Richard Smith Ph.D.

Joy and Pain

The Dispositional Schadenfreude of Mao Tse-tung

Mao's selfish ambitions required that others suffer.

Posted Jul 16, 2018

It is only natural to feel some pleasure when another person’s suffering leads to one’s benefit, especially in competitive situations where the benefit can be felt so directly. But some people, perhaps because they are more selfish than others, may feel such schadenfreude more effusively—and untroubled by pangs of guilt. In some cases the tendency to feel schadenfreude may achieve a dispositional character and become a prominent feature of a person's personality. I think a case can be made that Mao Tse-tung was such a person.

I base this on a richly sourced biography of the Chinese leaderMao: The Untold Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, who bring relatively new information to light about Mao’s psyche, his extreme selfishness, and his egocentricity. With access to documents unavailable to prior biographers of Mao, Chang and Halliday piece together the details of his life through interviews with hundreds of people at various levels of Chinese life who lived and survived through his regime. The picture of Mao that emerges, though controversial, shows a man who seemed to care for no one but himself and for whom schadenfreude was second nature.

What appeared to drive Mao most was a desire for power. For most of his adult life, he pursued his ambition with unrelenting zeal and determination, disposing of anyone, including family and loyal friends, if this would further his ends. Most expendable was the Chinese peasant. Mao was to varying degrees responsible for 70,000,000 of their deaths—a number far greater than is attributed to Hitler or Stalin—as he schemed, clawed, terrorized, and bull-dozed his way to the top. It is a mind-bending tale of torture, terror, heartache, and obscene human destruction.  Along the way, Chang and Halliday reveal the specifics of Mao’s methods, the policies and tactics that produced human suffering. Because human suffering furthered Mao’s own goals, it brought him joy.      

From an early age, Mao was fascinated by terror and killing, but what interested him most was how terror and killing could be used to gain power. One of his favorite methods for striking fear and paranoia in citizens was to get people to accuse others of being counter-revolutionaries. Mao wasn’t interested in whether any one person was actually a counter revolutionary, unless that person was out to undermine his interests. He simply wanted people to be terrified of being accused of one. 

Employing this method, he would order that a group of people be rounded up and tortured in ways unimaginable, but creatively devised and enthusiastically encouraged by Mao himself, until they confessed to crimes against the State. Again, it seemed irrelevant whether they actually had these thoughts.  Once the prisoners had confessed, they were asked to name others, who were then subjected to the same process. Usually, all of the prisoners were executed, often in public, to further terrorize others. From Mao’s perspective, it was effective; he used such tactics to take control of all of China. Because torture worked, because it brought Mao what he wanted, it gave him exquisite schadenfreude.  

During the full implementation of this technique, as the communists’ hold on more and more territory expanded, he would keep track of the numbers of people executed. Some provinces lagged behind others and this displeased him. On one occasion he was especially displeased by a province that was slow to implement his orders, and he gave orders to have their resistance addressed. Later, when he saw figures showing the problem corrected and the execution rate sufficiently high, he expressed much joy in this correction. But torture itself was not what brought Mao pleasure as much as the effects it had on his achieving his goals. According to Chang and Halliday, Mao was not a sadist. It was the desire for power that drove him.   

Mao’s selfish nature revealed itself from his youth. Mao loved to retell the story of a confrontation he had with his father when he was a boy. He and his father did not get along. His father was a hard worker and expected Mao to work just as hard as he did, but Mao disliked hard work, especially manual labor. He would argue that his father, being older, should do more work, an attitude that any Chinese father would find insolent. Mao’s manner incensed his father, who he would often strike Mao over his laziness. As a result, Mao hated him. On one occasion, Mao and his father began arguing in front of guests. As Mao once described the event:

My father scolded me before them, calling me lazy and useless. This infuriated me. I called him names and left the house . . . My father . . . pursued me, cursing as well as commanding me to come back.  I reached the edge of a pond and threatened to jump in if he came any nearer . . . My father backed down.” (Chang & Halliday, 2005, p. 6)

Mao was proud of how he had handled the situation, and he appeared to have great fun retelling this story. Not surprisingly, when Mao was in his 40’s, his father’s death left him cold and indifferent. As his father lay dying, he requested that Mao visit him. Mao refused. 

