The Life and Mystery of Lin Biao
China History

Research Report
Web Resources



Lin Biao was an influential leader during most of Chinaís Cultural Revolution and the era of Mao Zedong.  He played an important role as both a military leader and Maoís right-hand-man, controlling and devising many powerful ideas.  Linís life ended mysteriously and much controversy still remains concerning his true character.

Historical Background

Lin Biaoís military career began in 1925 at age 18 when he joined the Socialist Youth League and studied at the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton.  He rose through the ranks quickly as he was promoted from deputy platoon leader to battalion commander for his participation in Chiang Kai-shekís Northern Expedition to suppress the warlords.  In 1927, after Chiang left the Communist party, Lin joined Mao Zedong and the Red Army.  In 1934, Lin led a vanguard in the retreat northward to escape the Nationalists, known as the Long March, and captured the strategically important Luding Bridge.

Lin played a leading role in the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, after which he became Commander of the Central China Military Region.  In 1955, he was given the rank of Marshal of the Peopleís Liberation Army and in 1958 became the Vice-Chairman of the Party Central Committee.  A major landmark in Lin Biaoís career occurred in 1959, after the Lushan Plenum, when Lin replaced Peng Dehuai as Minister of Defense.  This position would eventually lead to Linís designation as Maoís successor to lead China.

Research Report

Lin Biaoís military expertise was the ticket that bought Lin a place as Mao Zedongís right-hand man.  In the early 1960s, Lin started an important campaign to instill the PLA (Peopleís Liberation Army) with Maoís teachings and theories by creating the Little Red Book.  This book was titled Quotations From Chairman Mao and included easily read words by Mao in order to make it practical for all military recruits from peasant backgrounds to read and understand.  The Little Red Book soon became required reading for all in the military as it began to make an important impact on the armyís philosophy of fighting.  Lin even went so far as to start what was later termed as "The Cult of Personality[of Mao]" in order to infuse all of the Chinese people with Maoís teachings and way of life.  This movement provided all Chinese people with a copy of the book and it soon became a common feature of Chinese culture. Ideas and images from the Little Red Book could be seen throughout China.

In 1966, when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, he saw Lin Biao as a key player to making the Revolution a success.  Linís advancement of Maoís thoughts was important to beginning the dramatic changes that Mao wanted to implement in China.  Frederick C. Teiwes and Warren Sun explain this phenomenon, "Nevertheless, Linís great military prestige certainly made the objective of military support easier to achieve, and given Maoís disenchantment by 1965 with all other members of the Politburo Standing Committe, including Zhou Enlai, Lin was the only figure of sufficient status who would have appeared to him to be a reliable supporter of the new movement."(20). However, Lin was hesitant to accept the role as Maoís successor because he knew what a dangerous and vulnerable position he would be in while next to such a powerful leader. Lin saw no way to refuse the prestigious appointment, therefore, he accepted the influential role. This began Linís status as Maoís successor, but his role was not formally decided until the Ninth Party Congress in April of 1969.

Shortly after Lin was named Maoís official successor, he made himself well-known in Chinese industry, agriculture, and education as he made efforts to implement Maoís ideas in peopleís everyday lives. Mao saw the people as the source of valuable ideas and therefore sent Lin Biao and his party members out into society to collect these ideas. However, throughout the Cultural Revolution, Lin did not play a major role in foreign policy and domestic affairs. Linís involvement was most seen in concerns with the defense industry and matters of the PLA. Jin Qiu writes about Linís reasoning for becoming mostly involved with military matters, "As head of the PLA, however, Lin was deeply concerned about the security of the military, in particular, keeping the PLA out of the Cultural Revolution. He was worried that the PLA could not meet Maoís requirements without damaging itself"(80). Lin was concerned that the military would lose its strategic position in the midst of the Cultural Revolution and therefore used his role as Maoís successor to protect the military and ensure its advancement.

Linís concern with the PLAís prestige was the turning point at which Mao began to grow concerned about Linís growing power and influence. Mao understood that Lin had never taken a strong stance in favor of Maoís plans during the Cultural Revolution and saw that as evidence of Linís lacking dedication to Mao.  In 1970, Mao began to limit Linís power at the Second Plenum at Lushan.

