One of the most striking features of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is that it portrays an image of Satan which appears to go against the intuitive teachings of the Christian tradition. Instead of Satan as a figure of absolute evil, who always opposes God, Milton introduces the reader to the logic of Satan and why he ultimately decided to rebel against God. From this perspective, Satan is not so much the symbol of total evil, but the manifestation of a rebellious spirit that challenges authority and existing power structures, and in this sense there is a certain admirable quality to the resistance of the status quo. In this sense, Satan resembles a type of anti-hero whose values do not resemble the classical hero, but nevertheless bears some redeeming qualities. From history, we can easily see others who have been historically vilified for various reasons, such as gross negligence to human life and the violation of ethical norms. But even in some of these characters, we can see elements of redemptive qualities that can be identified as positive. From the perspective of history, one of these anti-heroes can be considered to be Mao Tse Tung, whose leadership of Communist China was constituted by the breaking of norms, but also attempted with his attempt to forge something new and change the world for the better.
To present Mao as an anti-hero therefore requires understanding both the qualities that would label him as a hero and those qualities that reject the typical image of the hero. The ambiguous nature of Mao lies in, on the one hand, that he fought in the name of a revolutionary spirit, which was to rise the oppressed to the status of rulers, and, on the other hand, that this process required a cold ethics that sacrificed human lives for the future. Waldron describes this latter “evil” Mao as someone who was ultimately responsible for “the destruction of tens of millions of innocent lives and the near-destruction of a civilization.” (172) In Waldron’s harsh indictment it appears almost impossible to find something redeeming. This creates the negative aspect of the anti-hero, the dimension of his or her character that violates our intuitive ethical norms and makes the anti-hero different from the hero.
However, much like Milton’s work, a text that saves Satan from the reduction to total evil, the anti-hero status of Mao becomes apparent when one considers the ultimate objectives of his rule: “What Mao has done for China…stands for a four-square repparaisal of what life is all about, and what matters in it.” (Wilson, 8) Mao, in other words, held to a certain type of values in his actions, which opposes the all too easy vilification of a dictatorial politician. Namely, central to Mao’s vision was that of the peasant, he who occupies the lowest rang of the social order, as someone who carried the future of the world in his hands and who could in fact change the world for the better. Mao’s own background was from these lower classes and in one sense his revolutionary struggle is a struggle for the oppressed against the dominant tier of society, against the existing social hierarchy that only exploits and maintains its hegemonic position in the order of the social.
The base support for Mao shows this was not rhetoric, but that he had captured the sentiments of the exploited underclass: Mao’s “army grew from peasant recruits who were promised change and redistribution of the land.” (Zhang & Vaughan, 29) And the success of his revolution, which caused the “reappraisal” of the quality of life demonstrates that there were ethical norms which shaped his political activity. The state that these norms often flaunted conventional ethics brings together the two dimensions of the hero with a positive assertion of ethical norms that we can identify with and their negation in a single person.
Thus, the complex figure of the anti-hero serves to describe Mao. It would be too simple to characterize Mao as heroic revolutionary, the champion of the underclass. But it would also be too simple to classify him as a Satanic figure. The anti-hero combines a complex synthesis of accepted ethical norms and the breaking of these norms, and Mao is a prototypical example of this figure.
- Waldron, Arthur. Was Mao Really a Monster? London: Routledge, 2010.
- Wilson, Dick. Mao-Tse Tung: A Preliminary Assessment Organized by the China Quarterly.
Columbia, NY: CUP Archive, 1977.
- Zhang, Chunhou & Vaughan, C. Edwin. Mao as Poet and Revolutionary Leader: Social and
Historical Perspectives. London: Lexington, 2002.