Wang Renmei and Mao Zedong

Wang Renmei

We conclude our week-long feature on Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai , by Richard J. Meyer with a look not at her film career but her early days living in Hunan Province. Though she later suffered during the Cultural Revolution, as a young girl she spent time with none other than Mao Zedong, then a student of Wang’s father.

In the following excerpt, Meyer describes Wang’s childhood and her time with Mao and the beginnings of the future leader’s political and class consciousness:

The future leader of the world’s most populous nation spent many happy days at the home of teacher Wang during the turbulent years after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911. In fact, one summer he spent the entire vacation living at the educator’s home. During that time, he had an opportunity to get acquainted with the entire Wang family, including the ten children and other relatives who stayed with the family.

It was a happy time for the teenage Mao, even though he was beginning to see the injustices of the contemporary Chinese society.

The young student was particularly fond of the youngest daughter of teacher Wang whose nickname was “Xixi,” which meant double slight or thin. She later took the name of “Wang Renmei” when she was older. Renmei remembers that she would sit bouncing on the knee of this young student and never contemplated what the future would hold.

What Mao discovered living with the Wang family was a typical feudalistic family with modern ideas. For example, none of the daughters had their feet bound, nor did the female servants. Wang Zhengshu was not only a famous mathematics teacher in the province, he also tutored his children and others in classical Chinese, calligraphy, and medicine. He collected rare books which Mao had the opportunity to read. At the dinner table, children were expected to discuss the great Confucius classics that they had read. Even the servants were asked to recite. No one laughed at the poorly educated servant who made amusing mistakes when reading these texts, but the kindly teacher believed that a classical education was the foundation of the future of a modern China. He believed that learning could rescue the country from foreign imperialists and industrial development would make the nation stronger. He encouraged his children to study abroad.

Mao, as a student at the First Normal School, was free and easy when he spoke, never getting flustered, losing his temper, or speaking in anger. However, when it came to the feudal autocratic work style, he was not as temperate. In his views, “he made absolutely no compromise.”

Each day, as Mao walked to school, he experienced firsthand the corruption of the ruling class. He “had a deep hatred for the entire old feudal order. He despised the gentry, whose mouths were full of benevolence and righteousness, for their meanness and their falseness . . .”

As the First Normal School was located alongside the railroad, Mao observed that whenever troops came and invaded by train, the school was the first target.

Sometimes the soldiers took everything in sight, including food and firewood. Other times, the students would not permit the soldiers to enter and so the troops simply took over the large dormitory. The young student was a witness to the killings and theft of the various warlords’ men.

Mao’s grades in math were poor because he was more interested in other subjects and reading his own books. Despite this, Wang Renmei’s father, the math teacher, still had a high regard for Mao because of his abilities as a natural leader in the school. Her father was instrumental in preventing Mao from being expelled from the First Normal School in an incident in which the young student stirred the student union to fight red tape. Mao harassed the stuffy and corrupt principal whom Mao called “Mr. Turn-back-the-clock.” He also was one of the leaders persuading students to barricade the school against soldiers who wanted to loot.

Several authors hint that the province of Hunan (“south of the lake”) and the capital city of Changsha (“long sands”), known as the “land of fish and rice,” were an influence not only on Mao but on many people who came from that province and contributed to the development of the Chinese nation. The attributes of Hunanese people can be summed up with the quote in Ross Terrill’s biography of Mao, “China can be concurred only when every Hunanese is dead,” these people “fight and curse and state their views with gusto.” Terrill says that they are known as China’s Prussians….

On New Year’s Day 1912, Dr. Sun Yat-sen was sworn in at Nanjing as China’s first president. Yuan Shikai, who became the next provisional president, was about to challenge Sun’s leadership and the Hunanese were preparing to oppose him. Sun and Yuan came to an agreement and on February 12, the emperor abdicated. Two days later, Sun stepped down in Yuan’s favor. A few months later, Mao decided to return to school.

The province of Hunan was caught up in the struggle between Sun and Yuan from 1912 to 1916. During this time, the reformist governor was ousted by Yuan and the Changsha arsenal was blown up. Yuan proclaimed himself emperor in 1915 and capitulated to Japan, which was when secret societies rebelled against Beijing’s appointed governor of Hunan. These efforts failed, but the governor declared Hunan independent. That government fell in 1916 after the governor fled and Yuan died. Prolonged political chaos followed with weeks of bloodletting and internal strife in Changsha.

During all those years of turbulence, Wang Renmei’s father continued to instruct Mao and other students at the First Normal School, even though for many months teachers went unpaid. Many students fled, but Mao remained and received his teaching diploma in June of 1918 when Renmei was four years old.

Mao considered the time when he returned to the First Normal School, after his brief army service as one of the most influential periods of his life. He developed his mind, writing ability, and physical strength. In 1915, he was elected secretary of the Students’ Society at the First Normal school and two years later, he had a leading role in forming the New People’s Study Society, Xinmin Xuehui, which was one of the most radical student groups in China at that time. “Virtually its entire membership ultimately joined the Communist Party.” Mao graduated from the First Normal School in spring 1918 and returned to Hunan in the summer of 1919 after a half of a year in Beijing where he had participated in the political activity that followed the May Fourth student demonstrations. According to Stuart Schram, “he had already set his foot on the path that would lead him shortly to a career as a professional Revolutionary.” Mao became director of the primary school that was attached to the First Normal School in 1920 and subsequently became a Marxist. Attending the primary school was little Wang Renmei, whose path seemed to be intertwined with that of the new primary school director.

In his work at the school, Mao continued to follow what he had written in 1917 in “a study of physical culture,” which was published in Hsin Ch’ing-nien (New Youth) in 1917. He wrote:

Our nation is wanting in strength. The military spirit has not been encouraged. The physical condition of the population deteriorates daily. This is an extremely disturbing phenomena . . . If this state continues, our weakness will increase further. To attain our goals and make our influence felt are external matters, results. The development of our physical strength is an internal matter, a cause. If our bodies are not strong, we will be afraid as soon as we see enemy soldiers, and then how can we attain our goals and make ourselves respected? . . . The principle aim of physical education is military heroism.

Mao’s emphasis on physical education influenced young Wang Renmei when she entered the primary school at age six. “I did not feel the curriculum was very difficult because I already studied classical Chinese and mathematics at home and two of my sisters were teachers. So, I did not want to spend too much time in studying—I really liked sports.”

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