic development; figures who developed the economy are considered heroes, even if they had political fallacies. Therefore, national historiography helps the further understanding of the country and its people.


1.      "China", Encyclopedia Britannica
2.      "Sun Yat Sen", Wikipedia (Chinese version)
3.      Ibid.
4.      Constitution of the People's Republic of China
5.      Chien and Shao 1964, p.160
6.      Ibid.
7.      "Mao Zedong", Wikipedia
8.      "History", Chinese Government's Official Web Portal
9.      Ibid.
10.      Chien and Shao 1964, p.256
11.      "History", Chinese Government's Official Web Portal
12.      "Cultural Revolution", Wikipedia
13.      "Mao Zedong", Wikipedia (Chinese version)
14.      "Generations of Chinese leadership", Wikipedia
15.      "History", Chinese Government's Official Web Portal
16.      "Four Modernizations", Wikipedia
17.      "Deng Xiaoping", Wikipedia (Chinese version)
18.      "History", Chinese Government's Official Web Portal
19.      Ibid.
20.      "Yuan Shikai", Wikipedia (Chinese version)
21.      Chien and Shao 1964, p. 135
22.      "Yuan Shikai", Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
23.      Ibid.
24.      "Chiang Kai Shek", Wikipedia (Chinese version)
25.      Ibid.
26.      "History", Chinese Government's Official Web Portal
27.      "Mao Zedong", Wikipedia
28.      "Evil Dictators of the Twentieth Century", Associated Content
29.      Chang and Halliday 2005, p. 444
30.      "Deng Xiaoping", Wikipedia
31.      Ibid.
32.      "Yuan Shikai", Wikipedia
33.      "Chiang Kai Shek", Wikipedia
34.      Ibid.


Note : websites quoted below were visited in June 2010.
Sources written from a Chinese perspective :
1.      Chinese Government's Official Web Portal : History,
2.      CONSTITUTION OF THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. People's Daily Online - Home Page.
3.      Chien and Shao, Concise History of China, Peking Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1964
4.      Article : Mao Zedong, Wikipedia (Chinese version),
5.      Article : Sun Yat Sen, Wikipedia (Chinese version),
6.      Tu, Li. "The Epoch Times : Evaluating Deng Xiaoping." Epoch Times - National, 14 June 2010,
7.      Article : Deng Xiaoping, Wikipedia (Chinese version),
8.      Article : Chiang Kai Shek, Wikipedia (Chinese version),
9.      Article : Yuan Shikai, Wikipedia (Chinese version),
Other Sources
10.      Article : China, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol.16, 15th edition, 1998
11.      Benjamin Yang, Deng : a political biography, M.E. Sharpe, 1998
12.      Chen, Jerome, Mao and the Chinese revolution, Oxford University Press, 1965
13.      Moise, Edwin E. Modern China, Longman Press, 1994
14.      Wright, David C. The history of China, Greenwood Press, 2001
15.      Chang and Halliday, Mao : the unknown story, Knopf, 2005
16.      Leung, Edwin P. Historical dictionary of Revolutionary China, 1839-1976, Greenwood Press, New York, 1992
17.      Hayford, Charles W. "The High School History Textbook Debate in China." History News Network. Web. 20 March 2006,
18.      Article : Yuan Shikai (president of China), Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
19.      Article : Yuan Shikai, Wikipedia,
20.      Article : History of the republic of China, Wikipedia,
21.      Article : Mao Zedong, Wikipedia,
22.      Article : Cultural revolution, Wikipedia,
23.      Article : Sun Yat Sen, Wikipedia,
24.      Article : Three Principles of the People, Wikipedia,
25.      Article : Deng Xiaoping, Wikipedia,
26.      Article : Generations of Chinese leadership, Wikipedia,
27.      Article : Four Modernizations, Wikipedia,
28.      Article : Chiang Kai Shek, Wikipedia,
29.      "Evaluation and Legacy of Yuan Shikai." Chinese Culture. Web.
30.      Barclay, Shelly. "Evil Dictators of the Twentieth Century" Associated Content,

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