Mao’s selfishness was extreme. Chang and Halliday suggest that his moral compass was in reverse. To him, what was good and moral was what furthered his own goals. He had no illusions about it, and indeed was proud of it. Mao thought through his fully selfish moral philosophy from an early age—even penning an essay outlining the philosophy at the age of 24. To Mao, for example, conscience was a silly, irrelevant concept if it interfered with his desires

Mao went to great lengths to give himself all possible creature comforts. During the “Great March,” mythologized by Edgar Snow in Red Star Over China, he may have done little marching, as far as Chang and Halliday can judge based on their interpretation of the available evidence. He and many of his officers may have been carried on sedan chairs while the rest of the army suffered from lack of food and exhaustion. Mao appeared indifferent to their misery. He was curious to hear of the pain suffered by others, for its implications on his own. In fact, the death of millions was something to be celebrated. During the “great leap forward” in the late 1950s, for example, Mao used the food needed by the Chinese people to acquire the materials and technical know-how from Russia and other Soviet block countries. Mao’s decisions over-worked and starved millions of Chinese and sent them to early graves. According to Chang and Halliday’s research, this was of no concern to Mao. He saw their corpses as potential fertilizer, literally. 

What did make Mao feel bad? Generally, when two things were happening. First, he became frustrated when his many indulgences went unsatisfied, whether they involved time to read, opportunities to swim, or access to young women. Second, and more critically, he could become furious or depressed when his dreams of achieving superpower status were being thwarted. 

Once, he suffered a mental breakdown. This was toward the latter part of his long fight with the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek. Against the advice of his generals, he had ordered an attack on the Nationalist controlled cities in Manchuria. Although his own army had only rifles and were poorly trained while the Nationalist had artillery, were well fortified in cities, and were very well trained, he ordered his army to attack even so.  Mao’s forces were easily defeated and killed in appalling numbers. Ultimately, they had to retreat into the rural areas and across the border into Russian held territory.  It looked like Mao’s dreams of one day ruling China and creating a world superpower were very unlikely to be met, thus, shattering Mao’s psyche. That his decision had caused the death of thousands of his men and had ravaged the countryside of most of its resources was beside the point.  

One might argue that Mao’s proclivity for enjoying the suffering of others was more akin to sadism, rather than schadenfreude. Sadism involves a special delight in inflicting pain on others for its own sake. From early in his long ascendency to supreme ruler, Mao discovered and cultivated a love of cruelty. When Mao saw how the peasants’ bosses humiliated, terrorized, and beat their victims, he was fascinated. However, again, Chang and Halliday argue that he was no obvious sadist. He exulted more because he saw these actions as working toward the aims of Communist power, and his own. Mao insisted that peasants increase their output of grain and then took most of this output to acquire weapons and technology from Russia. This caused mass starvation at a level unprecedented in world history: 30 million may be a conservative estimate. As Chang and Halliday suggest, these deaths were irrelevant to Mao whose obsessions was achieving the superpower status as quickly as possible.

In Mao’s own dying days, Chang and Halliday provide evidence that he became preoccupied with other leaders in history whose dreams of conquest and glory were unfulfilled. Remarkably, Richard Nixon received the most empathy, after being forced to resign following the Watergate scandal. Mao sent his warm good wishes to Nixon through Imelda Marcos of the Philippines and invited Nixon for a second visit to China. When Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie died in prison following a military coup, Mao felt deeply sad. Mao had always been fearful of suffering his own overthrow, and so it seemed that the demise of despots hit him where he lived and where he only lived -- his own power and well-being. 

In the last two years of his life, much evidence suggests that Mao was consumed with self-pity and frustration. True superpower status had eluded him. Industries were essentially useless as they spewed out defective product such as hundreds of planes that failed to fly and ships that did not measure up to superpower standards.  In the year before he died, when he met with Kissinger, he admitted that China was far from a superpower and, in fact, was “backward.” And so, if he felt sorry for anyone, truly, it was himself. He would cry floods of tears when talking about the goals he had failed to reach. If schadenfreude had been a frequent emotion in his rise to the top, in his last years of bitter frustration, self-pity took its place. 


Chang, J. & Halliday, J. (2005). Mao: The unknown story. New York: First Anchor Books. 

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