"Study Chairman Mao's writings, follow his teachings and act according to his instructions."
(CNN) -- Lin Biao's legend as a brilliant Red Army commander who never lost a battle was earned by the time he was 28 in the early days of the Communist Party's 22-year struggle for the control of China. In the annals of world history, however, this military wunderkind is perhaps better remembered for his bizarre and mysterious death than for his military glory.
While Lin may have won all his military engagements, a battle of another sort finally defeated him, a political battle in the inner circle of the Communist Party. Lin disappeared in 1971. The official Chinese explanation remains that he died in an airplane crash in Mongolia after his plot to assassinate Chairman Mao failed.
Lin had been active in the Chinese Communist movement for 43 years when he disappeared. He was born in 1907 to a modest landholding family in Hupeh Province in central China and by middle school was deeply affected by the social upheaval of his times. He was 18 in 1925 when first he joined the Socialist Youth League and then entered the Whampoa military academy in Canton (Guangzhou), an officers' training school headed by Chiang Kai-shek, who had just succeeded the late Sun Yat-sen as leader of the Nationalist revolution.
Lin had been at the academy less than a year when he was ordered to take part in Chiang's long-planned Northern Expedition to suppress the warlords -- who had ruled the countryside since the collapse of the monarchy in 1911 -- and reunify the country. After just a few months Lin rose from deputy platoon leader to battalion commander. He was not yet 20.
Then, in 1927, Chiang turned against his Communist allies, and Lin defected to Mao Tse-tung and the growing Red Army. In 1934 he led the vanguard of the strategic retreat northward to escape the Nationalists that became celebrated as the Long March.
Following World War II the civil war resumed between the Communists and the Nationalists (after a hiatus during which they had allied to defeat the Japanese). Lin's return to the field began in Manchuria, where he employed Mao's strategy of guerrilla warfare in a brilliant campaign of attrition. He abandoned the cities to the Nationalists, won peasant support in the countryside, isolated Chiang's troops in their garrisons, and gradually forced unit after unit to surrender. Lin's Fourth Field Army then captured Beijing, Wuhan and finally Guangzhou in October 1949 for complete Communist victory.
Little Red Book was Lin's invention
Lin was slow to rise in the Communist hierarchy in the 1950s, perhaps because of poor health. He didn't begin his ascent until 1958, when he was named to the Politburo's seven-person Standing Committee. A year later he became defense minister. Not until he hitched his star to the "Thought of Chairman Mao," however, did he place himself in line to become Mao's successor.
It was Lin's campaign in the early 1960s to "re-educate" the army according to Mao's teachings that ultimately led to Mao's launch in 1965 of the Cultural Revolution to cleanse the country and the party of "reactionaries."
Lin worked closely with Mao throughout this period, promoting the chairman's theories as the only true faith for the Chinese people -- what was later termed "The Cult of Personality." It was Lin who compiled some of Mao's writings into the handbook, "The Quotations of Chairman Mao," and ensured that every Chinese citizen received a copy of the cherished Little Red Book. Lin's artless preface read, "Study Chairman Mao's writings, follow his teachings and act according to his instructions."
Purged in the Cultural Revolution was Liu Shaogi, who had been Mao's deputy and heir apparent for more than 20 years. In August 1966 Mao designated Lin to replace him. As the Cultural Revolution created havoc across China, the People's Liberation Army, under Lin's command, effectively took over the role the Communist Party once played in ruling the country.
In the late 1960s the Chinese press described Lin as Mao's close comrade-in-arms and best student. That made the revelation of Lin's "traitorous" plot all the more shocking to ordinary Chinese.
Once Mao's designated heir, Lin disappeared in 1971. The official version is he died in a plane crash while fleeing to the Soviet Union following a failed coup attempt against Mao.
The power play that led to Lin's death in 1971 remains largely a mystery. Some historians suggest that Mao had become uncomfortable with the power Lin and the army had acquired and planned a purge. In this scenario, Lin and his high military commanders, sensing Mao's treachery, plotted a pre-emptive coup d'etat.
The official version was that Lin was afraid Mao had turned against him and plotted to have Mao assassinated. As if to lend credence to this account, Lin's own daughter was reported to have exposed her father's plot. If true, her betrayal was in the spirit of the times, when children were encouraged to rat on their reactionary parents. The political zeitgeist Lin helped create had apparently in turn provided the conditions for his own downfall.
Whether Lin died in a plane crash while trying to flee to the Soviet Union or was killed for his role in the plot may never be known for certain. Almost the entire high military command was purged within a few weeks of Lin's disappearance.
The government kept news of Lin's assassination plot out of the press for nearly a year. When it did come out, the damage to the Communist Party was substantial. People who had supported Mao and his comrade Lin Biao during the Cultural Revolution felt betrayed. They had followed the call to purify China and throw out the "revisionists," leading to attacks on respected teachers and even old friends, all for the country's greater good.
The Lin Biao affair suggested the country's new bosses were no different than the old mandarins and warlords, that Communist leaders might be no more principled than the men they supplanted, obsessed only with the accumulation of personal power. Many Chinese felt disillusioned and manipulated.