There is much controversy surrounding the events of Linís downfall after the Second Planum at Lushan. Many historians believe Lin suspected that Mao was planning a purge of officers he felt were gaining too much power. Lin is believed to have therefore taken part in a plot to kill Chairman Mao and stage a military coup by destroying the train that Mao was on by destroying the railroad or bombing the track from an airplane. Many believe that Linís daughter, Lin Doudou, had a role in revealing her fatherís plot. Whatever the case, it is thought that Mao somehow found out about the conspiracy in time to cancel his travel plans. Historians believe Mao most likely had a role to play in Linís mysterious plane crash over Mongolia that killed Lin, his wife Ye Qun, and his son Lin Liguo. Linís plane had been headed for Chinaís enemy country, the Soviet Union.

 News of Linís death brought much confusion and anger from the Chinese people. They did not understand how Maoís closest official could have plotted such a powerful conspiracy. Much information surrounding the details of the last events of Linís life were most likely changed in order to paint a picture of Lin as the madman and to protect the authority of Mao. In the mid-1970s, a movement emerged that criticized Confucius, while linking his beliefs to those of Lin Biao. Tien-wei Wu explains the ideas behind this important movement, "Linís early devotion to Confucius and his lack of faith in the revolution from the beginning was seen as indicating that Lin, under the spell of Confucius, had always clung to a bourgeois, idealistic world outlook, the real source that led him to commit the heinous sin against the party and Chairman Mao"(30). This campaign against Lin Biao inevitably altered peopleís views of his life and career, but many opinions have since arisen claiming thoughts of Linís involvement in a plot to kill Mao Zedong are instead due to the questionable activities of his son Lin Liguo. Many questions remain unsolved to this day surrounding Lin Biaoís life and career.

Historical Significance

In discussions surrounding Mao Zedongís Cultural Revolution and the Communist era, Lin Biao is often associated with Jiang Qingís Gang of Four.  The downfall of Lin is seen by many as the beginning of the height of the Gang of Four. Whichever means is used to represent Lin Biao, it becomes difficult to compile clear information on the life and activities of Lin Biao due to the extensive involvement of his wife, Ye Qun, who served as head of his personal office and in the General Office of the Military Affairs Commitee (MAC), and the questionable actions of Linís children. Unfortunately, it is also likely that the majority of official documents and information regarding Linís life and career have been altered or discarded due to their controversial nature. Regardless of what fact or fiction surrounds the story of Lin Biao and his great influence on the impact of Chairman Mao Zedong, he will remain an influential, yet questionable, figure in the minds of the Chinese people.  He represents an era of change that will not soon be forgotten and he is seen to have been complacent to the demands of Mao to most likely further his own political and military career.


Ebon, Martin.  Lin Piao.  New York:  Stein and Day, 1970.
Kau, Michael Y.M., ed.  The Lin Piao Affair.  White Plains, N.Y.:  International Arts and  Sciences Press, Inc., 1975.
Qiu, Jin. The Culture of Power: The Lin Biao Incident in the Cultural Revolution. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford
          University Press, 1999.
Teiwes, Frederick C., and Warren Sun.  The Tragedy of Lin Biao.  London:  Hurst and Company, 1996.
Wu, Tien-wei.  Lin Biao and the Gang of Four.  Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Web Resources  This web site briefly explains what is commonly known as the Lin Biao Incident, which indicates the last days of Lin Biaoís life and the mystery surrounding his death and the supposed plot to kill Mao Zedong.   This web site explores the possibility that Lin Biao may have been responsible for a plot to kill Mao Zedong. As more information becomes available surrounding Linís life, more questions are raised as to the extent of Linís involvement. This web site also gives testimony from Linís daughter in support of her fatherís innocence.   This web site gives historical background on Lin Biao, explains his famous Little Red Book, and examines the events around the end of Linís life.  This web site explains the importance of Lin Biaoís Little Red Book to Maoís Cultural Revolution.   This web site gives a good summary of the major events of Lin Biaoís background and life as Maoís chosen successor.

Site created by:  Danielle Tonelli